In this post-Easter week, we look at Paul’s discussion of the resurrection, in 1 Corinthians 15.
Yesterday, Paul reminded his audience of the tradition about Jesus’ death and resurrection which he heard from eyewitnesses and passed on to them. He wanted to affirm again its reliability, and its status as the basis of the Christian faith:1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Now, brothers and sisters, 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.
But Paul did this in service of a bigger point, relating to our resurrection, in the future. Because some in Corinth were doubting this:
1 Corinthians 15:12 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?
Notice that it’s not all in Corinth, just “some of you.” So it may factor into the divisions we read about in the rest of the letter (esp. 1 Cor 1:10-13). At any rate, why would some in the church be saying that there is no resurrection of the dead? Isn’t that – as Paul will go on to say – the whole point of being a follower of Jesus?
Given that a bodily resurrection was a feature of popular Judaism, it’s likely that those objecting were among the Greeks in the church. To them, the very word for resurrection (anastasis) sounds like the “standing up” of corpses. This would have been a new idea, and probably a silly concept in Greek thought. Why?
A quick (and overly-simplistic) background in Greek philosophy is in order. We can trace it back to at least Plato, and his idea of “forms.” A full explanation can get quite complicated, but basically he saw every object in the world as a physical manifestation of its ideal “form” in the mind. For example, every chair you see is perceived as a chair because it is a variation of the ideal form of a chair that exist in your mind. This led to the idea – often called “dualism” – that the world of the mind (or soul) was superior to that of the material world, as it was an inferior copy, or shadow. And this led to the hope among many Greeks that, at death, the soul would escape the inferior prison of the body and ascend to a spiritual dimension.
Which made the Jewish (and Christian) idea of having your body resurrected sound awful. Trapped, forever, in this inferior existence. A stumbling-block to Greeks coming to faith. (Notice how Paul’s speech to Greek philosophers in Athens, recorded in Acts 17:16-34, seems to be going well right up until he mentions the resurrection – at which point some “sneered” – verse 32.)
So even though Greeks at Corinth had come to faith in Jesus, it seemed that their cultural prejudice had made one of the key beliefs – a bodily resurrection – up for debate. Possibly even reinterpreting Jesus’ resurrection as simply an the escape of his soul: just like Emperor Augustus claimed to see Julius Caesar’s soul rise from his funeral pyre as his body burned. (Which may be why Paul emphasised the fact that Jesus was buried, verse 4.)
In other words, the idea of a bodily resurrection wasn’t compatible with their previous worldview, so they tried to alter Christian teaching to fit. Does this happen today?
You bet. Many sections of our society have a prejudice against the possibility of resurrection – bodily or otherwise. Or any kind of afterlife, for that matter. For just one example, see prominent atheist Sam Harris’s blog: “People of faith tend to ignore the coming resurrection of the dead—perhaps because the idea is so obviously preposterous. And yet this is precisely the form of afterlife one must expect if one is to be a serious Jew, Christian, or Muslim.” It goes against the prevailing post-Enlightenment, naturalistic view of the world.
There are also many who would believe in some kind of existence after death, but just like the Greeks, think that the goal is to escape the material world. This is especially the case in Eastern religions. Much of the world around us would find the idea of a bodily resurrection as ridiculous as the Greeks did.
So, too, do some Christians. In much of our language, we seem to have taken over the Greek idea of escaping this world when we die: becoming spirits (or angels with wings, harps, and a dress sense that sees white as the new black) inhabiting a different realm, rather than being bodily resurrected to live in a recreated world, which is what the Bible teaches. Greek philosophical assumptions have had more influence on popular Christian belief than we might think.
Against this, Paul launches a logically-constructed defence. Let’s step through it now. He starts by working through the implications of there not being a bodily resurrection of the dead:1 Corinthians 15:13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
If bodily resurrection isn’t a possibility, then it didn’t happen for Jesus. What does that mean?1 Corinthians 15:14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
The resurrection of Jesus – not just his spirit ascending somewhere, but the undoing of death – is central to the gospel message. If all he did was head up, Julius Caesar style, to the gods, then what has he accomplished? Nothing! There’s no point in following him.1 Corinthians 15:15a 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.
Now Paul gets personal: you’re calling me a liar, are you? (And Peter, and James, and all of the other eyewitnesses mentioned earlier!) So let’s reiterate where we stand if you are right in saying that there is no resurrection:1 Corinthians 15:15b-17 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.
Jesus’ resurrection is what affirms that your sins are forgiven; so if he didn’t rise from the dead, you’re still a sinner before God with no hope. Oh, and so are your dead friends and relatives:1 Corinthians 15:18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
In sum, if we throw out that bit of the gospel because it doesn’t fit with our culture’s worldview, then our critics are right: we are fools to be pitied!1 Corinthians 15:19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
(I think this makes it clear that the objection was to a bodily resurrection, not an afterlife per se. Otherwise this conclusion would be so obvious, they wouldn’t need Paul to point it out – they’d have packed up and left Jesus long ago.)
Having thus dismantled the argument by disproving the negative, he then goes on to give the positives: what Christ’s bodily resurrection (and our own) means for us. But we’ll get to that bit tomorrow.
To think about
How might you communicate the gospel to someone who either doesn’t believe in the possibility of an existence after death, or who (like followers of many Eastern religions) hopes eventually to be liberated from their bodily existence?
How has Greek dualism (thanks, Plato!) subtly influenced your thinking about your existence after death?