Christians around the world are just a couple weeks away from celebrating what they consider the most important event in human history: the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
But for skeptics around the world, the celebration of Easter marks, at best, a mass confusion—delusion at worst.
So who is right? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Does the Resurrection make the best sense of the available evidence, or do we have better alternatives?
Those are the questions that Carl E. Olson probes in his new book, Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? Questions and Answers about the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute, 2016).
Today, Brandon Vogt sits down with Carl to ask about the book, some common misunderstandings about the Resurrection, and whether he thinks his arguments will convince skeptics.
BRANDON: A short review of Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? on Google Books describes your book as “Fundamentalist obscurantist dribble” and then states: “Don’t waste your time unless you like slanted deluded nonsense.” How does that make you feel?
CARL OLSON: Does it matter how I feel?
BRANDON: No. But feelings are big these days.
CARL OLSON: Well, I find it amusing.
CARL OLSON: In a former, younger life I was a pretty good basketball player. However, I was only an average dribbler. So I’m not sure the, uh, reviewer is accurate or informed on that count. More to the point, and a more seriously, I am actually a former Fundamentalist. I know a bit about Fundamentalism—I even wrote an entire book about premillennial dispensationalism, which has long been a key theological perspective among many American Fundamentalists.
BRANDON: But you’re a Catholic now…
CARL OLSON: Yes. In fact, this Easter marks the twentieth anniversary of my wife and I entering the Catholic Church. I grew up in a Fundamentalist home and then attended an Evangelical Bible College; my wife has a similar background.
BRANDON: How does that background inform or shape your understanding of the Resurrection?
CARL OLSON: While Catholics disagree with Fundamentalists about a number of important topics, the core belief in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ is something we certainly agree on. It is a fundamental belief, after all, of all orthodox Christians, going right back to the beginning of Christianity. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, a faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by Tradition; established by the documents of the New Testament; and preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross…” (par 638). Of course, Fundamentalists have issues with the word “Tradition”, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Near the end of my time in high school and then during my college years, I began to develop an interest in apologetics, especially as I began to meet and spend time with people who either had no interest in Christianity or who were openly antagonistic toward it. For example, in my first year of college I had an art professor who went on a rant one day about the “secret gospels” and how they told us “the truth” about the “real Jesus”. I knew just enough to know he was spouting silliness, but not enough to really respond with specifics.
In my two years at Briercrest Bible College, I took courses in apologetics and Scripture, and began to read fairly widely in both fields, something I’ve done ever since. And so I refer to and quote often from the works of scholars such as N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Dale Allison, Craig Evans, Michael Licona, Martin Hengel, Craig Keener, and many others, none of whom are Catholic. The fact is, much of the best New Testament scholarship in recent decades has been done by various Evangelical scholars, and I am certainly thankful for their impressive and helpful work. The Resurrection, which is of course part of the greater mystery of the Incarnation, is something that Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox can stand together on, learning from one another in the process.
In sum, to come full circle: if what I say in my book about the Resurrection is “Fundamentalist,” then Peter, Paul, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Pascal, Newman, Wesley, Barth, C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Pope Francis—to name just a very few—are all “Fundamentalists”.
BRANDON: Are you implying that your book is not the work of an obscurantist party hack desperate to uphold a belief in deluded nonsense that rests on legends, myths, and cleverly devised tales?
CARL OLSON: I sense that is something of a loaded question, but I’m happy to answer in the negative.
BRANDON: Fair enough. Why, then, did you write the book?
CARL OLSON: The book was originally conceived as a possible study guide to a major motion picture about the Resurrection. That didn’t work out, but we went ahead with it for a couple of reasons. The first is that there really hasn’t been a work of popular Catholic apologetics focusing on the Resurrection to be published in quite some time. Certainly there have been works of Catholic apologetics that contain helpful chapters or sections on the topic—for example, Dr. Brant Pitre’s excellent new book The Case for Jesus(which I mention in my book)—but none that focus exclusively on it.
Secondly, my sense has long been that quite a few Catholics (and other Christians as well) view the Resurrection as something we simply accept by faith; that is, we really don’t have a way to argue for it using evidence, facts, and logic. That is, in my estimation, a very serious mistake.
Thirdly, anyone familiar with New Testament scholarship knows there is an incredible amount of recent and new literature about topics directly or indirectly relating to the Resurrection. Most people, for obvious reasons, simply cannot keep up with it all; more importantly, it can be so confusing and intimidating that many good and helpful things can be missed. And, conversely, many questionable or problematic popular books—by authors such as Bart Ehrman, Deepak Chopra, John Shelby Spong, Reza Aslan—receive a lot of time and attention from the secular media. My book seeks to be an introductory guide through some of the jungle.
BRANDON: Why did you choose to use a Q&A format in the book?
CARL OLSON: That was partially because we thought it might be a study guide. But I think it works well for a popular work on the topic because, again, there is so much to cover and using 75 or so questions helps make it more “bite-sized” for readers. Also, and equally important, I wanted the book to be conversational in nature, with the questions coming from a more skeptical, even antagonistic, perspective.
BRANDON: How did you arrive at the questions? What are some examples?
CARL OLSON: Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press and a very fine apologist, and I came up with the questions, drawing on our studies and experiences, which I then organized into chapters.
For example, in the opening chapter (“What’s the Point?”), there is this question: “But why this fixation on the Resurrection? Why is it important whether Jesus rose from the dead—especially when it seems to be entirely a matter of faith?”
In the chapter on the historical reliability of the Gospels, there is this question: “You mentioned that the Gospels are some form of biography. But wouldn’t you agree that trustworthy biographies are built on facts and eye witness accounts, not on stories told by illiterate fishermen decades after the events? Why shouldn’t the Gospels, and their accounts of Jesus’s life—especially miraculous elements—be viewed with suspicion?”
And in chapter titled “Physical and Spiritual”, there is a series of questions about the nature of Christ’s body, including this question: “Paul also says that the ‘first Adam became a living being,’ quoting Genesis 2:7, while the last Adam, Jesus, became ‘a life-giving spirit’ (1 Cor 15:45). Doesn’t this suggest that the risen Jesus was a spirit?” And so forth.
BRANDON: Does the book assume the historical reliability of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament?
CARL OLSON: On the contrary, rather than start with such an assumption, the book argues that it is reasonable to take the Gospels seriously as historical documents. Although I believe in that Scripture, as Dei Verbum states, was “written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (par 11), the book does not argue for that belief. One reason is because such an argument would require an entire book in itself; another is that I wanted to emphasize, throughout the book, that the testimony and accounts presented in the Gospel and other New Testament books, can and should be taken seriously as works conveying history and facts about real events and people in first century Palestine. As I argue in the book, there are a number of essential events in the Gospels that historians across the spectrums of faith and personal philosophy accept as real events, based on the criteria used by scholars in studying ancient texts.
BRANDON: But weren’t the writers of the New Testament books biased?
CARL OLSON: Yes, of course, if by “bias” we meaning holding to certain convictions and beliefs about what they had witnessed, seen, and heard. As Craig Keener points out, contrary to what some modern writers assume, the “bias” of the gospel writers doesn’t mean their biographies of Christ are novelistic or fictional. All ancient historians had a certain “bias”; in fact, all historians have a “bias,” if by that we mean coming from a certain perspective and holding specific beliefs about the subject at hand.
The key is recognizing and acknowledging one’s perspectives—or what Michael R. Licona calls “horizons”—in assessing information, analyzing texts, and reaching conclusions. And so it is no surprise that historians and other scholars end up with such a wide array of understandings of who Jesus was and what he did, but often revealing more, arguably, about themselves than about Jesus.
BRANDON: What are, in your opinion, some of the common mistakes or misunderstandings made about the Resurrection?
CARL OLSON: There are quite a few! Here are a couple that stand out to me: First, many people seem to miss how compressed of time period is involved when discussing the events described in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s writings. Put another way, there is often this sense that belief in the Resurrection developed over many, many decades (if not centuries), as in some sort of fog. But the evidence consistently points to a very compressed period of time. The German New Testament scholar Martin Hengel, for instance, notes that it is widely agreed that Jesus probably died in April of A.D. 30, and that Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus took place between A.D. 32 and 34—and then Paul’s letters were written between A.D. 50 and A.D. 57. This means that Paul—who had been persecuting the first Christians—was spending time with Peter, the head apostle, within just a few years of the Resurrection (cf. Gal 1:18).
As Hengel notes, this means that within the space of less than two decades, Paul emerged with a fully formed Christology that contains many clear references to pre‐Pauline language, titles, and theological assertions (such as, for instance, the great Christological hymn in Philippians 2:5–11). “In essentials,” Hengel writes, “more happened in Christology within these few years”—that is, from A.D. 32 to A.D. 50—“than in the whole subsequent seven hundred years of church history.” But, as Hengel observes, rather dryly, “If we look through some works on the history of earliest Christianity we might get the impression that people in them had declared war on chronology.” And I think that is most assuredly the case in many instances.
Secondly, many people apparently assume that there are all sorts of things that could have happened: “We really can’t know what happened!” But, in fact, there are only a certain number of limited options. To begin with, Jesus either rose from the dead or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then there are just a few possibilities: he was actually resuscitated and later died, the disciples made it all up, they suffered a group hallucination, or some variation thereof. There is also the “spiritual Resurrection” theory, which has been quite popular since the Enlightenment era. The book examines each of these and argues that each is seriously lacking.
Finally, there is the common (and understandable) argument that since there are apparently differing details in the post-Resurrection accounts, those accounts are either questionable or cannot be trusted at all. This is a pretty involved issue, but one thing I point out is that skeptics usually fixate on this or that detail and completely ignore the many agreements and cohesive nature, overall, of what is a most stunning and confusing event.
BRANDON: So you think skeptics are wrong to raise those questions?
CARL OLSON: Not at all! Those are good questions. And that’s why they are in the book. But my conviction is that in a secular world, which is what we live in here in the West, skepticism cuts both ways. And that, as odd as it might sound, is good news. In other words, while skeptics and secular fundamentalists often act as if their constant appeals to science and reason have adequately explained every aspect of reality, that is only so much “secularist spin,” which actually refuses to think outside its own rather limited, materialist box. In other words, such secularists have simply created a narrative based on their materialist, scientistic assumptions but without actually offering either real proof or satisfying explanations for a whole host of things. So, yes, Christians have questions to answer—and they’ve been answering them since that Pentecost following the Resurrection. But so do the skeptics.
BRANDON: Do you think, then, that your book will convince skeptics?
CARL OLSON: I think the book presents evidence and arguments demonstrating that belief in the Resurrection is not irrational, or anti-historical, or “fundamentalist”. Faith is different from reason, but it is never unreasonable or illogical; it is supra-rational. I like to think of the Resurrection as the “Big Bang” within history, changing everything that follows it while also raising startling questions that every one should contemplate and ponder. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”