Reduced to absurdity

When adults meet for the first time, they exchange names, then often ask, “So, what do you do for a living?”  In American culture, at least, that’s the typical way we sort ourselves into social categories.

But in college, the question was, “What are you majoring in?”  When people asked me that, I often hesitated, knowing what was coming next.  “Math,” I’d answer.  The reaction was almost never, “Oh, that’s nice.”  People’s eyes would go wide, as if I had suddenly been revealed as the reincarnation of Albert Einstein (though honestly, it may have been my hair).  “Wow,” they’d say, “you must be really smart.”

I was never sure what the right retort to that statement was supposed to be.

In truth, I majored in math because I had always taken it, had usually enjoyed it, and had no clue at that time what other major I might choose.  God has since taken me down other paths.  But the math part of my brain still responds warmly to part of the apostle Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15.

In the previous post, we saw how Paul began the chapter by reminding the Corinthians of the gospel they had already received and believed: Jesus, the Messiah, died for our sins and was raised bodily from the dead; indeed, the resurrection was witnessed by hundreds.  In verse 12, the reason for the reminder becomes clear.  Some of the Corinthians, apparently, claimed to believe in the resurrection of Jesus but not of anyone else; they didn’t believe in the future resurrection of believers.

Nobody knows for certain why.  Perhaps it was the continuing influence of the surrounding pagan culture (and their continuing participation in pagan worship in the name of Christian freedom!); perhaps they had other ideas of a non-bodily existence after death.  But Paul responds with something similar to what many of us learned in our high school geometry classes: a reductio ad absurdum (literally, “reduction to absurdity”), an argument that says, “If I start with your premise (that there is no resurrection of the dead), and work forward logically from there, the result is going to be something ridiculous — which means the premise must be wrong.”

The argument itself seems relatively straightforward:

  • If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ wasn’t raised either (vs. 13);
  • If Christ wasn’t raised, then the gospel message and your belief in it are empty, because for Paul, it is the resurrection that vindicates Jesus’ messiahship — no resurrection, no Messiah; no Messiah, no gospel (vs. 14);
  • Paul, the other apostles, and anyone who preaches this gospel is therefore a false witness (vs. 15);
  • Worst of all, if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, then he didn’t really die for your sins, and you are still in them (vs. 17);
  • And finally, without a future resurrection, Christians who have already died are lost and without hope (vs. 18).

Perhaps they hadn’t thought things through all the way?  The number who were denying resurrection may have been small, but in all likelihood, were sowing confusion throughout the entire church.  Though they supposedly believed in the resurrection of Jesus, they had begun to treat the future resurrection of believers as an optional theological add-on, and Paul would have none of it.

Would we?