Does Christianity really need Jesus to rise from the dead? Maybe it would be okay to just worship and follow the teachings of Jesus? He was a really awesome guy, resurrection or not. If Christianity doesn’t actually need a risen Jesus, that could potentially help many people who simply cannot believe in miracles. Thomas Jefferson was one of them from 250 years ago. He produced a version of the Bible, the Jefferson Bible, in which he attempted to remove all instances of the miraculous. Miracles, he and many other scientifically-minded people say, are not possible. So, they say, let’s dispense with all that and just follow Jesus, who arguably demonstrated the best possible way to live.
It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the Christians (see the previous post in this series, where I talk about numerous surveys in the last ten years, all of which suggest that in the USA one in four Christians are skeptical) who don’t believe in a bodily resurrection feel something like Thomas Jefferson did. Dead people coming back to life is just a hard thing to believe.
The ancient church in the Roman city of Corinth in first century CE seemed to have a skeptical group as well. Turn to 1st Corinthians 15 and read verses 12-19.
The writer of the letter, the Apostle Paul, starts this section by saying “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Apparently there were people in Corinth were teaching and preaching that the concept of resurrection is impossible. Paul got wind of it, and knew that he had to respond. Why? What’s the big deal?
In the Christian faith, we have for two thousand years claimed that the resurrection is like a lynch pin of our entire system. You pull Easter out from the story, and our faith falls apart. Look at what Paul says: if there is no such thing as resurrection, we have nothing. A dead savior is no savior, Paul says. Resurrection, to Christianity, is a very big deal.
Notice that in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is talking about the wider concept of resurrection. Any resurrection. He is not initially talking about Jesus’ resurrection. But he gets there pretty quickly. If the concept of resurrection is not possible, if dead things cannot come back to life, then there are some obvious ramifications:
Look at verse 13. First, Paul says, if resurrection is not possible then Jesus certainly did not rise again.
Now follow his logic in verse 14. If Jesus didn’t rise, Christian preaching and faith is all in vain. This is what I mentioned above: resurrection is absolutely foundational to Christianity. If people cannot be risen from the dead, then Jesus didn’t rise to new life, and Christianity is null and void. We Christians believe that the resurrection of Jesus is what validates our entire belief system.
So Paul concludes in verse 15, if resurrection isn’t possible, then Jesus did not rise, then our belief system is false, and that would make us liars. Paul is simply laying out the ramifications of it all. Either resurrection is possible, or we Christians have believed a lie.
Then in verses 16-17, he takes it one step further. In verse 16, he repeats the logic of verse 13: no resurrection means Jesus is still dead, and that means, as he continues in verse 17, that our faith is futile and here’s the kicker, we are still in sin!
That’s also big deal for Paul. Paul is saying that sin is the major problem resurrection-based Christianity resolves. What is sin? Some people say, “Sin is just the major stuff. Sure I’m not perfect. Nobody is. But why would God care about my little lies, when I fudge on my taxes a bit, or gossip, when I’m not seriously harming anybody? There are plenty of people out there doing really terrible stuff. Rape, murder, trafficking, hard drugs, genocide. That’s sin! But me? No way. God’s got bigger fish to fry.”
Have you ever thought something like that? Is that what sin is? Just the big stuff?
No! According to the description of sin in the Bible, our sin is what distinguishes us from God, because God is perfect. There is a whole order of magnitude of difference between us and God, to the point that even the small stuff matters. Sin is anything that is not in line with God’s heart and character.
Furthermore, while Scripture does affirm that some sin is worse than other, that is related to its consequences and affects. But Scripture does not have a sin scale that suggests God doesn’t sweat the small stuff and only cares if we wrong others in “the big ways”. All of our actions matter to him. Not because he has some book of random rules that he wants us follow. Instead God is concerned about all of our actions whether big or small, because sin is a misalignment from the heart and character of God. Therefore, it is in our best interest, and it is in the best interest of the world around us, to be in alignment with the heart and character of God. Because he is holy and he loves us and loves others with a perfect love.
That’s what has Paul so concerned. Paul is saying that somehow the resurrection made it possible for us to be in alignment with God. How? How does the resurrection offer us this alignment?
The resurrection offers us alignment with God because resurrection is the amazing gift of God, that while we were still sinners, Paul writes in Romans, Christ died for us. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice who didn’t have to die, who willingly allowed himself to be killed on our behalf. Therefore, when he who didn’t have to die, still willingly gave himself on our behalf, God declared the sin of humanity to be dealt with. When he rose to new life, he validates his victory.
Because the punishment for sin is death, a dead savior is no savior. A savior who is truly victorious over sin is a savior who will rise again to life, showing his power over death, the devil and sin. If Jesus didn’t rise again, we are still in our sins, we have no relationship with God and no hope of eternal life. In other words, as Paul puts it in verse 18, we are lost.
What this means is that Christianity absolutely needs both the general concept of resurrection to be true, and the specific resurrection of Jesus to also be true. But was it true?
Check back in to the next post, as we’ll look at what Paul says next, that there is hope for the lost!