Sunday, April 1, 2012

Does Gary Habermas redefine the Gospel?

     Dr. Gary Habermas is one of the world's leading experts on the resurrection of Christ.  What is his position on the gospel of salvation? Does Dr. Habermas include the burial of Christ as part of the gospel or does he exclude it as not really being part of the gospel?
     Proponents of the groundless gospel (i. e. those who teach that the burial of Christ is not really part of the gospel) want us to believe that Dr. Habermas supports their unique interpretation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 - but is this really the case? These are some of the questions that I'd like to consider in this article.
     Notice what one groundless gospel apologist named Stephen Stark says:
"[JP] uses deceptive tactics to create an illusion of support for his position such as very selective quotes of scholar's that supposedly agree with him, but they really don't...He has at least one video of Gary Habermas' 'exegesis of 1 Cor 15' but I watched it and Gary isn't talking about the content of saving faith at all, he's talking [about] 1 Cor 15 as it relates to the evidence of the resurrection being a real event, and I agree completely with it. Understood in the context which Habermas presents it, the video supports our conclusions much more than it does JP's....Basically, JP is dishonest...JP has simply proven himself a fool."1
"p.s. I just found this little Gem. In the Q and A on Habermas' site someone asks specifically 'What did the early Church Fathers teach about what salvation requires?' Gary explains that scripture itself is the most 'authoritative route' and this is the crux of what Gary had to say about what scripture says: 'Whenever the Gospel data are defined in the New Testament as the foundation of what someone must believe to be saved, these three doctrines always appear: the Deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus.'"2
     I would like to respond to Mr. Stark's statements "by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:9, NKJV). Actually I never said that the Habermas video is "talking about the content of saving faith" as Mr. Stark erroneously suggests. Notice that he never quoted me as saying any such thing. Instead, Mr. Stark misrepresented my position. His assertion is a straw man argument - a classic logical fallacy. What I actually said is that Dr. Habermas explains the "exegesis of 1 Cor 15" - as Mr. Stark even admits in his statement above! And this is exactly what Dr. Habermas does in the video. Notice what Habermas says:
"Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 [verses 3-5] uses a long sentence with what's called a triple hoti clause...In the Greek it reads like this: Paul says, 'He died for our sins according to the Scriptures,' He was buried - 'and that He was buried, and that He was raised, and that He appeared'. So if you've got a person who is dead, buried, raised, and appears - it's very hard to imagine that sequence without what's going down is what's coming up. So I think, I think Paul is very clear that what went down [into the tomb] is what comes up. You've got this 'and...and...and' triple hoti clause: 'He died...He was buried...He was raised...He appeared'."3
     For Mr. Stark to claim that I am "dishonest" and "a fool" on the basis of his misrepresentation of my position - that's what is actually dishonest and foolish!4 For what does Jesus say? "But I say to you that...whoever shall say, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell" (Matthew 5:22). I'll take Mr. Stark's curse as a compliment, because the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:10: "We are fools for Christ's sake"!
     Mr. Stark is assuming that an emphasis on Christ's Deity, death, and resurrection in the Gospel data (as Habermas noted) somehow equates to an exclusion of Christ's burial and appearances from the gospel. But Dr. Habermas never says this! What he actually says is that "Whenever the Gospel data are defined in the New Testament as the foundation of what someone must believe to be saved, these three doctrines always appear: the Deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus". Notice Dr. Habermas doesn't say: "only these three doctrines always appear". That would be a limiting statement, but he doesn't say that. In other words, Dr. Habermas does not limit the gospel to only Christ's Deity, death, and resurrection. This is abundantly clear from a similar statement in which he says: "When the New Testament defines and identifies the Gospel data, at least three items are always mentioned: the Deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus."5 This is the proper understanding and context of Dr. Habermas' statement which Mr. Stark fails to mention. To conclude my initial thought in this paragraph, I want to point out that Mr. Stark's reductionist reasoning is non sequitur because an emphasis on one portion of the gospel does not equate to an exclusion of other parts. It should be a clue to Mr. Stark that I too agree that the gospel emphasizes Christ's Deity, death, and resurrection.6 The biblical balance is this: The gospel emphasizes Christ's death and resurrection without excluding His burial and appearances.7
     Having briefly responded to Mr. Stark, I would like to "examine...carefully" (1 Thess. 5:21) what Dr. Habermas has said in regards to the content of the gospel and the content of saving faith. Let's consider each separately and in order.  The following quotes highlight the fact that Dr. Habermas includes the burial of Christ in the content of the gospel. Dr. Habermas writes:
"In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul starts the chapter by saying that he wants to remind them and make clear for them the gospel he had preached to them and on which they had taken their stand. He then states that he had delivered to them what he had also received (verse 3). These verbs are the equivalent Greek words for the technical rabbinic terms, which were used to describe the handing on of a formal, word of mouth, memorised [sic], formulaic teaching. This is what he had delivered to them and he said it was a matter 'of first importance'. He then recites the credal statement, which is usually said to consist of two parallel sentences structured rhythmically as an aide memoire. It reads: Christ died / for our sins / according to the scriptures / and was buried, He was raised / on the third day / according to the scriptures / and appeared, To Peter / and to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)...While [Paul] does not refer to the tomb being empty, it is implicit in the creed. Firstly, the creed describes the progression 'died...buried...raised...appeared'. Whilst modern people might be tempted to separate these meanings, a first century Jew would only have believed that the sentence implied a continuity. What was dead was buried, what was dead and buried was raised, and what was dead, buried, and raised also appeared. The clear implication of this creed is that Jesus underwent a bodily resurrection."8
"Few conclusions in current study are more widely held by scholars than that, in 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul records a very ancient tradition that actually predates his book, probably by a couple of decades. It could very well predate even Paul's conversion to Christianity. After explaining that he received this from others, Paul succinctly reports the Gospel that was preached in early Christianity: Christ died for our sins and was buried. Afterwards, he was raised from the dead and appeared to many witnesses."9
"Virtually all scholars agree that 1 Corinthians 15:3ff records an ancient oral tradition(s) that reports the Gospel data: Jesus Christ's atoning death, burial, resurrection, and appearances to many persons."10
"1 Corinthians 15:3ff recounts the gospel facts of the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus Christ".11
"Most recent scholars seem to agree that, while Paul does not explicitly mention the empty tomb, the early tradition that this apostle reported to others in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 implies an empty tomb. The listing of the Gospel content moves from Jesus' death, to his burial, to his resurrection from the dead, to his appearances. This sequence strongly suggests that, however it may have been transformed, Jesus' body that died and was buried is the same one that was raised afterwards. Thus, what was placed in the ground is precisely what emerged. In short, what went down is what came up. Such a process would have resulted in the burial tomb being emptied. That Paul does not specifically mention the empty tomb keeps this from being as strong a point as it could have been. Still, to say so clearly that Jesus' dead body was buried, raised, and appeared would be a rather strange process unless the tomb had been vacated in the process."12
"As long as these data stand, the earliest gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection appearances of Jesus also stands. This was the central message not only of Paul but also of James the brother of Jesus, Peter, John, and the other apostles."13

Additionally, Dr. Habermas includes the burial in the content of saving faith. He writes:
"In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul provides one of the most widely cited lists of the content of the gospel. After relating to his readers that belief in this gospel is sufficient to save a person (verses 1-2), Paul states that Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose again on the third day, in agreement with the teaching of the Scriptures (verses 3-4). From this passage, I think that we can denote at least four facts which compose the gospel...It should be noted that the word 'gospel' in this discussion is used more narrowly of those facts which, in an orthodox sense, it is necessary for one to believe in order to be a Christian. To be more proper, the 'gospel' is being used here of the facts which one must believe concerning Christ, for faith is placed in Him, not in the facts themselves. And I realize that any listing of the facts in the gospel will be open to some question and dialogue. So I will claim at this point simply that I think those listed here are the minimum number of beliefs which comprise the gospel as enunciated by many orthodox scholars...At a minimum, the gospel included Christ's atoning death, His burial, and His resurrection from the dead (as signified by His appearances)...A very interesting point is made by those who think that the resurrection appearances should also be included as a distinct element in the gospel specifically as listed by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:3-5. The argument here is largely based on the 'kai...kai...kai' sequence of verses 4-5 and asserts that, just as the burial and the resurrection of Christ are listed, the third kai also includes the appearances. A possible response is that, since no human being witnessed the actual resurrection itself (as far as is known), the fact that Jesus was indeed raised (v. 4) is the conclusion drawn from the facts that He had actually died (v. 3) and then later appeared (v. 5), thereby meaning that the resurrection and appearances are construed as a whole...In addition to these three, I believe that the fourth fact is derived from Paul's use of the [divine] title 'Christ' here instead of the proper name 'Jesus.'"14
     In light of these statements it's obvious that Dr. Habermas is not a groundless gospel advocate. He believes that the burial of Christ is included in both the content of the gospel and in the content of saving faith. Furthermore, he does in fact agree with my position that the gospel of salvation includes Christ's atoning death, His burial, and His resurrection appearances. How a person outlines or arranges these facts in the gospel is another discussion.15 The point is, all these facts are included in the content of the gospel. This has been the orthodox teaching of Christianity since the time of the apostles.


1 Stark, comment under the post "Beheading Hodges' Hydra - Part 3 of 3," The Land of Reason blog (accessed April 1, 2012). See the comment by Stephen, October 26, 2008 at 10:22 PM.

2 Stark, comment under the post "Beheading Hodges' Hydra - Part 3 of 3," The Land of Reason blog (accessed April 1, 2012). See the comment by Stephen, October 26, 2008 at 11:07 PM.

3 Habermas, Gary Habermas vs. Anthony Flew debate: "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead," Part 5, video presentation by the John Ankerberg Television Program (6 min. 55 sec. - 7 min. 40 sec.); cf. Habermas, John Ankerberg, Editor, Resurrected? An Atheist and Theist Dialogue, p. 26.

4 Notice that I did not call Stephen a fool. Instead, I said that some of his actions are foolish (cf. Lk. 24:25; Gal. 3:1).

5 Habermas, "The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus," website (accessed April 1, 2012). Clearly, Habermas is not limiting the gospel to only the Deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

6 I have said this elsewhere. For example, see the article "First Among Equals".

7 For further discussion see the article "Getting the Gospel Right," pp. 16, 24 (in the PDF file).

8 Habermas, Peter May, Editor, "The Resurrection of Jesus and the Witness of Paul," website (accessed April 1, 2012).

9 Habermas, "The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus," website (accessed April 1, 2012).

10 Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope, p. 17.

11 Habermas, The Historical Jesus, p. 117.

12 Habermas, "The Empty Tomb of Jesus," website (accessed April 1, 2012).

13 Habermas, "The Resurrection of Jesus and the Talpiot Tomb," Liberty University Faculty Publication and Presentations, Paper 158 (2008): p. 162; cf. Ibid., p. 158. Elsewhere Habermas makes a similar statement, saying: "The bottom line was that Paul's Gospel teaching, which included the resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15:1-5), was approved by the other three apostles." (Habermas, "The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus," website.)

14 Habermas, "Dealing with Doubts - Part 3, Factual Doubt," The John Ankerberg Show website (accessed April 1, 2012).

15 For more information see the article "In Defense of the Gospel, Part 3".

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