You've been praised for making a "Case for Christ" based on our modern legal system--offering evidence and so forth. Yet some criticize attempts to investigate the resurrection--traditionally considered a matter of faith--in a more journalistic or legal way. What is your response to such critics?
I think it's very healthy to use journalistic and legal techniques to investigate the evidence for and against Christianity and other faith systems.
My definition of faith is a step of trust we take in the same direction the evidence is pointing. It's important that our trust is based on a rational understanding of what the evidence is in support of what we believe. Christianity is a very historical religion-it makes specific claims that are open to testing.
Your definition of faith is interesting. If there's no evidence for a particular widely-held Christian belief, is that a problem?
Well, there are certain tenets of Christianity that have less historical support than others. But I think the central core of Christianity is well supported by historical data. If we can have confidence in the central thrust of the Christian message--the life, the teachings, the miracles, the death and the resurrection of Jesus--that provides us with a core of belief that we can build our faith on.
I was thinking of heaven and the afterlife. It's true that some people report near-death experiences and speak of heaven-like encounters, but here's not a huge mound of evidence about it.
We have an authority who did die and come back, and that was Jesus. He has certain teachings about heaven and the afterlife. So if it is true that Jesus claimed to be the son of God, and I believe there's good historical evidence that he did, and if it is true that he authenticated that claim by returning from the dead, and again, I think there's good evidence that he did, then I think he's qualified as an expert in the area of the afterlife.
He's an expert witness on heaven.
Exactly! Even though we may not have a lot of direct evidence for it, we do have someone who has the credentials to give us insights we can rely upon.
What do you think is the best evidence for the resurrection?
I believe that the evidence of history does point in the direction of the truth of the resurrection. Number one is the empty tomb of Jesus--everybody agreed in the ancient world that the tomb of Jesus was empty. The question is, how did it get empty? The Christians claimed that Jesus returned from the dead. The counterclaim was presented that the disciples stole the body, even though they lacked motive and an opportunity. I don't think that's credible.
Could their motive have been that they wanted people to think he had been raised?
I don't think that they would be willing to suffer deprivation and death to support a claim that they knew was false.
I don't think they had the motive or the opportunity to steal the body. Nor do I think they would make the false claim that Jesus returned from the dead because it meant that they would suffer and die for that claim. I don't think people are generally willing to knowingly and willingly die for a lie.
Also, you have the added feature of the empty tomb being discovered by women. Women in first-century Jewish culture were not given credibility in a court of law; their testimony was not considered reliable. So why [do the gospel writers] say that women discovered the tomb empty, even though it hurts their case in the view of their audience? I believe it's because they were trying to accurately record what actually took place.
He encountered 515 individuals--including people whose lives were changed 180 degrees, from being opposed to Jesus to being supporters of Jesus, because of their encounter with the resurrected Christ.
Not only the gospels and not only the Book of Acts, not only Paul's references, but even preceding that, the apostle Paul preserves for us a creed that was recited by the earliest Christians that contains the fundamentals of Christianity-that Jesus died, why? For our sin. That he was buried, that he was resurrected on the third day. This creed has been dated back by scholars from a wide range of theological beliefs to as early as 2-3 years after the life of Jesus.
Here is a creed that emerges so quickly that it couldn't have been the product of legendary development. [It's] not the product of people over long periods of time attributing things to Jesus that didn't really happen.
Finally, you have the changed lives of the disciples. You've got people who were willing to die for their conviction that Jesus returned from the dead.