The Contemporary Case for the Resurrection: Major Contributors

Is there sufficient evidence to rationally compel one to believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact? The issue has been explored in various ways by philosophers, historians, and New Testament scholars. In the contemporary world, the key scholars who have explored the historicity of the resurrection on the side of the defense have been Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014), Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, and Michael Licona.

As Craig documents in his 1985 book, The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus during the Deist Controversy, many of the basic arguments still in use by defenders of the historicity of the resurrection were well-developed by the eighteenth century. In various forms the arguments have floated around and continued to develop since then, and have been adopted and explored by a number of academics. The arguments were also used by numerous popularizers, such as in Frank Morison’s 1930 book, Who Moved the Stone? Meanwhile, key thinkers in the core of mainstream academic theologians and researchers on the historical Jesus adopted various approaches of de-mythologizing the bible. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, though, a new stream of thought started in academic theology that became more sympathetic toward historical arguments for the reality of Jesus’s resurrection; this movement’s most prominent figure was Wolfhart Pannenberg. This new stream, which tried to answer the arguments of the de-mythologizers, narrowed and tightened up the historical arguments for the resurrection. Pannenberg and other similar thinkers kept a fairly narrow and cautious focus in their arguments and positions. Meanwhile, other evangelicals expanded the case by dusting off and cleaning up some of the existing popular arguments as well as developing new ones. This new approach began coalescing around the mid-1970s and achieved a full statement in George Eldon Ladd’s 1975 book, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Both Habermas and Craig adopted the basic set of arguments that were summarized in their modern form by Ladd; Habermas cites Ladd in his 1976 doctoral dissertation, and Craig’s arguments overall follow Ladd’s fairly closely in both structure and content. I think the importance and influence of Ladd in the contemporary debate about the resurrection have been somewhat neglected or overlooked.

The approaches of Habermas and Craig are generally fairly similar, though Craig more fully adopted and developed historiographical techniques and criteria, especially the language of inference to the best explanation and the criteria of evaluation of historical descriptions created by C. Behan McCullagh. Craig also developed high-level, philosophical critiques of naturalism, while Habermas has ventured into defenses of belief in miracles and the supernatural in general, not just the resurrection itself, with a particular personal interest and belief in the reality of near-death experiences in the contemporary world. Craig seems to try to avoid getting involved with wrestling in public with specific, contemporary miracles claims and how the evidence for them may relate to the case for the resurrection.

Licona has been an informal student of both Habermas and Craig, and his work is something of a hybrid of the two. His “new historiographical approach” doesn’t really seem particularly new if one has read Craig’s works, starting from the 1990s, that use McCullagh’s criteria, though he goes into greater detail in his development of the approach. Licona, however, also reflects Habermas’s willingness to publicly accept miracle claims other than the resurrection itself; in fact, Licona seems to possibly go further than Habermas in accepting such claims, and uses them actively in debates to argue for the reality of a supernatural dimension. Licona’s work, with its hybrid nature, is useful for bringing out nuances in the arguments of Habermas and Craig, both through his explication of various issues and the contrasts between his approach and theirs.

Habermas, Craig, and Licona have also actively participated in public debates with skeptics about the historicity of the resurrection. These debates, I think, have both shaped their approaches to the evidence and provided additional examples and explications of the style of their arguments.

N.T. Wright, though his work is within the same general tradition and complements that of the others, has a somewhat different focus, and I’ll have to treat his work in more detail at a later time.