Can we rationally believe Jesus is alive today?
Christians make the claim that Jesus is alive today, over 2,000 years after he lived on earth. To modern ears, this may seem outlandish. Are we really expected to believe that a Jewish rabbi really - in space and in time - bodily rose from the dead?
The apostle Paul believed this was a non-negotiable belief for one to be considered a Christian. He wrote to the Corinthians: "And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith has nothing to it; you are still guilty of your sins. And those in Christ who have already died are lost." Paul even goes on to say "if the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (1 Corinthians 15:17-18)
In other words, if Jesus isn't alive, Christians should give up their faith and live accordingly. Conversely, if Jesus did rise, then we also should live accordingly. Paul preached to the people of Athens "God...now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead". (Acts 17:30-31) Peter said to the Jewish leaders "Jesus Christ of Nazareth...whom God raised from the dead...there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:10, 12)
Christianity then, if true, is infinitely important. If it's untrue, it's not worth our attention and as Paul said its adherents are "to be more pitied than all the rest of the world". (1 Cor 15:19)
The resurrection was a public event, not just some private revelation or idea about God like we see in some other religions. Since it's a historical event, it's subject to historical inquiry.
To argue for historical claims, we must:
1. Identify the relevant facts, and
2. Evaluate rival explanations of those facts.
We don't have to look at the New Testament as divinely inspired to do this, rather we can look at it as a collection of ancient historical documents and evaluate the claims they make.
First, some historical background regarding the death and burial of Jesus:
Jesus was crucified. This is not only reported in all four gospels but is externally confirmed by non-Christian historians. The Jewish historian Josephus says: "Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross". (Antiquities 18:3)
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote: "Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus". (Annals 15:44)
Secondly, Jesus was buried. Jewish law required burial, even for foreigners and for criminals who were executed. (Josephus, Against Apion 2.211, Deuteronomy 21:23) Also, it's reported in the gospels that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in one of his family tombs. This is unlikely to be a Christian invention, as Joseph was also on the same council that ended up calling for the crucifixion.
Moving forward through the facts about the origin of the Christian faith
Down below is the relevant data that we'll be considering. Further below are the most popular explanations of the facts. They're not the only explanations, but any explanation has to cover all the facts that we'll be looking at. I recommend reading them in order.
What are the facts? - Click the images for details
Low Status of Women
In the patriarchal society that was second temple Judaism, women were not highly regarded. In particular, their testimony was looked down upon in comparison to the testimony of men. Yet the Gospel writers make the then-embarrassing admission that women were the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb. Why is that important?
After Jesus’ death, the disciples endured persecution, and a number of them experienced martyrdom. The strength of their conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus had appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ. Find out why that matters.
Empty Tomb of Jesus
According to scholar Gary Habermas: “An intriguing development in recent theological research is that a strong majority of contemporary critical scholars seems to support, at least to some extent, the view that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was subsequently discovered to be empty” Here we look at just a few reasons why historians believe this to be fact.