Christianity 201

May 4, 2017

Investigating Jesus: Evidence and Explanations

by Clarke Dixon

What explanation best fits the evidence? We are continuing the journey we began last week of learning from cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace how to investigate the evidence with respect to the resurrection of Jesus. We are looking today at how to infer to the most reasonable explanation from the evidence.

Let us return to the example of a crime we considered last week when you were called out to investigate the circumstances of my death. Let us review the evidence:

  • My love for chocolate is well known.
  • I was found slumped over a table covered with empty Easter chocolate wrappers.
  • The coroner’s report indicated elevated levels of chocolate in my blood.

Based on the evidence thus far you figure your hunch was correct. This is not a murder scene and I died from chocolate poisoning. However, you discover a new piece of evidence:

  • I have a gunshot wound which the coroner confirmed was the cause of death.

You quickly drop your first explanation knowing that it can not adequately explain the new evidence. Perhaps the best explanation now, is that my wife murdered me for eating her chocolate. However, more new evidence is found:

  • Witnesses confirm that my wife was at a quilting show the day of my death.
  • A gun was found nearby the house with the finger prints of a man known to be a very angry and unstable man who had recently refused treatment for a sever case of chocoholism.
  • Witnesses reported seeing that same man leave my house shortly after shots were heard.

Now let us review the possible explanations that you have come up with at various points along the investigation:

  1. I died from chocolate poisoning.
  2. My wife was mad at me for eating her chocolate and shot me.
  3. I was murdered by my neighbor who wanted my chocolate.

Now which is the best explanation?  Unlike the first two explanations, your third explanation, fits with all the evidence. It has the best explanatory power, and therefore my neighbour is now the prime suspect. What you have just done is infer the most reasonable explanation from the evidence, or what is technically known as “abductive reasoning.”

We do this quite naturally, in fact the disciple known as “Doubting Thomas” likely did this:

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24-25

When the disciples tell Thomas that they saw Jesus risen from the dead, he likely considered the evidence standing in front of him, the disciples saying they saw Jesus alive, and considered the best explanation was that they had all lost their marbles. But given some new evidence, being able to see and touch Jesus for himself, a different explanation came to be the best one:

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” John 20:26-28

Based on all the evidence, Thomas comes to believe a different explanation of the facts; Jesus is risen!

So how does this apply to us today as we investigate the evidence for Jesus two millennia later? Let us begin by looking at the evidence, then we will go on to think about the explanations.

As we consider the evidence, let us narrow it down to those pieces of evidence that both the prosecution and the defence can agree upon. In other words, let us consider the facts about the Easter story which both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree upon so that we can begin without bias. J. Warner Wallace makes mention in Cold-Case Christianity of the “minimal facts” approach of Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. Remembering that Wallace began his journey as an atheist, consider:

“As I skeptic myself, I formed a list of New Testament claims as I first investigated the resurrection. When I was an unbeliever, I found four of Habermas and Licona’s minimal facts to be the most substantiated by both friends and foes of Christianity” J.Warner Wallace Cold-Case Christianity

So what are these pieces of evidence that must be explained? Wallace lists four:

  1. Jesus died on a cross and was buried.
  2. Jesus’ tomb was found empty and no one ever produced His body.
  3. Jesus’ disciples said they saw and interacted with Jesus – alive (resurrected, not just resuscitated).
  4. Jesus’ disciples were so committed to their testimony that they were willing to die for it. They never changed their story.

Now let us turn to the possible explanations that have been proposed. Again, please refer to Wallace himself in Cold-Case Christianity for deeper discussions, I cannot do them justice here:

Perhaps Jesus did not really die. But:

  • Jesus’ body would have been handled quite a bit, being taken down from the cross, wrapped for burial, and placed in the tomb. The people of antiquity were not stupid and knew a dead body when they saw one.
  • The Romans soldiers in charge of executions were very good at their jobs. In fact their own lives depended on it.
  • The water and blood that flowed from Jesus with the spear thrust is consistent with medical knowledge today about dead bodies.
  • If Jesus had recovered, he would have been very weak, and also would have died again at some point, earning the name “fraud” from the very people that put their lives in danger by calling him “Lord.”

Perhaps the disciples stole the body and lied about the resurrection. But:

  • This explanation does not account for the fourth piece of evidence, that the disciples, were changed people willing to die for their claim. To quote Wallace:

This theory requires us to believe that the apostles were transformed and emboldened not by the miraculous appearance of the resurrected Jesus but by elaborate lies created without any benefit to those who were perpetuating the hoax (J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity)

  • Why would the disciples, being Jews of deep conviction, deny their faith by saying that a dead man was the messiah rather than stick to waiting for the true messiah?
  • Paul speaks of over 500 people seeing Jesus alive, most of whom were still alive at the time Paul wrote. Are we to believe all these were in on a lie?
  • The tomb was guarded, and the disciples had already proven their cowardice.

Perhaps the disciples were delusional, being so upset about the death of Jesus that they imagined seeing Jesus alive. But:

  • This explanation fails to account for the tomb being empty and the body not being produced to squash the “Jesus movement.”
  • The disciples did not just claim to see Jesus, but interact with him. This level of interaction by so many people on different occasions cannot be explained by hallucinations.
  • The disciples clearly understood Jesus to have risen bodily to a new kind of “resurrection life” than that they had seen visions or a ghost.

Perhaps the disciples were fooled by an imposter. But:

  • This explanation fails to account for the tomb being empty and the body not being produced to squash the “Jesus movement.”
  • What imposter could convince so many people, especially sceptics like Thomas, not to mention James and Paul?
  • What would have been the motivation for someone to pull off such a hoax?

Perhaps the disciples were influenced by one or two of the group who has some sort of “vision.” But:

  • This explanation fails to account for the tomb being empty and the body not being produced to squash the “Jesus movement.”
  • This explanation would only work if the writings of the New Testament were written a long time after the events as such an explanation contradicts the New Testament accounts.

Perhaps the story of the resurrection was added many years following the death of Jesus and so is a legendary fable. But:

  • Even if there were a lengthy passage of time, this explanation still fails to account for the body not being produced to squash the “Jesus movement.”
  • The documents that make up the New Testament were written too close to the events for legend to develop.
  • the Christian creed from the beginning was “Jesus is Lord, and we know this because he is risen.” There is no evidence of development from “Jesus was a great teacher” to “Jesus was really great teacher and miracle worker” to “Jesus is Lord.” There appears in history, quickly following Jesus’ crucifixion (and claimed resurrection), a sudden new way of thinking about God, rather than a period of developing thought.

Perhaps Jesus rose from the dead. 

This last explanation, far more than any other fits all the evidence the best. If we are open to the possibility of the supernatural, and last week we looked at reasons why we should be, then this explanation is the best inference from the evidence. This explanation has the greatest explanatory power for all the “minimal facts” about the resurrection, but so much more evidence also. It explains why the theology developed the way it did and why Jews who were so solid in their Jewish expectations would see all their expectations as fulfilled in Jesus rather than shying away from him as a failed messiah wannabe. It explains, also, why sceptics like James, and especially Paul, did a 180. It explains why the writers of the documents of the New Testament said the kinds of things they did. As I’ve heard Frank Turek say via podcast “the New Testament writers did not create the resurrection, the resurrection created the New Testament writers.”

The disciple known as “Doubting Thomas” should rather be known as “Trusting Thomas.” He trusted the explanation “Jesus is risen” as the best explanation of the  evidence standing in front of him. Many sermons have been preached on how we ought to trust in Jesus without any evidence based on this verse:

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John 20:29 (emphases mine)

However, to stop reading there is to stop reading in the wrong place! Consider the next two verses:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. John 20:30-31 (emphases mine)

The Gospel of John, along with all the documents that make up the New Testament, are, like all documents from ancient times, evidence upon which we can determine the events of history. The best explanation of the facts deduced from those documents is that Jesus rose from the dead. Don’t wait until you stand before Jesus to make a decision. You have enough evidence now to trust in the truth of the best explanation; Jesus is risen. John points out the significance of following where the evidence leads: “ . . . and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The explanation of the evidence is not just true, it is very good news!

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Link for this article at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon

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