On Lydia McGrew’s Maximal Data Approach to Presenting the Resurrection of Jesus

May 5, 2020 | Apologetics, Article, Podcast

We’re just off the heels of another Easter season, which should be a favorite time of year for all Christians. I know it is one of mine!

We not only get to celebrate our Savior’s Passion for us, but we are presented with new opportunities to present it in the public arena.

I spent the other day listening to debates, lectures, and Q&A sessions around the Resurrection of Jesus. One such presentation from none other than Dr. Lydia McGrew, one of the smartest and sweetest Christian ladies and philosophers I know, touted a “Maximal Data” approach to arguing for the truthfulness of the New Testament accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

(I mean, I don’t know that many smart, sweet, female Christian philosophers; but I’m proud to know her!)

Maximal vs. Minimal

The first half of her presentation described a variety of approaches to this question, all of which fall under what is commonly called a “minimal facts” approach to presenting this data.

Two leading proponents of such an approach are also two of the leading scholars of the Resurrection in the world, Drs. Gary Habermas and Mike Licona.

And while even between them there is slight variation in approach,1 the central idea is this: We can have confidence that the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are truthful, even if we only use the data which secular historians will grant.

The motive behind taking such an approach is virtuous, however, as Lydia helpfully noted, I think there are some problems that result in this approach weakening the overall case.

Some of the issues involve a lack of clarity around what many scholars are actually willing to grant about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, too many unnecessary2 concessions to liberal scholarship, a watered-down definition of gospel “reliability,” the need to defend additional information that renders the approach not so “minimal” after all, etc.

For Lydia (and her husband, Tim, who have defended the resurrection together), the strength of the case lies not in how few data points mainstream scholars will grant, but how many data points are well-evidenced.

This is the “maximal data” approach.

A few hallmarks of the approach are:

  1. A succinct presentation. Some object to using this argument because they assume it would take too long in a debate setting. This is not so. For example, as Lydia mentioned, the approach could be presented in a simple trilemma: Either the disciples were deceived, they were mistaken, or they were telling the truth.

  2. Strong reliability. In other words, there’s an emphasis on the reliability of the New Testament documents as giving accurate information. The minimal approach would argue its case in spite of assumed unreliability (even if only for the sake of argument). But why take this approach, since there’s good evidence the documents are reliable?3

  3. The breadth of scholarship. The minimal facts approach often ignores points that only conservative scholars will accept; it even ignores the empty tomb story, which over 75% of all scholars will grant as of 2005 according to Habermas. But again, why? It seems to me that this practice merely encourages the incorrect assumption that conservative scholars are not objective researchers and reporters. Why play further into this narrative?

Why I Prefer the Maximal Data Approach

I see zero reason to think the gospels cannot be treated as reliable sources. Again, that is a point that would be up for debate in a debate, but it also is well-evidenced!

I also see zero reason to think that believing scholars cannot be considered objective voices with respect to the evidence at hand.

The fact is, there is a powerful cumulative case to be made for the truthfulness of the resurrection narratives. There is a preponderance of evidence available to us; I say use it!

Let me echo Lydia in saying that Habermas, Licona, and others who advocate a minimal facts approach pretty much believe the same data the McGrew’s suggest using. What’s at issue is in what context this data should be presented, and how.

To treat everyone fairly, let me say that both Habermas and Licona both willfully admit that on any given day, they make change their mind on how to approach things! They will use different data, in different contexts, with different people.

The point is this: We don’t have to bow the skeptic’s (faulty) request to present only that data which folks who take a non-Christian worldview will grant. The maximal data approach rejects that request by asserting a more well-defined starting point, arguing from the breadth of the data available, and avoiding unnecessary concessions about the facts.


  1. See here for a recent and EXCELLENT presentation given by both of them.
  2. Meaning, there is good evidence against their claims!
  3. On a side note, it simply AMAZES me how many skeptics cannot let go of objecting because “you are using what the Bible says.” And this following a scholar who has very carefully laid out, in the presentation itself, multiple reasons why such an objection is not valid and/or does not apply to their argument.

    And it’s not as though the skeptic comes to the table with novel reasons why their objection is sound; they just continue to repeat the internet atheist trope: “But—that argument is in the BIBLE! You can’t use that!”

    I know there are multiple ways to deal with this objection; different apologists are going to espouse different routes. But I love how Voddie Baucham puts it. You don’t win a sword fight by explaining the science of metallurgy. You slice the other guy with your sword (in Christian love, of course)!

    I see no reason why the statements in the Bible can’t be used to defend the Bible (in the sense of using it as data), even if taken as authoritative and even inspired. It all comes down to a hidden assumption that author bias = contrary-to-actual-fact reporting, and such an assumption would destroy the possibility of ascertaining historical knowledge about ANYONE, not just Jesus.

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Meet Steve

Hi, I’m Steve, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher with a heart for exploring God’s Word and God’s world.

I’m interested in the surprising connection between creation, theology, business, and storytelling. We explore those themes and more on this blog.

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