The Minimal Facts Approach is an approach to establishing the truth of Jesus’ resurrection using two criteria; (1) they must be facts that have a lot of evidence in their favor, and (2) these facts must be universally or nearly universally agreed upon by scholars and historians who study the subject, even the skeptical ones. Then, once the facts are established as facts, we then examine which explanation best explains them, and it turns out that only the He-Is-Risen hypothesis best explains all of them. These facts are (1) Jesus’ death by crucifixion, (2) Jesus’ empty tomb, (3) Jesus’ post-mortem appearances to His disciples, (4) Jesus’ post-mortem appearance to Paul, and (5) Jesus’ post-mortem appearance to James.
We establish these 5 facts by looking at secular historical documents as well as applying the standard historical “criteria of authenticity” to The New Testament documents. In doing so, we can establish the truth of Jesus’ resurrection in an evidential and non-question-begging way. I make the case for the resurrection in “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1” and “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 2”, but if you think those are too lengthy, I have an abridged version of that first article titled “A Quick Case For Jesus’ Resurrection”. So, check those out if you want to go into the arguments and evidence. I also argue for the resurrection in chapter 8 of my book “Inference To The One True God”.
One objection to this method of establishing Christianity’s central doctrine that I have encountered a few times is this: it dishonors God’s holy inspired word. Some Christians don’t like the minimal facts approach because it treats The New Testament documents as if they were ordinary documents written by ordinary people rather than inspired scripture. We don’t argue that Jesus’ tomb was empty “because The Bible says so” but rather, for example, “The tomb was likely empty because all 4 gospels mention women as the chief witnesses. They wouldn’t have done this if they were making it up because it was commonly thought that women were untrustworthy witnesses, to such an extent that they weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. If they were making up this narrative, they would have had males the first one on the scene. Therefore, by the principle of embarrassment, we can conclude the tomb was empty.” As you can see, these two approaches are very different. The former takes the words of the New Testament at face value and concludes they’re true because The New Testament was inspired by God, whereas the latter approach has to apply some historical method to determine whether or not it’s true. This makes some Christians uncomfortable because it seems to suggest that God’s Word cannot be trusted to give us truthful information. It seems to treat the holy scriptures as just common literature which may or may not be true, or which may be true in some places but false in others.
The conclusion reached is that we, therefore, shouldn’t try to prove the resurrection (fideism), or if we do try to prove it, to prove it some other way that doesn’t demean The Bible (presuppositionalism). How might evidentialist Christian Apologists respond to this objection? Do we really demean God’s holy word when we argue for Jesus’ resurrection this way?
The Minimal Facts Approach Meets The Unbelievers Where They Are
It is very important that we reach unbelievers in a way that will be most effective to them. The Minimal Facts Approach reaches unbelievers where they are epistemologically. The non-Christian does not accept The Bible as God’s holy and inspired word and because of this, he, therefore, does not consider it authoritative, infallible, or inerrant. Therefore, it’s useless to just quote a passage from it and expect him to say “Well if it’s in The Bible, it must be true!” He doesn’t accept The Bible as authoritative, so he isn’t going be persuaded by this.
To help you get in their shoes: imagine if a Muslim tried to convince you of Islam by citing from the Quran. You wouldn’t be persuaded, would you? Why? Obviously, because you don’t think the Quran is inspired! You think it’s a fabrication by Muhammad. Well, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and other non-Christians see The Bible the same way. If a Muslim were to convince me of Islam, he would have to take an approach to proving his religion that didn’t presuppose the inspiration of his holy book.
The Minimal Facts Approach does this. When we argue for the 5 minimal facts undergirding the inference to the resurrection, we don’t quote from The New Testament as inspired scripture. We do use The New Testament, but not as scripture. We use it as we would any other ancient document that claims to tell of historical events. We proceed to use the “criteria of authenticity” that historians use on many non-biblical documents, and we’ll see what we can affirm as true by that method. Principles such as multiple attestation, the principle of embarrassment, the principle of early attestation, the principle of dissimilarity, and so on. These are principles that historians use on secular documents all the time, in order to discern whether or not what they record is true.
Many non-Christians have come to faith through this approach, such as Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, and Frank Morrison, just to name a few. These men went on to share this evidence they discovered with unbelievers they witnessed to.
We believe all of The Bible is inspired, but we pretend the gospels and epistles aren’t for the sake of the argument. The Christian Apologist is basically saying “Even if I conceded these weren’t inspired, I can still establish that the resurrection of Jesus is true.” All we are doing is simply meeting the unbeliever where he is.
This approach of meeting unbelievers where they are epistemologically is biblical. I noticed that Paul dealt with the unbelieving Jews in Berea and the unbelieving Pagans in Athens quite differently in Acts 17. With the Jews, he used scripture to reason with them, using arguments from fulfilled prophecy to prove to them that Jesus really is the messiah. With the Pagans, he didn’t use The Old Testament prophecies as evidence at all. Instead, he used philosophical arguments, and he appealed to their own Greek poets and pagan authors to establish his points. Click here to read the passage.
In 1 Cortinthians 9:20-23, Paul wrote: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
The Apostle Paul saw the importance of changing his tactics depending on who he was witnessing to. We should too. When I’m witnessing to atheists, agnostics, or other people who don’t believe The Bible is inspired, I employ arguments that don’t hinge on that presupposition. However, if I’m witnessing to a heretic who does believe scripture is inspired but has interpreted some passages in such ways as to come up with heretical doctrines (e.g Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons), then I will appeal to scripture to make my points. In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ll even refute their doctrines using the New World Translation (a twisted translation, but the only one they accept). I change my approach based on who I’m talking to. The Message doesn’t change, but the method of conveying the message does.
The Bible is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). It brings no shame to a sword just because you swing it differently in different battles. Sometimes you need to slash vertically, sometimes you need to slash horizontally, other times you need to stab. You need to wield a sword in the most effective way you can to deal with the particular fighting style of your enemy. This holds true for literal swords, one would think it would hold true of “The Sword Of The Spirit” (i.e The Bible) as well. Depending on our audience, we will either use The Bible as inspired scripture or as a collection of ancient writings which we will apply the historical method to.
When we use The Minimal Facts Approach, we are not at all suggesting that we distrust God’s word. Rather we are acknowledging that our audience distrusts God’s word, and we respect that, and we witness to them with that fact in mind.