How can you say there’s no resurrection of the dead? Easy. Can you even imagine all buried-dead from all times and places, some rotted to nothing, rising from the earth? Question really is, how can you say there will be a resurrection of the dead?
We’re caught in the fray that prompted Paul to write 1 Corinthians 15. Obviously, it’s not one of those theological questions like, “What are cherubim and what do they do?” This one has to do with the hope of what we Americans vaguely call “the afterlife”.
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1,2).
Paul had preached the gospel to the Corinthians. They had accepted it and stood firmly on it. He reminds them of it again, because this gospel saves only those who keep holding tightly to it in faith. Quit holding on and your at-first-faith is good for nothing.
So what’s the gospel Paul had preached to them?
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
First, this gospel was what Paul had received. From whom? He answered in Galatians 1:12–“For I did not receive [the gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
The gospel calls us to believe, not in doctrine devised by Roman-Catholic-cardinals convocation nor by Southern-Baptist-pastors convention, but in a revelation of Jesus Christ himself.
This gospel, Paul tells the Corinthians, is of first importance. Why? Because by this the Corinthians–and we–are saved from sin and eternal death.
So what is it?
. . . “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”
. . . “that he was buried”
. . . “that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”
. . . “and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve”
Note that the gospel is less a set of doctrines and more a series of events. Christ died. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. Christ appeared to his disciples. The gospel is good news of historical happenings.
Unlike, for instance, Islam. Islam teaches that Allah (God) revealed teachings to Muhammad. The revelations, not “the prophet”, are the important thing. But, remove Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and appearances from Christianity, and you have no gospel.
Yet Christ’s death still needs interpretation. Was it just another Jew-death? Not according to Paul. Christ “died for our sins”. His death was a sacrifice. It was on account of our sins. And it happened “according to the Scriptures”. Paul’s probably thinking of the entire body of (Old Testament) Scripture, starting with the Lord providing a ram to die instead of Abraham’s son, continuing with the Lord accepting a lamb as a sacrifice to save Israel from the death angel in Egypt, and including the Lord’s Servant “led like a lamb to the slaughter”, of whom Isaiah prophesied.
Christ was buried (definitely dead!), and “he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”. Perhaps Paul is thinking of Psalm 16:8-11 (“ I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore”).
Paul’s claim that Christ was raised is substantiated by appearances to Peter, the Twelve and more . . .
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Corinthians 15:6-8).
The list is impressive. It includes Paul himself, who, on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), saw, not a vision of the risen Christ, but an actual appearance of the person of Christ.
Referring to himself as “one abnormally born”, Paul may be using the Corinthians’ anti-Paul language. Paul was probably short, so the Corinthians mocked his “birth defect”. Paul uses their ridicule to humble himself and exalt God’s grace in his life.
“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them– yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (1 Corinthians 15:9-11).
* * *
Now, about the “afterlife”. Biblically, it’s not at all vague. It’s as “flesh-and-blood” as Jesus resurrected. But wait. Was he? After all, we’re talking about a miracle of the grandest proportions. Except for Hollywood-movie-miracles, once pronounced dead, you’re dead. No hope left. Medical staff turns off the machines, escorts you out and darkens the room. Only burial remains.
But we have over 500 bodily appearances of Jesus alive after death. We know those appearances changed the lives of the Twelve and Paul. Maybe the 500 also. They became bold followers of Christ, willing even to die for his sake, believing, like him, they too would be raised.
So Christianity is a miraculous faith. At its heart lies the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Deny that and you can’t be a Christian.
But all religions make the same call. Islam calls us to believe in Allah’s revelations to Muhammad. Muslims are called to believe Allah “broke into time and space” and gave revelations to Muhammad. Judaism claims revelations from God, not just in words but in powerful acts. According to tradition, the Buddha was a miracle-working ascetic. Hinduism is based on reincarnation and believes in “one absolute being of multiple manifestations”–hence, beyond the natural, or miraculous.
My point: virtually all religions call for faith in the miraculous. Only atheism allows us escape. But, do we really want to go to a worldview that has this life only?
So the question is, “Which miracle do we want to believe in?”
I go with the guys who said (and died for it), “We saw Jesus alive!”