There are myriad apologetic arguments that have been employed for evidential Christian apologetics. But generally speaking, the best starting point out of all them is the Argument for the Historical Jesus.

What is the Argument for the Historical Jesus?

In its simplest form, this argument is claiming that Jesus was a real man, and was not a myth as some atheists claim.  This claim is often paired with the claim that the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus of history are the same person, not just in reference but in fact, historicity, and substance.  The more substantive form of the argument aims to eventually bring the unbeliever to a point of belief in the Christian faith.  The progression I recommend is as follows:

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived and died in first-century Palestine.
  2. Jesus claimed to be God
  3. Jesus’s claim to be God was founded on his rising from the dead
  4. Evidence, in the Bible as well as outside of it, supports the resurrection of Jesus
  5. Given 1 through 4, Jesus’s claim to be God is supported.

There are other progressions that could be used to arrive at the same conclusion.  However, many of them are not as close to universally applicable as the Argument for the Historical Jesus.  A note to keep in mind: these items do not necessarily apply if your discussion is about theism generally and not Christianity specifically.  But I do believe that when your discussion pertains to Christianity specifically, the historical Jesus is the best approach with most people.

It’s not as Open to Interpretation

If you start a discussion with a skeptic on arguments for design, for example, your first premise (typically something like “Design present in the world supports the presence of a designer”) is dependent on facts that can be interpreted in different ways.  I, as a Christian, believe that theism is the most reasonable conclusion from these arguments, but must concede that alternative explanations (no matter how unlikely) are indeed possible.  But when your first premise is that of the historical Jesus, this is not the case.  While the laws of thermodynamics don’t necessarily point to Jehovah per se, historical evidences for the existence of a literal Jesus, including but not limited to his presence in extrabiblical historical accounts, a physical, known tomb, and multiple eyewitness accounts from known historical people, the first premise is hard to reject.  This progresses the discussion quicker, instead of getting hung up on the first premise.

It Doesn’t Presuppose Terms that Cannot Be Agreed Upon

The only assumption in this argument that skeptics would not agree on is that evidence, whether real or hypothetical, could introduce a supernatural explanation as a possibility.  This is a breaking point for many skeptics (particularly naturalists), and is a significant obstacle to dialoguing with them about Christianity.  However, this is really an assumption on the part of the skeptic rather than the believer (the assumption being “supernatural explanations are never logically valid”).

Aside from this “non-assumption” that is often treated as one, there are no assumptions the believer is making that most skeptics will not agree to.  In other arguments, presuppositions are frequently employed.  To start with God and then move to Jesus as the Messiah, for example, presumes the existence of God.  If it doesn’t, the apologist must then prove the existence of God as the mere first step.  Proving the existence of a historical Jesus is a far easier feat.

The terms that the believer and the skeptic are agreeing to here are essentially that reliable historical sources do exist, that historical truth is objective, and that claims ought to be supported by evidence.  Unless the apologist is speaking to a committed post-modernist, these are highly reasonable terms.

It Includes Various Types of Evidences

Each of the claims in our set require evidence in order to be presented.  But to do this gives the opportunity for various types of evidences.  For instance, we have historical evidence starting with the historical Jesus.  We have Biblical evidence in details of the life of Christ.  We have medical as well as historical evidence external to the Bible for the resurrection, and we can also bring in elements of philosophy when speaking of Jesus’s claim to be God.  Once the resurrection is introduced, we also have evidences of prophecy, and can introduce evidences of design.

This is a key advantage, and something that J. Warner Wallace talks at length on in God’s Crime Scene.  According to Wallace, the key is not to fix our entire argument upon one evidence, but to gather various kinds of evidence, so that we are building a cumulative case for Christ, something that homicide detectives do all of the time.  The case for the historical Jesus allows us to work from a point of mutual confidence (evidences of history) and broaden to include various kinds of evidences, and thus build a cumulative case for Jesus from common ground.

Objection: You Cannot Get to God from Man

This objection is sometimes raised, that it is impossible to use a man (Jesus) as a starting point and get to God, that this is a leap that is artificial and cannot be justified.  However, this objection can only be true if and only if presuppositionalism is the only proper way to do apologetics, at the exclusion of evidentialism.

The reason is this: if you cannot get from Jesus the man to Jesus Christ, then all that is left is to use God as the starting point and thereby get to Jesus the man, that is, Jesus Christ.  If God is the starting point, then we must either 1. Prove that God exists or 2. Presume God’s existence.  The first is impossible, either in actuality or in practicality.  That is, God’s existence probably cannot be proven beyond any doubt, because God himself is not observable.  The skeptic can always say that design is due to an enormous anomaly.  The evidence greatly supports God, but he cannot be proven with observable facts (and certainly not to the extent that a historical Jesus can).  And even if that point is objected to, it is certainly true that God’s existence cannot be proven practically – this is an inefficient starting point with nonbelievers.

That only leaves presuppositionalism, the idea that we must presume God’s existence in any spiritual discussion.  This approach in and of itself is bankrupt because it does not reach the nonbeliever.  By presupposing the very thing that the nonbeliever by definition rejects, you have cut off all discussion and have almost no chance of reaching him or her.  If our aim in apologetics is to reach nonbelievers with the faith (and I do believe it should be), then this approach is essentially bankrupt.

So then, if we are to reach others with apologetics, then going from Jesus the man to Jesus Christ is the only legitimate way to do so, with those who are already holding to the belief that God does not exist, and so Jesus cannot be God.  Other approaches are, generally speaking, either impossible or inefficient.

Conclusion

There are many different approaches that we could use in apologetics.  Different arguments are appropriate at different times, especially in response to different objections.  But if we are given the choice to lead the conversation, and if we are to have a go-to set of arguments which bring the skeptic to Christianity specifically (as opposed to theism generally), the historical Jesus is, in effect, the best starting place for any discussion of Christianity.

23 COMMENTS

  1. Your logical progression uses 1..5 then you say “A” …just a slight mistake. But, the premise of the article is my take, though I would state start with the Resurrection…work from there. Good article otherwise…!

  2. The historical Jesus is the worst starting place for apologetics. Here’s why:

    1. Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived and died in first-century Palestine.

    This is considered to be a true statement because of how history works. If a person is portrayed as a real person in historical records, then History proclaims that person was in fact, a real person. It is not a great method of reaching the truth, but it’s the best we have. Since historical records do in fact portray Jesus as a real person, we accept that he was in fact, a real person. Therefore, your first premise is correct.

    2. Jesus claimed to be God.

    Jesus did seem to do this, and it is generally accepted as a fact. Your second premise is correct.

    3. Jesus’s claim to be God was founded on his rising from the dead.

    Here’s where the everything falls apart. For this premise to be accepted, you must establish that Jesus rose from the dead. This is something that cannot be done through historical evidence, and historical evidence is all that we have of the resurrection. Therefore, if Jesus’ claim to be God was founded on his rising from the dead, today that claim can’t be accepted as true. Third premise is false.

    4. Evidence, in the Bible as well as outside of it, supports the resurrection of Jesus.

    Again, the only evidence we have of the resurrection is historical. History cannot establish any type of resurrection to be true. Fourth premise is false.

    5. Given 1 through 4, Jesus’s claim to be God is supported.

    In reality, this would be: Given the failure of 3 and 4, Jesus’ claim to be God is unsupported.

    • ‘Anoymous’ I’ll quote you to respond to your wrong argument on #3, “This is considered to be a true statement because of how history works.” You reject the evidences that history gives us for the resurrection. Sorry, but that is how we know anything from history; Alexander the Great, Civil War Battles, or anything anything else that happened over 100 years ago. We have ample evidence, for some of us (and a few centuries of believers), that eye-witnesses saw the resurrected Christ. You have a responsibility to ‘prove’ the sightings of Nesus were NOT because He was risen from the dead.

      • Hello tony5516, and sorry for the anonymous post. I was a little fast on the “post comment” trigger last night.

        Let me ask you the following questions:

        There are historical claims that Alexander The Great was a god. Do you accept that he was in fact, a god? By your argument, you should.

        There are historical claims that Genghis Kahn was a god. Do you accept that he was in fact, a god? By your argument, you should.

        There are historical claims that King Tutankhamen was a god. Do you accept that he was in fact, a god? By your argument, you should.

        It’s also important to know that in all these cases, there were eyewitness, and there were believers.

        So tony5516. Do you believe that they were all in fact, gods?

      • Another thing, tony5516. It is not possible to prove a negative (I’m referring to your last sentence). To suggest that anyone do that is absurd.

        • Herm, the historical evidence actually points to the fact that Tut, Alexander, & Genghis were not gods…they are dead…and stayed dead.

          Oh and I can prove a negative. I can prove there are NO Married bachelors.

          • Come on tony. A married bachelor is an absurdity. That is not “proving a negative.” That’s not really important, though.

            Let me ask you this. Think back to the time when you were first convinced that Jesus was resurrected and that he was God. Was it this “historical argument” that convinced you?

            I phrased that question so that it is a yes or no question. You can of course elaborate, but I would appreciate a yes or no answer, as that would help me understand this better.

    • On point number three, we absolutely do not (at this point) have to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. We only have to prove that his claim was based on that. Point 3 is not about proving Jesus right, but only setting the foundation for what his claim to be God was based on. Evidence for this is to be found not in the resurrection itself, but in what He said. And this claim is all throughout the gospels.

      Second, point 4 is not in *proving* the resurrection, but in *supporting* it. This is a distinction I made very intentionally. My approach to evidential apologetics is strongly influenced by J. Warner Wallace, who emphasizes a cumulative case for Christianity. That is, we should use many different types of evidence to build the case for Christ as the best explanation of reality, not that one evidence can prove it beyond any shadow of a doubt (and I don’t believe any one can). So my claim here would be not that it is proven by historical evidence, but that historical evidence supports it. That is, historical evidence is consistent with the Christian explanation of events, and the naturalistic explanations do not add up. That introduces the other evidences, and gives more context for us to talk about them (in other words, historical evidence that supports the resurrection is a launching pad to evidences for the supernatural in other areas).

      I would, however, like to ask you a question. You said that “this is something that cannot be done through historical evidence.” How can a question of whether or not something was a historical event not be proven through historical evidence? This is a claim, not an axiom, and should be followed up with arguments. How would you argue this claim?

      • I think I understand your position a little more clearly now. I now see the distinction between the “proving” and the “supporting.” Thanks for the explanation.

        Here is my argument:

        I agree that there is historical evidence that supports the *claim* that Jesus was resurrected, and that he *claimed* to be God. But what you’re ultimately proposing (I think, and please correct me if I’m wrong), is that it is possible to prove that the resurrected Christ was in fact, God, by an accumulation of historical evidence that supports the resurrection. That cannot be done, as it is far beyond the reach of what history is capable of doing.

        Let’s look at it this way. Let’s say that we have a person right now that was deemed dead by all known methods. Let’s also say that that person has been dead for 3 days. Then let’s say that that dead person suddenly came back to life after 3 days. Let’s also say that there is no error in our methods of “death detection,” or “life detection.” We know for a fact that this person was dead, and that this person was dead for 3 days, and that now this person is absolutely alive.

        Now let’s say that this person tells us that he is God. Does the fact that he came back from the dead make his claim true? The answer is, no. This person’s God claim is completely separate from his resurrection, and must be supported accordingly.

        If we can’t get to God that way, where we have empirical evidence from a resurrected person, how on earth is it possible to do that with historical evidence, which is in fact, far, far worse evidence, regardless of the amount?

        The answer is that we cannot.

        • Again, the goal if this starting place argument is not to prove beyond any doubt, but to show the claim has support and use that as a starting place. The cumulative arguments approach does not mean different types of historical evidence, but many different types of evidence categorically, one of which is historical evidence.

          Secondly, by saying “This person’s God claim is completely separate from his resurrection, and must be supported accordingly.” are you arguing that miracles are not proof of divinity (or at least divine power)?

          • Sorry for the delayed response. Life….

            First, nothing can be “proven beyond any doubt,” and I’m not suggesting that your argument do that.

            Second, if there is going to be a cumulative argument approach, each bit of evidence that is presented must pass the test before it is added to the “cumulative pile.” If it is rejected because of some reason, then it cannot be added to the “cumulative pile.”

            In your argument, you are claiming that, “history can support the resurrection of Jesus.” (Please correct me if I’m wrong). That claim is not true. History cannot support the resurrection of Jesus because it is beyond what history is capable of doing. History can only support the *claim* that jesus was resurrected (and history does in fact, support that claims were made that Jesus was resurrected). Since that is the case, this argument cannot be added to the “cumulative pile” that Jesus was actually resurrected.

            Referring to your question, “Am I arguing that miracles are not proof of divinity or divine power,” let’s return to my resurrection hypothetical. Just because we do not understand why or how this person has been resurrected does not mean that it would in fact, be a miracle. There are other possible explanations, and there is the possibility that we might not have enough information to determine why or how it happened.

            So no. Even if we had a confirmed miracle (something that’s never been done, but that’s another argument), that miracle in and of itself is not proof of divinity or divine power.

          • I’m not sure why a label would matter for determining the validity of any argument, but in this case, if I had to label myself, I’d say I’m an amateur historian.

          • My question to you would be the same that I asked tony5516: Is this argument you’re presenting the one that convinced you?

          • hermantf,

            You said, “History cannot support the resurrection of Jesus because it is beyond what history is capable of doing.”

            Please explain. I do not understand why this is “beyond what history is capable of doing.” If history includes accounts of so-and-so doing such and such, what difference does it make whether this event took place a week before or a week after so-and-so died?

          • History can establish as true that there were *claims* that Jesus was resurrected. It cannot however, establish as true that Jesus was in fact, resurrected.

            The evidence required to establish the truth of a claim is proportional to how fantastic the claim is. A resurrection is an extremely fantastic claim. History is hardly sufficient for establishing the truth of such a claim.

          • What I’m saying is that history is limited in what it can establish to actually be a fact.

            Let’s take the person of Jesus. Was he in fact, a person who once lived and not some fictional character? That is a question that history can answer. One way that historians can answer that question is, if a person was portrayed in historical records as an actual living person, then historians can establish that the person in question, in this case Jesus, was in fact, a real person and not a fictional character. As you can probably see, this method of determining things is far from perfect, yet that is the best method we have, so it is a generally agreed upon method for certain things.

            In that case, historical evidence can address that question.

            But, when it comes to the question of whether or not the resurrection of Jesus (or any historical resurrection) actually happened, that is beyond the scope of what history can determine to be a fact. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, historians can, through historical records, determine as fact that people claimed that Jesus was resurrected, and it can determine as fact that people believed that Jesus was resurrected, and it can determine that people claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected, but it can’t determine as fact that he actually was resurrected.

            In your argument:

            1. Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived and died in first-century Palestine. AGREED
            2. Jesus claimed to be God. AGREED
            3. Jesus’s claim to be God was founded on his rising from the dead. (REJECTED because history can’t establish as fact that Jesus rose from the dead, and history is all we have)
            4. Evidence, in the Bible as well as outside of it, supports the resurrection of Jesus. (REJECTED because the only evidence we have is historical, and historical evidence only supports the claim of the resurrection of Jesus).
            5. Given 1 through 4, Jesus’s claim to be God is supported. (this conclusion should therefore be rejected because the resurrection can’t be determined to be a fact by historical methods).

            Don’t take my word for all of this. Go to a local college and talk to a historian.

  3. That’s lovely, Jesus is no myth, His historic birth is more real that the rising and setting of the sun

  4. You are on the right track. I even wrote a book on this approach with the title “Apostolic Apologetics: An Efficient and Sufficient Warrant for Faith in Christ.” It’s digital format only and can be found at Apple Books or Barnes & Noble.

    Not only is the classical approach of evidential apologetics – first proving theism and then moving to Christianity – a comparatively inefficient use of time, it offers too many ways to get bogged down when engaging post-modern mindsets.

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