Did the Resurrection Happen?
David Baggett (ed.), IVP Books
Here is a transcript of the third of three debates between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew (and it’s one of the most irenic discussions on this theme — and about broader subjects like the existence of God, predestination, evil and so on — between two polemicists I’ve read since Bishop Tom Wright’s with the Jesus Seminar scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg).
Gary Habermas is one of the most competent half-dozen English-speaking apologists for a conservative view of the resurrection of Jesus (he teaches, surprisingly, at the very conservative Liberty University).
Professor Antony Flew was — until he died in April 2010 — perhaps the most respected philosophical atheist in the English-speaking world.
In his last years “following wherever the evidence led” he drifted towards theism (or, more correctly, deism) but apparently not to orthodox Christianity — a journey perhaps helped by his ongoing friendship with evangelical scholars like Habermas and N. T. Wright.
See his 2007 book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind (co-authored with Roy Abraham Varghese) for more about all that.
Almost no reputable historian doubts that Jesus existed. And, says Habermas quoting Crossan, the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion is as sure as any fact could ever be.
A few representative comments from each scholar:
Habermas: “About 20 times in the New Testament we are told that believers concluded that they will be raised like Jesus … They couldn’t believe that if they thought [Jesus] was alive but not raised.”
After Jesus’ death a large number of Jewish priests came to faith (Acts 6:7). “That’s an incredible statement about the leaders whose group opposed the Christian message and who knew the original story. Why did they convert?”
Flew: “I have an almost invincible disinclination to believe the whole resurrection story … because it seems to me so wildly inconsistent with everything else that happens in the universe.”
Following a suggestion that it’s no more or less rational to believe in the existence of God than to believe in something like the physical resurrection of Jesus, Flew responded by saying that an Aristotelian god (which, he notes, Aristotle never really defined) was somewhat plausible — but not the Judeo-Christian God.
However, arguments proceeding from recent scientific discoveries (like big bang cosmology) are becoming more persuasive. But, in his major work God and Philosophy, Flew says his main reasons for rejecting Christian theistic arguments is the problem of evil which “is a problem only for Christians”.
But more recently his exploration of near-death experiences led him to say, “I find the materials about near-death experiences so challenging … This evidence equally certainly weakens if it does not completely refute my argument against doctrines of a future life.”
Regarding hell, Flew quotes Thomas Aquinas (whom he delights in calling “The Angelic Doctor”): “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God … they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”
Flew goes on to note that in the UK the doctrine of hell has for the last century or more been progressively deemphasized, until in 1995 it was explicitly and categorically abandoned by the Church of England.
Flew is equally scathing about Islam: “… best described in a Marxian way as the uniting and justifying ideology of Arab imperialism … To read the Qur’an is a penance rather than a pleasure.”
But he’s nicer about the Methodists, who “made it impossible to build a really substantial Communist Party in Britain and provided the country with a generous supply of men and women of sterling moral character.”
The title offers more about the resurrection of Jesus than the book delivers. There’s no coherent line of argument for or against — but that’s to be expected of recorded conversations.
Antony Flew has apparently not studied in depth the textual-critical material at the base of the Jesus Seminar scholarship.
John Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg would have offered him a thesis about Jesus’ resurrection which is quite different from that of Habermas and the conservative view.
(Which, essentially goes like this: “Jesus, having been dead, became alive again … The disciples had experiences they believed were the literal appearance of the risen Jesus … This message was the centre of preaching in the early church.”)
But responding to that paradigm, several times Flew is quoted as saying that Jesus’ physical resurrection is “the best-attested miracle claim in history”.
A fascinating read — especially about the power of friendship between people/scholars who are very different people and personalities with a very different philosophical world-view, but who can have a respectful dialog about matters of great importance.