“He is risen!” This Easter proclamation encapsulates the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a sine qua non of the Christian faith. Without the resurrection of Christ, there’s no Christianity.
St. Paul puts it like this: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The word we translate here as “vain” is κενόν (kenon), which means something like “empty,” “devoid of content” or “nothingness.”
Paul goes on, saying, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17–19). Here, the word translated as “worthless” is μάταιος (mataios), which means something like “idolatrous.” It suggests devotion to an unworthy object, or veneration of a false god.
What was Paul talking about?
Understanding Paul’s broader context in this passage helps us to understand even more clearly the very powerful assertion he’s making about what the Christian confession really entails. His remarks start with a confrontation of those in the Corinthian community who deny that there even is a resurrection at all. So Paul says that, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised” (1 Corinthians 15:13). The movement of his thought is from the abstract to the concrete. If no one is raised then Christ isn’t raised. If Christ isn’t raised then you’re not raised, nor is anyone else, because only in Christ is anyone raised.
For Paul, the whole point of Christianity is the vanquishing of death and sin. He’s right about this.
Paul is very clear that the kerygmatic value of the gospel he preaches—the very reason, that is, that his gospel is a compelling message that you would want to believe in the first place—is its answer to this most fundamental and universal human crisis: we’re all condemned to a past we can’t un-live and a death we can’t un-die. Without the resurrection of the dead, Paul’s gospel is emptied of its content.
But why did he have to bring this point up in a Christian community? Wouldn’t it have been obvious to them?
Ask yourself: If Paul were alive today and visiting a typical parish church in the United States or Europe, do you think he would find that everyone there really and truly believed, literally, that the dead would be raised, or even that Christ, as an individual, had been raised, body and soul, from the dead?
Corinth and the contemporary West
I think we both know that today, in the West, there are many self-identifying Christians who don’t take the resurrection of the dead, whether for Christ or anyone else, in a literal sense. For many if not most of those who call themselves Christians in the contemporary Western world, resurrection is a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment—for a new frame of mind that looks to a brighter future, full of optimism, social justice, equity, kindness, and inclusion.
Today, as it was in Corinth at the time of Paul, many Christians don’t think by the light of the True Faith but by “the wisdom of this World” (1 Corinthians 3:19), adopting the fashionable philosophies and attitudes of the times in which they live. In the Corinthian community, many self-identifying Christians seemed to hold that Christianity really involved an enlightenment of the mind enabling them to face life in this world as if death were a moot problem, as if it simply didn’t exist. Christianity’s real force, for those who thought this way, was its power to change our mental state so we could live in the present world with a new optimism. It didn’t really banish death or overcome sin, it merely banished death from our minds and overcame our sense of moral shame.
In this way, these Corinthian Christians were a lot like the majority of self-identifying Christians in the contemporary West, who hold to what sociologist Christian Smith described as a kind of “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.” In Corinth, many people filtered Paul’s gospel through their own sensibilities and turned Christianity into something it wasn’t—a philosophy for this life only. They didn’t believe in a resurrection of the dead as Paul preached it. Reasonable, enlightened people that they were, they knew that death couldn’t be avoided or overcome. Rather, Christianity was about changing our attitudes about the life we had to live in this world.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians on this point is as much a message for us, today, as it was for his original audience. The particulars of our attitudes today may be different, but in many ways, the contemporary West is almost exactly like first-century Corinth, and our church communities the same as theirs. Today, many of us believe wholeheartedly in caring for the environment, welcoming migrants no matter how they arrive, and caring for the poor, but don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. Our focus isn’t on the heavenly Jerusalem but on a this-worldly social utopia. Christianity, they’ll say, isn’t about saying the right things or thinking the right ideas, but, once more, about working for a brighter future, full of optimism, social justice, equity, kindness, and inclusion.
But, listen again to St. Paul as he addresses the church at Corinth: “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
The true gospel changes more than minds:
If resurrection of the dead is just a metaphor, then this world and this life is all there is. But if that’s the case, then the most fundament problem Christianity exists to solve still frames every aspect of our existence. The irreparability of the past and the finality of death hem in every human life and, therefore, dictate the terms in which our lives are lived. Unless there’s a resurrection, that fact doesn’t change.
Paul understood that the Christian gospel rests on this proclamation: Christ Jesus rose from the dead of his own power and by uniting himself with us, in his Church, has shared that power with us, that we, united with him in death, will rise with him to newness of life.
That’s the message of the Easter proclamation. It’s not a metaphor. It’s the announcement that not only our minds have been changed but the very structure of reality. Sin and death have finally been overcome, because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead!