I am an agnostic at a Christian university.
Since enrolling at Seattle Pacific University, I have been challenged by several of my Christian friends to investigate the historical evidence for Christianity. In particular, they challenged me to investigate the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as a historical event. Although I was initially reluctant to do so, finally in August 1993 I decided to investigate for myself.
At that time, I had just completed a massive personal study on the evolution and creationism controversy. I had debated a pastor in high school on evolution before a crowd of 100 people, and would soon appear on talk radio on a Christian radio station defending evolution against an army of callers who strongly disagreed with me. And I had recently joined the National Center for Science Education, an organization strongly opposed to scientific creationism.
My opinion of scientific creationists was so low that if they endorsed one position, I would seriously consider supporting the other, just so that I could disagree with the scientific creationists. "If scientific creationists say X, then X must be wrong," I would reason. When my friends challenged me, as a debater, to investigate the evidence for the resurrection in the same fashion that I would investigate a topic for debate, I used this same line of reasoning. "If the scientific creationists believe Jesus rose from the dead, then the resurrection must be just as ridiculous as the Genesis flood." Or so I thought.
I remember when the famous Christian apologist Josh McDowell came to SPU and spoke in chapel on the evidence for the resurrection. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something like, "You know, I wish more people would try to disprove the resurrection! You know why? Because then we’d have more Christians!" I remember thinking to myself that if I took the time to investigate the resurrection, I could make anyone who believed it look like a fool. Or so I thought.
Then I remember a friend loaning me some cassettes of the Craig-Zindler Debate on the existence of God. I was very interested in these tapes, for two reasons. First, as a former high school debater, I’ve always enjoyed listening to a good debate. Secondly, I was a huge fan of American Atheists representative Frank Zindler. At this time, I had already read transcripts of his successful debates against well-known scientific creationist authors Duane Gish and John Morris. Considering how easily he defeated his opponents in those debates, I figured this "William Lane Craig guy" would be an easy win, too. Or so I thought.
As it turns out, however, Craig won the debate, hands down. One of Craig’s arguments for the existence of God was the resurrection of Jesus, and Zindler was simply unable to knock down any of Craig’s evidence for the resurrection.
"Did Jesus rise from the dead?", I asked myself. Josh McDowell, the Craig-Zindler Debate, and the fact that my Christian friends always talked about it (I didn’t understand its importance at this point), all had me wondering.
Eventually I decided to investigate for myself. As I began to survey the secular literature for critical information on the resurrection of Jesus, I was completely surprised by what I found. Or, more accurately, what I didn’t find. I was used to the evolution and creationism controversy, where it was extremely easy to find information critical of the scientific creationists. When it came to the resurrection of Jesus, I found that it was extremely difficult to find anything in the freethought literature about the historicity of the resurrection.
I remember when I finally began to understand the importance of the resurrection. I reread one of the most popular essays in skeptical circles, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and noticed for the first time that Russell did not once used the word "resurrection" anywhere. I found this fact rather strange, considering that the whole purpose of Why I Am Not a Christian was to refute Christianity. I was beginning to understand why Christian apologists complain that most skeptics fail to deal with the resurrection.
Gradually, out of sheer frustration with the shortage of material critical of the McDowell school of apologetics, I started seeking information on the Internet about McDowell. One thing led to another, and I am now the editor of The Jury Is In: The Ruling on Josh McDowell’s "Evidence", an on-line refutation of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I am also now the moderator of the MCDOWELL email list, a list dedicated to critical discussion of Josh McDowell’s apologetics. As I began to work on Jury, I began to find more and more information that refuted McDowell’s arguments.
Just as I was about to discard the resurrection of Christ as "another illogical religious belief," I was reintroduced to another Christian apologist, whose apologetic for the resurrection I found extremely difficult to deal with as a critic.
William Lane Craig, who in my opinion is the best Christian apologist today, is a top-notch scholar, and a highly competitive debater to boot (the same Craig who defeated Zindler). He has written several books on the Christian faith in general and the historicity of the resurrection in particular, at both the popular and scholarly levels, including Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection: Our Response to the Empty Tomb, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, and The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. In my opinion, Craig makes a very strong case for the historicity of the resurrection, a case which I don’t think the secular literature has given serious consideration.
In this essay, I want to discuss why I think the resurrection is an important historical issue that needs to be addressed by both Christians and skeptics. Next I examine the whole question of miracles, and the implications for this debate. Then I want to give brief overview of popular and scholarly arguments for and against the resurrection, and outline the strengths and weakness of both sides.
But before we dive head-first into the contemporary debate over the resurrection, I think we should first consider why the resurrection is worth discussing. Let us therefore turn our attention to the importance of the resurrection now.