First off, I’d assess the situation. If I find that I am presented with a fundamentalist atheist (or an anti-Christian fundamentalist of any other stripe) who only intends to dismiss, and ridicule my position then I’d walk away. If I find that the questioner is a genuine seeker who wishes to hear the reason for my faith, then I’d happily engage. So, if I encounter the latter then I’d go straight to historical data of the Minimal Facts Approach (MFA). What is the MFA?
The MFA is the historical “bedrock” of what we know about Jesus; facts that are beyond doubt. It is part and parcel of the efforts of New Testament historian Gary Habermas who has, since 1975, sifted through some 3400 sources in French, German, and English. These are sources written by many scholars in the fields of New Testament studies, Jesus studies, and ancient history. Having tallied them he has found out that all these scholars agree on four basic facts regarding Jesus:
1) Jesus was crucified.
2) He was buried.
3) Three days later his tomb was found empty.
4) His disciples, skeptics (James and Paul) had resurrection experiences of the risen Jesus. These people then willingly suffered for this proclamation (some, not all, of them are historically certain to have died). They were sincere.
These four facts are held by almost every expert scholar in the field (99% +), with the exception of fact 3 which is held by around 2/3 of scholars (roughly between 67 – 75 % of scholars). Upon this basis it is best to build the case, and we need to ask ourselves: “What is the best explanation of these facts?”
“It should be noted this approach [MFA] does not assume the inerrancy or divine inspiration of any New Testament document. Rather it merely holds these writings to be historical documents penned during the first century AD.”
–Aaron Brake (‘The Minimal Facts of the Resurrection.’)
With that question in mind I’d then introduce probability. I’d ask: “What would the probability be of these four events (four facts) ever occurring if Jesus had not risen from the dead.” In other words: “How did Jesus’ tomb become empty?” “How did skeptics like Jesus’ James, and the Pharisee Paul (who actually murdered Christians before Jesus appeared to him) become convinced of Jesus’ appearances to them, something which both were martyred for?” “Why were the resurrection appearances of Jesus so diverse?” When we review this the result to the negative (against Jesus’ resurrection) becomes a minuscule probability – there is an extremely small chance that these things (four facts) could all subsequently occur if Jesus had not risen from the dead. A skeptic can hold to this tiny probability, but that would require more faith to maintain than the one that Jesus really did rise from the dead as an act of God. Such a position to the negative is more often than not, not held on evidence, but rather on presuppositional bias (against miracles, Christianity, etc.).
“That is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”
-N.T. Wright. (‘The New Unimproved Jesus.’)
From here I believe the groundwork is set in place. Then I’d expect the seeker/questioner to ask more questions such as: “How do you know that the disciples, Paul, and James didn’t hallucinate?” I’d expect this question simply because it is the most widely argued position against Jesus’ resurrection today. It is also easily refuted, for a number of reasons (I give several powerful reasons why this is the case). Here is just a brief sample of why this theory wouldn’t work:
For instance, hallucinations can’t explain this because the resurrection experiences were physical in nature (Jesus was touched, he ate food etc. Hallucinations are subjective projections from one’s own mind), that it fails to explain the empty tomb, that hallucinations can’t explain the diversity of the resurrection appearances (Jesus appeared at many different times, was seen by different individuals, by groups, at various locales and under various circumstances, and by not only believers, but also by unbelievers like James the brother of Jesus and the Pharisee Paul). Hallucinations fail to explain the origin of belief in Jesus’ resurrection (the disciples, and skeptics believed that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, this was antithetical to 1st century Jewish thinking. If these were hallucinations the disciples and skeptics (Paul, James) would have assumed that Jesus was taken to heaven, but instead they proclaimed his physical resurrection.) These few reasons would in a face-to-face discussion be sufficient enough to repel the hallucination hypothesis.
I think that by the end of the discussion I’d be able to judge the reason(s) behind the questioner’s refusal to accept that Jesus was really raised from the dead. It could be for many reasons. Some skeptics that I’ve engaged with end up revealing emotional trauma (that the church abused them, or that they have had a bad experience with Christians), and this is often the reason why they end up rejecting Christianity, at least by what I have seen. Others are often angry at God for some reason, and this provides opportunity for this anger to be discussed, if possible. I don’t at all suggest that all skeptics approach Jesus’ resurrection in this way via emotional based reasoning, others might simply a priori reject the possibility of miracles, and Jesus’ resurrection happens to be a miracle. This should then be addressed on those grounds. Nevertheless, I’d like to end off with a quote by one of the world’s leading former atheist scholar’s, Antony Flew, who eventually converted to deism (belief in an indifferent, detached deity). Although he did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection, he still had these powerful words to say:
“The evidence for the resurrection [of Jesus] is better than for the claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.” (An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew.’ Gary Habermas.)