In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them and by means of which God saved them. It is the good news that Jesus Christ died for their sins but rose again three days later to eternal life (15:3-4). By believing this gospel, the Corinthians experienced forgiveness of sins and received the hopeful promise that they too, with Christ, could live eternally with God.
Now, however, in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19,we discover that the Corinthians have discarded their belief in resurrection. We are not sure – because Paul does not explain – why the Corinthians no longer believe in their future resurrection. We do know, however, that Paul thought their lack of belief devastating. On some doctrines – the timing of Christ’s second coming, say, or the question of predestination and free will – Christians may disagree without fundamentally altering the nature of Christianity. Not so with the resurrection, however. It is a doctrine by which the Christian church stands or falls.
Sometimes, when faced with people calling themselves “Christians” who nevertheless believe things that Christians have never believed, or disbelieve things that Christians have always believed, we are tempted to use highly charged rhetoric rather than reason to correct their bad doctrine. Paul, however – no matter how supercharged his rhetoric could become – was always a reasonable man. In 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, we see him logically dismantling the Corinthian heresy.
Consider the trajectory of his argument. He begins by stating the Corinthian position: “There is no resurrection of the dead.” If this is true, he points out, then it logically follows that “not even Christ has been raised.” If that is true, then, Paul bluntly states, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Why? Paul’s preaching is useless because it is based on a lie: “we are then found to be false witnesses about God,” telling tales of his resurrecting power when he has no such power. And if Paul’s preaching is false, then the Corinthians – who became Christians by believing Paul’s message – have believed a lie. Their faith is futile, for they are “still in [their] sins. And so, Paul concludes, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” In other words, no resurrection, no Christ. No Christ, no salvation.
Paul’s final words are the important ones to keep in mind. The fact of the matter is that this life, for all its many pleasures, is a fundamentally miserable one. I know that sounds pessimistic, but it is necessary to say it anyway. Present life is fundamentally miserable because we cannot, in the present, cure the one ill that plagues all humanity. We can treat and cure all manner of diseases, but in this lifetime, we cannot cure sin. The resurrection holds out to us a realistic hope that in the life to come, sin – that great human affliction – will be eradicated and finally cured. To deny the future leaves us without hope in the present. Paul, a wise physician of souls, wants to spare us that pain, just as he tried to spare the Corinthians.
It is sometimes said in this tolerant age that what we believe is not a matter of ultimate significance. Don’t you believe it! What we believe about the resurrection is the crucial difference between death everlasting and eternal life.