No witnesses watched Timothy McVeigh load two tons of fertilizer-based
explosives into a Ryder rental truck. Nobody saw him drive the vehicle to the
front of the federal building in Oklahoma City and detonate the bomb, killing
168 people. No video camera captured an image of him fleeing the
Yet a jury was able to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that McVeigh
was guilty of the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. Why: Because
fact by fact, exhibit by exhibit, witness by witness, prosecutors used
circumstantial evidence to build an airtight case against him.
Circumstantial evidence is made up of indirect facts from which
inferences can be rationally drawn. Its cumulative effect can be every bit as
strong-and in many instances even more potent-than eyewitness
I knew that, if an event as extraordinary as the resurrection of Jesus
had really occurred, history would be littered with indirect evidence backing
That quest took me to southern California, to the office of a professor
who masterfully blends expertise in history, philosophy and science.
While J.P. Moreland is a well-known philosopher (with a doctorate from the
University of Southern California) and is comfortable navigating the conceptual
worlds of Kant and Kierkegaard, he doesn't dwell exclusively in the abstract.
His background in science (he has a chemistry degree from the University of
Missouri) and mastery of history (as demonstrated by his excellent book
Scaling the Secular City) anchor him in the everyday world and prevent
him from floating into purely ethereal thinking.
His articles have been published in more than 30 professional journals, and
he has written, co-authored or edited a dozen books.
I began our interview with a point-blank challenge: "Can you give me five
pieces of circumstantial evidence that convince you Jesus rose from the
"When Jesus was crucified," Moreland began, "His followers were discouraged
and depressed. They no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God,
because they believed anyone crucified was accursed by God. They also had been
taught that God would not let His Messiah suffer death. So they dispersed. The
Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.
"Then, after a short period of time, we see them abandoning their
occupations, regathering and committing themselves to spreading a very specific
message-that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God Who died on a cross, returned
to life, and was seen alive by them.
"And they were willing to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming this,
without any payoff from a human point of view. It's not as though there were a
mansion awaiting them on the Mediterranean. They faced a life of hardship. They
often went without food, slept exposed to the elements, were ridiculed, beaten
and imprisoned. And finally, most of them were executed in torturous ways.
"For what? For good intentions? No, because they were convinced beyond a
shadow of a doubt that they had seen Jesus Christ alive from the dead."
I interrupted with a "Yes, but..." objection. "Yes," I agreed, "they were
willing to die for their beliefs. But," I added, "so have Muslims and Mormons
and followers of Jim Jones, and David Koresh. This may show that they were
fanatical, but let's face it: it doesn't prove that what they believed is
"Wait a minute-think carefully about the difference," Moreland insisted as
he swiveled to face me head-on, planting both of his feet firmly on the
"Muslims might be willing to die for their belief that Allah revealed
himself to Muhammad, but his revelation was not done in a publicly observable
way. So they could be wrong about it. They may sincerely think it's true, but
they can't know for a fact, because they didn't witness it themselves.
"However, the apostles were willing to die for something they had seen with
their own eyes and touched with their own hands. They were in a unique position
not to just believe Jesus rose from the dead but to know for sure. And when
you've got 11 credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain
and a lot to lose, who all agree they observed something with their own
eyes-now you've got some difficulty explaining that away."
"Okay, I'm convinced on that one," I said. "But what else do you have?"
"Another piece of circumstantial evidence," Moreland went on, "is that there
were hardened skeptics who didn't believe in Jesus before His crucifixion-and
were to some degree dead-set against Christianity-who turned around and adopted
the Christian faith after Jesus' death. There's no good reason for this apart
from them having experienced the resurrected Christ."
"You're obviously talking about James, the brother of Jesus, and Saul of
Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul," I said. "But do you really have any
credible evidence that James had been a skeptic of Jesus?"
"Yes, I do," he said. "The gospels tell us Jesus' family, including James,
were embarrassed by what He was claiming to be. They didn't believe in Him;
they confronted Him. In ancient Judaism it was highly embarrassing for a
rabbi's family not to accept him. Therefore the gospel writers would have no
motive for fabricating this skepticism if it weren't true.
"Later the historian Josephus tells us that James, the brother of Jesus, who
was the leader of the Jerusalem church, was stoned to death because of his
belief in his brother. Why did James's life change? Paul tells us: the
resurrected Jesus appeared to him. There's no other explanation."
Indeed, none jumped to mind. "And Saul?" I asked.
"As a Pharisee, he hated anything that disrupted the traditions of the
Jewish people. To him, this new counter movement called Christianity would have
been the height of disloyalty. In fact, he worked out his frustration by
executing Christians when he had a chance," Moreland replied.
"Suddenly he doesn't just ease off Christians but joins their movement! How
did this happen? Well, everyone agrees Paul wrote Galatians, and he tells us
himself in that letter what caused him to take a 180-degree turn and become the
chief proponent of the Christian faith. By his own pen he says he saw the risen
Christ and heard Christ appoint him to be one of His followers.
"Remember," he said, "it's not the simple fact that Paul changed his views.
You have to explain how he had this particular change of belief that completely
went against his upbringing; how he saw the risen Christ in a public event that
was witnessed by others, even though they didn't understand it; and how he
performed miracles to back up his claim to being an apostle."
"At the time of Jesus, the Jews had been persecuted for 700 years by the
Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and now by the Greeks and the Romans,"
Moreland explained. "Many Jews had been scattered and lived as captives in
these other nations.
"However, we still see Jews today, while we don't see Hittites, Perizzites,
Ammonites, Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians and other people who had been
living in that time. Why? Because these people got captured by other nations,
intermarried and lost their national identity.
"Why didn't that happen to the Jews? Because the things that made the Jews,
Jews-the social structures that gave them their national identity-were
important to them. The Jews would pass these structures down to their children,
celebrate them in synagogue meetings every Sabbath, and reinforce them with
their rituals, because they knew if they didn't, there soon would be no Jews
left. They would be assimilated into the cultures that captured them.
"And there's another reason why these social institutions were so important:
they believed these institutions were entrusted to them by God. They believed
that to abandon these institutions would be to risk their souls being damned to
hell after death.
"Now a rabbi named Jesus appears from a lower-class region. He teaches for
three years, gathers a following of lower- and middle-class people, gets in
trouble with the authorities and gets crucified along with 30,000 other Jewish
men who are executed during this time period.
"But five weeks after He's crucified, more than 10,000 Jews are following
Him and claiming that He is the initiator of a new religion. And get this:
They're willing to give up or alter all five of the social institutions that
they have been taught since childhood have such importance both sociologically
"First," he said, "they had been taught ever since the time of Abraham and
Moses that they needed to offer an animal sacrifice on a yearly basis to atone
for their sins. God would transfer their sins to that animal, and their sins
would be forgiven so they could be in right standing with Him. But all of a
sudden, after the death of this Nazarene carpenter, these Jewish people no
longer offer sacrifices.
"Second, Jews emphasized obeying the laws that God had entrusted to them
through Moses. In their view, this is what separated them from pagan nations.
Yet within a short time after Jesus' death, Jews were beginning to say that you
don't become an upstanding member of their community merely by keeping Moses'
"Third, Jews scrupulously kept the Sabbath by not doing anything except
religious devotion every Saturday. This is how they would earn right standing
with God, guarantee the salvation of their family and be in right standing with
the nation. However, after the death of this Nazarene carpenter, this
1,500-year tradition is abruptly changed. These Christians worship on
Sunday-why? Because that's when Jesus rose from the dead.
"Fourth, they believed in monotheism-only one God. While Christians teach a
form of monotheism, they say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God.
This is radically different from what the Jews believed. They would have
considered it the height of heresy to say someone could be God and man at the
same time. Yet Jews begin to worship Jesus as God within the first decade of
the Christian religion.
"And fifth, these Christians pictured the Messiah as someone who suffered
and died for the sins of the world, whereas Jews had been trained to believe
that the Messiah was going to be a political leader who would destroy the Roman
With that context established, Moreland went in for the rhetorical kill,
drilling me with his intense and unwavering gaze. "Lee," he said, "how can you
possibly explain why in a short period of time not just one Jew but an entire
community of at least 10,000 Jews were willing to give up these five key
practices that had served them sociologically and theologically for so many
centuries? My explanation is simple: they had seen Jesus risen from the
"Keep in mind that this is an entire community of people who are abandoning
treasured beliefs that have been passed on for centuries and that they believed
were from God Himself. They were doing it even though they were jeopardizing
their own well-being, and they also believed they were risking the damnation of
their souls to hell if they were wrong.
"What's more, they were not doing this because they had come upon better
ideas. They were very content with the old traditions. They gave them up
because they had seen miracles that they could not explain and that forced them
to see the world another way.
"Believe me," he concluded, "these changes to the Jewish social structures
were not just minor adjustments that were casually made-they were absolutely
monumental. This was nothing short of a social earthquake! And earthquakes
don't happen without a cause."
Moreland pointed to the emergence of the sacraments of communion and baptism
in the early church as more circumstantial evidence that the resurrection is
true. But I had some doubts.
"Isn't it only natural that religions would create their own rituals and
practices?" I asked. "All religions have them. So how does that prove anything
about the resurrection?"
"Ah, but let's consider communion for a moment," he replied. "What's odd is
that these early followers of Jesus didn't get together to celebrate His
teachings or how wonderful He was. They came together regularly to have a
celebration meal for one reason: to remember that Jesus had been publicly
slaughtered in a grotesque and humiliating way.
"Think about this in modern terms. If a group of people loved John F.
Kennedy, they might meet regularly to remember his confrontation with Russia,
his promotion of civil rights and his charismatic personality. But they're not
going to celebrate the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald murdered him!
"However, that's analogous to what these early Christians did. How do you
explain that? I explain it this way: they realized that Jesus' slaying was a
necessary step to a much greater victory. His murder wasn't the last word-the
last word was that He had conquered death for all of us by rising from the
dead. They celebrated His execution because they were convinced that they had
seen Him alive from the tomb."
"What about baptism?" I asked.
"The early church adopted a form of baptism from their Jewish upbringing,
called proselyte baptism. When gentiles wanted to take upon themselves the laws
of Moses, the Jews would baptize those gentiles in the authority of the God of
"But in the New Testament, people were baptized in the name of God the
Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit-which meant that they had elevated
Jesus to the full status of God.
"Not only that, but baptism was a celebration of the death of Jesus, just as
communion was. By going under the water, you're celebrating His death, and by
being brought out of the water, you're celebrating the fact that Jesus was
raised to newness of life."
Moreland prefaced this final point by saying, "When a major cultural shift
takes place, historians always look for events that can explain it."
"Yes, that makes sense," I said.
"Okay, then let's think about the start of the Christian church. There's no
question it began shortly after the death of Jesus and spread so rapidly that
within a period of maybe 20 years it had even reached Caesar's palace in
"Not only that, but this movement triumphed over a number of competing
ideologies and eventually overwhelmed the entire Roman Empire.
"Now, if you were a Martian looking down on the first century, would you
think Christianity or the Roman Empire would survive?
"You probably wouldn't put money on a ragtag group of people whose primary
message was that a crucified carpenter from an obscure village had triumphed
over the grave.
"Look, if someone wants to consider this circumstantial evidence and reach
the verdict that Jesus did not rise from the dead-fair enough. But they've got
to offer an alternative explanation that is plausible for all five of these
"Remember, there's no doubt these facts are true; what's in question is how
to explain them. And I've never seen a better explanation than the
Our interview over, Moreland and I were bantering about football as I
unplugged my tape recorder and began packing away my notes. Though I was in a
bit of a hurry to catch my flight back to Chicago, he said something that
prompted me to pause.
"There's one other category of evidence you haven't asked about," he
My mind reviewed our interview. "I give up," I said. "What is it?"
"It's the ongoing encounter with the resurrected Christ that happens all
over the world, in every culture, to people from all kinds of backgrounds and
personalities-well educated and not, rich and poor, thinkers and feelers, men
and women," he said. "They all will testify that more than any single thing in
their lives, Jesus has changed them."
But, I protested, people experience life change in other religions whose
tenets contradict Christianity. "Isn't it dangerous to base a decision on
"Let me make two things clear," he said. "First, I'm not saying, 'Just trust
your experience.' I'm saying, 'Use your mind calmly and weigh the evidence, and
then let experience be a confirming piece of evidence.' Second, if what this
evidence points to is true-that is, if all these lines of evidence really do
point to the resurrection of Jesus-the evidence itself begs for an experiential
"Define that," I said.
"The experiential test is, 'He's still alive, and I can find out by relating
to Him.' If you were on a jury and heard enough evidence to convince you of
someone's guilt, it wouldn't make sense to stop short of the final step of
convicting him. And for people to accept the evidence of the resurrection of
Jesus and not take the final step of testing it experientially would be to miss
where the evidence is ultimately pointing."
"So," I said, "if the evidence points strongly in this direction, it's only
rational and logical to follow it into the experiential realm."
He nodded in approval. "That's precisely right," he said. "It's the final
confirmation of the evidence. In fact, I'll say this: the evidence screams out
for the experiential test."
What are your most cherished beliefs? What would it take for you to abandon
or radically rethink those treasured opinions-especially if you truly believed
you were risking the damnation of your soul if you were wrong?
Other than the resurrection of Jesus, can you think of any explanation that
would simultaneously account for all five categories of evidence Moreland
Moreland ended his interview by talking about the experiential test. What
would have to happen before you would be willing to take that step
Oliver Halle is a lawyer and a federal law
enforcement officer. He is also a nonbeliever. Over the years our family has
given Oliver enough books on the Christian faith to stock a bookstore shelf.
Oliver reads them all. And he's always willing to discuss Christianity.
Oliver considers himself a secular humanist, but our family considers him a
While browsing a Christian bookstore recently, I noticed The Case for
Christ. Written by a skeptic lawyer-turned-Christian, it seemed perfect for
I hoped this book would be the tool that finally got through to Oliver. It
wasn't, but it made him think.
After a thorough study of the book, Oliver focused on the passage where
author Lee Strobel asked Donald A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical
Divinity School: "How could Jesus be a compassionate God yet endorse the idea
of eternal suffering for those who reject Him?" Oliver said he had struggled
with this question all his life. Also he wondered how he could deliberately
defy God when he hadn't even acknowledged that God exists.
Our answer: Understanding every aspect of God's nature cannot be a
prerequisite of faith. Insight progresses with faith. (That, of course, is not
reassuring to someone who has not yet taken the first step of faith.)
Oliver observed: "A perfectly loving God would seemingly make the choice to
accept or reject Him so obvious that rejection would clearly be willful. Author
Craig Blomberg told Strobel that the Bible considers having a faith that does
not require evidence to be praiseworthy, that we cannot supplant the role of
the Holy Spirit. But for a skeptic with honest convictions, such faith is
insufficient to establish truth."
Oliver's struggle to rationalize God's behavior and fit it into the realm of
finite reasoning is understandable from a human perspective. But complete
understanding of God is an impossible task, and as a Christian, I'm thankful it
is. Isaiah 55:8-9 is reassuring. I'm grateful that God's reasoning is greater
Oliver presented this scenario: "Assume you had never heard of God. You find
a Bible and decide to read it. When you finish, assuming you have no one to
answer questions, would you have any reason to believe that this book was
supernaturally authored and the roadmap to your eternal destiny?"
Most Christians know people who have accepted Christ while alone in a motel
room, reading the Bible placed on the nightstand. And we understand that this
happens through "the role of the Holy Spirit."
Without intervention by the Holy Spirit, Oliver would be right. We would not
believe that the Bible is the roadmap to our eternal destiny. It's impossible
to fully comprehend the Bible without the Holy Spirit's enlightenment. Oliver,
like many unbelievers, is waiting until he can explain God before accepting Him
and that cannot happen in part without faith or in whole until eternity.
So we pray for the role of the Holy Spirit in Oliver's life. And we continue
giving him books like The Case for Christ, not because all his questions can be
answered by such books, but because they focus him on Christ and provide
opportunities for dialogue.
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