The Metaphysical Hurdle and The Minimal Facts Argument

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.



Anyone who has been involved in the apologetic endeavor is familiar with what is called the “minimal facts” argument. The main proponents for this argument are Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. The five well-evidenced facts granted by virtually all scholars who study the historical Jesus: (see See Habermas. G.R. and Licona, M. L. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus) are 1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion 2. Jesus’ followers sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead 3. Early eyewitness testimony to belief in Jesus’ resurrection 4. The conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother, James 5. Paul, once an enemy of the early faith, became a committed follower of Jesus the Messiah

Who are some of these critical scholars that Habermas mentions? To read more about this see:

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

In his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach , Licona discusses what is called “The Historical Bedrock.” These three facts about the Historical Jesus are held by most critical scholars and historians and they are part of the minimal acts argument.

1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion

2. Very Shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

Licona is more than aware that just because there is a list of agreed upon facts that is agreed upon by historians and Biblical scholars will not make it true. If so, that would be what is called a “consensus gentium fallacy” which is the fallacy of arguing that an idea is true because most people believe it. As Licona says, “Something doesn’t become a “fact” just because the majority of scholars believe it.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg 279).

However, as Gary Habermas says, “Certainly one of the strongest methodological indications of historicity occurs when a case can be built on accepted data that are recognized as well established by a wide range of otherwise diverse historians.” (see Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman, Why I Am A Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2001), 152.

Historian Christopher Blake refers to this as the “very considerable part of history which is acceptable to the community of professional historians.” (See Christopher Blake, “Can History be Objective?” in Theories of History, Ed. Patrick Gardiner (New York: Macmillan, 1959), pp. 331-333; cited in Geisler and Hoffman, 152.

I have listed elsewhere some of those that agree with the minimal facts or historical bedrock. Even Bart Ehrman agrees with these three points:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion: Ehrman says: “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate” (see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 261-262).

2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them: Ehrman says: “Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19).” ( see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 282).

3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him: Ehrman says: “There is no doubt that [Paul] believed that he saw Jesus’ real but glorified body raised from the dead.” (see see see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 301).

So as you can see, it really boils down to what accounts for the post mortem resurrection appearances. And what do skeptics generally punt to account for the appearances? Subjective visions or hallucinations. I discuss this issue in greater detail in  my post here:   Licona and others have responded to it as well. This shouldn’t be a shock given that the biggest hurdle in the minimal facts argument is the issue of metaphysics (i.e., the study of being, reality). Granted, there have been many books written about the issue of miracles and it would seem that Hume’s dogmatism that many atheists seem to repeat isn’t as strong as it once was.

But in the end, the debate over the resurrection is always going to be about metaphysics. One approach is what it called the a priori  approach while the other is called the a posteriori approach. Deductive reasoning is called a priori (prior to looking at the facts) and inductive reasoning is called a posteriori (after seeing the evidence). If one has decided that many of the events in the New Testament are not possible (because of an a priori commitment to naturalism), it will impact how they interpret the evidence (after examining it).  Let  me give an illustration by Natasha Crain:

“Pretend for a moment that you just sent three kids out to play in the backyard. Knowing they’ll clearly occupy themselves for a reasonable amount of time without getting hurt, becoming bored, destroying the yard, or fighting with each other, you realize you can relax on the couch with a good book for the next hour. (What? That’s not a realistic scenario in your home? Don’t worry, it’s not in mine either.) Much to your shock, your relaxation is interrupted a few minutes later by all three kids screaming. They run into the house shaking and scared. One explains, “We just saw three pigs fly by!” You smile in relief that it wasn’t a real problem and calmly explain that pigs can’t fly, so they must have seen something else. But the kids are emphatic and all agree. They go on to give you all kinds of reasons for believing their claim. Let me ask you something: Is there any amount of evidence that would convince you they actually saw three flying pigs, short of witnessing it yourself? Probably not. Why?

Because you know, based on how our world works, that pigs can never fly. No matter what evidence there is, you’re simply never going to believe the kids actually saw flying pigs. That is very much the problem most nonbelievers have with the resurrection. We can lay out “minimal historical facts” that nearly everyone agrees on and establish that competing theories about what happened fail to explain those facts , but many people will never seriously consider the idea that Jesus came back to life because we know dead people don’t come back to life. It’s as simple as that for them—just as it’s as simple as that for you to know pigs don’t fly and conclude that any claims to the contrary are undoubtedly wrong. Therein lies the sticking point. We do all know that dead people don’t come back to life… naturally. Christians and nonbelievers agree on that! But if God exists, He could supernaturally cause events to happen that we know could never happen naturally. If God does not exist, such events are impossible.”-Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith by Natasha Crain

Stephen T. Davis has suggested three criteria for assessing whether a miracle remains a potential explanation: (1) when the available naturalistic explanations all fail and nothing else on the naturalistic horizon seems promising, (2) when the event has moral and religious significance, and (3) when the event in question is consistent with one’s background beliefs about the desires and purposes of God, as revealed in the religion to which one is committed (for example, the event occurred after prayer or as an aspect of an epiphany or incarnation). (see Copan and R.K. Tacelli, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann (Downers Grove, IL: Intervaristy. 2000), 75.

When it comes time to actually examine the evidence,  some scholars may say they are open to taking an a posteriori approach to the resurrection. However, in many cases, they set the bar so high that no amount of evidence will ever convince them. So in many cases, if one is just utterly convinced that the natural world is all there is than we are back to natural theology and we need to discuss whether naturalism can explain reality better than theism.

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