“Life is hard,” says science fiction writer David Gerrold. “Then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you.” But lest we think that there can be no silver lining in that cloud, he adds, “Be grateful it happens in that order.”
What would change about a person’s perspective on life if resurrection were the final word instead of death?
Throughout his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul has addressed a variety of questions and problems: everything from spiritual pride to old habits of paganism to believers taking one another to court. But in a sense, he’s saved the best for last, bringing the letter to a theological climax as he tackles the disturbing fact that some of the believers didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. Here’s his lead-in:
Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing. (1 Cor 15:1-2, CEB)
He doesn’t mention resurrection here; there will be several more verses of build-up before he comes straight to the point. Rather, he begins at the beginning, by referring back to their first experiences as new believers (and later, he will remind them of first principles). Twice he refers to the gospel message he already preached to them. They received it; they stand in it; they are being saved through it. And they must hold onto it tightly, or their faith will all be for naught.
Resurrection is the sine qua non of the gospel. The Latin phrase literally means “without which nothing” — or to put it a bit more colloquially, “if you ain’t got this, you ain’t got nothing.” As Paul will argue, it begins with the fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But it doesn’t end there, for Christians hope for their own resurrection into new life, following in the footsteps of their risen Lord.
And Paul seems to think that anticipating a future resurrection changes how we live in the present, how we face danger and death, how we endure the experiences that push us to our limits.
We may think of life in terms of own goals and wishes, wanting God to help us get where we want to go. Heaven is then an abstract afterthought, something like the daydream of an idyllic retirement after a lifetime of hard work.
But Paul flips the priority. Without this, nothing. Without resurrection hope, what is this thing we call the Christian life? What is faith?
That’s the question we must ask ourselves as we begin Paul’s long argument in chapter 15: if we held tightly to our resurrection hope, what would it make possible in the present? And what would we lose if we loosened our grip?