Though Michael Licona became a Christian at a young age, he experienced strong doubts while working on a master’s degree in religious studies at Liberty University. That led him to explore the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in his PhD work, and to engage in public debates with leading skeptics and atheists. Driven by a desire to follow the evidence wherever it led, Licona understood that journey might lead him away from Christianity.
In 2010, Licona released his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which showed that the evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus is much stronger than any competing explanations, such as the idea that Jesus’ body was stolen by his followers or by his enemies, or that the disciples simply experienced hallucinations of the resurrected Jesus.
Licona, formerly apologetics coordinator at the North American Missions Board, is now teaching at Houston Baptist University and has founded RisenJesus.com. He recently released a new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press).
What was your upbringing like? Did you grow up as a Christian?
My parents were Catholic and split up when I was five. My mom remarried and we started attending a Presbyterian church. When I was very young, I was obsessed with getting to heaven. I was always asking, “How do I get to heaven, Mom?” And she said, “You just have to do more good than bad.” So, I was constantly thinking, Where am I on that scale?
When I was ten years old, the Presbyterian church had a combined youth group event and they brought this Christian magician in. He did magic to illustrate the message of the gospel. He focused on what God had done, not what I was supposed to do. And for the first time I understood the gospel: It wasn’t what I did; it was what Christ did. They gave an invitation to come forward and make a profession of faith. I went forward to become a Christian; it was what I’d been looking for.
How did you become interested in apologetics?
Toward the end of my graduate studies, I started doubting my Christian faith. I believed I had a relationship with the Lord, that the Bible was true. But what if I was wrong? Don’t people from other religions say the same thing? How could I know that I’m not a Christian because that’s what I learned from my parents?
These questions bothered me. I knew it could mean the eternal destiny of my soul if I got it wrong. So I was determined to be open-minded and seek truth. That led me into apologetics, which I had no interest in before. But even that wasn’t enough. I quickly realized that I was just seeking the answers I wanted to find, which led to further doubts and more investigation. I was studying the Resurrection for my PhD at the time, initially just wanting to find another way to prove it. But I became interested in approaching the Resurrection differently, as a historian. If we subjected the resurrection of Jesus to strictly controlled scrutiny using the historical method, what would it look like? What would it yield for us? My goal was to answer these questions.