As Easter is once again upon us I’m reminded of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made to stand in place of our sins so that we may have fellowship with Him and the Father. The accountings of His torture, crucifixion, and resurrection (Matthew 27-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 23-24; John 19-20) evoke a juxtaposition of emotions: sorrow, guilt, and fear on the one hand; gratitude, hope, and joy on the other. The second death no longer has any sway on us. We have been set free from the bondage of our sin leading to death.
Notice, I just listed four places in Scripture where we Christians go to discover and understand what happened to Jesus. I did so to showcase the fact that the gospels are usually the main source we rely on when considering the resurrection. Look at it this way: For Easter service our pastors do not tell us to open the writings of Tacitus or Josephus. No, we open the gospels. But have we ever asked ourselves whether we have good reason to trust in the resurrection? That the idea that Jesus resurrected from the dead (thus supporting His claims to divinity) is reasonable to conclude?
Sometimes we will want to answer these questions by focusing on the reliability of Scripture. Thus, if we can show that Scripture is reliable then we can trust what it tells us about the miracle of the resurrection. While this is certainly not the wrong approach to take, I would argue that there is an alternative approach that might prove more robust and convincing in light of non-believers’ questions and doubts (and possibly our own). This approach is otherwise known as The Minimal Facts of the Resurrection.
Drs. Gary Habermas and Mike Licona have compiled five facts that the majority of biblical scholars, critical as well as conservative, agree on. Please note: This is only a brief list of those five facts. For more on this issue, please read their excellent book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.
First: Jesus died by crucifixion
Not only do the four gospels relate the event of Jesus’ crucifixion, extra-biblical sources confirm His death by crucifixion as well. The fact that there are extra-biblical sources confirming the death of Jesus supports the notion that it was an historically attested event; in other words, it actually happened.
“When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified…” – Josephus, Antiquities
“Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” – Tacitus, Annals
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.” – Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Peregrine
Second: Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose and appeared to them
There are three ways that we can determine that Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose from the dead; and none of them entail appealing to the four gospels (although the gospels should not be dismissed as reliable historical documents). First, Paul attests to the fact that the disciples believed they saw Jesus alive after He had died. Since Paul’s authority as a colleague of the disciples is affirmed by early church fathers as well as early Christian historians even critical biblical scholars accept his writings on this issue. Second, Christians had established an oral tradition of Christ’s resurrection in the church by the time Paul authored 1 Corinthians in 55 A.D. Therefore, the tradition must have arisen prior to 55 A.D. placing it within two decades after Christ’s death. This oral tradition is marked by certain distinct features that are typically uncharacteristic of Paul, like: sentence structure, verb parallelism, diction, the triple sequence of kai hoti (“and that”), the proper reference to Peter as Cephas, etc. Third, the early church fathers attested to the disciples’ belief that Jesus rose from the dead. According to Irenaeus and Tertullian, Clement of Rome not only knew the disciples, he was ordained as a bishop by Peter. In a letter to the church of Corinth Clement confirmed that the disciples were completely certain that Jesus resurrected. He said:
“Therefore, having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit’s certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come.” – Clement of Rome, First Clement
Third: The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed
In his various correspondences to Christians Paul discussed his conversion from being a persecutor of the church to a believer in Jesus. Luke recorded what Paul did to Christians as a non-believer in the book of Acts, as well as the specific events of his conversion. The Galatians themselves, in Paul’s own words, had heard of his reputation and conversion. So there are three evidences of Paul’s conversion: His own testimony, Luke’s accounting in Acts, and the fact that his reputation preceded him with the Galatians. Not only did Paul convert but he suffered for his newfound faith. He candidly described his own suffering (2 Corinthians 11:23-28, 31-33), as did Luke (Acts 14-28), Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, and Origen.
Fourth: The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed
According to the gospels Jesus had at least four brothers: James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon (Matthew 13:55), all unbelievers during Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:21, 31; 6:3-4; John 7:5). James, specifically, is mentioned again as Jesus’ brother in Galatians 1:19. But something happened to his skepticism after Jesus died. The oral creed of 1 Corinthians 15, mentioned previously, states that Jesus resurrected and appeared to James (v. 7). James is, later, identified as the leader of the Jerusalem church in Acts 15:12-21 and Galatians 1:19. So he must have converted to Christianity after seeing Jesus alive. Not only did James convert to Christianity but he suffered martyrdom for his beliefs, according to Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria (as recorded by Eusebius).
Five: The tomb was empty
While the evidence of the empty tomb is not attested by nearly every scholar across the board, it is accepted as an historical fact by a majority of critical scholars. The inference of the empty tomb builds from the first minimal fact. Jesus was killed on a cross. Of that there is little historical doubt. If the enemies of Christians, i.e. the Jewish leadership as well as the Roman government, knew where Jesus’ body was, they could have produced it at the appropriate time and squashed the belief of the early church. Remember, the disciples began publicly proclaiming that He was alive again only fifty days after He died. By producing Christ’s body the enemies of the church could have obliterated the credibility of the disciples’ eyewitness testimony to the resurrection. But they did nothing. As a matter of fact, according to biblical and extra-biblical records, they claimed that the body was stolen (Matthew 28:12-13; Justin Martyr, Trypho 108, Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30). Because of these claims, this is not merely an argument from silence, rather this is evidence that the enemies of Christ could not produce His body. His tomb was empty.
The minimal facts are a bare bones representation of the evidences that are available to peruse when considering the truthfulness of Jesus’ resurrection. They are “bare bones” specifically because they focus on what critics of Christianity have accepted as historically reliable. Many, as well as I, have considered these facts and drawn an inference that the resurrection is reasonable, that it is the best explanation given the data. As we remember Jesus’ victory over sin and death this Easter, also remember that our Christian faith is built on a solid foundation of facts that cannot be easily dismissed, even by critics of the Bible.
 And thus does not meet Habermas and Licona’s criteria as a “minimal fact.”