Text: 1 Cor. 15:12-19
…If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Those words were originally sung by John Lennon, and many people think of them as quite inspirational. They took on a sort of iconic status and summed up a generation, and I still hear them occasionally at graduations and wedding receptions. But if you strip away the music and just analyze the words, they ought to be really quite depressing. If there’s nothing but “living for today,” then, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “we are of all men most pitiable.”
Why is this? Why don’t Christians agree with John Lennon? What’s so bad about living for today?
The answer is that John Lennon was giving an easy answer, and it was a false one. He was downplaying the reality of what life actually is, and he omitted the most obvious problem. He never mentioned death. He never talked about growing old, about your body not working anymore, about cancer, about pain and sadness. Instead, he acted as if the “real problem” of the world is just mean people with closed minds. He skipped right over the obvious— we are all struggling with death and decay. “Imagine,” you see, is a quick fix that avoids all the hard work. You might say it’s an opiate for the masses.
The Bible is much realer than all of this. It knows perfectly well what life is like. Psalm 90 says, “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). Psalm 103 puts it this way, “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).
The Bible always maintains that death is not natural. It’s not how we were meant to be. Death is not ok.
And the Bible’s answer to that is in the world to come, but not simply “heaven.” No, as N T Wright puts it, “Heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world.” Heaven is not the Bible’s final answer. And this is because “heaven” wouldn’t really solve the problem of death. Our souls might live on, but not our bodies. The earth would still be corrupted and in decay. And we Christians would have still missed out on enjoying God’s good creation in its fullness, if heaven is the only solution.
The Bible’s answer to the problem of death is the resurrection. Our bodies will be raised form the dead, and we will live in imperishable bodies. This is our future hope. And we have a certainty of this hope now because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His resurrection secures our resurrection, and that guarantees us the answer to the problem of death.
Christ’s Resurrection and the Final Resurrection of the Dead are Mutually Dependent
As we turn our attention to the text in 1 Corinthians, we can see that Paul is answering a false teaching. “Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:12). It seems that there were some in the early Christian Church who denied this core doctrine. Within Judaism, the Sadducees had denied the resurrection. It’s possible that these Christian heretics have carried that over with them. But we also see in 2 Timothy 2, that there were some who believed in a kind of resurrection. They just claimed that it was past. It had already happened, and there is no future resurrection to look forward to. Paul describes this group this way, “Hymenaeus and Philetus …have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:18).
Paul had to answer this challenge. He didn’t want the false teaching to get any traction. So he answered it by pointing to Christ’s own resurrection. “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen” (1 Cor. 15:13). This forces a choice. Either there is a resurrection of the dead, and all people will experience it, or no one, not even Christ is raised from the dead. This latter option leaves us without hope.
This argument only works if Christ’s resurrection and the final resurrection of the dead are mutually dependent. For Christ to be resurrectable, then resurrection has to be possible. And for Christ’s resurrection to prove the future resurrection of the dead, then Christ’ resurrection has to secure it. This is exactly what Paul will say a little later, in verse 20, “Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
This is why this is not a small dispute. This doctrine is essential to the gospel because it impacts the saving work of Christ and our future destination. The future resurrection of our bodies must be affirmed by all Christians, just as much as the resurrection of Christ must be affirmed.
If Christ is Not Raised, We are False Witnesses
Paul then makes another bold claim, this time staking his own credibility on the truth of the resurrection:
And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. (1 Cor. 15:14-15)
Paul’s point here is quite simple. He, along with all of the other apostles, has been preaching that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. This is part of the gospel which he’s laid about in the opening verses. But if Christ was not, in fact, resurrected, then this is a big lie. The preaching is empty, or in vain, and the witnesses are false.
This shows us that preachers have to tell the truth. They cannot make up stories simply to make people feel better. Their preaching has to be true if it is really going to change the world.
We also learn from this that our good deeds, our religious lifestyle, and even our love and charity is worthless if the message that our lives are founded on is false. The testimony we bear to the world, no matter how nice and kind, is a false one. We are false witnesses if Christ is not raised. So we see that the resurrection is supremely practical. Apart from it, nothing matters.
If Christ is not Raised, Your Faith is in Vain
Finally, Paul says, if Christ is not raised, then your faith is in vain. This means that what we are placing our trust in is not going to help us. It’s not actually going to save us. And just believing harder or more enthusiastically won’t help. The thing you believe has to actually be true. If not, then your faith is in vain.
Paul points out three ways in which Christians are especially bad off if Christ has not been raised from the dead. He says that if Christ is not raised, then you are still in your sins. He also says that if the dead are not raised, then all who have passed away have perished. The dead will stay dead. Thirdly he says, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (vs. 19).
So, if Christ is not risen, then you are still in your sins (vs. 17). Why does Paul say this? The answer is actually quite simple. It’s because the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). The reason that death exists is because of Adam’s sin. As God told Him in the garden, in the day that you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, dying you will die. Sin brought death into the world. Therefore, as long as death continues to reign, sin is bringing in its wages. Sin still has jurisdiction over us, and therefore its punishment, death, continues to hold sway.
If we remain dead forever, then we are paying for sin forever. No salvation has been made. No redemption has been accomplished. If Christ is not risen, then we are still in our sins.
Secondly, if there is no resurrection, then the dead stay dead. “Those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:18). There is no redemption or rescue. Our lives come to an end, and the world continues on in decay in bondage. This is most certainly bad news.
We know that our bodies are not supposed to fall apart. We know that cancer is just wrong. Miscarriages are unjust. Mental disorder should not be. And to think that the only solution for these things is that they come to an end and die? That’s no solution at all.
Even if we are whisked away to heaven, but these kinds of sorrows continue on earth, then Satan wins a little bit. You see, God created the world good. He created man without death. And so for Satan to be able to mar the creation and bring man into death is a sort of thwarting of God’s design. Unless, of course, God plans to do something about all of that: to defeat Satan, save us, resurrect our bodies, and restore the world.
Then thirdly, Paul says, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Cor. 15:19). If all we have is something that gets us through this life, and it does nothing for us in the life to come, then we’ve got a raw deal. After all, if this world is all there is, then you should make the most of it. Experience all that life has to offer! As Paul puts it in vs. 32, “If the dead do not rise, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’”
But, of course, Christians do not eat and drink, at least not without moderation and restriction. Christians have all of these rules. Christians are told to deny themselves. They are told to bear a cross! Why? How is that going to give them their best life now?
In fact, Jesus promises His followers that they will be persecuted and rejected for following Him. If there’s no future life to enjoy, no reward of resurrection, then this is kind of rip off. We’d be better off just being nice and minding our own business. Apart from the resurrection, the Christian life makes no sense, and anyone who lives the Christian life is just a fool. They deserve to be pitied.
All of this is what follows if Christ is not raised from the dead. We’re left with a depressing and unfulfilling religion that leaves us to be pitied by unbelievers.
But thanks be to God that none of what I’ve just described is actually true. No, we are not to be pitied. We are not perished and gone. We are not still in our sins. Our faith is not in vain. Why not? Because Christ is raised from the dead!
“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and …He was buried, and …He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). You see, it really is true. Jesus really did rise. And that means that the dead will rise at the end of history. We will be resurrected.
And our resurrection means that we have a future life to live. We have a future life to life in future bodies. All creation will be restored, and we will experience a blessed and joyous life for all eternity. Satan will not be able to boast, not even a little. He will not have pulled God off-track one bit. The creation will be restored and perfected, and that will include us.
Friends, when we are raised from the dead, our bodies will work. They won’t grow old. They won’t fall apart. Cells will not spontaneously multiply. There will be no mutations. We won’t lose our hearing. Our minds will stay sharp. We will enjoy our lives, and we will enjoy them forever. This is our hope.
And it is all true because Jesus was raised first. His resurrection secures our resurrection, and it serves as proof that the dead will be raised.
This has not happened yet, friends. Jesus has been resurrected. That is true. That happened on Easter morning around AD 30. But the rest of mankind has not been resurrected yet. That is something we still look forward to. But we do look forward to it, and we can, because we know that it is accomplished and sure.
During this Lenten season, it is good for us to meditate on our mortality. Consider the days of our life and that they are numbered. But we should also consider the life to come. We should be comforted by the knowledge of the resurrection, but we should also live our lives now in light of that eternity. We need to be preparing ourselves for death and for life after death. We need to live as those who know what is coming. Prepare yourselves accordingly. And, as we said last week, we need to live as those bearing witness. Our lives now tell the world about the life to come. We tell the world that this life is not all there is. We are not living for today. We are living for eternity, and we believe that our testimony will be powerful in converting the nations.
This is no false witness. It is true. And we must defend it as true. But because it is true we can take heart and believe it as true. Christ raised and so shall we be. Hallelujah, He is risen indeed.
Let us pray.