Imagine being a prisoner on death row. Condemned convicts, traditionally, are allowed to choose what they want for their last meal (within reasonable limits, of course). The choices are often indulgent — large quantities of all the things your doctor would tell you not to eat (though one prisoner reportedly ordered sugar-free dessert with his meal). The thought, understandably, seems to be “Why not? What possible difference could it make? I might as well enjoy myself.”
So here’s the question: if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how would you live today? And even more importantly: would it make any difference to know that you had something to look forward to after death?
As we’ve seen in previous posts, some of the Christians in the ancient church of Corinth had let go of their belief in the resurrection of the dead, and in response, Paul tried working several rhetorical angles to convince them of their error. In his final argument, he used himself as an example to plead the emptiness of suffering for the gospel without resurrection hope:
And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:30-32, NRSV)
Paul’s background metaphor would have been a familiar one: enemies of the Roman state were condemned to die fighting wild animals in an arena packed with spectators. Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote the letter (1 Cor 16:8), and we know from other passages how much trouble he had to contend with there (e.g., Acts 19). His life was on the line for the gospel every hour of every day — and for what? What was the point of it all? Without the hope of resurrection, his suffering would be no more meaningful than being torn to shreds by animals, merely to satisfy the bloodlust of jeering crowds. When you know your life is going to end in the arena, a life of self-indulgence makes more sense than self-sacrifice.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know how many people would have been convinced by such an argument. At best, it might have been a good reminder of the importance of Christian hope for those who already respected Paul’s authority. I doubt, however, that those who perceived Paul as a spiritual lightweight or a sham apostle would have been swayed.
But as we’ll see in an upcoming post, Paul isn’t done yet. Because the question we have to ask ourselves is whether our hope of resurrection life tomorrow makes any difference to the choices we make today.