Unpopular opinion time: I’m not a fan of the minimal facts argument for the resurrection. I don’t think it works, and it might even do more harm than good. I know this is a rather spicy take. And I understand people who absolutely love minimal facts might want to click away. But hang on a second! I used to love this argument, too. So put down your torch and pitchforks for just a moment. Hear me out for a few minutes!
When I first got into apologetics, I came across Gary Habermas’ popular talk “The resurrection argument that changed a generation of scholars.” I was blown away. I bought Habermas and Licona’s popular level book and committed the argument to memory. Later I devoured Licona’s longer, more academic work. And I binge-watched tons of debates that involved Habermas, Licona and others on the topic.
After learning the argument, I eagerly shared the minimal facts whenever the opportunity came up. But I often found that it didn’t get me very far with my skeptical friends and I’d end up frustrated. At first, I figured it was just their own stubborn skepticism and not the argument itself. But now I can actually empathize with their skepticism.
What is the minimal facts approach?
Let’s back up and explain what the argument is. Habermas and Licona say: “[the minimal facts approach] considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.” (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p 44) This must be a high majority, something like 90% or higher. What do these facts include?
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- Shortly afterward, the disciples experienced what they believed to be the resurrected Jesus.
- A few years later, Paul also believed he experienced the resurrected Jesus.
Why do scholars agree to these facts? In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul passes on a creed he probably received from the Jerusalem church. It reads: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5)
In the next verses, Paul also mentions appearances to himself, James and 500 unnamed people. Scholars say this creed dates back 1-3 years after the crucifixion. This is a debatable point, but it doesn’t matter much to what I’m talking about here. From this data, Habermas concludes “Jesus’ disciples had experiences that they believed were appearances of the resurrected Jesus.” The famous skeptical NT scholar Bart Ehrman agrees, saying “We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that… he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. p. 230-231)
Are resurrection appearances a minimal fact? Yes and no
Wow. If even Ehrman is on board, that must mean this is amazing historical data, right? Well, yes and no. It’s amazing in the sense that the creed tells us what the disciples believed from the start. Resurrection belief isn’t based on a late-developing legend. And James’ conversion is fascinating considering that he was Jesus’ sibling. It would probably take a lot to convince your brother that you’re the Messiah! So I’m not saying the creed has no value whatsoever. But here’s the big problem. What does the creed tell us about the nature of the appearances? Not much.
The Gospels give us a walking, talking Jesus who eats with people and invites them to touch him, especially in Luke and John. The majority of scholars do not acknowledge those kinds of appearances. Rather, they explicitly deny them and label these stories as late embellishments. So yes, it’s sort of true that these academics that are counted in Habermas’ survey may acknowledge resurrection appearances. But 90%+ don’t acknowledge that they were physical in nature like we see in the Gospels. We need to be careful not to equivocate here.
So for example, in Mike Licona’s big book on the resurrection, he writes: “Historians may conclude that subsequent to Jesus’ execution, a number of his followers had experiences, in individual and group settings, that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in some manner.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Kindle Location 3759) Notice how carefully that’s worded:“in some manner.”
Minimal facts are too minimal
As philosopher Lydia McGrew points out, we could say that the minimal facts are compatible with appearances that could be extremely limited in nature. So for example, a floating Jesus who says nothing is compatible with the minimal facts. A Jesus who suddenly appears and says “all is well” and then disappears after 10 seconds is compatible with the minimal facts.
Vague, fleeting, appearances aren’t all that evidentially convincing. And a floating Jesus would not make us think Jesus rose from the dead, rather that they saw some kind of apparition. And that’s the Achilles heel of the minimal facts argument: It is very difficult to evaluate the rationality of the disciples’ beliefs when we aren’t able to describe in detail their experiences. There’s a lot we’d like to know that this simple creed doesn’t give us. It wasn’t meant to.
To illustrate, let’s say you’re outside talking with your neighbor. Maybe you mentioned that you had a distant relative recently pass away, and the subject moves onto life after death. Your neighbor then tells you that their dead relative appeared to them. They proceed to tell you that at the risk of sounding crazy, they believe that their relative was raised from the dead. But suddenly they’re interrupted by their kids needing help, and the conversation comes to an abrupt end. You never get the details. Your neighbor ends up moving away soon afterward. You never get closure on the conversation. Did this dead relative speak to them? What did they hear or see? Did they get to physically touch them? You never get to find out.
Would you conclude that they were justified in thinking their relative was resurrected from the dead? No, you’d either conclude maybe they had a grief hallucination or something else was wrong with them. Or maybe you conclude the world is a weirder place than you imagined and that they saw something paranormal. Or you might just throw your hands up and say I don’t know what really happened there.
What about group appearances?
Now you might be saying “yeah, but Paul mentions group appearances, to the 12 and the 500!” Sure, but most scholars don’t grant group appearance in the sense that the average Christian apologist on the street might think. They can easily suggest a combination of suggestion and pareidolia. This is a phenomenon in which a person sees something unusual and points it out to others. These other people, upon knowing what to look for, will consciously or unconsciously convince themselves to notice the apparition, and will, in turn, point it out to others. There are plenty of things we know that are like this involving large groups of people, like some reports of Marian apparitions.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a terrible explanation for the resurrection hypothesis. But can we effectively get around that simply by using minimal facts? No, not really. This is what I’d run into all the time in discussions with skeptics. The minimal facts don’t really move the needle that much. I’d argue that we can’t use them in a way that would give enough weight for a skeptic to change their mind and commit their life to Christ.
You can’t do it all through Paul. We need the Gospels!
We are going to need the “touch me and see” risen Jesus we find in the Gospels to do that. But the minimal facts apologist has already conceded for the sake of argument that the Gospels don’t need to be reliable to make their case. This gives the false impression to both believers and nonbelievers that they’re dubious sources. And that’s extremely problematic!
We’re going to have to man up and defend the Gospels and Acts, which tell us that “After Jesus’ suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3)
I don’t care if that goes against the grain of the consensus of scholars, because as it turns out, scholarly consensus is not the best way to discover so-called historical bedrock. In short, the minimal facts argument seems to conflate sociology with epistemology. And that will be the topic of my next video as I continue this series. Lord willing by the end of this series, I hope to show you what I believe is a better way going forward. This topic is too important to get wrong!
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.