But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. – I Corinthians 15:12-20
My friend Kevin is a professor of New Testament at my alma mater. He told me about the time several years ago when his father died. He recalled vividly people coming up to him to tell him not to cry, not to grieve because, “That’s not really your father. That’s just a shell.” They were well-intended words, but it was frustrating for Kevin and it came to the point he challenged their words in a most poignant way when he said in reply, “What do you mean, that’s not my father? Those are the hands that cared for me. Those are the arms that took me up and hugged me. Those are the lips that spoke to me; the eyes that searched for me; the chest on which I fell asleep, knowing I was safe in his care. Everything I have ever known of my father was through this body. Don’t tell me that’s not him.”
Now what I’m about to say might sound a little jarring at first, but hear this, and hear me out:
Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead just so you could go to heaven when you die.
That’s not the end game. The goal is something greater than just going to heaven when you die. Because if it was just about that, then what the ancient pagans and Gnostics believed about the body must be true – that our bodies are prisons, that they are merely shells for some sort of immaterial soul within that ultimately longs to be free. To be clear, that sort of picture can be a picture of salvation and of hope, but it is not the picture of Christian salvation and hope that we have in the New Testament. The picture of salvation and hope in the New Testament is very clearly based on an event that took place 2,000 years ago – the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified and died, was buried, and on the third day rose again.
In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, there are two statements about the resurrection – (1) that Jesus was resurrected on the third day; and (2) the belief “in the resurrection of the body” or “resurrection of the dead” which is about the resurrection that we still await – what we call the “general resurrection.” These doctrines are not euphemisms or merely metaphors to talk about an ethereal reality or our need to “escape” our earthly tents, so to speak. No, Jesus’ body departed the tomb with its scars, though they had healed, and apparently with some new abilities that they had not yet seen. (More on that in a moment.)
In this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul is in the midst of his theological discourse about the content of Christian hope. He’s already established that there are over 500 eyewitnesses to Jesus’ bodily resurrection (verses 1-11). And he now turns to address what appears to be a faction of the Corinthians who weren’t necessarily denying that Jesus was raised (though some were perhaps teaching that), but who were at least denying that a future resurrection was still in store for the people of God.
Most of the world in the first century didn’t believe in an eternity that was based upon the idea of the resurrection of the body. By the time Jesus was around, there was a sect within Judaism called the Sadducees who did not believe in a future resurrection. It was the Pharisees who believed that the resurrection would one day happen as the final reckoning of God’s judgment, when God would right the wrongs and vindicate the faithful by raising them from the dead to enjoy eternity in the presence of God. But the Sadducees and others like them focused their message of salvation in the “now,” which is one reason why the Sadducees frequently are seen in the Gospels in cahoots with the powers that be…to get as much power and prestige in this life as possible.
However, the teaching of the Pharisees and most other Jews was that the resurrection of the dead would mark the final day of God’s judgment: the picture of hope for God’s faithful. It’s what Jesus held to, what Paul held to, what Jesus’ friends and followers believed as well. In John 11, right before Jesus raised Lazarus, he told Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” She replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And what Jesus did next for Martha, Mary and all of Lazarus’ friends was to give them a glimpse of that in resuscitating Lazarus. I say “resuscitate” rather than “resurrect” because Lazarus was raised by Jesus but would one day die again. However, the resurrection would be to life for eternity. And here, my friends, is where the resurrection of Jesus was so surprising: not because they didn’t believe it wouldn’t one day happen, but that it happened on the third day. When Jesus was raised, it wasn’t just a resuscitation, it was something more: he was raised to never die again. That’s resurrection.
And Paul’s point here, as he says elsewhere in his letters, is that what is true of Jesus the Messiah is true of us. What happened to Jesus will one day happen to us. If it won’t happen to us – if we deny that the resurrection of the body will happen – then what is the purpose of Jesus’ resurrection? Paul goes further and says that if we won’t be raised then it must be that Christ was not raised. And if that is the case, then we are still in our sins, because sin and death are intertwined in Paul’s worldview. We would still be in our sins and death would remain the victor.
But, Paul, says, Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the “first fruits” of those who have died. The language of “first fruits” is why we affirm that what happened to Jesus on the third day will happen to us on the final day: that will be the harvest from when we have been buried, planted, interred, or returned to the earth or laid to rest.
So, I say again, Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead just so you could go to heaven when you die. He was raised so that one day we, too, will be raised. God will do more than resuscitate our mortal bodies…but restore, redeem, and endow our bodies, this creation, with amazing new possibilities that will leave us eternally in awe of God’s ability to make all things new.
The resurrection is part of why we ought not treat our world like trash. The resurrection is why my family recycles. The resurrection is why we should be good stewards of our bodies. The resurrection is why we should strive to fight for the dignity and well-being of all humans on the face of the planet. The resurrection is why we seek to be Christ’s hands, feet, and voice now, getting to experience the beauty of salvation now, living for the kingdom of God in Christ now, even while we wait for the later when God will give life to these mortal bodies. And at the end of the day and the end of life, the resurrection is why we do grieve even to the point of breaking down and weeping, because of how much we love and will miss the person who has died. And the resurrection is why we don’t believe these bodies are prisons or shells but when we die, await a glorious time when God will do with our bodies what he did with Jesus’ on the third day. And what do we see Jesus doing after the third day? Well, the same sort of things we do even now: eating fish, breaking bread, walking and talking, showing the scars of our past. Only now, he could do more! As if given a new dimension, he was able to show up behind a closed, locked door; travel to Galilee in no time; and so on.
A new dimension. In geometry, a line is one-dimensional – length; when lines form to make a shape, it’s two-dimensional – length and width. But it remains two-dimensional until you add depth or height. Is that third dimension separate from the other dimensions? No. It is made up of them but adds more.
That’s one way to see the resurrection: it’s something mysterious and amazing and beyond the world as we currently know it. And yet while it is beyond and more than it, it is not so “other” that it is less than whatever truth and goodness and beauty we currently know. Believing this means that we are not to be pitied but that we live in hope.
Note from the Editor: The featured artwork is titled “Harbingers of the Resurrection” by Nikolai Ge, 1867.