The Resurrection of Jesus In Contemporary Theology

by Gary R. Habermas

During  my several decades of specializing in studies regarding the resurrection of Jesus, many theological and philosophical trends have come and g one. Why broad changes take place is any field of study is an intriguing  study  in  itself,  though h  this is not  the

emphasis of this essay. Rather, in this article, we will demarcate a half dozen new “resurrection-conducive   emphases”  that  have emerged fairly recently, most of which have contributed to the more positive, scholarly assessment of this e vent.

To  begin  with a couple of examples from personal experience, while attending graduate school in the early 1970s, if a classmate believed in the empty tomb and/or bodily appearances of Jesus, that individual could not only be numbered among a small minority of researchers, but could often be identified as  either an evangelical or a conservative Catholic. On the other hand, not too many years later, both views now seem to be the majority stances ! Did new data emerge during  this time ?  Did  the  times simply change?  Perhaps neither, both, or still other reasons can best account for these shifts, but something definitely has been happening .

As noted, we will enumerate a half dozen of these new directions that  have dominated research in recent years.  Tog ether, the y  will help to explain some of the developments throughout the current theological and philosophical terrain.


While not necessarily the case throughout the rest of the world, philosophical Naturalism has been the  dominant  world view expressed in western universities for quite some time. Along with this  outlook there  was  often  a  disparaging  of  certain religious, metaphysical, or related positions,  especially those that accept the reality of supernatural occurrences.

However, during  the  last  two or three decades, both  scientific and popular developments that oppose the dominant Naturalistic views have made the news frequently. Some of these include the hug e popularity of Near-Death Experiences, documentaries and videos on the intricate levels of design in nature, several detailed studies of unexplained medical healing s, at least a couple of successful double- blind prayer experiments, as well as cognitive studies dealing with what some researchers have dubbed the “God spot” in the human brain  that  seems  to  be  consistent with  the  desire for  religious experiences. As recent polls have indicated, the cumulative effect of these and other developments has been to wear down the confidence that there is no reality beyond this world.

In  spite  of  what  the y  may   be  taught  in  their  college  classes, students  today are increasingly much more religious,  though not in an institutional   sense. Perhaps some of this has to do with the apparent aggregate influence of these recent developments  in the West, elevating the positive level of belief in supernatural or religious topics such  as God’s  existence,  life after death, the importance of morality, prayer, worship,  and at least a greater interest in the belief in miracles. In turn, these attitudes have no doubt created more of an open atmosphere when Christians have proclaimed beliefs like the resurrection.


During  the  early to  mid-twentieth century,  many   of the  most influential  theological  voices, such   as  Karl  Barth  and  Rudolf Bultmann, frequently disparaged  any  interest in  historical Jesus studies. Often dubbed the “No Quest” period, historical studies and especially the study of any evidences for faith were often treated with near-disgust. In the middle of the century, this negativity gave way to a more limited and short-lived movement known as the Second Quest for the Historical Jesus, largely instigated by Bultmann’s own students, who recognized that history was still a necessary cognate of faith, at least in the Judeo – Christian tradition.

Out of this milieu, the last  quarter of the century witnessed   the birth of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus. Beg inning with several studies by major scholars, this movement has bloomed into the  dominant  topic  in  contemporary  theological and  historical studies. Engaging liberal, moderate, and conservative scholars across the board, the chief idea uniting this widespread trend is to anchor Jesus within the Jewish history, culture, and practices of his day. As was the case in the nineteenth century during  the dominant reign of the First Quest for the Historical Jesus, a plethora of books have been published in recent years with the words “Historical Jesus” located somewhere in the title.

With  the  current emphasis on  what can be known historically about Jesus’s  life and teaching s,  virtually no subject  is off limits. Good arguments and insights get published no matter how liberal or conservative the author may be. Yet another example that tended to  single  out  conservative graduate  students  in  the  1970s was considering  Jesus to be a miracle-worker and exorcist. Yet at present, this realization is currently conceded in some sense by virtually every scholar writing today, no matter how skeptical ! So the atmosphere is quite open to resurrection  studies, as well.


While   the   scholarly  opinion   regarding   the   four   canonical Gospels is still  not  close to  the  level of  critical preference for Paul’s  “authentic epistles,”  there seems to be a g rowing recognition emerging , that the Gospels are at least better historical sources than was often acknowledged in earlier decades. Largely augmented by the implementation and application of the historical rules known as the critical criteria—in spite of some recent doubts concerning these—the situation beg an looking up, at least slightly.

Cambridge University  scholar Richard Bauckham’s  volume Jesus and the  Eyewitnesses  (2008) probably provided the greatest boost here, indicating  that  more than  just  American evangelicals and conservative Catholic scholars alone were involved in these sorts of historical studies. Along with Bauckham’s work is an earlier text by another British author, Richard Burridge’s What are the Gospels? (1992),  which championed the  argument  that  all four  Gospels are closer to  Greco -Roman biographies than  previously  thought, bringing these texts more into a recognizable historical setting .

Strangely enough, a hint in a different direction was contributed by  a few agnostic and other wise quite skeptical New Testament commentators who have moved back the date for one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. Mark’s  date of composition has been placed as far back as 40 AD or a little later, with Matthew being dated not long  after ward.  To  be sure,  these last  developments  are certainly minority moves,  at least  at present, and do not insure widespread agreement on the Gospel dates.  Yet overall,  the combined upshot of these developments may still portend a thaw in the treatment of the Gospels, creating an atmosphere that is even more conducive to resurrection studies.


This trend beg an a little earlier than the others, and takes a little more detail to unpack . One of the most exciting questions that can be asked regarding  the embryonic church concerns  the nature of the earliest apostolic preaching  and teaching  prior to the writing of the very first New Testament book . Our best windows into this approximately  t went y-year  period of time are the dozens of early creedal texts that made their way chiefly  into the New Testament epistles, but which actually date from much earlier.

While not exactly synonymous  terms,  these creeds or traditions are generally brief saying s that were easily memorized  and passed on, even in illiterate cultures. That was crucial in that it is now thought that the majority of Jesus’s listeners were probably illiterate. So these creeds served in different capacities, such as preaching and teaching , along with liturgical and confessional situations where the y could be remembered easily.

Being able to locate these passages as the y are embedded in New Testament texts  comes from a variety  of signs  such  as  sentence structure,  cadence, syntactical breaks, words not used elsewhere by the same author, and sometimes even a direct introductory comment that identifies these words specifically as traditions (such as used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23 and 15:3).

Perhaps amazingly to some, scholars pretty much agree where these creedal texts are located. Key examples  include Romans 1:3-4 and 10:9, along with 1 Corinthians 8:6 and 15:3-7. A long er text is found in Philippians 2:6-11, frequently held to be an early Christian hymn. Brief sermon summaries are located in Acts 1-5, 10, 13, and 17.

The importance of these brief reports can hardly be overestimated. Even agnostic and other skeptical New Testament scholars regularly date some of these traditional passages back into the 30s AD, often within just a year or two after the crucifixion itself ! Further, in the vast majority of cases, the subject matter of these snippets concerns the gospel message of the deity,  death, and resurrection of Jesus, precisely at the center of the Christian faith.

For example, the creed in 1 Corinthians  15:3-7 is almost always treated as  being  pre-Pauline, indicating  that  it  actually predates Paul’s  conversion,  placing  it at only one or two years after Jesus’s crucifixion. Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman asks how we can get any closer to the eyewitnesses than this?1  Together, these items combine to provide the strong est testimony  available for the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Combined with a few of the Acts sermon summaries, this is quite a powerful combination.


We have remarked that, just a few decades ago, the empty  tomb was widely thought to be a legendary report and had few defenders beyond evangelical and more conservative Catholic scholars. Today it  is the  majority  position among  contemporary  New Testament commentators that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty just slightly later.

What  accounts  for this  rather  drastic  scholarly shift?  A large portion of the new attitude is due to the reassessment of the Gospels mentioned above. More particularly, the application of the critical criteria revealed several major considerations that favor the facility of the empty tomb.  Most notably,  no one attempting to tell this story later and wishing to be believed would make the women their chief witnesses, due to the low esteem in the ancient Mediterranean world for women as official witnesses. It would simply have been too embarrassing of a move.

This is especially the case when one could just as easily have written the apostles or even the Jewish leaders into the original script as the discoverers of the empty tomb. Further,  the fact that four out of four Gospel authors took the same route is absolutely unfathomable! In fact, most researchers conclude that it can basically signify only one thing: the authors told the story  that way because  that is exactly what happened!

As a result, this insight provided by the fact of the female testimony became one of the chief reasons  why most scholars have come to recognize the strength of the empty tomb accounts. But even beyond this case of embarrassment,  there are many  additional critical pointers to the historicity of the empty tomb that have also emerged from the application of these critical rules along with other factors.2Similar sorts of reasons also have been recognized on behalf of Jesus’s resurrection appearances.3


The other example mentioned earlier was  that  of Jesus’s  bodily appearances.  A few decades ago, perhaps the  most popular view among critical scholars was that Jesus really rose from the dead and actually appeared to his followers, though he did so in less than a fully physical body.  Perhaps Jesus’s  appearances  looked more like holograms or some sort of light visions. It is questionable according to such a notion whether or not Jesus’s body could have been touched by his followers. Nonetheless,  while Jesus was truly there with his disciples and was really alive, he did not possess a physical body.

But today the dominant view seems to have shifted in the direction of bodily appearances. A mediating position, chiefly among critical scholars who personally reject the resurrection e vent itself, is that at least  the New Testament writers themselves  believed that Jesus’s appearances occurred in a real body. Even this is also a change from where scholarship  was not long ago.

This shift to affirming the bodily nature of Jesus’s appearances also occurred for a variety of reasons, perhaps chief among them being studies on the influence of the majority Jewish  position at that time regarding the bodily resurrection of the righteous  dead, as well as the emergence of several major studies championing  the position that many key New Testament texts strongly supported this position regarding Jesus’s resurrection  body, as well.

None  of these studies  was  more influential that  N.T.  Wright’s hundreds of pages devoted to a painstaking analysis that detailed the meaning of the term “resurrection” and its cognate terms in the ancient world. Wright concluded after a meticulous search that whenever these words were employed throughout the period from prior to the rise of Christianity up until the end of the second century AD,  whether among Christians,  Jews, or others, the terms always referenced  bodily events. While other views of the afterlife were certainly held during this time, the word “resurrection” was not used to describe those other positions,  as it was reserved for bodily life.4


Influential New Testament historian E .P.  Sanders described the overall consensus critical position by providing a list of the historical items that are regularly postulated regarding Jesus’s life. Among the facts that Sanders lists is the majority critical concession that Jesus actually appeared to his followers  in some form after his death!5

Although Sanders may be overly optimistic here, this general milieu is still a long way from the majority position in the scholarly arena just a few decades ago. But these changes have been embraced due to some of the scholarly developments that we have described in this article.

We have attempted here to outline some of the main contributions to the changing scene of resurrection studies in recent decades. The upshot of these and other developments  generally has been quite favorable towards the historicity of this e vent, which has produced some fertile g round for ongoing studies. This is a good time to be studying the subject of Jesus’s resurrection.
About the Author
GARY R. HABERMAS, PhD, is Distinguished Research Professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Liberty University. He has also written more than 100 publications on the historical Jesus.

1Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 144-148, especially 145.
2 GaryR . Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield,
2003), 23-24.
3Ibid., 19-31.
4Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 144-148, especially 145.
5The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993), 11, 13, 278, 280.

 [Editor’s Note: Resurrection image from Luca Giordano’s Resurrection, c. 1665, found at Wikipedia Commons.]