Proving resurrection debated at MBTS
KANSAS CITY – An overflow crowd packed themselves into Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s (MBTS) chapel, library and student center to hear Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman debate whether Jesus’ resurrection can be proven.
Licona is one of Southern Baptists’ leading apologists and has written several books on Jesus’ resurrection, including Paul Meets Muhammad, and The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus and Cross Examined. He is also featured in the books The Big Argument: Twenty-four Scholars Explore how Science, Archaeology and Philosophy have Proven the Existence of God and The Case for the Real Jesus. He serves as the director of apologetics for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Licona argued in favor a historically provable resurrection.
Ehrman, is the chair of the department of religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written dozens of books including the New York Times bestseller, Misquoting Jesus and Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Although he began his academic journey as an evangelical, he later became an agnostic. He argued against a provable resurrection.
The question of historical provability by might seem irrelevant, but it was Erhman’s conclusion that the resurrection is not historically reliable that caused him to renounce his faith.
Ehrman clearly had an uphill battle in his attempts to argue the historical Jesus did not raise from the grave. “I feel a lot like Daniel in the lions’ den,” he joked after polling the beliefs of the crowd, which universally believed in the physical resurrection.
As in any academic debate, Licona and Ehrman wrangled over definitions. Ehrman argued that historians search for and affirm the mostly likely and plausible explanations for events. Jesus’ resurrection would require a miracle and since, by his definition a miracle is an extremely unlikely event, it is historically impossible to say Jesus rose from the grave.
Though he acknowledged he does not believe God raised Jesus from the dead, Erhman was careful not to belabor that point. He merely argued that it is not historically provable.
“This is a theological issue, not a historical one,” he said. “Religions are true or untrue independent of history, but the historical facts do not support faith. It probably didn’t happen.
“The resurrection is called a miracle, the least likely occurrence. Which is more likely? That the followers of Jesus who loved Him had visions of Him after His death that they thought were real or that God raised Him from the dead, a unique miracle.”
Licona disagreed. He argued that in terms of scope and power, a miraculous explanation for Jesus’ resurrection is not all that unlikely.
“A miracle is actually the most likely explanation,” he said. “Given that we lack a naturalistic explanation for the empty tomb, Jesus’ appearances to His disciples and later Paul,” he said.
Erhman still argued Christians’ belief in a bodily resurrection ignores the historical record.
“The vast majority of you [the crowd at MBTS] believe He was raised from the dead,” he said. “Your faith is not founded on the historical evidence. This is a faith claim. It is a claim that there is a God that controls this world, who sent His son into this world, allowed Him to be crucified and then raised Him from the dead. Those are theological statements. They’re not historical.”
Saying the bodily resurrection is theologically significant but not historically plausible was not good enough for Licona.
“To ignore a possible miraculous explanation as a historian is to be close-minded,” he said. “You must be open to the possibility that if no plausible naturalistic explanations exist, then miracles must be taken into account. You can’t discount an event just because you can’t explain it. That’s doing history backwards.”