Railroading the Resurrection: Why Am I Persuaded… but Not My Uncle?

I believe in the miraculous bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth about thirty-six hours after he genuinely died on a Roman cross. My uncle? Not so much. But why not? Why do I see the constellation of evidences pointing to the resurrection, but he sees just a bunch of random points of flickering lights?

Here’s the problem. Some read the Gospel accounts in the New Testament and see them as facets of a unified whole; others read the same documents and see mutually exclusive accounts that contradict each other. Some think through the various historical arguments for the resurrection and find themselves persuaded that the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth best explains all of the evidence; others hear the same arguments and conclude that they are simply under-determinative given the high burden of proof. So, what’s the problem? Why is there such an impasse when it comes to the evaluation of the exact same evidence? Why do I approach the evidence and arguments with the eyes of belief, while others approach the same evidence and arguments with the eyes of disbelief?

Well, let me tell you what is not the reason. It’s not that one scholar has more facts than the other. We’re all dealing with the same pieces of information. Nor is it simply that one scholar is smarter than the other. Nor is it that one scholar went to a better school than the other. Or is of a more noble character than the other. Some of these things may very well be true, but they are merely red herrings when it comes to discovering the root cause of why one person concludes that Jesus Christ rose from the dead while another concludes the exact opposite.

So, if it isn’t a simple matter of quantity of facts or quality of thinkers, what is it?

I sometimes hear it said that a person’s interpretation of the facts of history and historical documents affects whether one will accept or reject the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, this is partly true. If a person rejects out of hand the possibility of supernatural intrusions in historical events, he or she will interpret all historical events as having natural explanations. Even if a person is open to the possibility of supernatural explanations but holds such events according to an exceptionally high burden of proof, his or her historical method will involve ruling out all possible natural explanations before seriously considering the supernatural. Or if a person approaches any historical text with a cautious distrust or suspicion, he or she will tend toward disbelieving the things that appear to most people to be unbelievable or unexpected. So, it’s quite true that how a person interprets history and historical documents will certainly affect whether one will accept the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as an historical event.

On the other hand, it’s also true that one’s acceptance (or rejection) of Jesus’s resurrection affects how one interprets history and historical documents. If a person believes the resurrection of Jesus to have taken place, he or she will read the accounts of the resurrection tending to believe them. Also, the inevitable historical effects of the resurrection will be approached with openness—the reality of a true (versus fictitious) version of Jesus’s person and work; the authority of genuine eye-witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection and post-resurrection words and deeds; the establishment of an authentic (versus inauthentic) community of disciples; the appointment of a mission to preach throughout the world; and the sending of the Holy Spirit by the resurrected and ascended Messiah.

In other words, the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead is not as simple as analyzing historical evidence and coming to logical conclusions, as though we were working with measurements that we simply plug into an objective equation. The talking heads on PBS or the History Channel make is sound just that simple. They make it appear that if a person would set aside their simple-minded naïveté and objectively examine the bare facts, he or she would inevitably conclude that Jesus was just a dead man whose memory became the victim of old fashioned myth-making. However, these same scholars are themselves powered by a complex set of presuppositions (“their own rules of the game”) that lead the evidence like steel rails guiding an engine down the tracks toward its inevitable destination. It makes no difference whether the train has two cars or twenty—ten pieces of evidence or a hundred. The route of the train is limited to the historian’s guiding principles and presuppositions. (Of course, they will argue that these rails are reasonable, demonstrable, and necessary guides to keep historical inquiry from derailing and causing disaster.)

Before you think I’m simply stacking the deck against unbelievers, please note well: the same is true for the Christian interpreters. Christian historians are not less intelligent, less educated, or less privy to all the facts. Instead, they engage the facts with a different set of rules. Their worldview includes at least the possibility of miraculous intrusions by a living God. They are generally more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to ancient testimonies, regarding them as “innocent of falsehood until proven guilty” rather than “guilty of fabrication until proven innocent.” Their rails include God’s revelation in and through history and an understanding of history that includes creation, deterioration, redemption, and restoration, within which narrative the resurrection of Jesus plays a central role. So, the believing historian is also guided by rails that carry the same cargo of facts in a different direction. And the believing historian will also say that these rails are necessary guides to keep historical inquiry from derailing and causing disaster.

Of course, there are evidences and arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. And there is room for discussion, debate, persuasion, and conviction regarding the strength or weaknesses of these evidences. My point, however, is that there are unseen forces at work in the process of critical evaluation that play a major role in where the evidence is actually led.