Jesus rose?: Possibly, to Plausibly, to Probably
Perhaps the most undervalued part of the case for Christianity today, at least among apologists, is establishing that, even if God existed, that God plausibly would do something like raise Jesus from the dead.
William Lane Craig's influence
William Lane Craig has been very influential in advancing Christianity's intellectual reputation, both at the academic level and popular level. He has standardized the Kalam Cosmological argument, but also played some role influencing the most common strategies that apologists take in arguing broadly for the truth of Christainity. In Craig's debates and books on this, you will notice two steps:
Step 1: Give evidence God's existence, using…
• Cosmological arguments
• Teleological arguments
• Ontological argument
• Moral Arguments
Step 2: Make the direct historical case for Jesus's resurrection.
This is a very strategic way to go about things, and I think it is important to understand why. In doing so, however, I want to talk about the benefits of inserting a commonly neglected middle step.
The strategy: Jesus rose “possibly” to “probably”
In Western Christian apologetics at least, these two steps make a lot of sense. Step 2 is about the closest the professional case-maker for Christianity can take a non-believer to Christ, and Step 1 essentially pre-empts an objection (so Step 2 can do its work). That is to say:
Step 1 is strategically designed to help open the door to the possibility of Jesus being raised from the dead. After all, the more confident the non-believer is that God does not exist, the more confident she will be that Jesus was not miraculously raised. If step 1 is neglected, it can be bad enough that virtually no amount of evidence for Jesus's resurrection is able to overturn the initial doubt.
Step 2, clearly, is designed to take that “possibly God raised Jesus” and turn it directly into a “probably God raised Jesus.”
But what if I had a little more time to make my case?
Easing the transition with “plausibly”
Can we do better? Given an ideal amount of time, I think so. I think one of the most neglected areas at the more academic level of Christian apologetics is precisely in easing that transition between the steps, and even a few short words can go a long way here.
After all, even if God exists, a similarly devastating objection deserves to be pre-empted, namely the objection that “God wouldn't resurrect Jesus.”
After all, consider how rare or even unprecedented God's raising of humans is. Even if it is granted that God exists, one need not automatically take seriously the hypothesis that God raised Jesus any more than one take seriously the hypothesis that God created a pink lizard on a random buffalo's head and cause it to explode like a small fire-cracker. That is to say, a large amount of evidence for Jesus's resurrection can still be ineffective.
How might we fix this? I suggest getting in the habit of pointing out, at least a little, something like the following:
Jesus stands out like one chosen by God plausibly might
This is supposed to be modest. If you want the case for Jesus's resurrection to be especially effective, though, it could very well be a key thing to point out first. Insofar as God is a person (by definition), and Jesus stands out like one chosen by God, suddenly the prior probability that God would raise Jesus is not prohibitively low.
One proponent of Christianity who has taken this very seriously is Oxford University professor Richard Swinburne. I'm going to recommend his book which discusses some of this at length:
In addition, I'm also working on a series of reasons to think that Jesus stands out like one chosen by God. (I think it would be great doctoral dissertation work, by the way.) When I personally talk to non-believers about Jesus's resurrection, I will sometimes just list the reasons out. It doesn't take long, and they don't even have to be convinced of them all. For example:
• Jesus is in several respects the centerpiece of human history
• Jesus is a moral exemplar
• Jesus seems to fit Jewish messianic prophecy
• Jesus seems to fit Jewish prefiguring
• Many believers testify that Jesus spiritually meets and transforms them • Many more…
None of these should convince a skeptic that Christianity is true, but things like this are more than enough to make Jesus different. It no longer becomes especially relevant that God has not raised other humans in the past. And not only do we see that Jesus is unique here, we see that Jesus is unique in a way that restructures the prior probability that God might have raised him.