Review: Did the Resurrection Happen?

Did the Resurrection Happen

Did the Resurrection Happen?, David Baggett ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Summary: A history of the debates and friendship between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, a transcript of a 2003 conversation on the resurrection between these two, a discussion of Flew’s subsequent change from a belief in atheism to a kind of deism, and concluding discussions on the evidences and challenges to the idea of the resurrection of Jesus.

For Christians, Easter is actually the most important holiday of the year. It is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which the apostle Paul argues is the one historical reality on which Christianity stands or falls. In other words, Christianity is falsifiable if the resurrection is disproved, or at least suspect if a credible case cannot be put forward that such an incredible event took place.

This book, edited by David Baggett explores that case and the counter-claims that might be put forward with a section in the middle exploring the journey of one of the participants, Antony Flew from atheism to a deistic form of theism. Baggett introduces the book narrating the history of the growing friendship between Habermas and Flew and the history of debates between the two over a nearly twenty year period, culminating with the debate at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo in 2003.

Part One then is a transcript of that debate, including audience questions. Habermas begins by asserting a list of twelve known historical facts for which he would contend that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation. These are:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. He was buried.
  3. The death of Jesus caused the disciples to despair and lose hope, believing that his life was ended.
  4. Although not as widely accepted, many scholars hold that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered to be empty just a few days later.
  5. The disciples had experiences they believed were the literal appearances of the risen Christ.
  6. The disciples were transformed from doubters who were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection.
  7. This message was the center of preaching in the early church.
  8. This message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus was died and was buried shortly before.
  9. As a result of this teaching, the church was born and grew.
  10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
  11. James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he also believed that he had seen the resurrected Jesus.
  12. A few years later, Paul was converted by an experience that he likewise believed to be an appearance of the risen Christ.

Flew, who at one time was the foremost proponent of atheism, and still an avowed atheist at the point of this debate then engages these facts and the inferences from them. He questions the death, burial and most importantly the belief of the disciples that they had seen literal appearances of Jesus. Habermas invokes medical research on the physical effects of crucifixion on the body that can lead to swift death by asphyxia, the multiple testimonies to the burial of Jesus without contrary testimony and the witnesses to the empty tomb including the improbable citing of women as the first witnesses. Then he shows the improbability of mass hallucination, which anything other than hoax or literal appearance would require. It is striking that, at the end, Flew acknowledges that there are good rational grounds for the belief in the resurrection, although for him it remained incredible given his beliefs about the world.

Part Two begins with a conversation between Habermas and Flew about his journey from atheism to a deistic form of theism. The conversation was striking to me for two things. One was the intellectual engagement between these two men who had become friends. The other was the importance of design and fine-tuning arguments in persuading Flew to embrace deism. The second part of this section is Gary Habermas review of Flew’s book, There Is a God. Perhaps most fascinating is the distinction of Flew’s that Habermas notes between philosophical and scientific evidence. Plainly, scientific evidence figured more highly for Flew. It was also significant that a major barrier to embracing Christian theism for Flew was the problem of evil and suffering. Habermas contends that a free will defense may answer this but Flew believed this required a prior belief in revelation, a point of contention between the two. [It should be noted that Antony Flew died April 8, 2010, still embracing a deistic stance.]

The last part of the book returns to evidences and challenges to these evidences including ten philosophical concerns not addressed directly in the debate. The very end of this section and the appendix deals with the use of Bayes Theory of probability. I found this most interesting as it has been invoked in a number of discussions with atheists, usually by atheists, arguing that the probabilities of God’s existence, or the resurrection fail to reach a threshold where belief is warranted. I will admit to not fully understanding the mathematics behind this argument, but found that the author confirmed my suspicion of the arbitrary character of assigning probabilities, which often reflect a priori beliefs rather than evidence per se’. I think more work needs to be done in answering this line of objection, which on the face of it sounds persuasive because of its quantitative nature.

As I noted at the beginning, the resurrection is essentially the lynch pin of Christian faith. For the person struggling with doubts or considering the credibility of the resurrection claim, this is an excellent first book, because it reflects a real conversation between two people with opposing views. We see the intellectual honesty of Antony Flew, who had the courage to change his beliefs when that was where the evidence took him. In the public and private conversations between Habermas and Flew we are given a model of dialogue and inquiry that is substantive, charitable, and intellectually honest in a public square nearly bereft of such conversations.

The Freedom to Change One’s Mind

Flew and Bary

Antony Flew                                                               Rifqa Bary 


It would seem that the idea that a person should freely be able to change one’s mind is, well, a no-brainer. And yet in two books I am reading at present, a change of mind was occasion for controversy, and in one case, at least the possibility of danger. In Did the Resurrection Happen, David Baggett includes an interview with Antony Flew after he announced that he had shifted from a lifelong atheist stance to one of belief in God, albeit an Aristotelian, deistic God. This set off a firestorm of controversy and criticism in the atheist community against its one-time arch apologist.

The other change of mind concerned the freedom of a teenager living at the time in my home metro area, to turn from Islam to Christianity, necessitating, in her account, flight from her family, long court battles over custody until she came of age and continued estrangement from her family. The young woman is Rifqa Bary and her book is Hiding in the Light.

The difficulty with a change of mind, particularly, concerning religious questions, is that we are often part of families or communities that share these deeply held beliefs. Conscientious parents often believe it their responsibility to impart their beliefs to their children. And because these beliefs concern matters of ultimate, and perhaps eternal importance, for a child, or even spouse to turn from these is a grave concern. It can also be a matter of shame with one’s community. When you have been a key advocate, or long time co-belligerent, a change of mind might seem a betrayal, or at least a craven flip-flop.

Yet this begs the question of what is to be done when one can no longer in clear conscience hold one set of beliefs, and as often follows, another sense of beliefs is more persuasive. Is there something sacred about the conscience that dictates that belief must not be imposed upon it? Are their loyalties higher than to family or a community of belief?

To the family or community of belief, I can understand how it would be hard not to say “no.” And yet, to assume this stance is to elevate the family, or community of belief, or in some cases, the state, to a kind of godhood, requiring one’s ultimate allegiance. As troubling is the violation of conscience involved in enforcing belief against the will of another that can only result in either the destruction of personhood, or the alienation of relationship.

A change of mind is unsettling. It may raise the fear of what will happen to the person who has changed. Perhaps it raises the question of whether we have been wrong. It reminds us  that belief for all of us is living in this place between reason and the unknowns of our lives. Yet the fact that we care so much speaks to our shared belief of both the importance of matters of ultimate concern, and the intrinsic value of the person changing her mind.

Might it be that the pursuit of truth is more important than preserving boundaries of families, communities of belief, or states? Might agreeing to this principle actually serve to forge bonds across our differences? Might agreeing to this save families, not from difference, but heartache?

It is for reasons like these that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the following statement in Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Likewise, the flip side of this idea is that no change of belief should be forced. Actually it seems to me a measure of the integrity of any system of belief that it both renounces any effort to compel belief, or to constrain those who would change their beliefs.

Perhaps on this we could agree. Perhaps.