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.
I think they did believe in that message, but they believed more. There are a lot of people who have preached love through the centuries. They believed in Jesus because he returned from the dead and thus authenticated his claim to being the son of God. That's at the core of the preaching of the early church in the Book of Acts.
What are your thoughts on more liberal Christians who say you can be Christian without believing in a literal resurrection?
I would say that the apostle Paul is probably closer to the scene then they are. He's the one who said, "if the resurrection is not true, then we're to be pitied." I think belief in the resurrection is warranted by the evidence. I don't know on what basis a person might reject it or water it down and say, "I'm going to believe in Christianity, but I'm going to be skeptical about the resurrection."
Many people have a hard time believing in things that seem physically impossible--that seem against the laws of physics or biology.
It's really a worldview issue. If a person believes that all there is in the universe is material stuff, then the idea that Jesus returned from the dead is absurd. If a person's worldview allows for the fact that God created the universe--and I think the findings of modern cosmology and physics point strongly in that direction--then for God to raise his son from the dead is child's play.
I would say if the evidence of history points toward a supernatural event like the resurrection, we ought to be willing to consider that possibility.
What is your response to people who say the resurrection should be understood metaphorically, as symbolizing the possibility of rebirth?
I think what the historical record establishes is that the earliest church believed that Jesus physically returned from the dead. That's a core belief of the Christian faith. You can't get away from the centrality of the resurrection to his message.
What does the resurrection mean to you personally?
It gives me hope that as Jesus was resurrected from the dead, so I will someday be too. It gives me confidence in the teachings of Jesus, that I can apply them to my life, that they'll make a difference in my life. They're not just the teachings of a bright and loving individual; they're the teachings of the son of God himself. It means to me that Jesus deserves my worship and my allegiance. It also means that I want to spend my life helping other people see the evidence for the resurrection, that they too may experience what I've experienced, which is a 180-degree life change from my days as an atheist, to my days as a Christian.
There isn't one aspect of my life that isn't different. My worldview, my philosophy, my attitudes, my relationships, my parenting, my marriage--everything has been transformed by my relationship with Christ. Every decision I make, every moral choice that I select, every relationship that I have is all centered around my best understanding of how Jesus would want me to live in that moment.
I look back at a life as an atheist, which for me--I'm not saying this is true of all atheists--was a life of hedonism and self-destruction and immorality and drunkenness. It was an ugly life. Today I have a life that is full of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. I'm still light years away from where I should be, but I see growth in each of those areas.
One of the things I do every year at the beginning of every year is take those fruits of the spirit and grade myself. I say: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control--on each one of those, where am I today compared to last year? I use it as a grid.
Do you actually assign numbers?
Yeah. I assign a 1-10 scale and I pull out the previous year's. I say, last year I think I was a more loving person. Or a less gentle person, I need to grow in that area, I need to grow in self-control and so forth.
It's a great exercise. It brings you to a point of repentance.
You said that Jesus' resurrection gives you hope that you yourself will rise. What are your thoughts on whether American Christians really believe that?
Well, different Christian denominations take different views. But I think Jesus opened heaven for us and that those who were his followers will spend eternity with him. As a Christian, I have confidence that because Jesus rose from the dead, we will someday too.
A lot of people say, "my soul will go to heaven"--they don't mention their body that much. Why do you think Christian theology has emphasized that it's not just your soul going to heaven--that something will also happen with your body?
Part of that goes back to the resurrection of Jesus himself. Because it was a physical event I think we can have confidence that our resurrection will be physical as well.
Why isn't the soul good enough? Why does it have to be the body?
God created the soul, he also created the body. Centuries ago [some] saw the body itself as being evil and the soul as being good and they drew a distinction there that I don't think is warranted by the Bible. God created our bodies, he created our souls so it makes sense to me that we would have an eternal experience that would involve both.