"I've been at major universities where the Resurrection topic got standing room only," said Gary Habermas, a scholar at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. A few years ago, more than 1,500 people turned out to hear him debate a well-known atheist in California, he said.
Nearly two millennia after the apostles first spread news of this seminal event in Christian history, scholars still cogitate over the Resurrection. Books and articles exploring every Gospel jot and title cram bookshelves. And films exploring Jesus' life and death draw millions of viewers.
Earlier this month, more than 4 million people tuned in to watch a Discovery Channel documentary purporting to have found evidence of Jesus' bones in a Jerusalem tomb, according to Nielsen Media research ratings.
But Jesus' Resurrection, celebrated each Easter by 2 billion Christians worldwide, attracts attention even without multimedia spectacles, scholars and academics say. And while polls show that a vast majority of Christians think Jesus physically rose from the dead, there are enough who believe he didn't to stoke a lively and long-lasting debate.
"It's the center of Christianity," said Habermas, who's written 15 books on the Resurrection. "Those who think it happened literally, those who say it's not literal and those who are not positive--all would say the Resurrection is the center of Christianity."
St. Paul wrote: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."
Most Americans concur. Various polls show that 65 percent to 80 percent of Americans believe Jesus--body and soul--rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. Academic circles have trended the same way recently, according to Habermas, who studied more than 1,400 scholarly works published on the subject since 1975.
Still, Gnostic ideas about bodiless resurrections refuse to die.
Is Easter Historical or Metaphorical?
High-profile liberals like retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, N.J., dispute the idea that Jesus literally rose from the dead. In his most recent book, "Jesus for the Non-Religious," Spong argues that "to literalize Easter has become the defining heresy of traditional Protestant and Catholic Christianity."
The Resurrection is profoundly real, Spong said in an interview. Nothing else could explain why skittish apostles suddenly became steadfast martyrs for the faith. But it's a mistake to read Gospel accounts of a risen Jesus walking and eating literally, he said.
"A human can't explain a God-experience any more than a horse can explain a human experience," Spong said.
So the Gospel writers resorted to what they had in hand--mythological language--to describe the Resurrection, Spong said.
"People don't realize the Bible was never written to be history," he said.
John Dominic Crossan, a Roman Catholic and a former professor at DePaul University, said Jesus' Resurrection is best understood as a metaphor, a belief that puts him squarely at odds with his own church.
Saying the Resurrection "is a metaphor doesn't dismiss it," Crossan said. "I get the message, I get the challenge from the metaphor."
But a metaphor misses the mark, said Paul Molnar, a professor of theology at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y. Molnar, a Roman Catholic, recently completed a book on how prominent Christian theologians like Karl Barth and Karl Rahner interpreted the Resurrection.
To say Jesus' bodily Resurrection is a metaphor "is to lose the reality of God in the world," Molnar said.
"Gnosticism has been a threat to Christian belief and understanding since the beginning and remains so today," Molnar said, adding that he wrote his book to counter the ideas of liberal theolgians who argue for a bodiless Resurrection.
Where you stand on the Resurrection tends to mirror how you interpret the Bible, said Stephen T. Davis, a professor of philosophy at California's Claremont McKenna College. Davis himself believes in the bodily resurrection, though he acknowledges there are some seemingly contradictory New Testament accounts of the event.
"Some are easy and some I don't know how to reconcile," said Davis, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). "They were different stories that got talked about and talked about, so its not surprising there would have been some discrepancies. But there's tremendous agreement on the basic facts."
Any discrepancies can be "eliminated by a straight-up reading of the text," said James Emery White, dean of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school in South Hamilton, Mass.
"There's no sense that any of the earliest followers had the remotest sense that this was metaphorical," White said. "To say that is revisionist history and theology at its most absurd."