Monthly Archives: April 2015

Phillip Luke Sinitiere Lectures on W. E. B. Du Bois in the Prison

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Last summer, Phillip Luke Sinitiere graciously invited me to lecture on American exceptionalism in his American religious history class. Today, I had the opportunity to return the favor. Phil was the guest lecturer today in my course on Contemporary Worldviews, a philosophy course I teach to the fourth year students who are enrolled in Southwestern’s Darrington Unit extension. These students are all serving life sentences at the maximum security state prison at Darrington, but will be placed at other units around the state of Texas to serve as inmate chaplains, counselors and teachers after they graduate.

Our first class graduates this May 9. They were the first class in the program, and I was there with them at the beginning, teaching them Western Civ I. They are a tremendous group of men, and I’m very excited for them.

I was really excited to hear Phil lecture today, one which he titled “Forging Freedom in Thought, Word, and Deed: W. E. B. Du Bois’ Life and Times.” As many of you know, Phil just completed his history of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church (due out this October from NYU Press), but Phil is also a W. E. B. Du Bois scholar. The timing of the lecture was perfect. In many ways, I see Du Bois’ life and work as something of an encapsulation of much of what I have attempted to teach these men over the past four years. And Phil’s lecture was outstanding–he effectively communicated the significance of what Du Bois meant to the advancement of human flourishing in America and the world in his long and fruitful life.

The students were riveted as Phil opened Du Bois to the class, introducing him to us as he would a personal mentor and friend. In the first half of the lecture, Phil discussed Du Bois’ early life and career, namely his being the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard, the formation of the NAACP, his controversy with Booker T. Washington, and his friendship with Albert Einstein.

After this first half, Phil opened the floor up for questions, and he received many thoughtful insights and questions from the students. He had provided them with a packet of readings from Du Bois last week to have read by the beginning of the class, and they were well prepared. Included in the packet were Du Bois’ “Prayers” (1910), “Credo” (1920), “The Negro and Communism” (1931), “If I Were Young Again: Reading, Writing and Real Estate” (1943), “An Appeal to the World” (1947), and “Whither Now and Why?” (1960) among several others.

One of the questions Phil received was this two-part question: how many times have you lectured on Du Bois, and what is the most challenging question Du Bois raises that you grapple with as you study him? Phil said that he has lectured on Du Bois hundreds of times, perhaps thousands if you count the many lectures he has given in his classroom teaching. But despite the number of lectures he has given on Du Bois, Phil said that he continues to grapple with this question raised in all of Du Bois’ writings over an eighty-five year period: what does it mean to be a human being, and what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?

Such a profound set of questions, and yet so simple. So simple, even a child can understand their meaning and importance, but so profound as to tax the mind of a thinker and doer such as W. E. B. Du Bois in the period of almost a century while he walked this earth. Indeed, Du Bois challenges us Christians to put our faith into practice.

In the second half of the lecture, the part dedicated to what Phil described as his “twilight of years,” Phil related some local history pertinent to the life of Du Bois. He talked about his visit to Prairie View A&M in 1945, and specifically talked about a student named Mayme Ross who assisted in hosting Dr. Du Bois when he came to speak at the school. Mayme was a junior when she served as a student host for Du Bois. Phil had recently gotten in touch with her, and was able to speak with her about her first hand experience with Du Bois. Well into her nineties when she spoke with Phil, she told him that she grew up in humble circumstances, and wasn’t sure how she’d feel around such a towering scholar as W. E. B. Du Bois when he came to the campus at Prairie View. But when she met him and interacted with him, she said she felt herself totally at ease–here was a man truly interested in her life, her ideas, her dreams, and her faith. Through Ms. Ross’ testimony, Phil gave us a window into the man W. E. B. Du Bois, and not merely the scholar.

Phil discussed many aspects of Du Bois’ life and teachings in the course of his three+ hour time with the class. Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Du Bois’ life was the occasion of his joining the American Communist Party and his emigration to Ghana in the last years of his life. Phil masterfully put Du Bois’ decision in context, and helped us to move beyond simple explanations of that decision–a decision that Du Bois did not make hastily, or without the deepest consideration for what it would mean for him personally and professionally.

In Du Bois we see a man who grappled with what it means to be human, what it means to live in freedom and equality, and how justice is truly applied. We see a man who is concerned with what it means to be a “true American”–not in a jingoistic or boorish sense, but in the truest sense, that is, being in community with other Americans who cherish freedom, human dignity, economic and social justice, and concern for the well-being of others.

The meaning of human dignity–it is a historical issue, a theological issue, a social issue, an economic issue, a political issue, an ethical issue, and a practical issue. Through critical thinking, activism, historical and theological reflection, and love for others, Du Bois showed us what it means to truly grapple with this issue that immediately concerns us all.

Thanks Phil, for teaching us today, and for being a model for us of the man Du Bois was.

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Cover Art and Blurbs for American Exceptionalism Book Have Arrived

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I am really excited about the cover for the exceptionalism book. I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying cover than this. The folks at IVP know what they’re doing.

John Fea wrote a wonderful foreword to the book–he was the first person to encourage me to write this book and I am truly grateful for him.

Here are the endorsements–

“John Wilsey has delivered a provocative and much-needed account of the promise and perils of American ‘exceptionalism.’ Few other writers possess the combination of historical and theological insight required to produce a book of this kind.”
Thomas S. Kidd
Author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father
Professor of History, Baylor University

“Nations are what we make them. Inherently, they are neither godly, nor wicked. Most are both. In American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, John D. Wilsey demonstrates this and much more. Deeply thought and engagingly written, this book delves into religious claims about American exceptionalism with passion and compassion. Through the twists and turns, Wilsey offers entirely new ways to be faithfully Christian while participating in the life of the nation.”
Edward J. Blum
Author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet
Professor of History, San Diego State University

“This unsparing recitation of manifest destiny, Indian removal, slavery, Cold War dualism, and pervasive jingoism should give all American Christians pause. John Wilsey, in offering an alternative model for Christian engagement with the state, moves the conversation toward a higher ideal of global and kingdom citizenship.”
David R. Swartz
Author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism
Assistant Professor of History, Asbury Theological Seminary

“Distinguished by rich historical details and astute theoretical insights, John Wilsey liberates academic discussions of American exceptionalism and civil religion from their ivory tower confines, and presents them anew to a broad audience. Positioning himself as both an unapologetic American citizen and Christian, Wilsey skillfully describes, defines, and critiques these interlocking categories. This book will be of great interest not only to scholars, but also to all people of good will who cherish American diversity alongside the worthy pursuit of establishing a broad and inclusive consensus.”
Arthur Remillard
Author of Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, St. Francis University

“Wilsey provides the most up-to-date history of the concept of American exceptionalism available and shows an astute understanding of its relationship to civil religion. He argues for the adaptation of a pluralistic exceptionalism based on the nation’s continuing struggle for and commitment to equality, freedom and justice, rejecting the frequently invoked model that frames America as an innocent nation chosen and commissioned by God.”
Anne Blankenship
Assistant Professor of History, Philosophy & Religious Studies, North Dakota State University

“In an age that appears as confused as ever about the connections between the kingdom of Christ and American identity, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is vital reading. John Wilsey has charted the complex course of an historical idea, American exceptionalism, in a way that is fair and nuanced, yet honest and timely. Combining far reaching interaction with the most current scholarship and careful theological reflection, Wilsey tells this story in a way that will be accessible to a broad audience. I am delighted to recommend it widely and enthusiastically!”
Matthew J. Hall
Vice President for Academic Services, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Are the Resurrection Accounts in the Gospels Contradictory? Part IV

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Let’s summarize our findings in this last part of the series on whether or not the gospel accounts of the resurrection are contradictory.

I am going to list all the events that are pertinent to the resurrection in chronological order. You can use the key below to reference each event as narrated in the gospel accounts.

Directions: Each event is listed in chronological order according to the gospel accounts. References are cited by the following code

a—Matthew 28

b—Mark 16

c—Luke 24

d—John 20-21

e—Acts 1

f—I Corinthians 15

g—Acts 9

The appropriate citations that correspond to the specific reference are given in superscript following the event.

  1. Mary Magdaleneabd, the other Maryab, Salomeb went to the tomb at early dawnabcd on the first day of the week.abcd

2-4 occur while the women were en route to the tomb.

  1. There was an earthquake.a
  1. An angel descended from heaven, rolled away the stone, and sat on it.a
  1. The guards were afraid and became as dead men.a
  1. As the women were drawing near to the tomb, they wondered who would roll away the stone for them.b
  1. They saw that the stone had already been rolled away.bcd.
  1. They entered the tomb and did not find Jesus’ body.bcd
  1. Mary Magdalene left the tomb to find Peter and John and tell them that Jesus’ body was missing.d The other women stayed behind while Mary Magdalene left in despair, confusion and grief.

9-11 takes place while Mary Magdalene is absent from the tomb, looking for Peter and John.

  1. At the tomb, while they were still inside, they were perplexed,c and saw two angels,c one of them on the right side.b
  1. One of the angels spoke, and said, a) Fear not,ab b) I know you seek Jesus,ab c) why do you seek the living among the dead,c d) Jesus is not here,abc e) He is risen,ab f) just as He said,a g) remember how He told you that He would be crucified and rise again,c h) come behold the place where they laid Him,ab i) go, tell the disciples,ab j) He is going before you into Galilee,ab k) you will see Him there.ab
  1. They left the tomb quickly in fear and joy going to the disciples, saying nothing to anyone.abc

By this time, Mary Magdalene had found Peter and John and told them the tomb was empty.

  1. Peter and John arrive at the tomb, John having outrun Peter.d
  1. John did not go in, but stooped down and looked inside—he saw the linen cloths by themselves.d
  1. Peter went inside the tomb and saw how the linens were arranged.d
  1. Neither understood the Scriptures, which said that He must rise again.
  1. Peter and John went to their own homes.d
  1. Mary remained outside the tomb weeping, and she stooped down to look inside the tomb. She saw the two angels, one at the head, and the other at the feet of where Jesus had lain.d
  1. The two angels reappeared.d
  1. They asked her, “Why are you weeping?” She replied that she did not know where the Lord’s body was.d
  1. She then turned around and saw Jesus, but she thought He was the gardener. He asked her the same question, and “Whom do you seek?”d
  1. She answered again, and Jesus said her name, at which time she recognized Him and worshiped Him.d
  1. Jesus told her to go and tell the other disciples that He was alive.d
  1. Jesus met the other women as they were going—they worshiped Him and He told them to proceed on to the disciples.a
  1. Mary Magdalene went to tell the disciples that Jesus was alive, but they did not believe her.bd
  1. Jesus appeared to two other believers on the road to Emmaus, who did not recognize Him at first. They told the disciples that Jesus was alive.bc
  1. The disciples did not believe them either.bc
  1. At evening on the same day,bcd Jesus appeared to the disciples.abcd They thought He was a ghostc until they touched Him and gave Him something to eat.c
  1. Christ expounded to them in all the Scriptures and opened their understanding.c
  1. After eight daysd Christ appeared to Thomas in order to disspell his doubts.
  1. Christ appeared to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, whereupon He asked Peter three times if he loved Him.d
  1. Christ appeared to five hundred at once, of whom Paul said several were still alive in his own day.f
  1. Christ gives the Great Commission to go into the world making disciples and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.abc
  1. Christ appeared to James, as reported by Paul.f
  1. Over the course of forty days, Christ appeared to the disciples, and spoke to them concerning the things of the kingdom of God.e
  1. Christ commanded the disciples not to leave Jerusalem until they had been endued with power from the Holy Spirit.ce
  1. Christ led the disciples out as far as Bethanyc and then was taken into heaven as they worshiped Him.c
  1. Two angels told the disciples that this same Jesus who had ascended would return in like manner.e
  1. Christ appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus.g

Are the Resurrection Accounts in the Gospels Contradictory? Part III

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We have considered the questions about what the angels were doing and saying on the morning of the resurrection. Let’s take a look at the troubling apparent contradictions found in Mary Magdalene’s activities, and also those of Jesus himself.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels. New Testament scholars call them by that name because they are very similar in their content. Anyone who has given a cursory glance at these three gospels can readily see how similar they are.

But John’s gospel is different than the others. It does not contain any parables. And it is more theological than the Synoptics. So, we would expect to see wide agreement between the Synoptics concerning the details of the resurrection—which we do, especially in the sayings of the angels to the women as they perplexedly stood in the empty tomb.

John says that “on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb” (John 20.1). That comports with what the other gospel writers say—except that John does not mention the other women. Does not that lead us to a necessary contradiction? Not at all. All the gospel writers have Mary Magdalene going to the tomb very early in the morning. Just because John does not mention the others does not necessarily mean they were not there.

But then John says that Mary ran off to go and get Peter and John. The Synoptics do not mention Mary running off. Does that mean that a necessary contradiction exists here? Again, not at all. We can reasonably infer that all the women went together to the tomb, and when they found it empty, Mary Magdalene was so stricken with grief and perplexity, that she left the others to go and fetch Peter and John. Luke does say that the women were very perplexed. Mary Magdalene must have left the women there at the tomb, before they saw and heard the angels telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead.

So while Mary Magdalene was gone, the angels declared to the other women that Jesus was resurrected. The other women left the tomb in great joy before Mary Magdalene had returned with Peter and John. By the time Mary Magdalene had returned with Peter and John, the tomb was silent and empty, just as it was when all the women had arrived there at the first.

There is an interval of time and events between John 20.1 and John 20.2. From Mary Magdalene’s perspective, the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body had been taken away, by whom she did not know. Peter and John arrived at the tomb to see it was empty. Luke has Peter at the tomb, but not John. But again, if Luke reports that Peter was there but did not mention John, that does not leave us with a necessary contradiction. Remember that Peter was the first to confess Jesus as Messiah, and thus Jesus gave Peter the pre-eminent position among the disciples (Matthew 16.17-19). It was logical for Luke to mention Peter, but not to mention John.

After Peter and John departed the tomb in confusion, John says that Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, weeping. It is at this time that Mary looks into the tomb and sees two angels. Remember that Mary had not seen the angels yet, because she was not present with the other women when the angels appeared previously. So they ask her, “Why are you weeping?” She answers that she does not know where Jesus’ body is.

It is at this time that Jesus himself appeared to Mary, but she does not recognize him, but thinks he is the gardener. But he reveals himself to her, and tells her to and tell the disciples that he is alive.

Then Jesus appeared to the other women while they were en route from the tomb to Galilee to report back to the disciples, as the angels had instructed them from inside the tomb. How did Jesus get to them so fast, you ask? We know that Jesus had a glorified body—he could appear in unrecognizable forms; he could move through locked doors; and his body still bore the scars from the nails and the thrust of the spear as he hung on the cross three days earlier. So his speedy appearance between two places does no violence at all to the narrative. In fact, it lends it further credibility.

Thus, we see no necessary contradictions in the resurrection accounts in the gospels. As long as we can provide reasonable alternatives to resolve the apparent contradictions, we can demonstrate that no necessary contradictions are present. In fact, we can have reasonable certainty that the gospel accounts offer a coherent narrative of the events of the resurrection.

This means that when we place our faith in Jesus Christ as the resurrected Lord and God, we are making a reasonable epistemic choice. We are not taking an irrational leap of faith into the darkness. We can affirm, with the Apostle Paul as he was reflecting on whether or not Christ was raised: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep, for since by man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15.20-21).

In Part IV, we will summarize our findings.

Are the Resurrection Accounts in the Gospels Contradictory? Part II

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In Part I, we considered several apparent contradictions in the four gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. To recap, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the Scriptures have no meaning to us whatsoever, according to the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15. If the accounts of the resurrection are unreliable, then we have no reasonable basis to believe the resurrection occurred. So the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to the Christian faith.

An apparent contradiction is not the same as an actual contradiction. To have an actual contradiction, you have to have an assertion that takes the following form:

  1. There is a tree growing in the pasture ten yards from the southwest corner of the fence.
  2. There is not a tree growing in the pasture ten yards from the southwest corner of the fence.

Either there is a tree at the specified location, or there isn’t. Both cannot be true. So these two statements are contradictory.

What makes a necessary contradiction? A necessary contradiction occurs when there are no possible alternatives except the contradiction. The example above is an example of a necessary contradiction because the details are so precisely defined.

Apparent contradictions come along when there are hosts of details that are not specifically enumerated. For example, Matthew’s account of the resurrection does not include every single, solitary detail of the events of that morning. Neither does Mark’s; or Luke’s; or John’s. The gospel writers include certain details, and leave others out. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that. You can report on an event truthfully without enumerating every single detail of the narrative.

For the gospel accounts to be necessarily contradictory, there must be no alternative except that a contradiction is present. But as we will see, there are no necessary contradictions. As long as there is a reasonable alternative to a contradiction, it is not reasonable to assume a necessary contradiction. In fact, it is more reasonable to posit the alternative than to posit the contradiction.

Let’s consider Matthew’s account of the angel rolling the stone away and sitting down on it. No other gospel accounts have this detail. And Matthew does not report on the women’s reaction to the angel moving away the stone and sitting on it.

We can infer that the women were not present when the angel moved away the stone. We can infer that they were en route to the tomb, but that they had not arrived yet when the earthquake occurred, the angel moved the stone, and stunned the guards. We can further infer, that by the time the women did arrive at the tomb, the angel departed from the mouth of the tomb, so that when the women arrived, they found the stone rolled away—which is exactly what Mark, Luke, and John affirm.

So how many angels were inside the tomb? Was it only one, as Mark says? Or were there two, as Luke says? Well, if there were two, there was certainly one. Luke saying there were two does not necessitate only one. Mark only mentions the one, presumably because there was only one angel speaking to the women, while the other affirmed what he said by his silence.

What did the angels say? Here we have striking agreement between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here is what they said:

  1. Fear not (Matthew and Mark)
  2. I know you seek Jesus (Matthew and Mark)
  3. Why do you seek the living among the dead? (Luke)
  4. Jesus is not here (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)
  5. He is risen (Matthew and Mark)
  6. Just as he said (Matthew)
  7. Remember how he told you that he would be crucified and rise again (Luke)
  8. Come and see the place where they laid him (Matthew and Mark)
  9. Go, tell his disciples (Matthew and Mark)
  10. He is going before you into Galilee (Matthew and Mark)
  11. You will see him there (Matthew and Mark)

Now obviously, not all three include every single one of these affirmations. But when we look at the flow of these affirmations, they all follow one from another. There are no contradictions here in the statements of the angels to the women as they stood inside the empty tomb.

So, we have considered the questions about the angels—how many there were, what they were doing, and what they said to the women. Not every gospel writer includes every detail of the event. But the details they did include fit together nicely. Do we need to infer a few things that none of the gospel writers include in their narratives? Yes, but those inferences are not unreasonable. And if we can infer a reasonable explanation resolving an apparent contradiction, then we have shown that no necessary contradiction exists.

But we are not finished yet. The most troubling difficulties lie ahead.

Let’s consider Mary Magdalene’s role in the narrative, and most important, let’s consider what exactly Jesus was up to. Moving on to Part III. . .

Are the Resurrection Accounts in the Gospels Contradictory? Part I

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The Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians that every assertion of the gospel rests on the truth of Jesus Christ’s rising from the dead on the third day. He wrote, “. . . if Christ is not raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. . . . For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (I Cor. 15.14, 16-17).

In other words, if Jesus did not, in fact, rise from the dead, then nothing that is affirmed in the New Testament is true. In fact, nothing in the Old Testament is true either, because as Jesus himself said, “[the Scriptures] testify about Me” (John 5.39) and “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5.17). So, if Jesus is not raised from the dead, the entire testimony of God found in the Scriptures is worthless, because the Christian faith rests on that very foundation.

So it stands to reason that the gospel accounts of the Resurrection are not only important; they are indispensable. Everything is riding on the accuracy of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But do those four accounts present us with a coherent narrative? If they do, then it is reasonable to believe them, and to accept that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead on the third day, as each of them assert. But if they contradict one another, then their reliability is questionable. If they are contradictory, how would we know which details in the narrative were accurate, and which were not? We would be left guessing, which is a bad place to be.

When we carefully consider the four accounts, do we find a coherent narrative? Let’s consider these details in particular:

  1. Matthew reports an earthquake, and an angel turning the stone away from the tomb and sitting on it. He also has the guards freeze in terror and become like dead men.
  2. But none of the other accounts include these details. In fact, Mark relates that the women who were on their way to the tomb early that morning wondered who would roll the stone away for them. If an angel rolled the stone away, why would the women wonder who would roll it away for them?
  3. When the women arrived at the tomb and found the stone rolled away, Luke says that they saw two angels—but Mark says there was only one.
  4. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each report that the angels the women found declared to them that Jesus had been resurrected. But John does not report this at all. In fact, John says that the angels only asked Mary Magdalene why she was crying.
  5. John says that he and Peter went to the tomb, but Matthew and Mark do not mention their journey to the tomb; Luke says that Peter was there, but says nothing about John.
  6. The biggest difficulty with the Resurrection accounts has to do with Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned as being with the rest of the women—the other Mary and Salome—who all went to the tomb together that morning. But John says that only Mary Magdalene was there at the tomb. He says that the angels were there to ask her why she was crying. And then John says that Jesus appeared to her, that she did not recognize him but thought he was the gardener. But then he revealed himself to her as Jesus, and told her to go and tell his disciples that he was alive. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is the angels that tell the women to report back to the disciples.

Matthew has Jesus appearing to the women as they are en route to report to the disciples, but it was after they had departed the tomb that he appears to them. So Mark and Luke do not mention Jesus at or near the tomb; Matthew has Jesus appear to the women while they are heading back to tell the disciples about the empty tomb; and John has Jesus appear only to Mary Magdalene at the tomb itself.

It would seem that there are serious contradictions in the gospel accounts as to what exactly happened on Resurrection morning.

  1. How many angels were at the tomb? One or two? Was the angel on the rock, or inside the tomb?
  2. What did the angels say to the women? Did they declare the resurrection, or did they wonder why Mary Magdalene was crying?
  3. Who was actually present at the tomb? Was Mary Magdalene with the other women, or was she by herself? Did Peter come to the tomb by himself, or did he come with John?
  4. And what about Jesus? Did all the women see him? Did they see him at the tomb or en route back to Galilee? Did they recognize him? What did he say to them? Was he present at the tomb at all?

These questions reveal what appear to be fatal contradictions in the gospel accounts. The stakes are very high. If the resurrection accounts are contradictory, then their credibility is seriously undermined.

The good news is that the four gospel accounts of the resurrection can indeed be harmonized. We can indeed have confidence that the gospels do not contradict themselves, that the accounts are completely reliable, and we can know that Jesus did indeed rise again from the dead.

Let’s look at Part II to see how.