Risen Indeed, Part 4: The Essential Condition (and Hope) of Christianity

April 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

There in the ground His body lay;
Light of the world by darkness slain.
Then bursting forth in glorious Day,
Up from the grave he rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine,
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

- Stuart Townend & Keith Getty

Introduction

There are not very many chapters in the Bible that can stand alone to give a complete articulation of a biblical doctrine, but 1 Corinthians 15 is one of the few that comes close. Believers often refer to this as “the resurrection chapter.” The label is well deserved.

The famous New Testament translator J. B. Phillips once called it the most important chapter in the whole Bible—which is no small compliment when there are chapters like Genesis 1, John 3, and Romans 8 in the canon from which to choose. But 1 Corinthians 15 has permanent relevance because death never goes away. In fact, Paul’s message here is essentially this: “Accept the resurrection or reject all hope.” 

Thus far in our series we have seen that:

1.   The resurrection of Jesus is the literary highlight of each of the four gospels.
2.  The resurrection of Jesus is the dramatic climax of each of the four gospels.
3.  The resurrection of Jesus is a central and dominant theme in the book of Acts.

In this post we will observe that:

4.  The resurrection of Jesus is the sine qua non (essential condition) of Christianity.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the central doctrine of Christianity. So important was it for Paul that he hinged the truth of the entire Christian faith on that one historical event. He argued that a Christianity without the resurrection would be no Christianity at all. In 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, Paul employs a technique similar to—though not exactly—the ancient reductio ad absurdum argument, asserting that if there is no resurrection, then:

• Christians have a dead Christ (15:13, 16).
• Christians have an empty message (15:14a).
• Christians have a useless faith (15:14b, 17a).
• Christians have a severe credibility problem (15:15).
• Christians have unforgiven sin (15:17b).
• Christians have no hope beyond the grave (15:18).
• Christians have the worst embarrassment in history (15:19).

Reductio ad absurdum is a mode of argumentation that seeks to establish a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial, thus arguing that a thesis must be accepted because its rejection would be untenable. It is a style of reasoning that has been employed throughout the history of mathematics and philosophy from classical antiquity onward.

Using a similar technique, Paul gives an explanation of the consequences of denying the resurrection. He asserts that without the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is no Christianity. Moreover, if the resurrection of Jesus can be proven to be false (i.e., that it demonstrably never happened), then Christianity crumbles. It is a false and deceptive religion that should be abandoned by everyone who adheres to it.

Like Jesus, Paul stakes everything about Christianity on this one historical event that is both supernatural and falsifiable. Such confidence is noteworthy, especially given Paul’s towering intellect and his previous hostility toward Christians.

The Apostle Paul:

Despair in Search of a Foundation of Hope

While this may sound like an overly abstract and academic approach to the question of Jesus’ resurrection, it is intellectual rigor in service of a cardinal truth having personal relevance. Paul understands that without hope, most people cannot survive, and those who do survive have nothing to survive for.

Consider Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher who lived and wrote in the 20th century. Sartre was a Marxist, a humanist, an existentialist, and an atheist. In his heyday, he had a huge following in the United States. In 1943, Sartre wrote these words:

“Man is a useless passion. . . . Everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on living through weakness, and dies by accident.”

Jean-Paul Sartre:

Sartre famously rejected God. He rejected the Bible. He rejected the idea of timeless and transcendent truth. And he rejected all meaning and purpose in this life. When asked why he didn’t just commit suicide then, he replied:

“That would be using my freedom to take away my freedom, and that’s not a good thing.”

It was a typical answer from a typical existentialist. But interestingly enough, Sartre found it hard to live with the implications his own atheism. Over time, a nagging feeling developed inside him that he might be wrong about things. In a 1974 interview with Simone de Beauvoir—who was his main love interest—Sartre said:

“I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”

But immediately Sartre adds:

“This is not a clear, exact idea.”

What was clear was that things were no longer clear for this once adamant atheist. And quite significantly, in 1980 Sartre wrote these words in his own personal journal:

“The idea that there is no purpose, only petty personal ends for which we fight! We make little revolutions, but there is no goal for mankind. One cannot think such things. They tempt you incessantly, especially if you are old and think, ‘Oh well, I’ll be dead in five years at the most.’

“In fact, I think ten, but it might well be five. In any case, the world seems ugly, bad and without hope. There, that’s the cry of despair of an old man who will die in despair. But that’s exactly what I resist. I know I shall die in hope. But that hope needs a foundation.”

Simone de Beauvoir:

Sartre lived all his life resolutely rejecting the foundation of hope, but his soul was crying out against it, and he could no longer ignore it. He said:

“This leads me to total hopelessness and despair.”

And then he says to himself:

“But I will resist despair. I will die in hope.”

Yet—to paraphrase—he recognizes, “Hey, wait a minute. Hope needs a foundation. And I’ve spent my entire life ridiculing and disproving the foundation.” So with night time falling on his life, he closes his journal and says:

“I’m getting up there in years. I better go find me some foundation for hope.”

What an admission! Did he ever find a foundation for hope? Sartre says, “I’ve got five, maybe ten years to find it.” And yet just four weeks after writing that journal entry, they laid Sartre’s body in the dust of French soil. He died on April 15, 1980.

The date is ironic, isn’t it? April 15. Death and taxes.

To this day, scholars debate what happened on Sartre’s deathbed—whether he converted or not—but we do know one thing. His own internal struggle verifies the truth of 1 Corinthians 15: Accept the resurrection or reject all hope.

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