It might surprise you to know that most atheist or skeptical scholars and academics “believe” in Jesus Christ. A short list would include the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell (d. 1970), former Boston University philosophy professor Michael Martin (d. 2015), atheist German New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann, skeptical New Testament scholars Bart Ehrman and Dominic Crossan, and The Most Famous Atheist in the World, Richard Dawkins. In a Huffington Post article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html) Ehrman points out that “99.9% of the real experts” in ancient history, classical studies, religious studies, or the New Testament are certain of the historical existence of Jesus. In an interview on British television, Dawkins declared his belief that Jesus was a “very good man” and “a great moral philosopher” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhflPR-ck0M).
But the statements by Ehrman and Dawkins also highlight how I have to qualify the meaning of “believe” for these atheists and skeptics. They “believe in” and are firmly convinced of Jesus’ existence and some of the basic historical facts surrounding his life—he was born a 1st century Jew, he was an itinerant preacher and teacher, he ran afoul of both religious and civil authorities, he died by crucifixion, and a movement sprang up around his life and teaching that became the Christian Church, etc. Gary Habermas—a Christian philosopher, historian, and New Testament Scholar—has identified six “minimal facts” that the large majority of scholars—Christian, theist, agnostic, and atheist—agree are the historical “bedrock” about Jesus:
- Jesus died by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.
- Jesus’ tomb was empty.
- Jesus’ disciples believed what they saw was the risen Jesus.
- The skeptic and persecutor of Christians, Paul, was converted to Christianity.
- The skeptic James, the brother of Jesus, was converted to Christianity.
- The resurrection of Christ was central to early Christian belief and proclamation.
However, one thing that atheists, skeptics, and other non-Christians specifically do not believe is that Jesus actually was bodily raised from the dead. They either reject outright the possibility that any miracle could ever occur, or they argue that no miracle could ever be proved by historical investigation. Some argue for alternate scenarios: the disciples saw an “apparition”; the disciples hallucinated; psychological bereavement and guilt created the belief in Jesus’ resurrection; the resurrection was just a legend that grew over time; and so on. And, of course, if Jesus stayed dead he might have been a “good man” and a “great moral philosopher”, as Dawkins thinks, but he could not have been the Messiah, the incarnation of the Son of God, the Lord and unique Savior of humanity. As the apostle Paul pointedly put it: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14).
But there are some serious scholars who argue that history really is on the side of the resurrection. Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright devotes a large section of his massive volume, The Resurrection of the Son of God, to validating the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Michael Licona, a Southern Baptist scholar and New Testament historian, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A New Historiographical Approach, presents 600 pages of careful and objective arguments against alternate explanations, and he supports what he calls the “resurrection hypothesis”. Gary Habermas, whose earlier work established the “minimal facts” about Jesus, argues in his book The Risen Jesus and Future Hope that these historical facts strongly support the conclusion that Jesus was raised from the dead. What these, and many other scholars, conclude is that the best—in fact the only reasonable—explanation for the historical bedrock concerning Jesus, is that Jesus truly was raised from the dead.
Most of us did not come to place our faith in Jesus Christ by carefully considering the historical evidence and arguments for his resurrection. My own conversion to Christ came through an experience I can only describe as an encounter with the risen Jesus; not visible, to be sure, but none the less real. And although we will not see Jesus bodily until he comes again to judge the living and the dead, God’s Holy Spirit makes the risen Christ really present now, through the Word, in worship and communion, and in the core of our being. While we patiently wait for Christ’s return it is also good to know that history is on our side.