In this post-Easter week, we look at Paul’s discussion of the resurrection, in 1 Corinthians 15.
Yesterday, Paul sold the benefits of Jesus’ bodily resurrection: he’s the firstfruits, the taster of what will happen to us, too. In today’s brief passage, Paul then points to the Corinthians’ own behaviour, that showed that they had hope in such a resurrection. He says:1 Corinthians 15:29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
Now we don’t actually know what this means. I’ve read plenty of suggestions. Maybe they were being:
- baptised for believing family members who had died before they could be baptised;
- baptised for unbelieving family members who had died, in some strange hope that it would save them;
- baptised for unbelieving family members who were spiritually “dead” as a way of praying for their conversion;
- baptised for the chance to see their believing family members again;
- baptised because they were adopting the new religion of their (recently deceased) family patriarch.
Whatever it means, it’s probably lost to us. But note that only some are doing it; and that Paul doesn’t affirm it. (So don’t turn up to church this week with baptismal roles and a list of dead friends.)
His point is not whether it’s right or wrong. His point is that it’s evidence of the fact that the Corinthians were hope for something more than just this life.
And it’s not just this, but a lot of stuff we humans do. Theologian Peter Berger calls them “signals of transcendence” (see A Rumor of Angels, pp. 52ff.). For example, those times of joy when the rest of the world fades from our consciousness. When as children we get so caught up in a game that time seems to stand still. Where we reassure a child that everything’s OK, despite the fact that we know the world is far from OK. The very fact that most of us choose to face each new day in the face of the suffering and hardship of being human. We’re not being baptised for the dead, but much of the stuff we do points to a hope that this is not all there is.
Certainly much of what Paul did was because of his hope of resurrection:1 Corinthians 15:30-32a And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?
Why would Paul bother with suffering for the gospel if there was no resurrection to look forward to? (Did Paul actually fight wild beasts in Ephesus? It’s unlikely this would be inflicted on a Roman citizen. He’s probably speaking metaphorically, like the Psalms use wild beasts to represent dangerous opponents/enemies.)
In fact, you may as well be like the people in Isaiah’s day, who refused to repent when surrounded by the Assyrian army; they just partied. This is what Paul quotes:1 Corinthians 15:32 If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Or you may as well be like the Epicureans – Greek philosophers who did not believe in an afterlife, and had a similar, party-hearty mentality.
But enough mucking about, Paul says. Quoting the Epicurean philosophers Menander, he tells them to stop hanging out with bad influences… like Epicurean philosophers… <burn>1 Corinthians 15:33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”
Instead, he says:1 Corinthians 15:34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.
Enough of this denial-of-the-resurrection nonsense. It’s the heart of the gospel, it’s our hope for the future, and even your own behaviour shows that, deep down, you’re hoping for something more.
OK, Paul, you win. You’re right. But still… how is this going to happen? This “re-animation” of our corpses? How does it… work?
We’ll look at that next week.