Published On: December 20, 20213940 words19.7 min read

How can we know Jesus rose again?  It’s the week before Christmas, and people may be thinking What’s Christmas all about anyway? To help answer this on a very logical level is popular Christian apologist Sean McDowell. Sean helps show us how we can believe in the historical Jesus – that He really lived, died, and rose again. He also encourages us to remember to evangelize during this season.

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*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.

Isaac Dagneau

Well I’m on the phone today with a man by the name of Sean McDowell. Sean is a gifted Christian leader and speaker, and is quite well known for speaking on apologetics. Anyways, great to have you on the show today Sean!

Sean McDowell

Thanks for having me Isaac.

Isaac Dagneau

I saw on your site that in 2014 you earned a PhD in Apologetics and Worldview Studies from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. How was that journey?

Sean McDowell

Well, it was honestly one of the hardest things I have ever done because I did it in my thirties with young kids and a full-time job. It was early mornings and late nights. So, it was tough, but it was certainly rewarding, and I learned a lot that helped me in my life and ministry.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s great, I’ve heard good things coming out of that seminary. And although you’ve never actually seen me, I actually have seen you in person at the Apologetics Canada conference a couple years ago. You were one of the featured speakers and I really loved your presentation You sort of put on the act as an atheist and had people ask you questions. I don’t know if you remember, but it was great. It was a lot of fun.

Sean McDowell

I remember that well, yeah, that is my favourite presentation to do. It kind of stirs people up.

Isaac Dagneau

What I think is the funniest thing though, is that after you finished the atheist act, said to everyone, “I know I sounded believable, but I was just kind of making things up as well.”

Sean McDowell

Yeah, some things I do make up. I mean, part of the spiel is to just get people thinking. “Okay, do I really know what I believe and why?” When I manipulate the conversation and take it off track, people again kind of go “Woah, I really got to think through how I have conversations, and whether I’m ready or not to defend my faith.”

Isaac Dagneau

That’s great. Anyways, today, to our listeners, I want to talk with Sean or rather hear from him quickly about the historical Jesus. And I know this is a huge topic, so we’re just going to try and condense it down to a 25-minute conversation. The fact is, Jesus was a literal human being who really died and really rose again. But, before we jump in, could you, in a few sentences, let us know who you are?

Sean McDowell

Yeah sure. I live in Southern California. I teach full-time at Biola University in a graduate apologetics program. I also teach high school part-time. I did that ten years full-time, high-school at a Christian school. And I just stayed there because my kids are there, and I just love hanging out with high school students. I teach a couple classes on worldview, Bible and theology. And then I get a little chance to speak and write and do cool podcasts like this. I also have one wife and three kids that probably keep me busier than anything else.

Isaac Dagneau

That is awesome. Well, it’s Christmas time now, and unfortunately Christmas is not really a time when many people, I mean if you think of the entire world, especially North America, actually consider the real purpose of it. And I know this sounds kind of ridiculous to ask, but, why exactly do we even celebrate Christmas?

Sean McDowell

Yeah, I don’t think it sounds ridiculous at all, even within the Church. I think we can easily lose the focus onto material things. But Christmas is about the birth of Christ. And it literally is the time when we believe the eternal self-existing Creator of the universe stepped into human history, took on human flesh in preparation to ultimately die for us, and to enable us to be in relationship with God. So Christmas is the time that we celebrate the birth of our Saviour. It’s kind of a big deal that we enjoy this season, but also exactly remember why, and not lose that amidst all the distractions that can be around us.

Isaac Dagneau

Yeah for sure. Do you do anything special with your family personally during Christmas time to help remind you what this season is really for?

Sean McDowell

You know, one thing we’ve done for a number of years, usually when we’re with the McDowell side of the family, we just have a birthday party for Jesus the night before Christmas. It’s just something fun that we’ve done as a family. We get a cake and read a couple chapters from Luke or Matthew and sing happy birthday to Jesus.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s awesome! Now, there are many views on Jesus. I actually just listened to an interview you were on (Unbelievable?) where you were talking with a Jesus mythicist – so that’s one view: Jesus is just a myth. But I mean, where do most people sit in regards to their understanding and beliefs of Jesus? I know there are many, but where do the majority of people sit in regards to what they believe about Jesus?

Sean McDowell

Well, when you look at the studies, most people would say, at least a good amount of people, “Yeah, Jesus is the Son of God and He worked miracles.” I think people would still concede to that story. But that’s very different to me than answering a survey saying you believe it. But living your life as if you believe He’s God who stepped into human flesh – if we really believe in that sense, I think it’s a minority in the States and Canada and probably beyond. I think most people get their ideas from culture, I mean, Jesus said we’re sheep.

Biblical literacy shows us that very few people even understand the heart of the gospel.

There’s a study, I think it was out of Lifeway just a while ago, and it shows that high percentages of people believe that salvation is by works and that the people from different faiths get to heaven. So, when I see these studies when people say “Yes, I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, and I believe He’s the Son of God,” I always qualify that in my mind with the other studies I’ve seen where people as a whole just have bad theology. So frankly, I don’t think most people really understand why Jesus had to be born of a virgin – what really makes Him distinct from other religious figures. What is the incarnation all about? I’m just not convinced that most people in our culture, and frankly a good chunk of people in the church, even really grasp why those are so important.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s good. And I mean, you’re in the scholarly and academic world with the work that you do and the ministry that you have. When we look at scholars, secular scholars as well, do most believe that Jesus existed and said those things that are recorded in the gospels?

Sean McDowell

Well those are two very different questions. Certainly the vast majority of historians and historical Jesus scholars, no matter where they are in the spectrum, in the far left to the far right, believe that Jesus existed. I don’t think you can count on one hand, maybe necessarily two hands, the number of people with actual degrees that are scholars that doubt the existence of Jesus. And I mean, those kind of movements make a little bit of steam online – this mythicist movement, whether it was in Religulous by Bill Maher, some of those popular movies – Zeitgeist that was online. Scholars almost unanimously reject those for a variety of reasons.

Now the second question you mentioned, Do they believe that they wrote what’s in the gospel? that’s where it gets a little bit trickier. There’s a big difference between saying Jesus existed and said some things, and Jesus existed and said these particular things. A lot of scholars wouldn’t look at the Bible as entirely true or entirely false. They would look at it and say, “There’s probably some underlying historical core that’s here, the question is, what gets back to the original Jesus? And much was invented, or changed intentionally or unintentionally by the scribes or by the early church.” Those kinds of questions get a little bit convoluted and that’s where scholars will write these papers and go to conferences and nuance different things.

So, for example, one thing scholars will do is say “If something is multiply attested to, then it’s more likely to be true.” You know, the death of Jesus is in all four gospels and it’s in Paul’s writings – Peter mentions it too. It’s multiply attested to. So there’s very little doubt that Jesus died. Now, His virgin birth is mentioned in probably Matthew and Luke, possibly hinted at in John, but not as frequently as His death. Now I totally believe it and think it happened, but scholars will look at this and go “Huh, how come Mark doesn’t mention it? Maybe he wasn’t aware of it?” They start coming up with all these arguments. That’s kind of how it gets a little difficult when you get into the scholarly world so to speak.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s very helpful. Now, you sort of touched on it, but the next three questions I have for you,  just so they’re in your mind now, are 1) how can we know Jesus was an actual historical person who really lived, 2) how do we know Jesus died, and 3) how do we know Jesus rose again? So, you say that most scholars unanimously believe that Jesus actually lived.  So what are some of those reasons we know that’s true?

Sean McDowell

Yeah, I would say one is that it is multiply attested. We have four biographies of Jesus within the century in which he lived. This is very rare for a lot of historical figures where we have one or two centuries removed. I mean, Alexander the Great is three or four centuries later. We have four biographies, though, within the lifetime of Jesus, and they all obviously imply that He lived. Also, they all indicate that He died on the cross as well – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And then we also have 1 Corinthians 15, which is Paul’s rendition where he says that Jesus lived, He died, He was buried, and rose on the third day. We have Paul writing this in the mid-50’s.

And then we have extra-biblical sources like Josephus at the end of the 1st Century. And Tacitus in the early 2nd Century. We also have early Church Fathers mentioning this.

I mean, it’s unanimous that Jesus not only lived, but died – some even specifically mention how He died by crucifixion.

And the other thing to keep in mind is that crucifixion was a shameful way to die. It was embarrassing for the Early Church to have a Saviour who died in a humiliating manner. So this fits what’s called the criteria of embarrassment. Why would somebody invent that their Saviour died by crucifixion and was arguably cursed by God? It makes no sense. So that gives some credibly. Look, these people aren’t making this up. This is really what goes back to the original Jesus.

I think we can even look at medical evidence. When John describes that blood and water comes out of Jesus’ side, there was a journal in 1986 from the American Medical Association that showed the kind of death that Jesus suffered. There’s a fluid that surrounds the heart called the pericardial sack and out of that comes a watery type fluid. If somebody was poked with a spear, blood and water would come out, as John writes in John 19. So there’s just multiple lines of evidence telling that Jesus lived, and that He specifically died the way the gospels report.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s good. So, then the last question then: How can we know, or how do Christians put their trust in the fact that Jesus rose again?

Sean McDowell

Yeah, so scholars will use different criteria to try and assess whether events in the gospels are true. You and I know the gospels in their entirety are from God and are inspired, but scholars will look at this through a critical lens. And when it comes to the resurrection, they’ll say, “Okay, we know Jesus lived and died, so what reason do we have to think that He actually appeared to people?” And if those three things are true, then the resurrection is clearly the best explanation.

So, let’s take the appearances. Do we have early appearances of Jesus? Absolutely we do. The first appearance is in 1 Corinthians 15, again, written two decades after the death of Jesus, where it specifically says that Jesus appeared to Peter, the twelve, and to 500 others. And then Paul says that He appeared to James and himself. So we have an early record of multiple appearances of Jesus. The appearances recorded in all four of the gospels. So it’s early and its multiply attested.

And then we also have Jesus’ appearing to people who were skeptics and doubters. We have Him appearing to Thomas who didn’t believe before. And James interestingly enough. We’re told that the brothers of Jesus in John 7 tried to trick Him, who didn’t believe in Him, to potentially get Him killed in Judea. Also, James becomes a leader in the early church. Well, the best explanation is clearly that Jesus appeared to Him.

So, I guess the evidence of appearance is that it’s multiply attested. We also have two women, who, by the way, when it records the appearance to women, why would the apostles make up that the first appearance was to two women, when in that culture women were on the lowest social latter? They didn’t have the respect or ability to testify in the court of law. That’s just not the thing they would evident.

Isaac Dagneau

It would be the embarrassment thing again.

Sean McDowell

It’s the embarrassment thing again – just like the crucifixion. So multiply attested, embarrassing, and we have skeptics who believe. And frankly, to those who don’t accept the resurrection, they have to say “No, Jesus didn’t appear to people and here’s a better explanation…” And there is no better explanation that accounts for all the facts we know, better than the resurrection itself.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s good, and recently when I was listening to you on another podcast, they had talked about this book that you’ve written about martyrs – is that true?

Sean McDowell

Yes, it was actually based on my dissertation. It’s an academic book that came out just about a year ago.

Isaac Dagneau

Okay, so that’s obviously another good point of evidence, to see these men who died because of their belief in Jesus.

Sean McDowell

Yeah, what I was doing was analyzing the apostles – the twelve apostles – and then James and Paul, and asking what actually happened to their fates. Because we know from the earliest records that they were eyewitnesses of Jesus. To believe in Jesus was to believe He was risen from the grave. But then the question is, “How sincerely did they really believe this?” When you look in the beginning of Acts you’ll see that they’re thrown in prison, they’re threatened, they’re beaten, we see Stephen killed, and James the son of Zebedee killed in Acts 12. All the accounts are that the apostles are willing to suffer and die. For they believed they’ve seen the risen Jesus.

Now, some of these accounts, like the death Bartholomew and Simon, they come a little later, so it’s hard to know when fact ends and fiction begins. But we know that they all saw the risen Jesus – they claimed to see Him. They’re willing to suffer and die for this. And we know that some of them did so with confidence. Like, I think both James and Paul and Peter really, in fact, died as martyrs, with Thomas and Andrew potentially as well. So it just shows they’re not liars – they weren’t inventing this. They really believed they had seen the risen Jesus.

Isaac Dagneau

And you know, hearing that Sean, I think it’s a great piece of evidence, but what would you say to a student who comes up to you and asks, “Well, what about ISIS? They also willingly go and literally die for what they believe and it doesn’t mean it’s true.” How would you respond to that?

Sean McDowell

So, ISIS or the terrorists who died at 9/11, they were not first hand eyewitnesses of Muhammad himself. They have received things third, fourth, or sixth hand at best. That just shows that they believe it. But the apostles were eyewitnesses, they did not receive this second hand. So it doesn’t prove that it’s true, all it proves is the death of their sincerity as the first witnesses to the risen Jesus. So someone walks in my room and puts a gun to my head and says, “Sean, do you believe this?” And I die. You know, all you might say is, “Man, that guy Sean, he really believed it!” That’s no evidence whatsoever for Christianity. It just shows, “Wow, that guy had convictions.”

I wasn’t a witness to the risen Jesus. The twelve apostles were. James was. Paul was. So their lives and willingness to suffer shows something very different than modern day people, whether Christian, Muslim, or any other faith.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s very good Sean. If someone’s listening and they want to dig more into the historical Jesus, can you recommend any books, blogs or websites they can access to get more information on what you’re talking about?

Sean McDowell

Yeah, for starters I’d just go to the classic book, More Than a Carpenter, which my dad wrote years ago. I’ve helped him update it about five years ago. It’s a simple, quick, and easy book. We walk in the resurrection, the reliability of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, and you can read it in two hours. It’s couched around my dad’s story so it’s really interesting. That’s just a great place to start. And then if you go to seanmcdowell.org I’ve got a ton of articles, blogs, and even some other books there on the historical Jesus. If you want an academic book, the one I would recommend is called The Jesus Legend. I didn’t write it – Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd. It’s my single favourite scholarly book on the historical Jesus. So start with More Than a Carpenter, and if you want to go deeper, than check out The Jesus Legend.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s great. Lastly Sean, how would you encourage Christians this season to engage people with the gospel? And more specifically, with the historical Jesus?

Sean McDowell

You know, I think the best way is just to ask questions and really be willing to listen. So simple questions like “How does your family celebrate Christmas? Is there spiritual elements? Do you believe the Christmas story that Jesus Christ came down to die? Why or why not?” I’ve just found that genuine questions are some of the best ways to engage people. But also it’s a natural season, we shouldn’t be afraid to have conversations – it’s kind of expected because it’s on the cultural forefront of conversation.

So it’s a natural opportunity just to engage people, I’d say go for it.

Isaac Dagneau

That’s good, thank you so much Sean. And to our listeners, you can find more about Sean at seanmcdowell.org. But anyways, thank you again Sean, I know that was a quick conversation but you did give a lot, and I think it’s a lot for me to listen to and take in and critically think about – to our listeners as well. Anyways, I hope to have you back soon!

Sean McDowell

Thanks Isaac, that was a lot of fun.

seanmcdowell.org (Sean’s site where you can access free resources and purchase books)

More Than a Carpenter (Intro book to the historical Jesus)

The Jesus Legend (Scholarly book on the historical Jesus)

ALSO, check out the number of New Testament manuscripts against other ancient texts (Jake and I talk about this at the end of the episode).

Sean McDowell
Sean McDowell
Dr. Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. In addition to his role as Associate Professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, Sean travels throughout the United States and abroad, speaking at camps, churches, schools, universities, and conferences. Sean is the co-host for the Think Biblically podcast, which is one of the most popular podcasts on faith and cultural engagement. He has written, co-written, or edited more than twenty books and has a leading apologetics blogs at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano, California.

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