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Tyler Wunder Davis 2

II. Supernaturalism’s Best Case: Core Facts


This section will outline the argument that will represent the supernaturalist’s best case for the resurrection: Habermas’ Core Facts. I think some initial justificatory comments are required to defend using Habermas in this manner, specifically focussing on how Habermas and Davis differ to determine whether any differences between them create problems for using Habermas as Davis’ apologetic surrogate. I contend that while there are differences between them, these differences do not create intractable problems. After defending this conclusion, I will briefly discuss the nature of the argument to be used in defence of the resurrection before finally surveying the confidence these two theologians have in this apologetic.

II.1. Differences Between Davis and Habermas:

Foremost, Habermas denies the possibility of something DT requires, namely the possibility of rational belief and scepticism regarding the resurrection; specifically, Habermas maintains that an honest assessment of the facts makes belief in the resurrection the only rational option. Davis has discussed this difference between himself and Habermas, dubbing it one of “soft” vs. “hard” apologetics: As a soft apologist Davis argues — as discussed — that belief in the resurrection can be rational, but that disbelief can also be rational;(15) Habermas, as a hard apologist, denies this.(16)

While Habermas does not use these terms to describe himself, he clearly considers his apologetic approach to be hard rather than soft. Consider that in a response to Davis 1984, Habermas specifically took issue with three of Davis’ major claims: 1) both positions — belief and scepticism — concerning the resurrection can be rational; 2) the historical resurrection can be neither proved nor disproved; and 3) therefore the resurrection cannot be known to have occurred (1985, p.295). The contradictories of these three claims — i.e. both positions on the resurrection cannot be rational; the historical resurrection can be either proved or disproved; the resurrection can be known to have occurred — combined with Habermas’ resurrection-belief strongly suggest a hard apologetic stance.

Accordingly, if there is any danger in using Habermas as DT‘s supernaturalistic champion, it is not that his apologetic may be too weak, rather the opposite; if Habermas’ pro-resurrection argument is as effective as he thinks, this would rebut Davis’ claim that denying the resurrection can be rational, thereby refuting DT. While this is a possibility, I do not think it a serious one. For reasons that will become clear below, I agree with Davis when he describes Habermas’ hard apologetic conclusions as “apologetic bravado”.

A more serious difference between Habermas and Davis concerns the details of the Christian’s best case for the resurrection. While Davis feels B1 is important, Habermas dismisses it, writing


While it may certainly be helpful, the Christian theist does not necessarily need the initial point in Davis’ apologetic, namely the unity of the New Testament Witness. The major point here is that since a case for Jesus’ resurrection is being based solely on facts held in common between believers and skeptics alike…claimed discrepancies or other doubts concerning the gospel texts are rather irrelevant for our purposes. In other words, since our case is based on facts held by virtually all scholars, questions concerning other areas are not crucial at this point (1985, p.296).

Despite Habermas’ reasoning, Davis has remained unconvinced that B1 is superfluous. When responding to Habermas, he maintained that naturalists could effectively use the biblical discrepancies when arguing for resurrection-doubt, ie. D2 (1985, p.303); therefore, fending off scepticism requires challenging this point by emphasizing the unity of the New Testament witnesses.(17)

The main differences between them, then, are rooted in the difference between hard and soft apologetics. Despite this divergence, Habermas’ pro-resurrection apologetic is a fleshed-out version of B2 and B3 (namely that various facts about the resurrection have been “virtually demonstrated” and that sceptics have been unable to plausibly explain these facts away). Habermas omits B1 because, as discussed, he does not think it necessary for his hard apologetic. As Habermas’ argument is being used to stand in for Davis’ soft apologetic, I will not dismiss this aspect of the Christian’s best case for the resurrection. Allowing for this modification, there is no compelling reason Habermas’ apologetics cannot represent Davis’ supernaturalistic best case.

II.2. The Best Case for Supernaturalism: Core Facts:

The entire pro-resurrection case that Habermas has developed over the years is enormous: Habermas’ larger apologetic utilises twelve facts accepted as knowable history by “almost all scholars” (1996, p.161). In Core Facts, Habermas selects merely four of these twelve — “unanimously accepted as historical by virtually all scholars who study this subject, in spite of differences in other areas of their thought” (1984a, p.38) — and asserts that their best explanation is Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. Habermas maintains that Core Facts provides a relatively brief argument that can sufficiently demonstrate the resurrection’s historicity.

As its name implies, Core Facts consists of a number of facts: CF1) Jesus died by crucifixion on the order of Pontius Pilate in first century Palestine;(18) CF2) experiences following the crucifixion convinced Jesus’ disciples that the risen, postmortem Jesus had appeared to them; CF3) these experiences radically changed the character of the disciples; CF4) St. Paul had an experience that he took to be an appearance of the risen, postmortem Jesus (1996, pp.161-167). In accord with B3, Habermas refers to alternate explanations of CF1-CF4 as “naturalistic hypotheses” — although, technically speaking, alternate explanations need not be naturalistic, merely non-resurrection — and insists that none of these can adequately account for these facts. For example, regarding the legend (or myth) hypothesis — i.e. the thesis that the resurrection was not historically real but rather a result of various legends and myths that eventually yielded belief in a historical resurrection(19) — Habermas relies on the eyewitness testimony contained in CF2 and CF4 to disprove this possibility; he provides similar refutations of other traditional naturalistic hypotheses (e.g. the swoon hypothesis, the stolen body hypothesis, the hallucination hypothesis, etc.) on the basis of these facts (e.g. see 1996, pp.164-5).

II.3. Confidence in Core Facts:

Habermas recognizes that Core Facts is not as capable as his larger 12-fact apologetic; nevertheless, he is confident that it is sufficient to its task, emphatically insisting over the years that this be so. As early as 1980 Habermas wrote:


It is this author’s belief that even if we were to use only…these [four] facts, we would still have a sufficient case by which we could demonstrate that this event [ie. the resurrection of Jesus] is probable…These four facts are capable, on a smaller scale, both of disproving the naturalistic theories and of providing key positive evidences for the resurrection (1984a, pp.38-39).

By the time of his famous 1985 debate with Antony Flew, Habermas’ attitude regarding Core Facts had not changed: in the written account of the debate — Habermas 1987 — Habermas wrote, “It is this writer’s conviction that by utilizing only four…accepted facts, a brief but sufficient case can be made for the historicity of the Resurrection” (p.25). Regarding his naturalistic competitors, Habermas went on to say,


…using these four core historical facts, the naturalistic theories can be disproven. (Of course, nothing near an exhaustive set of critiques can be supplied by these facts alone, yet some of the best criticisms do come from this list.)…That it was the disciples and other early witnesses who had these experience likewise rules out legend or mythological theories, because the original teaching concerning the Resurrection is therefore based on the testimony of real eyewitnesses…and not later legends…it has been concluded that the Resurrection can be historically demonstrated even when the minimum number of historical facts are utilized (pp.25-26).

More recently, in 1992 Habermas coauthored a book with J.P. Moreland in which he expanded Core Facts from four to five facts and wrote with his usual bravado,


We will…see how well-established the resurrection is even when the historical evidence presented is only bare bones [viz. CF1-CF4 plus “the resurrection as the very center of early apostolic preaching”]…Therefore, we contend that even this neatly reduced number of demonstrable facts can provide a powerful (though brief) defense of Jesus’ resurrection. These five historical facts are decisive enough to disprove each of the naturalistic theories, and they provide some of the strongest evidences for the actual appearances of the risen Jesus (pp.69-71).

Four years later, Core Facts is back down to four facts; in Habermas 1996 he writes “It is this writer’s conviction that even by utilizing only four of these accepted facts, a sufficient case can be made for the historicity of the resurrection” (p.161). Further on, he writes:


One major advantage of these core facts is that, not only are they critically accepted as knowable history, but they directly concern the nature of the disciples’ experiences. As such, these four historical facts are able, on a lesser scale, to both disprove the naturalistic theories and to provide major positive evidences which relate the probability of Jesus’ literal resurrection (p.164).

Now, it is true that Habermas frequently hedges this confidence by reminding those who may be dissatisfied with his abridged case that they can always turn to the larger apologetic. For example, when commenting on the debate between Habermas and Flew, the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg expressed doubts about the wisdom of a restricted approach like Core Facts (Habermas 1987, p.130); in his response to Pannenberg, Habermas maintained that “…these four [facts] can present a brief but valid argument for the Resurrection”, but also suggested “…that if it is thought that these four are too brief, one only needs to utilize the twelve facts [ie. the full, unabridged apologetic]” (1987, p.155).

Despite this sidestepping, Habermas clearly thinks that his abridged apologetic is up to the task(s) of: demonstrating that the resurrection is probable (1984a); making a brief but sufficient historical demonstration for the resurrection while disproving the naturalistic hypotheses (1987); providing a powerful but brief defence of the resurrection while disproving the naturalistic hypotheses (1992); and supplying a sufficient case for the resurrection (1996). When Pannenberg doubted the strength of Core Facts, Habermas directed him to the larger argument but did nothing to defend himself against Pannenberg’s objections, apparently ignoring them altogether; notably, his post-Pannenberg descriptions of the argument — 1992 and 1996 — are essentially the same as his pre-Pannenberg descriptions. Despite the use of slightly different wording over the years, Habermas’ attitude towards the efficacy of Core Facts appears unchanged.

Of course, Davis’ opinion on the capability of Core Facts also needs examination; for I could not properly use Core Facts as an instantiation of the supernaturalist’s best case if Davis thought poorly of the argument. While there is some disagreement between them over Core Facts, as mentioned Davis’ main problems with Habermas are primarily over the quality of apologetics currently available to theologians and Christians in general, namely whether hard or merely soft apologetics are possible. In his 1985 reply to Habermas, Davis described this difference between their views as


…important but not fundamental. He and I both believe that Jesus was genuinely raised from the dead, and both argue that belief in the resurrection is rational. The main difference is that Habermas thinks he can refute naturalism and that accordingly “the resurrection of Jesus is an event which can be known to be an historical fact,” while I have serious doubts about both (p.303).(20)

Further on, Davis agreed with Habermas that


…there are certain facts about the death of Jesus and afterwards that virtually all competent scholars accept; I agree that the nineteenth century rationalistic explanations of the resurrection all collapse of their own weight; and I agree that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the accepted facts (p.305).

Four years later, in a review of Habermas 1987, Davis wrote that he was “delighted to find that the overall case Habermas makes for the resurrection is impressive” (1989, p.229), with two minor points of exception: the first of these is unimportant here, but the second is an objection that Core Facts requires the empty tomb to establish a bodily resurrection (p.230).(21)

From the point of view of establishing Jesus’ resurrection against the Mythicist, however, the difference between a bodily and a spiritual resurrection is trivial: the Mythicist’s counter explanation of the resurrection requires there be no historical Jesus to have been resurrected, bodily or otherwise. Nor does Davis make the empty tomb part of the Christian’s most persuasive case by including it in the facts of B2, and so this disagreement between Davis and Habermas is not an important one to the matter at hand. In conclusion, although their respective apologetics are not identical, the similarities between Habermas and Davis are striking; the main difference between them is expressed in the distinction between soft and hard apologetics, and if B1 is not ignored Core Facts serves as more than a fair representative of DT‘s most persuasive argument for the resurrection.

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