Resurrection, tomorrow and today

Photo by Holger Dieterich
Photo by Holger Dieterich

“Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”  That’s a counsel of despair.  If there’s nothing beyond the pleasures of this life, and death is at the door, we might as well indulge ourselves.  Why not?  What else is there?

As we saw in a recent post, Paul uses those words to suggest that without the hope of resurrection, his life as an apostle suffering for the gospel is meaningless.  But he didn’t invent the phrase himself — it’s a quote from Isaiah, describing the disobedience of the people of Jerusalem:

The Lord God of heavenly forces called on that day for weeping and mourning, and shaven heads, and wearing of mourning clothes. But instead there was fun and frivolity, killing of cattle and slaughtering of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine: “Eat and drink! Tomorrow we will die!” (Isa 22:12-13, CEB)

The situation described in the larger context is vague but dire.  Jerusalem has been conquered, its people killed and humiliated.  Those who remain appear to be celebrating some small but empty victory, but they already know the battle is lost.  The appropriate response is to call upon God, wearing the sackcloth of mourning and repentance.  But they stage a party instead, a feast driven by faithlessness and despair.

It’s no accident that Paul draws on such a text.  He’s not just talking abstractly about the despair of hopeless suffering, about the hypothetical futility of his own life without a future of resurrection.  He’s not just saying, “This is how I would think if I didn’t believe in an afterlife.”  He’s saying, “This is you — and you ought to be mourning instead.”

Listen to how he ends his argument:

Don’t be deceived, bad company corrupts good character.  Sober up by acting like you should and don’t sin.  Some of you are ignorant about God—I say this because you should be ashamed of yourselves!  (1 Cor 15:33-34, CEB)

Paul may well be thinking of all the things he’s already addressed in his letter: their sexual immorality, their self-indulgent participation in idol feasts.  Not only have they failed to mourn their inappropriate behavior, they’ve celebrated it as a marker of their spiritual sophistication.

Wake up!  Paul commands.  Snap out of your drunken stupor!  Stop sinning!  Some of you have gone so far that it seems you don’t even know God anymore — shame on you!

And their sin is a communal problem.  “Bad company corrupts good character,” Paul says, quoting Menander, an ancient Greek dramatist famous for his moral maxims.  He may mean their association with negative influences outside the church.  But just as likely, he’s referring to the conversations happening inside the church — and particularly to the influence of those who are teaching that bodily life is of no consequence, and that there is no resurrection of believers.

If so, then Paul’s scolding may amount to one more moral argument for a belief in resurrection: if you don’t envision resurrection as your tomorrow, you won’t live in newness today.  Resurrection isn’t just a future reward for righteous living; it’s the culmination of the reality of the spiritual rebirth that is already present in the lives of believers.  And a lackadaisical or even unbelieving attitude toward that future may be one reason for other aspects of faithlessness in the present.

Do we actually lean into that resurrection hope, or do we treat it as a far-off future abstraction, largely irrelevant in the here and now?  Paul seems to think it makes a difference, and he wants us to sober up.