A debate on the resurrection of Christ

A debate on the resurrection of Christ February 14, 2020


One of the three temples in the Valley of the Sun
The Phoenix Arizona Temple (LDS Media Library) is one of the three temples in the Greater Phoenix area. The other two are in Mesa and in Gilbert.


I published this column in late April of 2001 in the Provo Daily Herald:


On 2 May 1985, a remarkable debate took place at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia.  It pitted a relatively little known evangelical Protestant professor named Gary R. Habermas against Antony G. N. Flew, a prominent British philosopher and an outspoken atheist.  The debate focused on the question of “The Historicity of the Resurrection: Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”

The text of the encounter was published in 1987, in a book by Habermas and Flew entitled Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate.  In its printed version, the debate is accompanied by the transcript of a panel discussion held the following night and by three responses written by the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, the British evangelical theologian James I. Packer, and the eminent American philosopher Charles Hartshorne (who rejects the idea of life after death as unnecessary and undesirable).

It is a fascinating discussion that still repays attention and careful consideration.  Many will no doubt wonder, though, how such a debate could possibly be worthwhile.  Isn’t the resurrection of Christ a matter of faith?  Is there enough evidence one way or the other to come to a certain or even a probable judgment?  Or, some skeptics might ask, isn’t the whole notion just too silly to take seriously?

But Habermas, whom a panel of five professional debate judges, by a vote of three to two, identified as the winner of the contest – a similar panel of five philosophy professors gave the debate to him by a vote of four to one (the one holding, not that Flew was the winner, but that the debate was a draw) – makes a surprisingly persuasive case that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection must be taken very seriously as historical evidence.  It is not merely a matter of faith beyond, or even against, reason, but of trustworthy historical data reliably preserved.

Habermas demonstrates that, especially when compared to other ancient historical texts, the New Testament records of the resurrection stem from a time impressively close to the event they claim to describe.  Moreover, they clearly seem to contain reports that go back even further, to multiple eyewitnesses who were telling their story within only a few years of Christ’s death.  Habermas systematically and methodically dismantles suggestions that the resurrection stories rest on fraud, or hallucination, or the growth of a legend through long and uncontrolled re-telling.  He demolishes the notion that Jesus really didn’t die on the cross, but managed – maimed, massively wounded, nearly dead, drained of blood, having been left without food or water on the cross and then for roughly 36 additional unmedicated hours in the tomb – to drag himself back to the upper room where the dispirited apostles had gathered, and, thus, to ignite their faith in his glorious and triumphant resurrection.  Habermas rightly observes that such an appearance appears grossly insufficient to have set the apostles on a death-defying path to revolutionize the world.  Yet something indisputably did precisely that.

By contrast, Flew simply repeats that we cannot know about such things, and, following the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, declares that miracles are so intrinsically unlikely that we just shouldn’t believe accounts of them when we hear them.  As one of the philosopher-judges wrote, following the debate, “I was surprised (shocked might be a more accurate word) to see how weak Flew’s . . . approach was.  I expected – if not a new and powerful argument – at least a distinctly new twist to some old arguments. . . .  Since the case against the resurrection was no stronger than that presented by Antony Flew, I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously.”

Why is the question of the resurrection of Jesus so important?  Traditionally, and in fact beginning already in the New Testament, Christians have responded that, if true, the resurrection demonstrates Christ’s deity.  It validates his teaching.  It confirms his atonement and, implicitly, calls us to accept his redeeming sacrifice.  It declares powerfully that he is indeed the Lord, and suggests that, being miraculously still alive, he will truly someday return.  It points toward the resurrection of all humanity at some future time and testifies to the existence of a personal, miracle-working God.

If the truthfulness of the resurrection be granted, this traditional Christian position seems entirely plausible.  And that is very important indeed.


Posted from Phoenix, Arizona



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