(Note: my recent interview with Edouard Tahmizian of Internet Infidels is at the end of this post.)
Christian apologist Dr. Jeremiah Johnston, a New Testament Baptist scholar, pastor and author who ministers internationally as president of Christian Thinkers Society, was recently interviewed by Ruth Jackson on the show, Unapologetic, from Premium Unbelievable about his latest book, Body of Proof: The 7 Best Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus–and Why It Matters Today (Bethany House Publishers, 2023). Dr. Johnston wrote a 93,000-word dissertation while he was studying at Oxford on the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus, concluding that the resurrection was the best explanation for what happened. In his interview, he makes an even stronger claim (13:11): “We can prove the resurrection of Jesus really happened.” That’s a very tall claim, to put it mildly. As Scripture testifies, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
The “meat” of Dr. Johnston’s 30-minute interview starts at (13:55) and ends at (29:12). My overwhelming impression, after listening to the interview, was that Dr. Johnston’s reasons would not impress an unbeliever. I’d now like to explain why, by briefly commenting on each of Dr. Johnston’s seven reasons. The quotes are from Dr. Johnston’s interview.
1. Christianity created a better world
“Number one is: it’s the only way you can explain that everywhere the Christian movement goes, society has improved for the better.”
My comment: You have got to be kidding me. Does “everywhere” include pre-Columbian America, where tens of millions of native Americans died from wars, genocidal violence, enslavement, oppression and above all, diseases (such as smallpox, measles and influenza), after coming into contact with European Christians in 1492? And what about the Atlantic slave trade, which imposed hellish conditions on Africans and their slave descendants in the New World, over a period of several centuries, resulting in tens of millions of deaths? (If Dr. Johnston doesn’t think that Christianity was responsible for these crimes against humanity, then I’d suggest that he read All Oppression Shall Cease (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2022), a highly acclaimed history of slavery and the Catholic Church by Jesuit priest Fr. Christopher Kellerman.) To convincingly counterbalance these appalling numbers, one would have to demonstrate that Christianity saved hundreds of millions of lives, in other ways. So, where are the stats? I don’t see any.
Dr. Johnston also mentions hospitals and health care, and he does have a valid point here, as atheist scholar Professor Bart Ehrman himself acknowledges:
“Hospitals – defined as buildings or building complexes that provided both outpatient and inpatient health care by professionally trained doctors and nurses based on the most advanced medical knowledge of the day — were a Christian invention. The services they provided were free of charge.”
Dr. Ehrman, who is currently working on a book tentatively titled, The Invention of Charity: How Christianity Transformed the Western World, notes that “in the Roman world at large, those with wealth showed almost no concern for those in need, even desperate need.” When they did give to the poor, it was usually out of a desire for self-improvement, rather than concern for the suffering of the poor. However, as Ehrman points out, the Christian concept of charity ultimately derives from Judaism. Christianity served as the vehicle to universalize this notion throughout the Roman empire.
It is not that Christians invented the idea of “charity”: they inherited a concern for the needy from their Jewish forebears. But they, not the Jews, converted the Roman world, and, in the end, universalized and, to some extent, institutionalized the imperatives, incentives, and practices of charity… Prior to the Christian conquest of the Empire, the Western world knew of no such things as hospitals, orphanages, private charities, or governmental assistance to the poor. These are Christian innovations.
So while Christianity has done a ton of good in the world, it has also done a lot of harm. Which is greater, the good or the harm? It’s really hard to say. And while the tireless labor of Christian medical missionaries may have saved a great many lives in Third World countries during the 20th century, one could fairly argue that modern science, rather than religion, deserves much of the credit here.
2. Jesus predicted his own resurrection
“Number two: Jesus called it. If the Church had a hash tag, it would be: on the third day… Jesus called his resurrection. He predicted his violent death and resurrection in Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, and Mark 10:33-34. He quotes Hosea 6:2-3 – ‘After two days he will revive us. On the third day [he will restore us.]'”
My comment: If Jesus actually predicted his own resurrection, then he created an expectation in the minds of his disciples that he would rise. And if that’s the case, then the popular apologetic argument, that the disciples couldn’t have hallucinated the risen Jesus because they were beaten men whose hopes had been dashed by seeing him crucified, is rendered invalid. On the contrary, the disciples were primed to expect a resurrection. And we know for a fact that three of them (Peter, James and John) were prone to seeing visions: Mark 9:2-13 explicitly tells us that even before Jesus’ death, they’d seen him arrayed in clothes of dazzling white, accompanied by Moses and Elijah, and that they’d heard the voice of God speaking from a cloud, on a mountain. A skeptic might say that these were highly imaginative and impressionable witnesses.
But did Jesus really predict his own resurrection? The vast majority of critical Biblical scholars would say that he did not. Let’s not forget: the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ alleged resurrection, by people who were already committed Christians. Certainly, Jesus may have expected some last-minute miraculous vindication from God, immediately before his death, which would account for his cry of desolation on the cross when none eventuated. Alternatively, he may have been resigned to his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, but looked forward to being vindicated at some future point in history, when he would return at God’s right hand to judge the living and the dead. But the prophecies of the resurrection found in Mark’s Gospel are generally regarded by scholars as theologically motivated: if God actually raised Jesus from the dead, then He must have told Jesus in advance, and of course, Jesus must have told his disciples. At any rate, when Dr. Johnston claims that Jesus predicted his own resurrection, he is going against the consensus of New Testament scholars. That doesn’t make him wrong, but it does make his argument questionable.
3. Jesus was able to raise the dead
“Three: Jesus performed. He demonstrated resurrection power… He raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead. That’s Mark, chapter 5. Luke 7: the widow of Nain’s son. He stops a funeral procession. The boy would have died that day. He said, ‘He’s not dead; he’s sleeping.’ Jesus raised him up. And of course, John 11: Lazarus, where he brings Lazarus forth from the dead, after being dead four days. So Jesus showed that he did indeed have power over death… Jesus is the first-fruits [of the] resurrection, never to die again. We will have ‘un-dieable’ bodies in the resurrection. They will never need to be upgraded… They will always be in perfect condition. And Jesus’ resurrection body is a model of that. What’s fascinating to me is: I also talk about those who had to die twice – these individuals who were not the first fruit of the resurrection like Jesus. They would have died twice. We actually have two different burial spots for Lazarus: Bethany and on the island of Cyprus, where he was buried a second time, which is really cool.”
My comment: The resurrection miracles described by Dr. Johnston were written down by the Gospel writers at least three decades after they actually happened, at a time when many (and perhaps all) of the original witnesses would have been dead. Would Dr. Johnston believe a claim that a Hindu healer had worked such a miracle three decades earlier, if he were unable to interview the witnesses? I doubt it.
Another point that needs to be considered is that Jesus himself declared that Jairus’ daughter (whom he healed) wasn’t dead, but asleep. What if he was right, and the girl was actually in a deep coma? The same applies to the widow of Nain’s son. Even in today’s world, people can be mistakenly pronounced dead, and there have been tragic cases of people buried alive. So, were the people Jesus raised really dead? Maybe not. To be sure, the story of Lazarus being raised four days after his death cannot be explained away in this fashion, but despite allegedly happening right before Palm Sunday, it is found only in John (which is generally thought to be a late Gospel): Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t mention it at all.
But even if the narratives were all true, and Jesus actually had the power to raise the dead, the point is that they died again, as Dr. Johnston rightly points out. Such narratives fail to establish that Jesus was able to raise himself to life (or be raised back to life) in an immortal, indestructible, “un-dieable” body (to use Dr. Johnston’s term). That’s a much taller claim.
4. There was no motivation for the disciples to invent the story of Jesus’ resurrection.
“We [previously] talked about number four: there was no motivation to invent a resurrection narrative. That’s the original contribution to knowledge in Body of Proof.” Earlier on in the interview (10:12), Dr. Johnston declared, “I’ve talked to a lot of marketing people, and if you were trying to market a new religion, … you talk about a tone-deaf way to start a new religion. Female witnesses, your Messiah is killed by Roman crucifixion, your Messiah is resurrected from the dead. Nobody believed in resurrection outside Judaism in the Roman Empire. You could not have started with worse talking points than what the new Christian movement started with, if you wanted to draw a following. The only reason it did, in spite of the marketing bias, … is that’s what actually happened… It was what they experienced, and it was true… There is no psychological motivation to invent an early resurrection narrative about Jesus, if it didn’t happen… Judaism is a coherent religion. They believe that there will be a resurrection at the end of days, a general resurrection… There was no reason to claim that Jesus rose from the dead. You could have honored him as a great prophet, a great thinker, a moral teacher. You had no reason, there was no psychological motivation to go out and about and say, ‘Hey, he really rose from the dead.'”
My comment: What the above argument demonstrates is that the resurrection narrative wasn’t invented out of whole cloth, as there would have been no religious motive for such a fabrication. What the argument fails to establish is that the resurrection narrative is actually historical. Other explanations for the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection are possible: perhaps the unexpected discovery of the empty tomb (after the body had been stolen by grave robbers), coupled with Jesus’ repeated predictions (assuming he made them) that he would be raised back to life, was enough to trigger spontaneous, post-mortem visual and tactile apparitions of Jesus among Peter, James and John, and later the other disciples, causing them to believe that he had indeed risen. (In this connection, see Dale Allison’s discussion of the best skeptical scenario here, at 55:42.) I’m not claiming that this scenario is a likely one; I’ll leave that for others to judge. My point is that belief in Jesus’ resurrection didn’t need a motivation. All it needed was a sufficiently powerful cause.
5. Archaeology supports the reliability of the Gospel accounts
“Number five: … it’s the truth that written and archaeological sources overwhelmingly support the Gospel resurrection narratives, which are embedded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When we study the material culture, we see that archaeology is Christianity’s closest cousin. We see that unlike any other faith [or] belief system in the world, Christianity puts itself to the historical test, and says, ‘Hey! Test us!’ … I go into depth [in my book] about Jewish burial traditions… No Jew would lose track of their loved one… Scholars have sold lots of books by saying that Jesus’ body was likely eaten by stray dogs, that his body was never buried [in a tomb]; it was buried in a mass criminal pit… When we acquaint ourselves with Jewish burial tradition, we understand that you would not lose sight of your brother, even if he was an executed criminal. Even if he died as a crucified criminal, you would not lose track of his bones. We have this from Jehohanan, who was discovered during the reign (sic) of Pontius Pilate. Crucified, had to be buried before nightfall, in accordance with Jewish burial traditions. He was buried with a crucifixion spike stuck through his heel. When you look at the archaeology, I quote Jodi Magness from the University of North Carolina. She’s an atheist archaeologist, but she says, ‘When you look at the Jewish juridical procedure, as presented in the Gospels, … the Gospels get it right.’ And that’s from an archaeologist… We have to appeal to Roman emperors for the same level of textual attestation as Jesus of Nazareth.”
My comment: Dr. Magness’s conclusion is a fairly modest one: “Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.” Moreover, Dr. Magness’s proposal differs from the Gospels in a key respect. In her article, What did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like? (Biblical Archaeology Review, 32:1, January/February 2006; reprinted in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington DC, 2007), Dr. Magness puts forward her own novel interpretation of statements found in the Gospels, that Jesus was laid in a new tomb where no-one had ever been laid (Matthew 27:60, Luke 23:53, John 19:41). She thinks they simply mean that Jesus’ body was laid in a new burial niche in the wall (or loculus) inside Joseph of Arimathea’s family rock tomb:
Joseph’s tomb must have belonged to his family because by definition rock-cut tombs in Jerusalem were family tombs… The Gospel accounts apparently describe Joseph placing Jesus’ body in one of the loculi in his family’s tomb. The “new” tomb mentioned by Matthew probably refers to a previously unused loculus. (2007, p. 8)
However, the Gospels speak of Jesus being laid in “a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid” (Luke 23:53). That’s completely different from a new niche in the wall of an existing tomb, where many bodies have already been laid. Thus even Dr. Magness doesn’t think the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are completely accurate.
I might add that I don’t know of any critical Biblical scholar who believes that Jesus was buried with 100 Roman pounds of myrrh and aloes (or 75 of our pounds), as John 19:39 informs us – an amount literally fit for a king!
But here’s the thing: even if the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial were accurate in all details, how on earth would that establish the truth of Jesus’ resurrection? Burial is a completely natural event; resurrection, a supernatural one. To infer the latter from the former is to make an invalid inference.
Finally, although the textual evidence for Jesus’ existence compares favorably with the textual evidence for the Roman emperors, Dr. Johnston overlooks the fact that we have coins commemorating the Roman emperors. We don’t have any such coins for Jesus.
6. The conversion of two prominent skeptics: Paul and Jesus’ brother James
“Number six is really key, because Jesus appeared to those who believed in him, Jesus appeared to those who doubted him, Jesus appeared to those who opposed him… I talked in detail in [my] chapter about the apostle Paul, and how radical his conversion was, but also, I want to talk about the Lord’s brother, James. When Paul is converted in A.D. 31 or 32, … Paul goes into Arabia, and then after Arabia, he goes to Jerusalem… Paul goes and he spends fifteen days, according to Galatians 1 and 2, with Peter and with James, in the city… And they talk all about the Gospel. Paul wants to make sure he [has] … the Gospel right. And so, here’s the fascinating thing: James did not believe that his brother was the Jewish Messiah until the Resurrection… What would it take for you to die, believing and proclaiming your brother was the Son of God? We know that … Jesus appears to James. That’s 1 Corinthians 15:7… Hyper-critical scholars acknowledge Paul wrote 1 Corinthians  verse 7: ‘And he appeared to James.’ What’s fascinating, James then becomes a pillar of the Church. He then dies in A.D. 62. According to Josephus, he is stoned to death, proclaiming that his brother is the resurrected Son of God, the Messiah. So, wow! So when you look at the ‘hostiles’ that came to Christ – those that doubted him, those that opposed him – it’s compelling evidence.”
My comment: Two quick points. Regarding Paul, we don’t know exactly what he saw when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, but judging from the descriptions in Acts 9:1-9, Acts 22:1-11 and Acts 26:9-18, he seems not to have seen a flesh-and-blood Jesus but a blindingly luminous being of light, as well as hearing a voice from the sky. In other words, whatever he encountered, it was not Jesus’ resurrected body, but an apparition. Therefore it cannot count as evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
Regarding James, Paul’s mention of him in 1 Corinthians 15:7 is indeed authentic, as scholars of all stripes acknowledge. However, as Christian apologist Ryan Turner acknowledges in his online article, An Analysis of the Pre-Pauline Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (October 1, 2009), verse 7 (which refers to Jesus appearing to James) is most likely not part of the original creed: it was appended by Paul. In any case, as Professor Dale C. Allison points out in his widely acclaimed book, The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History (T & T Clark, 2021), we do not know if James’ conversion came before or after Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Perhaps he was already a believer by the time he encountered Jesus. Or perhaps he was only half-hearted in his opposition to Jesus, or possibly, he vacillated back and forth between supporting and opposing Jesus. Professor Allison concludes that “‘conversion’ might be too strong a word for what happened to him” (2021, p. 79). What’s more, details of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to James are scant: we don’t know where or when it happened, what Jesus looked like when he appeared to James, what (if anything) Jesus said to James, or how James felt when he saw Jesus. Finally, Josephus’ narrative of the death of James in A.D. 62 (Antiquities 20, chapter 9) does not say that he was martyred for his faith in Jesus’ resurrection, but rather, for being a breaker of the law.
7. Jesus’ resurrection is the only reason why we are able to make sense of suffering
“Number seven … Jesus’ resurrection is the only reason we can make sense of the suffering in our lives. When we look at Romans 8:18, the apostle Paul said, ‘I don’t count these sufferings worthy to be compared with the glory that I will receive some day, in heaven.’ Paul said …, ‘Better for me to die in Christ than to live.’ He was looking constantly to the hope of the resurrection as the answer to all the suffering… The resurrection is what ultimately makes sense of all the suffering.”
My comment: Here’s a question for Dr. Johnston. Suppose you were living in Judea before the time of Christ, but after the time when the Jewish Scriptures had been compiled. Do you really mean to tell me that you’d be utterly unable to make any sense of the suffering in the world, despite growing up in a society based on ethical monotheism? Or again: suppose you lived in fourth-century B.C. Athens, and you were listening to philosophers debate the existence of a supreme, benevolent God. Do you really mean to say that you think the atheists would have the better of the argument, prior to Jesus’ resurrection? I think not. In that case, all you can possibly mean is that you believe Christianity makes better sense of the suffering we see in the world than other religions (including Judaism and philosophical monotheism). But even if this is true, it, at best, a supplementary reason for believing in Jesus’ resurrection, and it’s a theological reason, not a historical one.
And finally, ere’s a recent 42-minute interview I did with Edouard Tahmizian, Vice-President of Internet Infidels, about my recent article on The Skeptical Zone, Dr. Gavin Ortlund’s defense of C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” trichotomy, and Why I think it won’t work on skeptics. Most of my readers will already be familiar with this post. At about 24:00, when I conclude my presentation, the discussion gets more interesting, and you’ll see me looking up at the camera again, instead of looking down at my notes. Ed also raises some points relating to his Internet Infidels paper, The Origin of Evil (which he’s recently revised), and we talk about Jesus mythicists (whom Ed knows very well). Finally, around 30:30, I talk about life in Japan. Enjoy!