interview with Michael Licona (the first of two). Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today, I’m speaking with Michael Licona. Mike has a PhD in New Testament Studies at the University of Pretoria and an MA in Religious Studies from Liberty University. He is a frequent speaker on University campuses, churches, Christian groups, and retreats. He frequently debates and has appeared as a guest on numerous radio and television programs. He is also the author of a number of books, including Paul Meets Muhammad, Cross Examined, Behold I Stand at the Door and Knock, and a book that I think that every Christian should read, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, which he co-authored with Gary Habermas.
Now the purpose of today’s interview is to learn a little bit more about Mike, his apologetics ministry, and find out some of the things he is working on and overall just to gain insights from him and his experience.
So thanks for speaking with me today, Mike.
ML: Well, thanks Brian. Good to be on your show. I really believe in the ministry you’re doing and it is a pleasure to be on here with you.
BA: Well, thank you. Now for those who are not as familiar with your ministry and who you are could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
ML: Well, sure, [at the time of this interview] I’m the apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board (NAMB) in the Atlanta, Georgia area, here in the US and that is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in North America.
BA: OK and what does that role entail?
ML: Well I do a lot of speaking all over North America, on College campuses and at various Conferences where I will train either students or pastors in the area of apologetics in answering the questions in my area such as the historical evidence for the Resurrection. Sometimes I’ll do things on “God exists” or the existence of God or Teleology, Intelligent Design – things like that – but I do mainly things that have to do with the historical reliability of the New Testament and the historical Jesus.
I also serve as the Research Professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.
BA: Now how did you get started in that direction and end up doing that sort of ministry? Were there certain things in your life that went that way? Were you always a Christian or – how did that work out?
ML: Oh that’s a great question. Yes, I have always been a Christian, um, I mean formally became one I guess you could say when I was about 10 years old – I’m 48 now – but when I was about 10 years old I became a Christian. Um, the Gospel was presented to me at that point in a very clear manner and um, it had been what I was looking for at that point so, um, I became a Christian – didn’t grow too much during my teens spiritually.
I went to Liberty University, which is a Christian University – I was a music major – but had a really strong interest in the Bible – I was growing spiritually – um, and so I decided to go for a Master’s Degree in New Testament Greek, ah, and was doing very well in that and towards the end of my class work portion I began to question my faith because I was reading the New Testament for hundreds and hundreds of hours in its original language but then I one day just asked myself the question, “Yeah but is this stuff really true? How will I know if it’s true?”
Muslims in Afghanistan believe Islam is true, every bit as strongly as I believe Christianity is true. They have been brought up as Muslims, I was brought up as a Christian - how do I know this is true?
And it really started to cause doubts with me and, um, I had never had Gary Habermas for a class because I was... my studies were in New Testament, not in Philosophy and he was in Philosophy in the apologetics department. But Habermas had a really good reputation as being very approachable by students and so I went into his office one day and asked if I could speak with him and he took some time and that was my introduction to apologetics and, um, over the years I’d asked him a lot of questions and he and I became good friends and ended up co-authoring a book together and other than my wife, I’d say he is my best friend right now.
BA: Aside from Gary Habermas what sort of influences did you have that made you pursue the route to where you’ve got to today? I mean obviously there was a little bit more than alleviating some doubts that you had. What took you further and led you to be where you’re at today?
ML: Well, I would say one of the chief influencers in my life was a gentleman named Ron Sauer who was my primary Greek Professor while at Liberty. He was F.F. Bruce’s last doctoral student and Dr Sauer had just a phenomenal – ah very intense – ah passion for the Greek New Testament. He’d say, “Fellows make it your ambition to master the Greek New Testament. It’s a spiritual gold mine”.
And so I was really excited and interested in learning Greek and mastering it, having taken his classes and I took as much as I could, um, and the one thing he would teach about the language, that he said F. F. Bruce taught him, was don’t come at the New Testament with your theology already in mind and read it in that sense.
Master the Greek so that you can read the Greek New Testament and then as you read it, get your theology that way, and I thought that made a lot of sense. So just his passion for knowing the New Testament and being able to read it in Greek was a great influence on me. He was a real godly man and I learned a lot from him, not only academically but also as a person.
And then of course Gary Habermas, you know probably the largest influence in my life of anyone, um, just an amazing guy, just loves God, you know if there is any scholar I could be like, it’s him because he is just so humble um he is... just is... has a mastery of the subject of the Resurrection of Jesus but is just really kind and caring to people. The kind of guy you could just sit back and watch a football game with and um just have fun. He is just a neat guy – a down to earth guy.
And I would also say Bill Craig – William Lane Craig – has been a tremendous influence in my life. Listening to his first debate with Frank Zindler that occurred back in the 1990s just impressed me so much just how sharp he was and a great speaker and so methodical in his approach. I just haven’t heard anyone like that in apologetics and he just dismantled the atheist Zindler’s arguments easily and did such a masterful job and I thought, “Oh, I just wish I could do something like that! I’ll never be able to do anything like that! He was just an amazing debater and when I moved to Atlanta five years ago, he just asked if he could Mentor me some in debate because he believed in what I was doing – thought I had some potential. And I said, “Yeah of course!” So he and I have become very good, very close friends and I’ve developed a tremendous amount of respect for him because he’s really a humble guy as well, um, a lot more formal and proper than, say, Gary Habermas with me so he’s um... they’re just different personalities but Bill and Jan Craig are just tremendous people and the kind of opportunities that he has are just unprecedented in my book and I guess if there were any Ministry that I could resemble... I’ll never have the brains or the experience that Dr Craig has but if there was any kind of Ministry out there that I would like to pattern after, it would be his.
BA: Um, um, now you have a new book with your latest research being published by Inter Varsity Press as coming out in November. Now the title is The Resurrection of Jesus. A New Historiographical Approach. Now can you tell us about it, and why you wrote it, what’s new about the approach?
ML: Sure this is a slightly revised version of my doctoral dissertation, which I did at the University of Pretoria and, uh, it’s quite long. I’m told by IVP that it will probably be between 600 and 700 pages in its book format.
So the reason I wrote it of course was for my doctoral work but the reason I got into my doctoral work is because, in talking with Gary Habermas, um, as we were writing The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, I said, “You know, Doc, why is it that you’ve got so many people writing out there, a couple of thousand different academic journal articles and books written on the Resurrection since 1975 and yet so many people taking different views... the majority of scholars writing on them, uh, who are these scholars?”
And he said, “Well, you know, in the high 90 percentile would be biblical scholars and there would be some philosophers involved”. And I said, “Well, if this is a historical question, are there any professional historians writing on this subject?” And he said, “Ah, maybe a few... you’ve got Paul Maier who is a very good historian, Distinguished Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, and he wrote a small book on it, but nothing comprehensive. And then you have maybe a handful of journal articles here and there, so nothing comprehensive had been done on it. And so I was thinking to myself, “Well if a professional historian did a comprehensive approach to this question, how would it look differently than if a biblical scholar did it? And would it shed any new insights?”
So I immediately began reading all this literature – journal articles and books, textbooks written by professional historians outside of the community of biblical scholars – and I also looked on the websites of the eight Ivy League schools and their departments of religion and philosophy, looking for under-graduate, graduate and doctoral level courses to see how many courses for these departments... how many courses on the philosophy of history and historical method they actually offered. And you know how many I found between the eight Ivy League schools? One! A total of one! And yet you will have most of these students getting out of here and calling themselves – or a lot of them calling themselves – historians of Jesus and they haven’t even had the first course on the philosophy of history and proper historical method.
And as I talked to various biblical scholars such as uh, Craig Evans and Richard Baukham, they both told me that biblical scholars aren’t historians, they just don’t have any training in this area, yet they think that they’re proficient in this, um, and I think what’s really interesting and telling about it is because you have many biblical scholars today who are leaning towards post-modernism uh... a conclusion that has been pretty much decided upon by the community of professional historians and rejected as even post-modern historians have acknowledged.
So this has been a really very interesting journey. It took me about five and a half years of working very, um, diligently towards this and where I think it is a new approach... where I would contend it is a new approach... is it does lay out a very detailed philosophy of history and historical method for weighing hypotheses. I think in a sense it is unprecedented when we’re discussing the historical question of Jesus’ Resurrection.
I also deal extensively with the issue of whether historians can investigate miracle claims. In fact, there is a debate that has been going on for the last three-plus years, four years, ah, in history and theory where they have had a couple of issues in fact a theme issue in 2006 was devoted to this very topic of whether historians were within their professional rights to investigate miracle claims. And so I deal with this at length within the dissertation or within the book, I should say, and I deal with the issue of Paul quite often in a more extensive way in terms of exegesis and, uh, what was his view of resurrection. And in there I do argue that Paul very clearly argues that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. He thought of resurrection as an event that occurred to the corpse.
And I spent a lot of time on numerous passages and have some groundbreaking work also on let’s say 1 Corinthians 15:44 where Paul says, “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body”. The Revised Standard Version and a few others say, “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” and so many scholars have said, “See Paul didn’t regard resurrection as a bodily event” and so I show where that’s wrong, where I do some ground-breaking event and um, citing all of the extant Greek literature from the eighth century before Christ up through the third century and the results of that.
And then of course I do weigh hypotheses – competing hypotheses – on what happened to Jesus using the historical method that I establish in Chapters One and Two so that’s where I think it does make... have a new historiographical approach in terms of being much more thorough and defined than has previously been done.
BA: So can you outline for me what your criteria are for weighing historical hypotheses?
ML: Sure and I’m not unique with these – these aren’t new thoughts that are given here. They were first outlined by C. B. McCullagh in his book, Justifying Historical Descriptions, where he lays out seven criteria for weighing hypotheses. Later on in The Logic of History he condensed them down to five. There have been numerous other historians who have talked about the same criteria. Sometimes they call them by different names, but there are many historians out there who’ve used these. I think Macaulay has just become more famous for these because he did them in a more methodical way than I have seen other historians do that. And I like McCullagh – I have to say he is probably, um, if not my most favourite, certainly one of my most favourite professional historians out there in terms of articulating his philosophy of history, so clear and thorough.
But the five I would give and I lay out five – they are a little bit different from the way McCullagh lays them out within his book, The Logic of History. The first would be Explanatory Scope, and this would measure the ability of a hypothesis to account for all of the known data – that would be the relevant data. So it is kind of like you have all these pieces of a jigsaw puzzle you want to use all of them and not leave some of them stranded because they don’t fit into your puzzle solution.
And then you have Explanatory Power and that has two components to it. The first would be, um, you want to be able to account for these facts without forcing them to fit. Kind of like putting a piece of the puzzle in there and you could force it to fit but you know it doesn’t go in that place.
The other component of Explanatory Power would be – you want to avoid excessive ambiguity, so a lot of times, due to a paucity of data within a hypothesis, you are going to have to leave some things unexplained or undefined, um, but the hypothesis that does this the most, leaves the most unexplained or undefined, would lack Explanatory Power so you want to avoid that.
A third would be what is called less ad hoc. When something is ad hoc that means it contains non-evidenced assumptions. So for example Michael Goulder, who is an agnostic biblical scholar, in his hypothesis of what happened to Jesus, he posits that Paul had had a very close Gentile friend while growing up and so after his conversion experience, that motivated him to reach the Gentiles because he had that friend.
Now of course, there is one major problem with that, and that is there is not a shred of evidence for it so that is an ad hoc component. You want to avoid that as much as possible. The more ad hoc components you have, the flimsier the hypothesis becomes.
A fourth criterion would be called plausibility and this would have to do with the quality of the hypothesis in terms of its ability to be in accord with other widely accepted facts.
And then a fifth one, which is more of a bonus in my judgement – some, like N T Wright, would put more emphasis on this but I look at it as more of a bonus criterion – and that is Illumination. So, does the hypothesis, if true, does it shed light on other issues that are being debated out there. So for example, if Jesus rose from the dead – let’s say that that’s true – that sheds light on the issue of Jesus’ claims to deity because if He did indeed rise from the dead well then, that would make perfect sense of why He claimed to be the uniquely divine Son of God and so I think it would shed some light on that and so it would pass the Illumination criterion.
So typically you know, just to be brief, I would just use the first four – the fifth is a bonus criterion in my judgement, it wouldn’t be the most important the criterion of Illumination -so I would mainly use the first four.
BA: Now you were talking there about Paul’s view of the Resurrection and how he saw it as the physical body being raised. Can you talk a little bit more about that and why emphasising Paul’s view is important?
ML: Sure. Some of this just seems so simple now in retrospect and I think scholars really complicate it. It is important of course because if you can get, like many critics like to do, to get Paul to say that Jesus – I’m sorry that our future resurrection, the future resurrection of believers as he outlines or articulates in First Corinthians 15 – if the future resurrection of believers is a spiritual, rather than a bodily event, then that means that he and the Jerusalem apostles would have thought of Jesus’ Resurrection as a spiritual rather than a bodily event. So um – and if you are looking at it as a non-bodily spiritual event, then that fits in far more comfortably with hallucinations than if you don’t have that - so this is something which is almost a requirement amongst biblical scholars who are critics that you have to take Paul on in this manner.
So I think the first thing we can do is recognise that on six occasions in Paul’s letters, he says that the way that we will be raised in the future was the way Jesus was raised. So like in Romans 8:11, he says “The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” or in Philippians 3:21 where he says that “We wait for a Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ who will transform our humble body to be conformed to His glorious one”, or let’s say 1 Corinthians 15:20 where it says that Christ is the “first-fruits” of those who are asleep. “First-fruits” here is an agricultural term referring to the first of the crops to be harvested, so Jesus is the first to be raised from the dead because those asleep are the dead.
So when are the others raised? When are believers raised? They are raised at the general resurrection because three verses later in 15:23, Paul writes “But each in his own order, Christ the first-fruits, then those who belong to Him at His coming” and the same thing is said in 1 Corinthians 15 verses 52 and 53 and 1 Thessalonians Chapter 4, verses 16 and 17 when he talks about the voice...” in the blink of an eye the voice of the Archangel will sound, the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised first and then we who are alive will be changed”.
So the dead are raised at the resurrection, at the second coming of Christ. So what happens to believers in the meantime? Well according to 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul says “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” and in Philippians 1:23 and 24, Paul says that he has one or two options – to die and be with Christ or to remain in the body – so the view that Paul presents is that when a person dies, a believer dies, their body is buried and their spirit leaves and goes and joins Jesus in Heaven and exists there with Jesus as a disembodied spirit. But at the Second Coming of Jesus, the person’s spirit will be reunited with their body, which will then be raised and transformed into an immortal, glorious, powerful body that is animated by the Holy Spirit.
So it’s a resurrection of the corpse, a resurrection transformation of the corpse, and if that is what’s going to happen in our future resurrection, then that means Jesus was raised in that sense, meaning His corpse was raised, it was something that happened to His corpse. It was a physical event that He was raised and transformed into a resurrection body. So we can say with certainty that Paul and the Jerusalem apostles believed in bodily resurrection.
Some of the ground-breaking stuff I’d say is when you look at the one verse – if you could cite just one verse that most sceptics appeal to – it would be 1 Corinthians 15:44, where the Revised Standard Version, the Amplified Bible, and I believe the New Jerusalem Bible, translate it as, “It is sown (meaning our bodies when they are buried) it is sown a physical body and it is raised a spiritual body”. Every other English translation renders that, “It is sown a natural body and it is raised a spiritual body”.
So I did a word study on those two terms in Greek: – φυσικός (fysikós) – for “natural/physical” and πνευματικός (pnev̱matikós) for “spiritual”. And I found that there were 1131 occurrences of the term, “spiritual”, from the eighth century before Christ to the third century – 1100 years. And of these, I found that “spiritual” was translated many different ways. It could mean “immaterial” or “ethereal” but it could also mean, um, as Zeno referred to the Stoics in the third century BC, as “spiritual people” um, that’s the way Paul uses it in 2 Corinthians 2:14, 15, “The natural man doesn’t understand the things of the spirit for they are spiritually discerned”. You need a spiritual man to do it. That doesn’t mean he is immaterial it just means he is connected, he is thinking along the lines of a spiritual, godly, Christ-centred world view.
But of particular interest is, and I think very devastating to the critic’s view, is that there are 846 occurrences of the term, “fysikós”, during those 1100 years and there is an explosion of the term in the first century BC and more of an explosion of the term in the first century when Christ lived. So this term was – it was ‘the’ term, it was the ‘in’ term – at that time. It was being used frequently and of those 846 occurrences... Brian – do you want to know how many times it means “physical”?
ML: Zero! I couldn’t find a single time when the term, “fysikós”, meant “physical”. Not one! Paul doesn’t use it in that way elsewhere. It’s not used that way throughout the New Testament. It’s not used that way in the Septuagint, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and not in Josephus, not in Philo, not in any writer in... from the eighth century BC through the third century that we have today. Not a single time! Which means that that translation “physical” verses “natural”, the “physical” translation, is no longer sustainable and if you don’t have it then that means that Paul is not contrasting a material, physical body with an immaterial, spiritual body. You can’t use that any longer.
BA: Let’s say someone’s a novice and they are approaching the resurrection – they are looking at the historical evidence for the first time – what sort of resources would you recommend for them to get into?
ML: Well, if they are looking for the first time, I would recommend the book Gary and I wrote, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus because this lays things out in a very simple state, um, we have informational end notes, so if a person doesn’t want to get too bogged down, they can go to the... they can just read the text and not worry about the end notes. If they want to get more detail, they can go to the endnotes. We have charts in there to simplify things. We have an index in the back that um – I should say an appendix – that lays out a summary of everything that we discuss in terms of the evidence for the resurrection, provides all of the references we use at a glance and then there is some software in the back that provides a game for PCs.
It is a simulated television game show with a three-dimensional animated game show host who’s pretty funny and he helps you master the information in the book. So that would be I think a good start, if a person was just getting starting, they were a novice, that would be a really good start for them.
BA: Now after they have read that then what sort of direction would you point them?
ML: Well, I would say, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope by Gary Habermas. It’s a short book but it gives us some of his most current research on, um, you know, where scholars fall in a number of different areas, some of it at a glance. Bill Craig’s book, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. It’s an excellent book. It’s quite expensive, it will run a person about $150 or $160 but if they really want to get into this topic of the resurrection, it’s a “must have” on your shelf. And of course The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N T Wright. I think his greatest contribution in that book would be, um, his discussion – very lengthy discussion, about 500 pages – of views of the afterlife in antiquity. He does a great job on that. So I think those would be some excellent books to carry on a person’s research.
BA: Can you describe, just real briefly, the approach you take in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus? Your ‘minimal facts’ approach and how you find that that’s useful.
ML: Sure. This is an approach that was developed by Gary Habermas and it has evolved over the years to take on a couple of different ‘faces’ if you will. It started by him saying, “OK, there’s a lot of different discussions about the resurrection but here are twelve facts that are agreed upon by virtually all scholars or, not virtually, but by the majority of scholars who study the subject, including sceptical ones”.
And so he’d list those twelve and then he says you can build a very strong case for the resurrection based on these twelve. But then he went on to say, “Well, you know, I don’t even need these twelve. I can build a very strong case for the resurrection based on just a few of these – three, four or five of them”, and this is what he called the ‘minimal facts’ argument.
So he said...started off he said, “You know, just choose any three to five of these and I’ll work with these and build a case for the resurrection of Jesus”. So then that started over time to change a little bit to say, OK, well instead of talking about those facts that are agreed upon by the majority of scholars, let’s talk – because majority is 51% you could say – let’s talk about only those facts that are granted by virtually 100%, by 90% to 100% of all scholars. And there he came up with four facts. If you’d say 70% to 75% of all scholars, or more, then you’d have five facts, ‘cause then you’d throw in the empty tomb.
So we did 75% or more scholars who agree on the subject and came up with our five facts. And so we based our argument for the resurrection based on those five facts and said you build a really strong case for it using just those.
BA: We won’t go into those at the moment, but do you tend to encounter a lot of the same objections to the case you make for the resurrection whether it be fallacies, or red-herrings, or canned responses? What do you think is the most common error that, say, a sceptic, would make in his criticisms?
ML: Well, I do encounter a lot of the same sorts of objections as you say, um, some of the most common that I’m finding today, would be... um, one of them would be red-herrings in terms of issues with the Gospels, um, you know, Gary and I have been talking about the ‘minimal facts’ approach and more recently with my doctoral research I’ve been moved to look in a different direction, um, it’s very similar but saying listen, I’m only going to go with those facts that are agreed upon by most or virtually all scholars. So I’ll just do three facts. I won’t include the empty tomb. Gary likes to include James and say 90% to 100%. I won’t even use James and say I think we can do it just on three, which is based on 100%.
And then more recently I’m even throwing in a second tier kind of, or a second level fact, and that would be the bodily resurrection of Jesus and saying I’m not even going to do ‘minimal facts’ with just those three, I’m just going to go ahead and argue for what I believe is fairly clear in the New Testament, that Jesus was raised bodily, um, so when I talk about, and I use Paul, ah just using Paul now, and that was a way I went with Richard Carrier in our last debate that occurred in February (last month) um, so I just used Paul, so I tried to make it simple in that way.
I like to keep it as simple as possible, well then if you’re building your case for the resurrection on Paul, or as Gary and I had in the past on ‘minimal facts’ well then it really is irrelevant if the Gospels had any contradictions in them, or who wrote them or when they were written because we’re not basing our case on those or we’re, when we do, we base it on things that can be um, established when the criterion, certain criterion for authenticity are satisfied.
So um, you know, you have a lot of other ancient sources out there that have problems, and we don’t say, “Well, they’re useless”, um, so I think these are just red-herrings. Bart Ehrman is famous for these and um, so I think that when you point out that these are red-herrings – “Hey, I haven’t even based my argument... my case for the resurrection of Jesus isn’t dependent on the inerrancy of the Bible... it’s not even based on the Gospel stuff at some points, then um it’s useless for you to argue against the Gospels”, so I think that is one of the common errors.
I think one other I would name would be the burden of proof that many sceptics require and you know I got thinking from the recent debate with Richard Carrier - we had a good debate, it was a pleasant debate. I think we both really enjoyed it – that’ll probably be posted online in a month or so, um, at one point in that debate he said, “So what do you think I’m missing?” and caught me off-guard.
You know the first thing... sometimes, you know, hindsight’s always better – you think a little bit more clearly of what the question actually was and you know I think I messed up a little bit in that debate insofar as when he was asking the question maybe I was even answering a different question than he was asking because I thought he was asking a different question based on what I was anticipating he’d ask during my research – I’d have to go back and watch the debate. But at one point he asked me “What do you think I’m missing?” I forgot what my answer was but in going back and thinking of that, I would say, “Rick, I think your burden of proof, your epistemological approach to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, I think is flawed”, and the reason I would say that is because it’s like there is nothing that could happen that would convince a person that Jesus rose from the dead. They work it out in such a way that you couldn’t possibly prove it and if Rick – as I think as most people who read any of his stuff or are familiar with it would know that - he seriously questions whether Jesus even existed.
Well, this isn’t even a live discussion amongst professional historians and biblical scholars because the evidence for it is so good. Now, he would take issue with that but if you are going to question the very existence of Jesus – again a position that is not embraced by any widely respected scholar in the world today – well then of course you are going to question whether Jesus rose from the dead. There is nothing that is going to be able to convince you that He rose, if you’re not even convinced that He ever existed.
So I think amongst many hyper or uber-sceptics, like a Rick Carrier, like a Bob Price, like a lot of people who are regularly on the internet who aren’t scholars, like an Earl Doherty or a “Acharya S” (or D M Murdock) – these folks their burden of proof is just far too heavy to ever be met by anything in antiquity much less the resurrection. So I think that this is one of the flaws that they have in their approaches and the objections they bring.
BA: What do you think is the strongest case against, say, maybe one of the ‘minimal facts’ or do you think there is a particular argument against the resurrection that’s strongest?
ML: You know, in terms of arguments against the ‘minimal facts’, I don’t know that there is a strong case – any decent case against that. You know you have people on the internet saying, “Well, scholars really don’t believe this” and it just shows that they are not reading the literature because if you have a good grasp of the literature and you are actually reading you know hundreds of books and journal articles, it becomes pretty clear that these are the things that scholars do agree upon. You don’t even have to take a bean count – Gary has – but you wouldn’t even have to take a bean count and it becomes very clear to you.
In terms of what I think might be the toughest case against the resurrection and I don’t think it’s that tough – but um, I would think it is more of an agnosticism to say that, um, “Yeah the evidence...” kind of like what Antony Flew took when he said, “Yep, the evidence for the resurrection is pretty decent but you know you just....” He said I just don’t see these kinds of things happening in the world, um, my worldview doesn’t really allow me to believe this.
This is something that Richard Swinburne said as well in his response to the first Habermas-Flew debate. He said, “You know, yeah, I can’t answer these things Habermas has brought up but.....”. No, I’m sorry Charles Hart saw him, not Richard Swinburne of course, but Charles Hart saw him and said, “You know, I can’t answer Habermas’ arguments, but my metaphysical bias is against resurrections”.
So you know we can appreciate this kind of agnosticism, um, but the type of pseudo-history that we often see, um, biblical scholars do and say, “See this is what happened”, like a Gerd Ludemann, I think Rick Carrier does a pseudo type of history, it’s not very sound, um, of the type Michael Goulder does. I just don’t think these are sound historical approaches to the resurrection of Jesus.
So again I can appreciate and respect the agnosticism due to the worldview beliefs, but it’s hard to give the same kind of respect to the type of pseudo history that we do see performed out there by many biblical scholars.
BA: And I guess that someone can always just say, “Well, I’m just not convinced and if it’s something that important then God should have made it so much more clear for me”. You know, where is the starting point with an individual who just is entrenched and said, “Well, I’m just not convinced!”?
ML: Right – everybody is going to have their different burden of proof but you know, like someone who doesn’t believe that Jesus ever existed, um, you know their burden of proof is going to be extraordinarily high. So if they’re an atheist who doesn’t believe that Jesus ever existed, well, then you’ve got to prove God’s existence and you’ve got to prove that Jesus existed. But as one fellow of the Jesus Seminar, the editor for “The Fourth R”, which is their Journal, um, the Westar Institute um, they were offered $5,000 if they would devote an issue to the “Jesus Myth” question and allow Earl Doherty to write an article saying that Jesus was a myth.
And the editor wrote back and said, “No, we wouldn’t be interested in that. That’s not a living discussion amongst scholars today” and I generally find that if a person doesn’t believe Jesus ever existed that no amount of evidence is ever going to convince them of the contrary, so, um, they are going to have an unreasonable, irrational burden of proof in my judgement.
So, um, but you’ll have some others who will just say, “Well, you know, I’d really like it if He appeared to me today”. Well, I would too but you know we don’t base our life and our decisions on such a burden of proof. We would look for, in history, what is the best evidence, what is the best explanation of the historical data that we have on our hands today and if that strongly suggests that Jesus rose from the dead, then the theological implications of that would be strong.
Now of course, we’d all like someone – the Risen Jesus – to appear to us; I’d like that too but I’m not going to put aside the historical conclusion just because God hasn’t answered my desire that He appear to me. I just think that that is not a rational way to go about things.
BA: Now earlier when we were talking before you mentioned how you had doubts about the text of the New Testament and stuff. Now how has studying the resurrection do you think has affected your relationship with God?
ML: Yes, the resurrection of Jesus – my research into it – has definitely helped my faith and resolved a lot of doubts, um, and a lot of that was due to because I know... you know, I have problems as a “second-guesser”! My wife makes fun of me at times because there are so many things – just stupid little decisions – that, um, I second-guess them all the time.
So it’s not just my own faith that I second guess, it’s everything, um, and so for me to go through this and having questioned my faith on a number of occasions – very seriously questioned it especially this most recent time – I knew that I had to do this with the greatest amount of integrity that I could muster in terms of bracketing my biases and my desired outcome while I performed my investigation.
And so I can say with a clear conscience that I did work on this with deliberate and sustained effort at bracketing my bias and because I was able to come to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead and see that when you apply controlled historical method to this, clearly defined and controlled historical method, you find that the resurrection hypothesis is by far the best explanation.
So if I have any lingering doubts it isn’t because of the historical evidence, it’s just because it’s like “Wow” – this – it just seems too good to be true that the God of the universe loves me so much that He actually died for my sins and rose from the dead, but I have to acknowledge that’s not an intellectual objection, it’s an emotional one, and it’s important to distinguish between those two.
BA: If someone is having doubts and they begin to study the resurrection what sort of advice would you give them?
ML: Read, read a lot. Watch debates – there’s plenty of them on the Internet. Virtually all of mine are on there, where I debate on the resurrection. And I don’t know that you can watch William Lane Craig’s debates on there but you can probably purchase them I’m sure at his website, www.reasonablefaith.org, but you can purchase those and those are really good.
A lot of Gary Habermas’ debates on the resurrection are online – I happen to believe he is probably the leading authority in the world on this subject – Gary Habermas. And whether it is audio or interviews that he has had or lectures or debates or videos, that would be on his website, www.garyhabermas.com I would watch and listen to those and get a hold of as many resources as possible from those who are leaders on this subject.
And see what the sceptics are saying and weigh through these and try to get past the rhetoric and look at the arguments and say “Now are these decent arguments?” and learn from those and then engage in discussions with these but be an avid reader, an avid listener and watcher on this subject and read and do as much study on it as you can.
And you’ll find it’s a lot of fun. I mean, I’ll be studying the resurrection of Jesus for the rest of my life. There’s so much related to it and it’s a lot of fun and I do believe it is the foundation of Christianity and happens to be the strongest evidence we have for the truth of Christianity and for... yeah, for the truth of our Christian faith.
BA: Now let’s say you’re talking to the next generation of apologists and they want to be able to deal with the topic of the resurrection. How should they go about equipping themselves to be able to defend it rightly?
ML: Just read as much as you can on the subject. Those books on it – I’d start off with the basic book, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus that Gary Habermas and I wrote. And then I would go to things such as The Resurrection of the Son of God by N T Wright, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historical Reliability of the Resurrection of Jesus, by William Lane Craig, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope by Gary Habermas – not necessarily in that order either – but reading those, watching debates on the resurrection of Jesus by Gary, by Bill and by myself – those can really provide a lot of information and resources for the person who wants to do this.
And then I would do some, you know, get involved if you want to go further, get involved in some Master’s Degrees and Doctoral Programs where - in New Testament or Philosophy - where you can specialise in the resurrection. There are numerous other topics that could be studied within this, so um, there’s a lot of room out there; this is not a territorial thing.
It is beautiful about the world of apologetics, um, there’s not people out there with these huge egos; we’re all out there willing to help others as long as time permits – you just have to be willing to work hard and to get involved in – man, we’d just love to see people get involved in and get going. You won’t be pushed out unless you act really weird!
BA: Now, about the North American Mission Board. Can you tell us a little bit about that – what sort of opportunities it offers for people interested in apologetics?
ML: Sure. As I mentioned at the beginning of our program, we’re part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in North America, and we assist in building churches – starting churches that is – and sharing Christ with others and sending missionaries. That’s kind of what the North American Mission Board does here in North America. The International Mission Board does the same thing for the Southern Baptist Convention overseas.
So what I do – I don’t plant churches and send missionaries or things like that - but what I do is I put my apologetics resources so they can go to our website www.4truth.net - that’s the numeral 4, not four but the actual numeral 4truth.net – and that provides what we think is one of the best apologetics websites out there. We’ve got over – I don’t know, 170 articles, in five languages, we have interviews, audio interviews with some great scholars and scientists, we have posted my debates on there, we’ve got other videos – we’ve got some good stuff on the site. We get about 20,000 unique visitors a month from 50 countries and territories is what our average is at that point and that number continues to increase and, so those are our free resources that we have out there.
We do have a program called the Certified Apologetics Instructor program or CAI and that program is for Southern Baptists, I wanted to make it available to all but my superiors said, no, you’re denominational worker, just make it available for Southern Baptists. And for that, what we do is we provide program – and basically anybody can do this, we just won’t certify you as a CAI but you can go through the same training because we just partner with other entities, such as Biola University, they have a Certificate in Christian Apologetics and it is the equivalent of two graduate level courses in apologetics that they can take in their spare time, distance learning, and then we put them through what is called the Dynamic Communicator’s Workshop (DCW) – that’s put on by Ken Davis, you can read about that at www.kendavis.com – and that’s an intense four day workshop where, it’s like a boot camp for professional public speaking and it’s very, very intense and you learn a ton of stuff.
After that, they put together a practicum of ten PowerPoint presentations on apologetics using the communication process that they learned at DCW and then they keep a log of the next 30 talks they give, using any of those PowerPoint presentations.
So the end result is they are pretty good public speakers, they know their stuff fairly well and they have ten pretty polished talks that they’re giving and then they have to get three letters of recommendation from people who are aware of their ministry and can vouch that they are of good, clean character and are effective at what they do and at that point we credential them. If someone out there wants to learn more about it, they can go to www.4truth.net/cai
One other thing about 4truth.net I would say is if they want to learn how to answer a sceptic like Bart Ehrman on the Gospels then we’ve produced a four video series with discussion questions all of which are available for free download at www.4truth.net/ehrman.
BA: Well great. Mike, I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to speak with me today.
ML: Oh, my pleasure Brian.