Episode 24 - The Minimal Facts Approach

After evaluating much of the data surrounding the reliability of the New Testament, we can take a look at a famous argument called the "minimal facts approach". This method, developed by Gary Habermas, uses only the data that basically all historians agree upon, and shows that the best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead. In this episode, we go over the methodology, and why this method is useful.


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Transcript:


Hello, and welcome once again to the Ultimate Questions podcast.

This podcast is brought to you in association with “Culture at a Crossroads”, which is a podcast hosted by David Mann from Life 100.3. His goal is to help navigate different cultural challenges, and how we can engage with those around us on these pertinent issues. Recently he had an interview with Herbie Kuhn on covering the Raptors, and in the last episode he spoke with the freelance journalist, Dana Lewis, about her experiences covering huge news stories from around the world. You can check out his podcast on all platforms or by going to davidmannmedia.com.


So far with the Ultimate Questions podcast, our focus has been to look at the Bible, focusing on the New Testament, and evaluating the reliability of what we find in there. We’ve looked at manuscript evidence, historiography, the nature of eye witness testimonies, the arguments against the New Testament, and non-Christian sources that talk about Jesus and the Early Church. For the most part, the goal has been to show that the New Testament is actually a very reliable source. We’ve compiled a lot of data, showing how we discern exactly what sorts of events took place in the first century. We do this not purely by blind and irrational faith, but instead, but evaluating the hard evidence, and seeing what the best explanation is. Now, the goal is for us to use all of this data, and see how it comes together.


For today’s episode, we’ll begin this process by taking a look at what is called, “the minimal facts approach”. This is an approach you can read about in, “The case for the resurrection of Jesus”, by Habermas and Licona. Realistically, while the secondary issues in Christianity are still worth discussing and even debating, they are still that, secondary. The primary issue in apologetics is showing that Christianity itself is true. This is sometimes referred to as “mere Christianity”, but I think that term gets a little confusing, because it gets muddled together with CS Lewis’ book called “Mere Christianity”. Basically, the idea here is to find the fundamental and foundational things that make Christianity what it is. So again, while other doctrinal issues are still important, we need to focus in on the things that are of primary importance, and show that they are true. So, for example, while the issue of the End Times and the Second Coming are important, people can hold all sorts of different views of this, and yet, they can still all be Christian. The same goes with things like your views on how election works, whether Genesis is literal, and even whether the Bible is infallible and inerrant. These are very important issues, but again, they are secondary in terms of importance. There’s a famous quote by Augustine on this topic: "In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity." Basically, we should be unified in the essentials, but when there are secondary disagreements, we should still love each other.


So then, with this in mind, what things are of primary importance? What sorts of things are so important, that if you leave them out, you no longer have Christianity? I would have to say I quite strongly agree with Gary Habermas on this point, that the things of crucial important are the deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Habermas puts it, “Jesus is God; Jesus died for me; and Jesus is alive.” If you hold that Jesus didn’t die for humanity’s sins, then you do not have the atonement, and Christian salvation is false. If you don’t have the deity of Christ, then you disagree with the entirety of Christian history and theology. You also severely affect the doctrine of atonement, or how salvation works, in a fatal way. Lastly, if you don’t have the resurrection of Jesus, then you remove the hope of the Church, the defeat of death, and we worship a dead messiah. Again, the deity, death, and resurrection are all absolutely crucial to the Christian faith.

With our focus clearly defined the primary goal of apologetics would then be to show that these things are true, and to argue for them effectively using strong evidence and sound reason. To return again to the “minimal facts approach”, the goal in that case is to show the deity, death, and resurrection of Christ, using only facts that basically everyone can agree with. The point here is that, because everyone comes to the religious debate with their own biases and presuppositions, it’s not helpful if we bring our biases and presuppositions to the table, because no one will agree with our starting point. The purpose of the minimal facts approach is to using the starting place that the skeptic uses. Start at a place that everyone can agree with, and from there, show that Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus rose from the dead, and Jesus claimed to be God, and the Early Church understood Jesus to have said He is God, and Jesus told us that He was dying for our sins, then ultimately, the fact that Jesus rose from the dead kind of gives some credibility to His claims. In other words, as Habermas phrases it, this argument uses a “lowest common denominator” approach, where we look at the most skeptical of academic historians and allow them to dictate the starting place. In some cases, apologists think that this approach is actually giving too much to the skeptic, but we can talk about that in future episodes.


Now it’s worth elaborating on what we mean by starting with the skeptic’s presuppositions, or, starting with the facts we can all agree upon. After all, anyone could simply say “everything is false”, or, “all the data you just gave me, I disagree with all of it”. However, that’s not terribly rational, so where do we draw the line? What Habermas has done, is he has systematically studied the historians that research the first century, Christianity, Jesus, et cetera, and he has compiled the data, to see how many people agree with each historical fact. He has gathered this information, and presented a few facts that, basically, everyone agrees with. Now again, we need to elaborate on what we mean by “everyone”. Here, only scholars who study the relevant fields are qualified to speak on this. After all, your uncle who gets drunk at family gatherings and goes on incoherent rants doesn’t exactly get to have a say in what sorts of things are strong facts of history. For our interests, even people like Richard Dawkins don’t really count. This is because, even though Richard Dawkins is a scholar, and has written professionally and academically, he is a scholar in an unrelated field. Dawkins may be a very good biologist, but he has absolutely no training or credentials in history.


The world famous physicist Richard Feynman said it best when he said, “I believe that a scientist looking at non-scientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy — and when he talks about a non-scientific matter, he will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.” So in our discussion of the events surrounding Jesus’ life, we’re going to look at historians. Also, it’s important to note we will definitely not consider only Christian historians. We’re going to count the opinions and work of all historians, including the most skeptical. The way Habermas puts it is this, the only facts we’ll use are ones that “are well evidenced and nearly every scholar accepts them.” The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, it helps us not get sidetracked by secondary issues, and secondly, it helps even the most rigid skeptic follow the argument, since they have to agree with the premises.


For that first point, it helps us not get side-tracked. A very common problem in apologetics, is that, a skeptic will present a challenge to the Christian, and when the Christian gives their response, undoubtedly at some point they will refer to the Bible. The skeptic then, being skeptical, leans back in their chair and says, “that’s all well and good, but I don’t trust the Bible.” In a way, this makes perfect sense, because if an argument rests upon the Bible being reliable, then you have to prove that the Bible is trustworthy before you can continue the conversation. In the vast majority of cases, the skeptic will deliberately never admit the Bible is reliable, no matter how much evidence is presented. With the minimal facts approach, since it uses only those historical facts that basically all historians agree on, it doesn’t actually require that the Bible be reliable. If the skeptic interrupts the argument and says, “you’re talking about things in the Bible, I don’t trust the Bible”, the Christian’s response can easily be, “so what? I’m not asking you to trust the Bible, I’m asking you to trust the entire body of scholarly historians, including the most skeptical and anti-Christian historians out there. They all agree with the points I’m making.” In this way, no matter the complaint of the skeptic, they can’t escape out of the argument and ignore the rationality. They can say, “The Bible has errors!” And yet my argument stands. “The Bible isn’t inspired!” And yet my argument stands. “The Bible is written by a bunch of stupid fishermen who knew nothing of science!” And yet my argument stands. This form of argument doesn’t depend on the reliability of the Bible, so all these sorts of charges can be brought forth, and the Christian can simply say, “so what? That doesn’t impact my conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead.” In this way, we don’t get sidetracked into all these secondary issues, even though those secondary issues are important, and should be discussed and debated at some point. Instead, we focus on what’s of primary importance, and keep our focus on that important primary issue; did Jesus rise from the dead?


The second reason I gave for the minimal facts approach is that it helps even the most skeptical person follow the argument. Because the premises the minimal facts approach uses are agreed upon by basically all historians, regardless of how skeptical they are, then the person must follow the premises through to the conclusion of the argument. The argument is framed by showing the minimal facts that everyone agrees with, and then saying that the best explanation of this data is that Jesus actually rose from the dead. In order to disagree with the conclusion, the skeptic must do one of two things. The first thing they could do is disagree with the premises, which would require that they spit in the face of basically every historian in the world, which would be irrational. Essentially, they would be saying that they, a person untrained in history, who has written no academic work on the subject, knows better than everyone else in the world who is a specialist and authority in the field. That’s not just irrational, that’s stupid to the point of extreme arrogance. The second thing they could do is they could try to give a better explanation of the minimal facts. We will go into those other explanations in future episodes. For now though, the important thing is that the minimal facts approach is useful, because it helps keep the skeptic on track with the argument, because they can agree with the premises. If they disagree with any of our premises, then they have no reason to follow through to the conclusion. However, if they do agree with our premises, then they have to actually consider the conclusion, and appreciate what’s being said, at the risk of simply being an irrational slave to their own biases.


Now even after this description, this might seem like an incredibly odd way to go about it. Do we have to stop thinking the Bible is reliable? Or do we have to avoid ever using the Bible? Not at all. Firstly, I do personally hold that the Bible is reliable, and that it’s the Word of God. The point here is, I don’t expect a skeptic to agree with me there, so why would I have that as a starting point, knowing that I’ll be leaving the skeptic behind? If I want to be convincing to a non-Christian, I can’t start with Christian assumptions that no one else will agree with. The topic of the reliability of the Bible is still very much worth discussing, after all, I’ve spent nearly all of the previous episodes of the podcast looking at the reliability of the New Testament! The point here is that, since we want to be convincing to non-Christians, we need to treat the Bible just like any other ancient book, and submit it to the same amount of scrutiny and criticism that we would give to any other text. While, for Christians, it may be difficult to step outside of our biases, I think it’s necessary in order to think like skeptics think, so that we can be truly convincing, and hopefully show people that Jesus really does love them enough to die for them, and that Jesus really was resurrected, and thus defeated death, giving us a hope for the future, and we do all of this using data that everyone should agree with.


As I mentioned earlier, this “minimal facts approach” we’re looking at is a method developed by Gary Habermas, who has probably studied the resurrection more than anyone else. To show you what kind of an impact this argument has on people, we can turn to a famous dialogue between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, who was one of the world’s best and most famous atheistic philosophers, who later switched his view to deism. The two of them were friends, and had a debate on the resurrection. At the end of it, another world famous non-Christian philosopher, Charles Hartshorne, made this comment: “I can neither explain away the evidences to which Habermas appeals, nor can I simply agree with Flew’s positions. … My metaphysical bias is against resurrections.” He looked at the evidence and argumentation that the best of both sides had to offer, and he had to admit, the evidence is far in favour of the resurrection of Jesus. However, he just fell back on his bias, basically saying, “I just don’t want to believe it, so I won’t”. He didn’t go where the evidence lead him. For me personally, I’ve shared the minimal facts approach many times with non-Christians. It’s been interesting to me, on a number of occasions, where the person will be perplexed, saying that Christianity is far more reasonable than they expected. When I ask them how they respond to the argument, they don’t really know, because the evidence seems so strongly to be in favour of the resurrection, something they previously would have thought to be ridiculous.


So, now that you hopefully have an appreciation for exactly how the argument works, and why it can be good to start with this method, the big question comes out: what exactly are these minimal facts that basically every historian agrees with? Habermas focuses on five of these facts: Jesus died by crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples at least “believed” that He rose from the dead and appeared to them, Paul went from persecuting the Christians to being one of the leaders of the Church after a dramatic experience of some kind, and that James, the brother of Jesus, went from being a skeptic, to actually believing his brother was and is God who had died for his sins. The last of the facts isn’t necessarily considered a “minimal fact” by Habermas, because only about 75% of scholars agree with it, but it’s still worth consideration, and that is that the tomb of Jesus was found empty. From these facts, it is argued that the best explanation of all the data is that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Next week, we will consider these facts, and how they work towards the conclusion, and in future episodes, we will evaluate many counter arguments against this, where skeptics try and give other explanations to make sense of the data. So I hope you’ll join me next time as we look at the facts regarding the resurrection, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast.


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