Skeptics theorize that “good, old-fashioned lying and embellishment” better account for the Gospel stories of disciples experiencing something during the Resurrection of Christ. They don’t believe these people experienced a genuinely resurrected Jesus, especially considering certain statements made in the Gospel of John. (There are variations in the Gospel accounts and John’s account doesn’t always align with Matthew, Mark and Luke.) Skeptics thus conclude that Dr. Gary Habermas’ minimal facts argument of the Resurrection is nowhere near as persuasive as Habermas claims.
Habermas is a scholar who states there are minimal historical facts that all credible historians agree upon regarding the events of the death of Jesus Christ (see my blog on those facts here).
Let’s examine the challenge that the disciples lied about the stories in the Gospels.
Hard to Believe in Miracles Today
Now I get it. There are stories in the Gospels that are, frankly, hard to believe, with the biggest one being the Resurrection of Christ(1 Corinthians 15, Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20).
It’s been over two-thousand years since these stories were recorded. Since then, we’ve been taught that there are historical myths and legends that developed to explain things because people weren’t as “enlightened” as we are today. We have advanced in the sciences so much that we certainly don’t have to ‘make up’ stories for why things are the way they are today. We have science to answer that, right? At least that’s what we’ve been taught.
That causes the tendency to be biased against anything supernatural. Modern technology has us plugged into our own reality which convinces us that we’ve created our own miracles, so to speak. So, it’s understandable why many people in the 21stcentury think believing in what the Bible says is foolishness.
Think Like a Detective
One such person went as far to try and prove the foolishness of the Gospels. His name is J. Warner Wallace, author of Cold Case Christianity.1 Wallace is a cold case detective who applied his tools of investigating cold-case murders (cases where there’s no hard evidence because too much time has passed) to the testimonies of the eye-witness accounts in the New Testament. Having decades of experience listening and analyzing eye-witnesses, Wallace is an expert on what makes testimonies credible.
To gather facts objectively, you need to think like a detective, formulate what is reasonable and acknowledge that there are interesting contrasts between what is “possible” and what is “reasonable,” he says.
Wallace investigates the question of whether truth can be proved beyond a “reasonable doubt” when all the evidence is circumstantial. Direct evidence can prove something by itself, like an eyewitness testimony. Circumstantial (indirect) evidence doesn’t prove something on its own but points us to the right direction.
As he read the Gospels, Wallace would ask himself these questions: were they trustworthy? Were they at the scene of the events of the resurrection? Can these observations be verified? What were their motives? These are all important questions that need to be answered by any witness.
Wallace says that any eyewitness account will have variations in them, as people see things differently. Perspectives are personal and can be messy, as the Gospel testimonies show in their idiosyncrasies. Does this mean that they’re not reliable? No. The eyewitness accounts of the disciples can be reliable despite apparent contradictions because people don’t see or hear things exactly the same, and the differences are not that important or change the Biblical events significantly. Matter of fact, if the Gospels were exactly the same, skeptics would then claim they are merely copies of each other, not individual accounts. So variations actually help to make the case for credibility.
Changes in the Texts
The original New Testament autographs, written on papyrus, fell apart because the material the documents were written on wasn’t archival. Scribes then devoted their lives to making precise copies repeatedly of the scriptures.
Were Scribes perfect? No. Additions in the Biblical accounts have been noted to occur in several texts of the New Testament. Skeptics have pointed to these additions as reasons to conclude the unreliability of the eyewitness accounts, saying that if these additions are fiction, how much more in the gospels are false?
It’s possible that in the copies scribes may have occasionally embellished the stories to make something clearer, or to add some detail known to the scribe but omitted by the apostle (like the added ending of Mark or the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11). All the known variations are dutifully noted in credible study bibles.
Those additions don’t change anything biblically. According to Wallace, you can still discern evidence to make a truth statement about Christ and the biblical accounts by focusing on the evidence. No change has effected the earliest manuscripts that document the central claims of the Bible. These things don’t make the Gospel accounts false. (For more details on why this Bible is reliable, read my post here.)
Other Ancient Documents
Seldom do historians hold the same level of inquiry for other ancient documents as they do the New Testament. Herodotus and Thucydides, for example, were Greek ancient historians and lived in the 4th and 5th century BC. The earliest copies we have of these historians’ work appear in history approximately 500 years after the events they describe. This is typical of the vast majority of ancient historical accounts.
In contrast, the earliest copies we have of the New Testament appear within decades after the events they record. One small fragment of the Gospel of John, for example, was found to be dated to approximately 128 A.D. Keeping in mind that John probably died around 90 A.D., then this manuscript copy is only 38 years after the events were written down by John himself.
Give me 100% Proof!
Standard of Proof deals with the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jurors, for example, in legal cases must decide cases based on this concept. Every case has unanswered questions, as does every human affair, which is open to possible or imaginary doubt. Yet, one must come a conclusion even when you don’t have all the answers. You simply come to a decision when there is no plausible reason to believe that a proposition is untrue.
This is what you must do with the Christian faith. You’ll never know all there is to know, but enough truth can be known even when some of the facts are missing. Puzzle pieces may be absent but with enough of the pieces in place, you can see what picture it forms. Eventually you have to act on what you do know.
And for whatever His reasons are, God likes us to exercise faith. I think it’s because He wants us to trust Him. God makes Himself known as much as necessary without compromising, or over-riding, our free will. God wants people to believe in Him freely.
Faith pleases God.
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”Hebrews 11:16; NIV
Were They Present?
Skeptics reject the gospels as ‘late works’ of fiction, but as investigation into the reliability of the eyewitness documents unfolds, it’s become clear that the documents were written much closer to the events themselves. This makes their claims a more serious consideration since they were written nearer to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. There is quite an early timeline to the New Testament documents, being written in the first century and prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70 A.D.). Skeptics who continue to deny this have a strong bias against the supernatural, which they often won’t acknowledge.
Were They Corroborated?
Skeptics find the biblical accounts of the miraculous difficult to believe, referring to what they term “childish stories” as merely legends. Yet despite their unbelief, the Bible tells us the history of the Jewish people, of Jesus Christ, and the eyewitnesses corroborate (confirm) this evidence.
The gospels unintentionally support each other, by filling in the details of others’ accounts where things were left out or unanswered. For instance, the Gospel writers correctly cite popular names of the first century and wrote in similar styles. This supports true, eyewitness testimony, according to Wallace.
Towns and villages, that later forgeries never mention (like the Gospel of Thomas or Barnabas), are also included in the gospels, making them more believable. In addition, supposed ‘meaningless details’ are expected from eyewitness accounts, like grass or barley, which makes the gospels even more trustworthy accounts because people do that — mention insignificant things in their eyewitness accounts, according to Wallace. Archaeological finds and other historians of that period also corroborate the Gospel accounts.
Were They Accurate?
Scholars know that false elements can be inserted well after the events since living eyewitnesses can’t dispute any possible errors, and this is another point of contention with skeptics and the Gospel accounts. However, it’s important to note that many church fathers provide a “chain of custody” through documentation of the ancient manuscripts, showing that the originals were copied and preserved well, preventing much potential corruption.
How was this done? The church fathers wrote letters to each other and the newly planted churches, quoting nearly all the New Testament. So, even if we didn’t have the thousands of manuscript copies that we do, scholars could practically reconstruct the entire New Testament alone just by these letters, according to Dr. Daniel Wallace, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, and the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, the place that is digitizes all known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament via digital photographs.
But Were They Biased?
Everyone has a motive, according to Detective Wallace. Generally, there are three primary motives: greed, sexual or relational desire, or the pursuit of power. If the disciples were motivated by any of these things, they would have bias in telling their gospel accounts. However, they didn’t receive any of these “motivators” for spreading their message. Matter of fact, many of them were killed for sharing their testimonies. The disciples received no gain for this “elaborate lie,” as some conspiracy theorists would believe. They died broke, some choosing a life of celibacy (so no ‘lust’ motive there!), and powerless in the eyes of the world.
What, then, was their motive? Truth. They believed what they saw and wanted to tell the world about it.
Detective Wallace’s conclusion after reading the Gospel accounts — AS AN ATHEIST— is that the eyewitness testimonies of the disciples are reliable. He put his biases against the supernatural aside, and he concluded that what happened to Jesus was that he really resurrected. Wallace then realized Christianity is true, and he’s now a believer.
He notes that all inquiries and examinations of the truth have unique deficiencies and there is no perfect investigation, so we must draw on reasonable inferences.
Since the Christian worldview is based on eyewitness testimonies, skeptics focus their attacks on their reliability. This is where Christian case makers need to reveal the strength of our case (as listed above). Christians have good reasons to trust that the Gospel account are reliable.
Side Note—Miracles Still Happen
God uses people who aren’t perfect and yet, He invites us to partner with Him in spreading the good news. He even entrusted mankind to write His word. That’s like a really huge deal!
It’s God working through flawed human beings that is a miracle in of itself! One of the greatest miracles God does today is to change a soul. A person who was lost in a sea of despair and found life in Christ to go on and become a new person? Yeah. That happens every day.
I’m one of those people.
I made terrible choices, self-destructive ones, yet in His mercy, God revealed Himself to me. It’s been over 30 years since I found life in Christ, and I have changed a lot. I’m certainly not perfect—no Christian is—but the Holy Spirit has been sanctifying me, and I’ve become a more moral person, more loving and definitely more forgiving. I shudder at who I might’ve become without Christ. Today, my miracle is a life changed by the love of God… and that’s reliable testimony.
How about you? What’s your miracle?
- I highly recommend the book, Cold Case Christianity. That book provided most of the information for this blog.