Was Jesus seen alive after His death on the cross by Lee Strobel?
The passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “The case for Christ,” which was published in 1998. He was the former legal editor of The Chicago Tribune and he used his journalistic skill to investigate the evidence for Jesus. He said that he “had been living a profane, drunken, self-absorbed and immoral lifestyle” until “his heart had shrunk to the point where it was rock hard toward anyone else.” After a personal investigation that spanned more than 600 days and the interviewed of numerous experts, his verdict in the case for Jesus was overwhelming and clear. He then decided to take the experiential step to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. He turned to John 1:12 (NIV), “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” And his mathematical formula for entering into an ongoing personal relationship with Jesus Christ by becoming adopted into God’s family is:
believe + receive = become
He is currently a teaching pastor at Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forrest, California.
THE TWELFTH INTERVIEW: GARY HABERMAS, PH.D, D.D.
Two autographed photos of hockey players, shown in flat-out combat on ice, hang on the walls of Habermas’s austere office. One features the immortal Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks; the other depicts Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, the brawling, tough-as-nails forward for the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Hull is my favorite hockey player,” explains Habermas. “Schultz is my favorite fighter.” He grinned, then added, “There’s a difference.”
Habermas—–bearded, straight-talking, rough-hewn—is also a fighter, an academic pit bull who looks more like a nightclub bouncer than an ivory tower intellectual. Aimed with razor-sharp arguments and historical evidence to back them up, he’s not afraid to come out swinging.
Antony Flew, one of the leading philosophical atheists in the world, found that out when he tangled with Habermas in a major debate on the topic “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” The results were decidedly one-sided. Of the five independent philosophers from various colleges and universities who served as judges of the debate’s content, four concluded that Habermas had won. One called the contest a draw. None cast a ballot for Flew. Commented one judge, “I was surprised (shocked might be a more accurate word) to see how weak Flew’s own approach was…. I was left with this conclusion: 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.”1
One of five other professional debate judges who evaluated the contestants’ argumentation techniques (again Habermas was the victor) felt compelled to write, “I conclude that the historical evidence, though flawed, is strong enough to lead reasonable minds to conclude that Christ did indeed rise from the dead…. Habermas does end up providing ‘highly probable evidence’ for the historicity of the resurrection ‘with no plausible naturalistic evidence against it.’ Habermas, therefore, in my opinion, wins the debate.”2
After earning a doctorate from Michigan State University, where he wrote his dissertation on the Resurrection, Habermas received a doctor of divinity degree from Emmanuel College in Oxford, England. He has authored seven books dealing with Jesus rising from the dead including The Resurrection of Jesus: A Rational Inquiry; The Resurrection of Jesus: An Apologetic; The Historical Jesus; and Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, which was based on his debate with Flew. Among his other books are Dealing with Doubt and (with J. P. Moreland) Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality.
In addition, he co-edited In Defense of Miracles and contributed to Jesus under Fire and Living Your Faith; Closing the Gap between Mind and Heart. His one hundred articles have appeared in popular publications (such as the Saturday Evening Post), scholarly journals (including Faith and Philosophy and Religious Studies), and reference books (for example, The Baker Dictionary of Theology). He’s also the former president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society
I don’t mean to suggest by my earlier description that Habermas is unnecessarily combative; he’s friendly and self-effacing in casual conversations. I just wouldn’t want to be on the other side of a hockey puck—–or an argument—–from him. He has an innate radar that helps him zero in on his opponent’s vulnerable points. He also has a tender side, which I would discover—–quite unexpectedly—–before our interview was over.
I found Habermas in his no-nonsense office at Liberty University where he is currently distinguished professor and chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Theology and director of the master’s program in apologetics. The room, with its black file cabinets, metal desk with simulated wood top, threadbare carpet, and folding guest chairs, is certainly no showplace. Like its occupant, it’s free from pretension.
“DEAD PEOPLE DON’T DO THAT”
Habermas, sitting behind his desk, rolled up the sleeves of his blue button-down shirt as I turned on my tape recorder and started our interview.
“Isn’t it true,” I began with prosecutorial bluntness, “that there are absolutely no eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection?”
“That’s exactly right—–there’s no descriptive account
of the Resurrection,” Habermas replied in an admission that might surprise people who only have a casual knowledge of the subject.
“When I was young, I was reading a book by C S Lewis, who wrote that the New Testament says nothing about the Resurrection. I wrote a real big ‘No!’ in the margin. Then I realized what he was saying: nobody was sitting inside the tomb and saw the body start to vibrate, stand up, take the linen wrappings off, fold them, roll back the stone, wow the guards, and leave.”
That, it seemed to me, might pose some problems. “Doesn’t this hurt your efforts to establish that the Resurrection is a historical event?” I asked.
Habermas pushed back his chair to get more comfortable. “No, this doesn’t hurt our case one iota, because science is all about causes and effects. We don’t see dinosaurs; we study the fossils. We may not know how a disease originates, but we study its symptoms. Maybe nobody witnesses a crime, but police piece together the evidence after the fact.
“So,” he continued, “here’s how I look at the evidence for the Resurrection: First, did Jesus die on the cross? And second, did he appear later to people? If you can establish those two things, you’ve made your case, because dead people don’t normally do that.”
Historians agree there’s plenty of evidence that Jesus was crucified, and Dr. Alexander Metherell demonstrated in an earlier chapter that Jesus could not have survived the rigors of that execution. That leaves the second part of the issue: did Jesus really appear later?
“What evidence is there that people saw him?” I asked.
“I’ll start with evidence that virtually all critical scholars will admit,” he said, opening the Bible in front of him. “Nobody questions that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, and we have him affirming in two places that he personally encountered the resurrected Christ. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:1, ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ And he says in 1 Corinthians 15:8, ‘Last of all he appeared to me also.’”
I recognized that last quote as being attached to the early church creed that Craig Blomberg and I have already discussed. As William Lane Craig indicated, the first part of the creed (verses 3—4) refers to Jesus’ execution, burial, and resurrection.
The final part of the creed (verses 5—8) deals with his post-Resurrection appearances: “[Christ] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” In the next verse, Paul adds, “And last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
On the face of it, this is incredibly influential testimony that Jesus did appear alive after his death. Here were names of specific individuals and groups of people who saw him, written at a time when people could still check them out if they wanted confirmation. Since I knew that the creed would be pivotal in establishing the Resurrection, I decided to subject it to greater scrutiny: Why are historians convinced it’s a creed? How trustworthy is it? How far back does it go?
“Do you mind if I cross-examine you on this creed?” I asked Habermas.
He extended his hand as if to invite the inquiry. “Please,” he said politely, “go ahead.”
“CONVINCE ME IT’S A CREED”
Initially I wanted to determine why Habermas, Craig, Blomberg, and others are convinced that this passage is a creed of the early church and not just the words of Paul, who wrote the letter to the Corinthian church in which it’s contained.
My challenge to Habermas was simple and direct: “Convince me it’s a creed.” (Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines a creed as a set of fundamental religious beliefs)
“Well, I can give you several solid reasons. First, Paul introduces it with the words received and delivered [or passed on in the NIV], which are technical rabbinic terms indicating he’s passing along holy tradition.
“Second,” Habermas said, looking down at his hands as he grabbed a finger at a time to emphasize each point he was making, “the text’s parallelism and stylized content indicate it’s a creed. Third, the original text uses Cephas for Peter, which is his Aramaic name. In fact, the Aramaic itself could indicate a very early origin. Fourth, the creed uses several other primitive phrases that Paul would not customarily use, like ‘the Twelve,’ ‘the third day,’ ‘he was raised,’ and others. Fifth, the use of certain words is similar to Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew means of narration.”
Having run out of fingers, he looked up at me “Should I go on?” he asked.
‘OK, OK,” I said. “You’re saying that these facts convince you, as a conservative evangelical Christian, that this is an early creed:”
Habermas seemed a bit offended by that admittedly barbed remark. “It’s not just conservative Christians who are convinced,” he insisted indignantly. “This is an assessment that’s shared by a wide range of scholars from across a broad theological spectrum. The eminent scholar Joachim Jeremias refers to this creed as ‘the earliest tradition of all,’ and Ulrich Wilckens says it ‘indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.’”
That raised the question of how primitive the creed is. “How far back can you date it?” I asked.
“We know that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians between A.D. 55 and 57. He indicates in 1 Corinthians 15:1—4 that he has already passed on this creed to the church at Corinth, which would mean it must predate his visit there in A.D. 51. Therefore the creed was being used within twenty years of the Resurrection, which is quite early.
“However, I’d agree with the various scholars who trace it back even further, to within two to eight years of the Resurrection, or from about A.D. 32 to 38, when Paul received it in either Damascus or Jerusalem. So this is incredibly early material—primitive, unadorned testimony to the fact that Jesus appeared alive to skeptics like Paul and James, as well as to Peter and the rest of the disciples”
“But,” I protested, “it’s not really a firsthand account. Paul is providing the list second-or thirdhand. Doesn’t that diminish its value as evidence?”
Not to Habermas. “Keep in mind that Paul personally affirms that Jesus appeared to him as well, so this provides firsthand testimony. And Paul didn’t just pick up this list from strangers on the street. The leading view is that he got it directly from the eyewitnesses Peter and James themselves, and he took great pains to confirm its accuracy.”
That was a strong claim. “How do you know that?” I asked.
“I would concur with the scholars who believe Paul received this material three years after his conversion, when he took a trip to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James. Paul describes that trip in Galatians 1:18—19, where he uses a very interesting Greek word—historeo.”
I wasn’t familiar with the meaning of the word. “Why is that significant?”
“Because this word indicates that he didn’t just casually shoot the breeze when he met with them. It shows this was an investigative inquiry. Paul was playing the role of an examiner, someone who was carefully checking this out. So the fact that Paul personally confirmed matters with two eyewitnesses who are specifically mentioned in the creed—Peter and James—gives this extra weight. One of the very few Jewish New Testament scholars, Pinchas Lapide, says the evidence in support of the creed is so strong that it ‘may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.’”
Before I could jump in, Hahermas added, “And later in 1 Corinthians 15:11, Paul emphasizes that the other apostles agreed in preaching the same gospel, this same message about the Resurrection. This means that what the eyewitness Paul is saying is the exact same thing as what the eyewitnesses Peter and James are saying.”
I’ll admit it: all this sounded pretty convincing. Still,
I had some reservations about the creed, and I didn’t want Habermas’s confident assertions to deter me from probing further.
THE MYSTERY OF THE FIVE HUNDRED
The creed in 1 Corinthians 15 is the only place in ancient literature where it is claimed that Jesus appeared to five hundred people at once. The gospels don’t corroborate it. No secular historian mentions it. And to me, that raises a yellow flag.
“If this really happened, why doesn’t anyone else talk about it?” I asked Habermas. “You’d think the apostles would cite this as evidence wherever they went. As the atheist Michael Martin says, ‘One must conclude that it is extremely unlikely that this incident really occurred’ and that this therefore ‘indirectly casts doubt on Paul as a reliable source.”3
That remark bothered Habermas. “Well, it’s just plain silliness to say this casts doubt on Paul,” he replied, sounding both astonished and annoyed that someone would make that claim.
“I mean, give me a break! First, even though it’s only reported in one source, it just so happens to be the earliest and best-authenticated passage of all! That counts for something.
“Second, Paul apparently had some proximity to these people. He says, ‘most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.’ Paul either knew some of these people or was told by someone who knew them that they were still walking around and willing to be interviewed.
“Now, stop and think about it: you would never include this phrase unless you were absolutely confident that these folks would confirm that they really did see Jesus alive. I mean, Paul was virtually inviting people to check it out for themselves! He wouldn’t have said this if he didn’t know they’d back him up.
“Third, when you have only one source, you can ask, ‘Why aren’t there more?’ But you can’t say, ‘This one source is crummy on the grounds that someone else didn’t pick up on it.’ You can’t downgrade this one source that way. So this doesn’t cast any doubt on Paul at all—believe me, Martin would love to be able to do that, but he can’t do it legitimately.
“This is an example of how some critics want it both ways. Generally, they denigrate the gospel Resurrection accounts in favor of Paul, since he is taken to be the chief authority. But on this issue, they’re questioning Paul for the sake of texts that they don’t trust as much in the first place! What does this say about their methodology?”
I was still having trouble envisioning this appearance by Jesus to such a large crowd. “Where would this encounter with five hundred people have taken place?” I asked.
“Well, the Galilean countryside,” Habermas speculated. “If Jesus could feed five thousand, he could preach to five hundred. And Matthew does say Jesus appeared on a hillside; maybe more than just the eleven disciples were there.”
Picturing that scene in my mind, I still couldn’t help but wonder why someone else didn’t report on this event. “Wouldn’t it be likely that the historian Josephus would have mentioned something of that magnitude?”
“No, I don’t think that necessarily true. Josephus was writing sixty years afterward. How long do local stories circulate before they start to die out?” Habermas asked. “So either Josephus didn’t know about it, which is possible, or he chose not to mention it, which would make sense because we know Josephus was not a follower of Jesus. You can’t expect Josephus to start building the case for him.”
When I didn’t respond for a moment, Habermas continued. “Look, I’d love to have five sources for this. I don’t. But I do have one excellent source—–a creed that’s so good that German historian Hans von Campenhausen says, ‘This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text.’ Besides, you don’t need to rely on the reference to the five hundred to make the case for the Resurrection. Usually I don’t even use it.”
Habermas’s answer carried some logic. Still, there was another aspect of the creed that weighed on me: it says Jesus appeared first to Peter, whereas John said he appeared first to Mary Magdalene. In fact, the creed doesn’t mention any women, even though they’re prominently featured in the gospel accounts.
“Don’t these contradictions hurt its credibility?” I asked.
“Ah, no,” came the reply. “First of all, look at the creed carefully: it doesn’t say Jesus appeared first to Peter. All it does is put Peter’s name first on the list. And since women were not considered competent as witnesses in first-century Jewish culture, it’s not surprising that they’re not mentioned here. In the first-century scheme of things, their testimony wouldn’t carry any weight. So placing Peter first could indicate logical priority rather than temporal priority.
“Again,” he concluded, “the creed’s credibility remains intact. You’ve raised some questions, but wouldn’t you concede that they don’t undermine the persuasive evidence that the creed is early, that it’s free from legendary contamination, that it’s unambiguous and specific, and that it’s ultimately rooted in eyewitness accounts?”
All in all, I was forced to agree that he was right. The weight of the evidence clearly and convincingly supports the creed as being powerful evidence for Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances.4
So powerful that William Lane Craig, the Resurrection expert I interviewed in the previous chapter, said that Wolfhart Pannenberg, perhaps the greatest living systematic theologian in the world, “has rocked modern, skeptical German theology by building his entire theology precisely on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus as supplied in Paul’s list of appearances.”3
Having satisfied myself about the essential reliability of the 1 Corinthians 15 creed, it was time to begin looking at the four gospels, which recount the various appearances by the resurrected Jesus in more detail.
THE TESTIMONY OF THE GOSPELS
I started this line of inquiry by asking Habermas to describe the post-Resurrection appearances in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
“There are several different appearances to a lot of different people in the gospels and Acts—some individually, some in groups, sometimes indoors, sometimes to softhearted people like John and skeptical people like Thomas,” he began.
“At times they touched Jesus or ate with him, with the texts teaching that he was physically present. The appearances occurred over several weeks. And there are good reasons to trust these accounts—–for example, they’re lacking in many typical mythical tendencies.”
“Can you enumerate these appearances for me?”
From memory, Habermas described them one at a time. Jesus appeared
• to Mary Magdalene, in John 20:10—18;
• to the other women, in Matthew 28:8—10;
• to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus, in Luke 24:13—32;
• to eleven disciples and others, in Luke 24:33—49;
• to ten apostles and others, with Thomas absent, in John 20:19—23;
• to Thomas and the other apostles, in John 20:26—30;
• to seven apostles, in John 21:1—14;
• to the disciples, in Matthew 28:16—20.
• And he was with the apostles at the Mount of Olives before his ascension, in Luke 24:50—52 and Acts 1:4—9.
“It’s particularly interesting,” Habermas added, “that C. H. Dodd, the Cambridge University scholar has carefully analyzed these appearances and concluded that several of them are based on especially early material, including Jesus’ encounter with the women, in Matthew 28:8—10; his meeting with the eleven apostles, in which he gave them the Great Commission, in Matthew 28:16-20; and his meeting with the disciples, in John 20:19-23, in which he showed them his hands and side.”
Again, here was a wealth of sightings of Jesus. This was not merely a fleeting observance of a shadowy figure by one or two people. There were multiple appearances to numerous people, several of the appearances being confirmed in more than one gospel or by the 1 Corinthians 15 creed.
“Is there any further corroboration?” I asked.
“Just look at Acts,” replied Habermas, referring to the New Testament book that records the launch of the church. Not only are Jesus’ appearances mentioned regularly, but details are provided, and the theme of the disciples being a witness of these things is found in almost every context.
“The key,” Habermas said, “is that a number of the accounts in Acts 1—5, 10, and 13 also include some creeds that, like the one in 1 Corinthians 15, report some very early data concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
With that Habermas picked up a book and read the conclusion of scholar John Drane.
The earliest evidence we have for the resurrection almost certainly goes back to the time immediately after the resurrection event is alleged to have taken place. This is the evidence contained in the early sermons in the Acts of the Apostles … there can be no doubt that in the first few chapters of Acts its author has preserved material from very early sources.5
Indeed, Acts is littered with references to Jesus’ appearances. The apostle Peter was especially adamant about it. He says in Acts 2:32, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” In Acts 3:15 he repeats, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” He confirmed to Cornelius in Acts 10:41 that he and others “ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
Not to be outdone, Paul said in a speech recorded in Acts 13:31, “For many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.”
Asserted Habermas, “The Resurrection was undoubtedly the central proclamation of the early church from the very beginning. The earliest Christians didn’t just endorse Jesus’ teachings; they were convinced they had seen him alive after his crucifixion. That’s what changed their lives and started the church. Certainly, since this was their centermost conviction, they would have made absolutely sure that it was true.”
All of the gospel and Acts evidence—incident after incident, witness after witness, detail after detail, corroboration on top of corroboration—was extremely impressive. Although I tried, I couldn’t think of any more thoroughly attested event in ancient history.
However, there was another question that needed to be raised, this one concerning the gospel that most scholars believe was the first account of Jesus to be written.
MARK’S MISSING CONCLUSION
When I first began investigating the Resurrection, I encountered a troubling comment in the margin of my Bible: “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9—20.” In other words, most scholars believe that the gospel of Mark ends 16:8, with the women discovering the tomb empty but without Jesus having appeared alive to anyone at all. That seemed perplexing.
“Doesn’t it bother you that the earliest gospel doesn’t even report any post-Resurrection appearances?” I asked Habermas.
On the contrary, he didn’t seemed disturbed at all. “I don’t have a problem with that whatsoever,” he said. “Sure, it would be nice if he had included a list of appearances, but here are some things for you to think about:
“Even if Mark does end there, which not everyone believes, you still have him reporting that the tomb is empty, and a young man proclaiming, ‘He is risen!’ and telling the women that there will be appearances. So you have, first, a proclamation that the Resurrection has occurred, and second, a prediction that appearances will follow.
“You can close your favorite novel and say, ‘I can’t believe the author’s not telling me the next episode,’ but you can’t close the book and say, ‘The writer doesn’t believe in the next episode.’ Mark definitely does. He obviously believed the Resurrection had taken place. He ends with the women being told that Jesus will appear in Galilee, and then others later confirm that he did.”
According to church tradition, Mark was a companion of the eyewitness Peter. “Isn’t it odd,” I asked, “that Mark wouldn’t mention that Jesus appeared to Peter, if he really had.”
“Mark doesn’t mention any appearances, so it wouldn’t be peculiar that Peter’s isn’t listed,” he said. “However, note that Mark does single out Peter. Mark 16:7 says, ‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
“This agrees with 1 Corinthians 15:5, which confirms that Jesus did appear to Peter, and Luke 24:34, another early creed, which says, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon,’ or Peter.
“So what Mark predicts about Peter is reported to have been fulfilled, in two early and very reliable creeds of the
Church—as well as by Peter himself in Acts.”
ARE THERE ANY ALTERNATIVES?
Without question, the amount of testimony and corroboration of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances is staggering. To put it into perspective, if you were to call each one of the witnesses to a court of law to be cross-examined for just fifteen minutes each, and you went around the clock without a break, it would take you from breakfast on Monday until dinner on Friday to hear them all. After listening to 129 straight hours of eyewitness testimony, who could possibly walk away unconvinced?
Having been a legal affairs journalist who has covered scores of trials, both criminal and civil, I had to agree with the assessment of Sir Edward Clarke, a British High Court judge who conducted a thorough legal analysis of the first Easter Day: “To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. As a lawyer I accept the gospel evidence unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts that they were able to substantiate.”6
However could there be any plausible alternatives that could explain away these encounters with the risen Jesus? Could these accounts be legendary in nature? Or might the witnesses have experienced hallucinations? I decided to raise those issues with Habermas to get his response:
Possibility 1: The Appearances Are Legendary
If it’s true that the gospel of Mark originally ended before any appearances were reported, it could be argued that there’s evolutionary development in the gospels: Mark records no appearances, Matthew has some, Luke has more, and John has the most.
“Doesn’t that demonstrate that the appearances are—merely legends that grew up over time?” I asked.
“For a lot of reasons, no, it doesn’t, Habermas assured me. “First, not everybody believes Mark is the earliest gospel. There are scholars, admittedly in the minority, who believe Matthew was written first.
“Second, even if I accept your thesis as true, it only proves that legends grew up over time—it can’t explain away the original belief that Jesus was risen from the dead. Something happened that prompted the apostles to make the Resurrection the central proclamation of the earliest church. Legend can’t explain those initial eyewitness accounts. In other words, legend can tell you how a story got bigger; it can’t tell you how it originated when the participants are both eyewitnesses and reported the events early.
“Third, you’re forgetting that the 1 Corinthians 15 creed predates any of the gospel, and it makes huge claims about the appearances. In fact, the claim involving the biggest number—that he was seen alive by five hundred people at once—goes back to this earliest source! That creates problems for the legendary-development theory. The best reasons for rejecting the legend theory come from the early creedal accounts in 1 Corinthians 15 and Acts, both of which predate the gospel material.”
“And fourth, what about the empty tomb? If the Resurrection were merely a legend, the tomb would be filled. However, it was empty on Easter Morning. That demands an additional hypothesis.”
Possibility 2: The Appearances Were Hallucinations
Maybe the witnesses were sincere in believing they saw Jesus. Perhaps they accurately recorded what took place. But could they have been seeing a hallucination that convinced them they were encountering Jesus when they really weren’t?
Habermas smiled at the question. “Do you know Gary Collins?” he asked.
That question took me off guard. Sure, I replied, I know him. “I was in his office just recently to interview him for this same book,” I said.
“Do you believe he’s qualified as a psychologist?” Habermas asked.
“Yes,” I answered warily, since I could tell he was setting me up for something. “A doctorate, a professor for twenty years, the author of dozens of books on psychological issues, president of a national association of psychologists—yeah, sure, I’d consider him qualified.”
Habermas handed me a piece of paper. “I asked Gary about the possibility that these were hallucinations, and this is his professional opinion,” he told me. I looked at the document.
Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people. Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce an hallucination in somebody else. Since an hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it.7
“That,” said Habermas, “is a big problem for the hallucination theory, since there are repeated accounts of Jesus appearing to multiple people who reported the same thing.
“And there are several other arguments why hallucinations can’t explain away his appearances,” he continued. “The disciples were fearful, doubtful, and in despair after the Crucifixion, whereas people who hallucinate need a fertile mind of expectancy or anticipation. Peter was hardheaded, for goodness’ sake; James was a skeptic—certainly not good candidates for hallucinations.
“Also, hallucinations are comparably rare. They’re usually caused by drugs or bodily deprivation. Chances are, you don’t know anybody who’s ever had a hallucination not caused by one of those two things. Yet we’re supposed to believe that over a course of many weeks, people from all sorts of backgrounds, all kinds of temperaments, in various places, all experienced hallucinations? That strains the hypothesis quite a bit, doesn’t it?
“Besides, if we establish the gospel accounts as being reliable, how do you account for the disciples eating with Jesus and touching him? How does he walk along with two of them on the road to Emmaus? And what about the empty tomb? If people only thought they saw Jesus his body would still be in his grave.”
OK, I thought, if it wasn’t a hallucination, maybe it was something more subtle.
“Could this have been an example of groupthink, in which people talk each other into seeing something that doesn’t exist?” I asked. “As Michael Martin observed, ‘A person full of religious zeal may see what he or she wants to see, not what is really there.”8
Habermas laughed. “You know, one of the atheists I debated, Antony Flew, told me he doesn’t like it when other atheists use that last argument, because it cuts both ways. As Flew said, ‘Christians believe because they want to, but atheists don’t believe because they don’t want to!’
“Actually, there are several reasons why the disciples couldn’t have talked each other into this. As the center of their faith, there was too much at stake; they went to their deaths defending it. Wouldn’t some of them rethink the groupthink at a later date and recant or just quietly fall away? And what about James, who didn’t believe in Jesus, and Paul, who was a persecutor of Christians—–how did they get talked into seeing something? Further, what about the empty tomb?
“And on top of that, this view doesn’t account for the forthright language of sight in the 1 Corinthians 15 creed and other passages. The eyewitnesses were at least convinced that they had seen Jesus alive, and groupthink doesn’t explain this aspect very well.”
Habermas paused long enough to pull out a book and cap his argument with a quote from prominent theologian and historian Carl Braaten: “Even the more skeptical historians agree that for primitive Christianity . . . the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a real event in history, the very foundation of faith, and not a mythical idea arising out of the creative imagination of believers.”9
“Sometimes,” concluded Habermas, “people just grasp at straws trying to account for the appearances. But nothing fits all the evidence better than the explanation that Jesus was alive.”
“NO RATIONAL DOUBT”
Jesus was killed on the cross—Alexander Metherell has made that graphically clear. His tomb was empty on Easter Morning—William Lane Craig left no doubt about that. His disciples and others saw him, touched him, and ate with him after the Resurrection—Gary Habermas has built that case with abundant evidence. As prominent British theologian Michael Green said, “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity… There can be no rational doubt that they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this. They could say with assurance, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ They knew it was he.”10
And all this doesn’t even exhaust the evidence. I had already made plane reservations for a trip to the other side of the country to interview one more expert on the final category of proof that the Resurrection is a real event of history.
Before I left Habermas’s office, however, I had one more question. Frankly, I hesitated to ask it, because it was a bit too predictable and I thought I’d get an answer that was a little too pat.
The question concerned the importance of the Resurrection. I figured if I asked Habermas about that, he’d give the standard reply about it being at the center of Christian doctrine, the axis around which the Christian faith turned. And I was right—he did give a stock answer like that.
But what surprised me was that this wasn’t all he said. This nuts-and-bolts scholar, this burly and straight-shooting debater, this combat-ready defender of the faith, allowed me to peer into his soul as he gave an answer that grew out of the deepest valley of despair he had ever walked through.
THE RESURRECTION OF DEBBIE
Habermas rubbed his graying beard. The quick-fire cadence and debater’s edge to his voice were gone. No more quoting of scholars, no more citing of Scripture, no more building a case. I had asked about the importance of the Resurrection, and Habermas decided to take a risk by harkening back to 1995, when his wife, Debbie, slowly died of stomach cancer. Caught off guard by the tenderness of the moment, all I could do was listen.
“I sat on our porch,” he began, looking off to the side at nothing in particular. He sighed deeply, then went on. “My wife was upstairs dying. Except for a few weeks, she was home through it all. It was an awful time. This was the worst thing that could possibly happen.”
He turned and looked straight at me. “But do you know what was amazing? My students would call me—not just one but several of them—and say, ‘At a time like this, aren’t you glad about the Resurrection?’ As sober as those circumstances were, I had to smile for two reasons. First, my students were trying to cheer me up with my own teaching. And second, it worked.
“As I would sit there, I’d picture Job, who went through all that terrible stuff and asked questions of God, but then God turned the tables and asked him a few questions.
“I knew if God were to come to me, I’d ask only one question: ‘Lord, why is Debbie up there in bed?’ And I think God would respond by asking gently, ‘Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?’
“I’d say, ‘Come on, Lord, I’ve written seven books on that topic! Of course he was raised from the dead. But I want to know about Debbie!’
“I think he’d keep coming back to the same question—‘Did I raise my Son from the dead?’ ‘Did I raise my Son from the dead?’—until I got his point: the Resurrection says that if Jesus was raised two thousand years ago, there’s an answer to Debbie’s death in 1995. And do you know what? It worked for me while I was sitting on the porch, and it still works today.
“It was a horribly emotional time for me, but I couldn’t get around the fact that the Resurrection is the answer for her suffering. I still worried; I still wondered what I’d do raising four kids alone. But there wasn’t a time when that truth didn’t comfort me.
“Losing my wife was the most painful experience I’ve ever had to face, but if the Resurrection could get me through that, it can get me through anything. It was good for 30 A.D., it’s good for 1995, it’s good for 1998, and it’s good beyond that.”
Habermas locked eyes with mine. “That’s not some sermon,” he said quietly. “I believe that with all my heart. If there’s a resurrection, there’s a heaven. If Jesus was raised, Debbie was raised. And I will be someday, too.
“Then I’ll see them both.” (304-327)
1. Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), xiv.
2. Ibid., xv.
3. Martin, The Case against Christianity. 90.
4. Craig, The Son Rises, 125.
5. John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (San Francisco Harper& Row, 1986), 99.
6. Michael Green, Christ Is Risen: So What? (Kent, England: Sovereign World, 1995), 34.
7. Also cited in Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nashville: Nelson, 1992), 60.
8. Martin, The Case against Christianity, 75.
9. Carl Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, voL 2 of New Directions in Theology Today, ed. William Hordern (Philadelphia Westminster Press, 1966). 78, cited in Habermas and Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? 24.
10. Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 97, cited in Ankerherg and Weldon, Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection, 22, emphasis in original.