HERODOTUS, a Greek historian who lived 2,500 years ago, told a story about the Egyptians of his day. “At rich men’s banquets,” he wrote, “after dinner a man carries round a wooden image of a corpse in a coffin, painted and carved in exact imitation, a cubit or two cubits long. This he shows to each of the company, saying ‘Drink and make merry, but look on this; for such shalt thou be when thou art dead.’”
That attitude toward life and death was not unique to the Egyptians. Today, the expression “Eat, drink, and be merry” has become a cliché. If life ends at death, why not live it up? Why aspire to lofty values? If death ends it all, living for the present makes perfect sense. The apostle Paul said as much. He described the attitude of people who do not believe in the resurrection, saying: “If the dead are not to be raised up, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we are to die.’”—1 Corinthians 15:32.
Of course, Paul himself did not believe that death meant an eternity of oblivion. He was convinced that the dead could live again, with the prospect of never dying at all. That conviction was founded on an event of immense importance, the truthfulness of which he considered to be unassailable—the resurrection * of Christ Jesus. That resurrection, in fact, was the greatest single event that strengthened the faith of the early disciples.(*In the Bible, the Greek word translated “resurrection” literally means “a standing up again.” It implies that a person is restored to life, retaining his or her unique identity, personality, and memories.)
What meaning, though, does the resurrection of Jesus hold for us? How do we even know it really happened? Let us see how Paul reasoned on these matters when he wrote to the Christians living in Corinth.
WHAT IF CHRIST HAD NOT BEEN RAISED?
Some Christians in ancient Corinth were confused about the matter, and others did not believe in the literal resurrection at all. In his first letter to the Christians there, the apostle listed the consequences if the resurrection were not a reality. He wrote:“If, indeed, there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised up. But if Christ has not been raised up, our preaching is certainly in vain, and our faith is in vain. Moreover, we are also found false witnesses of God . . . Your faith is useless; you are yet in your sins. . . . Also, those who fell asleep in death in union with Christ perished.”—1 Corinthians 15:13-18.
“He appeared to upward of five hundred brothers at one time . . . After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles; but last of all he appeared also to me.”—1 Corinthians 15:6-8
Paul opened with a statement that can hardly be disputed: If the dead are not to be raised, then Christ, who died, could not have been raised to life. Supposing that Christ had not been raised, what would follow? Then, preaching the good news would be in vain, a colossal hoax. After all, the resurrection of Christ was a key element of the Christian faith, being inseparably linked to some of the Bible’s most basic teachings about God’s sovereignty, his name, his Kingdom, and our salvation. If the resurrection had not occurred, the message that Paul and the other apostles proclaimed would have consisted of nothing but empty, worthless words.
Other consequences would follow. If Christ had not been raised from the dead, Christian faith would be in vain, empty, based on a lie. Further, Paul and the others would have spoken falsely not only about the resurrection of Jesus but also about the one whom they said resurrected him, Jehovah God. What is more, the assertion that Christ had “died for our sins” would also be untrue—for if the Savior himself had not been saved from death, he could not save others. (1 Corinthians 15:3) That would mean that Christians who had died, in some cases as martyrs, had perished with a false hope that they would be resurrected.
Paul drew the conclusion: “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) Paul, like other Christians, had suffered loss, experienced persecution, endured hardship, and faced death because he believed in the resurrection and all that it entailed. How futile if the resurrection were nothing but a lie!
WHY YOU SHOULD BELIEVE
Paul did not believe any of those negative consequences to be true. He knew that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and he summarized the evidences for the Corinthians, namely,“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, yes, that he has been raised up the third day according to the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” * Then Paul adds: “After that he appeared to upward of five hundred brothers at one time, the most of whom remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep in death. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles; but last of all he appeared also to me.”—1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
(*“The twelve” is another way of saying “the apostles,” even though for a time after the death of Judas Iscariot, there were only 11. At one appearance, only 10 of them at most could have represented the 12, for Thomas was absent.—John 20:24.)
Paul began with the confident statement that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was resurrected. What made Paul so sure of that? One reason was the testimony of many eyewitnesses. The resurrected Jesus appeared to individuals (including Paul himself), to small groups, and even to a crowd of 500, many of whom had no doubt been skeptical when they heard the news that Jesus had been resurrected! (Luke 24:1-11) Most of the eyewitnesses were still alive in Paul’s day and could be consulted to confirm those appearances. (1 Corinthians 15:6) One or two witnesses might be easy to dismiss, but not the testimony of 500 or more eyewitnesses.
Notice, too, that Paul mentioned twice that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were “according to the Scriptures.” Those events confirmed that prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures about the Messiah had come true, thus proving that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.
Despite the testimony of the eyewitnesses and of the Scriptures, there were and still are those who doubt that Jesus was raised up. Some say that his body was stolen by his disciples who then claimed to be witnesses to the resurrection. However, the disciples had neither the power nor the influence to overcome the Roman guards who were stationed at the entrance of the tomb. Others claim that the resurrection appearances were mere illusions. Contradicting that theory is the fact that the appearances occurred to many people at different times. Also, is it reasonable to believe that an illusion would cook and serve fish, as the resurrected Jesus did at Galilee? (John 21:9-14) Would an illusion in the form of a man invite observers to touch him?—Luke 24:36-39.
Still others charge that the resurrection was a hoax concocted by the disciples. But what benefit would there be in doing that? Bearing witness to the resurrection exposed the disciples to ridicule, suffering, and death. Why would they risk so much to support a mere lie? Moreover, they first gave their testimony in Jerusalem, right under the eyes of their opposers, who were ready to seize upon any excuse to condemn them.
The resurrection was the very thing that gave the disciples the courage to bear testimony about their Lord in spite of even the most violent persecution. The fact of the resurrection became a central part of Christian faith. The early Christians did not risk their lives merely to bear witness about a wise teacher who was murdered. They risked their lives to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection because it proved that he was the Christ, the Son of God, a powerful, living person who both supported and guided them. His resurrection meant that they too would rise from the dead. Really, if Jesus had not been raised up, there would be no Christianity. If Jesus had not been resurrected, we might never have even heard of him.
What meaning, though, does the resurrection of Christ have for us today?