Growing up on a cove of the Atlantic Ocean on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, Papa’s concerns were with immediate needs. Are the fish biting? If so, where? What will the weather be like for these 2 months at sea? Is the ice safe to walk on or will I fall through trying to cross?
He knew there was a larger world outside Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. But that world had little impact on him. The events across the ocean or even across the continent had little to no bearing on his day-to-day life. Stories of the city brought a wry and skeptical chuckle from Papa. He didn’t understand different ways of living. His experience was one of the biggest determining factors of acceptance and reality. He had a hard time understanding and believing things that he had never seen or done for himself.
Jesus Christ came back from the grave in a real body, and so will those who believe in Him. That’s the essence of the apostle Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 15. He spends so much time discussing the subject of resurrection and life after death because some of the people at the church in Corinth were having a hard time believing it could be true. Some claimed there was no such thing as a resurrection, especially one that involved a literal body coming back to life. Apparently this group believed in God, saw the death of Jesus as paying the price for their sins, and professed faith in Him. But they seem to have carried some old ideas and philosophies into their new faith. They had been taught the humanistic philosophy that matter is bad, that the physical world was a lower existence and less desirable, and that at death we are released from the physical and taken into a spiritual existence—a much better life. They tried to incorporate this idea into their Christian faith. This led them to think that a future bodily resurrection was not simply impossible, it was undesirable.
A Verifiable Event
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.
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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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.
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 is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed (1 corinthians 15:1–11).
Paul flatly declared that Jesus came back from death in a resurrected body. This doesn’t make it true, but he quickly built his argument by reminding the Corinthians of the message they had heard when they first believed in Christ: Jesus Christ died to pay the price for sin, was buried, and came back to life again just as the Old Testament Scriptures had prophesied.
But the people at the church in Corinth had not always had the Scriptures, nor did they necessarily believe what was written without proof. Citing Scripture was not enough for them. So Paul went on to remind them of how Jesus had made many appearances after His resurrection. Three specific meetings between Jesus and individuals took center stage as Paul argued for the reality of Jesus’s return from the grave—Peter, James, and Paul himself. Then he recounted two visits of Jesus to the apostles and one to a group of more than 500 people. That is quite a list of witnesses. Imagine a trial where over 500 people all testify to the exact same thing.
But was all this persuasive?
With this evidence, those in the Corinthian church would have faced a dilemma. On the one hand they did not believe in a future resurrection. On the other hand they knew that Paul and the others were not liars and they could not produce evidence to contradict the eyewitness accounts. Faced with evidence from personal eyewitnesses, the “anti-resurrection” group in Corinth had a problem, a flaw in their belief system. They had thought that resurrection was physically impossible and philosophically undesirable. If they admitted that Jesus had risen from the grave, they had to accept at the very least that a physical resurrection was possible. And if Jesus, God himself, came back to life in a physical body, what did that suggest about physical reality? After all, even if Jesus needed a physical body in order to die for sin, once that was accomplished He certainly wouldn’t have kept that same body if everything physical were bad.
The evidence of the eyewitnesses was especially crucial.
Today we know of people who try to deny the Holocaust, but they don’t get very far. Why? Because we know survivors of the Nazi concentration camps! In 1981, 10,000 of these survivors held a 4-day gathering in Jerusalem. In an interview, Ernest Michael, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald camps, held up his hands and said, “These hands have carried off more corpses than I care to remember. And some say that the Holocaust never happened! We know; we were there!”
But we are almost 2,000 years away from the resurrection. We can’t talk to eyewitnesses. How can we be assured that it really happened?
Many today face a similar dilemma. People want to accept the message of the Bible without accepting the facts and events of the Bible. But we can’t have it both ways. If the events of the Bible didn’t happen, then the Bible doesn’t teach us anything true about God. We can only really know God from the Bible if the events recorded actually happened. Real knowledge comes only from truth, not from fictional stories. To accept the message of the Bible and that we can actually know God from the stories written there, we must accept that the stories written in the Scriptures happened just as they are recorded.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, critics of the Bible claimed that the resurrection accounts came from writers who lived during the second and third centuries. They spoke of these accounts as myths. But critics can’t honestly make that claim today. In recent years, portions of the New Testament have been discovered that demonstrate it was written when those who walked and talked with Jesus Christ were still alive.
William Albright began doing research on the reliability of the Bible with the assumption that the group of documents we know as the New Testament gradually developed over a period of several centuries. But after studying the evidence, he came to a different conclusion: “There is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after ad 80.”1
And Albright is not alone. Another scholar who changed his mind was John A. T. Robinson. For many years he assumed that the New Testament was written long after Christ’s time. But when he decided to do some investigation on his own, he was stunned by what he discovered. He concluded that other scholars he had respected had not been honest with the evidence. His research led him to believe that all of the New Testament, including the writings ascribed to the apostle John, was written before ad 54, an earlier date than most scholars had given. He had so much confidence in his conclusion that he wrote an article for Time magazine in which he challenged his colleagues to prove him wrong.2
There aren’t many options when it comes to how we understand what is written about Jesus coming back from the dead. The writers of the New Testament accounts of Christ’s resurrection were alive when it happened. We can either believe that what they wrote actually happened or think of them as gullible fools or deliberate liars. Read the New Testament and draw your own conclusion as to whether they were gullible fools. But the possibility of them being liars is slim. A conspiracy breaks down when the people involved start suffering consequences.
Charles Colson, who was arrested and imprisoned for playing a role in the Watergate conspiracy during the U.S. presidency of Richard Nixon, said that as the scandal began to unravel, the conspirators, one by one, began to lay blame on each other. When consequences started to loom on the horizon, loyalty went out the window. Everyone involved had a single thought: self-preservation.
But with the apostles it was different. They faced something far more serious and more permanent than prison terms. One by one they were executed not because they were criminals, but because of the message they were spreading: Jesus had risen from the dead and believing in Him was the only way to be saved. They had nothing to gain by clinging to a lie. In fact they had everything to lose, and they did. But not one of them ever said, “We have been lying.” No one confessed, “We made the whole thing up; it was all fake!” That leaves only one possibility that really makes sense: They believed deeply enough to die for those beliefs, without a hint of doubt that what they were saying was true.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a verifiable historical event for which eyewitnesses were willing to die.
A Crucial Belief
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? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 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. 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 (1 corinthians 15:12–17).
Papa’s stories fascinate me. He grew up in a home with no plumbing. The family always used an outhouse (and Nova Scotia winters are cold) and dipped water from an old-fashioned well. They grew or caught most of their own food and improvised homemade solutions for life’s difficulties, like putting cod oil on the surface of the water when it was too cloudy to see. (It works!)
Papa tells stories about clearing land for a garden, cutting trees to have enough fuel to heat the house for the winter, foraging for blueberries on the “Commons.”
He knew what had to be done to survive, and nearly everything he did was done with that goal in mind. He understood how connected the different aspects of his life were. For him, eating meant more than simply finding food; it meant the hard work of the garden, the maintenance of the boat, understanding the movement of the schools of fish and where they would be at different times of the year, and how to catch them. If one of these things was ignored or the effort compromised, the whole family suffered.
It’s easy to dismiss his way of life as outdated. But living where daily activities are consumed by what is necessary for survival forms a tight connection to life in its simple, beautiful essence. Some things simply can’t be separated.
Some—even some who believe other claims of Christianity and the Bible—say that the idea of a second coming of Christ and a bodily resurrection is outdated. But the apostle Paul doesn’t leave room for that possibility. In his letter to the church in Corinth, he made it clear that anyone who does not believe in the resurrection of believers denies the entire gospel message—resurrection and salvation are inseparably linked. Without resurrection, there is no gospel. And once the possibility (or desirability) of a bodily resurrection is denied, we begin a process of reasoning that invalidates the gospel.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to see how dangerous their line of thinking was. Some apparently thought they could deny the resurrection and still retain the basic elements of the Christian faith—forgiveness of sin, the power of the Holy Spirit, and ultimate victory over sin and death. But Paul declared that this denial attacked the very essence of salvation. If the gospel applies only to this life, it is a bad bargain. “Then those also who have fallen asleep [died] in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (vv. 18–19).
Paul came back to this idea in verses 29–32: “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? 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? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”
Paul tackled the issue head on and declared in no uncertain terms that to deny a future bodily resurrection of believers is tantamount to rejecting the entire message of the gospel. And if the gospel is not true and we have no real basis for hope, we may as well live by the philosophy, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (v.32).
This suggests another reason why belief in the resurrection is so crucial. Those Corinthians who rejected a future resurrection seem to have abandoned other important teachings of the Bible as well, specifically the pursuit of good and upright moral character. Some had returned to pagan ways and even became involved in immorality.
So Paul warned them: “Do not
be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ 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” (1 corinthians 15:33–34 emphasis added). The point that Paul is making is that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a core element of Christianity, and compromise of those core beliefs is a slippery slope. Once the Corinthians started to deny elements of the gospel, they started to forfeit its life-changing power.
Paul said that Christ Jesus died for our sins; therefore, we should stop sinning. He rose again and appeared to many people. If we deny that Jesus died to pay the price for sin, we have no forgiveness. If we deny that He rose from the grave, we lose our basis for hope.
1 William Albright, Recent Discoveries in Biblical Lands, Biblical Colloquium by special arrangement with Funk & Wagnalls Co., New York (1955), p.136.
2 John A. T. Robinson, “Religion: The New Testament Dating Gafme,” Time, March 21, 1977.