Testimony of Resurrection, Part II of II

In Part I, I briefly challenged the idea that testimony is a generally unreliable way of knowing. I also sketched a few principles that should inform our understanding of the reasonableness of accepting testimony (where testimony is learning from what someone else tells us through some form of communication – written, signed, or spoken). My main goal in these two posts is to suggest the reasonableness of believing the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of testimony - scripture’s testimony. Before turning to that matter, two ideas are very important to keep in mind. First, the ultimate reason Christians should believe the testimony of scripture is because its ultimate authorship belongs to God and because the Holy Spirit assures of the truths therein (a further point follows from the first: Christians don’t need additional reasons for taking scripture’s claims as true). Second, the reasons for trusting the reliability of scripture we trace below should be viewed as helps rather than as necessities – they can help the believer when he or she is having doubts and they can help the unbeliever gain an appreciation for the sturdiness of the biblical witness. They certainly are not required, however, to believe scripture’s testimony. What is required is faith – belief on the basis of God’s revelation.

Testimony of the Resurrection

The only access we today have to the stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is through the testimony of written texts (and secondhand by hearing the texts read aloud or spoken from memory). Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the basis of this written testimony – say, the four gospels, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, various places in Acts, and perhaps a few other places in the New Testament? You read the gospel accounts and find yourself thinking, “This is the sober truth. Jesus really did rise from the dead.” Could your belief sensibly be thought to be unreasonable? Assuming that the principles of testimonial rationality are true or close to the truth (see Part I), it doesn’t seem it can be. Only two items are required to render this belief rational: the testifying, or illuminating, work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer who reads the New Testament texts and believes that they are true and the ultimate divine authorship of the scriptural texts which guarantee their truthfulness.

But when some people read these same accounts they don’t believe – perhaps they find the stories too incredible. Just as we know not to trust campaigning politicians, most advertisements on television, and people with a strong financial reason to get us to believe such-and-such, so we have good reason to doubt the credibility of some, if not all religious storytellers. But one should have a good reason to dismiss the gospel accounts as irrational or otherwise intellectually suspect; and if you do not believe that God exists, or that miracles are possible, then you have such a reason, since both claims are either assumed or made explicit in the gospel accounts. However, if you do believe that God exists and that he is capable of performing miracles, then dismissing the testimony of the gospels, Paul’s letters, and several other texts in the New Testament, ought to be grounded in reasons that can be shown to be stronger than the reasons for accepting their testimony.

And in this article, I can give only the barest sketch of some of these positive reasons: the resurrection is attested to on multiple instances (by at least five independent sources), many of whom were probably either eyewitnesses or used eyewitness accounts and who had nothing to gain and much to lose in reporting their experiences (so argues Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses); it can be reasonably argued that many of the eyewitnesses were alive during the writing of the gospels and were present to ensure that their accounts were accurately preserved (idem.); the gospels can be reasonably viewed as belonging to – or closely related to – the historical-theological biographical genre (i.e., ancient biography), whose authors were scrupulous in attending to detail and relying on reliable sources; important historical details in the gospels are corroborated by external sources, written and artifactual; and the transmission from original sources to manuscripts – complex as it no doubt was – can be reasonably seen as reliable. None of these reasons prove with absolute certainty the authors’ trustworthiness - but they do (in my view) strongly suggest it is reasonable to conclude the authors were trustworthy and Jesus was raised from the dead (noting, again, that our ultimate grounds of assurance for both notions is the divine inspiration of scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit). In my view, the evidence for these claims is considerably stronger than their negations.

But aren't there cogent objections to the accuracy of the gospel reports, the reliability of the texts, and the credibility of the authors (and those involved with the transmission of the texts)? Again, space permits only a skeletal response: in the main, scholars of various stripes view the reports as authentic, the texts concerning Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as reliable (though that doesn't mean that every scholar believes the resurrection actually happened), the authors as preserving and agreeing on the main lines of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and a fundamental integrity to the transmission process. Objections – to be reasonable – must be more powerful than what they’re objecting to; and, as I see it, the original claims are decidedly more explanatorily powerful than the objections.

Testimony is our only window into the past (where “testimony”, here, is taken in a broad sense to include a range of human artifacts: documents, calendars, coins, inscriptions, dwellings, memories, and so forth). Forgo testimony, forgo the past. Forgo the past, forgo rationality — and also the resurrection.

Mr. Geoff Sackett 
Dean of Students
Guest Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

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