Easter Myth or Gospel Truth?
1 Corinthians 15:17-19, 58
By Bob Wilkin
A seemingly small event occurred during World War II that would change the course of history. Scientists found a way to unleash the power of the atom. The Manhattan Project discovered an amazing source of energy―one that ended the Second World War, that now powers nuclear submarines, and that has the capability of powering whole cities, or even the whole world. There is tremendous power in the splitting of the atom. In fact, from a secular standpoint it is the greatest power in the universe.
However, the apostle Paul speaks of an even greater power in First Corinthians 15: the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In referring to the resurrection of Christ about three times as much as the death of Christ, Paul makes it clear that Christ's resurrection is pivotal to the Christian faith.
But what if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead? What if He remains in the grave today and His bones are decaying? Then the inspired Word of God tells us that Christians are the most pitiable people in all the earth.
According to Paul in First Corinthians 15 there are four reasons why Christians would be the most pitiable people on earth if Jesus is not risen from the dead. Three are found in vv 17-19:
And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
If the Resurrection Is Not True,
Faith Is Futile
The first reason why Christians without a risen Savior should be pitied is found in the first part of v 17: "And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile..." The word futile means helpless, powerless, or ineffective. Our faith in Christ has no effect, no power, no result, if Jesus did not rise from the dead. Christians believe that in Jesus they have salvation or eternal life. But that is not true if Jesus didn't rise from the dead, because His guarantee of eternal life is conditioned upon His resurrection. And if He did not rise from the dead, then our faith in Him is futile.
Take for example the tragic story of Susan Smith. She took her two small sons, strapped them into their car seats, drove the car into a lake, and then watched the car fill with water, drowning them both. Though her sons had trusted her to take care of them, their faith in their mother proved futile, because she was not trustworthy. So, too, if Jesus didn't rise from the dead, then He was either a liar or a lunatic. In either case, He is not trustworthy. He can't raise anyone else if He failed to raise Himself (cf. John 10:18). Our faith in Christ is futile if He did not rise from the dead.
If the Resurrection Is Not True,
Christians Are Still in Their Sins
The second reason that Christians are to be most pitied if Jesus didn't rise from the dead is found in the next part of 1 Cor 15:17: "If Christ is not risen...you are still in your sins!"
In John 8:24 the Lord states, "If you do not believe that I am He [that is the Christ, the Guarantor of eternal life to those who believe in Him], you will die in your sins." The forgiveness which Jesus promises all believers--and only believers--is not only for past sins committed before our faith in Christ, but also for all of our future sins all the way to the grave. He guarantees that no believer will die in his sins.
But what if Christ had not risen? That would mean that His death was ineffective and that His promise is worthless. If Jesus remained in the grave, then we are still in our sins.
If the Resurrection Is Not True,
There Is No Life after Death
The third reason why Christians are the most pitiable people on earth if Jesus did not rise from the dead is stated in v 18: "Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished." By perished here Paul is referring to destruction. If Christ didn't rise, then believers who die are simply gone. They are no more.
The promise of Christianity is that when a believer dies he is with the Lord. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That's true of every believer. However, if Jesus has not risen from the dead, then there will be no resurrection from the dead for anyone. That would mean that believers who have died are not with the Lord. It would mean we will never see our departed loved ones again. This life would be all there is.
Christians should be pitied if Christ did not rise from the dead because their expectation of life beyond the grave is a myth on par with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then there is nothing beyond the grave.
The fourth reason is implied in v 58, which says:
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
If the Resurrection Is Not True,
There Are No Future Rewards
Verse 58, though a triumphant proclamation of why Christians are most to be admired, implicitly gives us the fourth reason why Christians are to be pitied if Christ is not risen. While Jesus taught that all who simply believe in Him have eternal life, He also taught that He would reward those believers for their good works. While eternal salvation and eternal rewards are two different things, both hinge on Christ's resurrection. Storing up eternal rewards is valid only if we will be resurrected by Christ someday. Our labor in the Lord is in vain if Christ is not risen from the dead.
Jesus promised that even a cup of cold water given in His name won't go without its reward (Matt 10:42). But that's only true if Jesus is risen from the dead. Otherwise, there is no everlasting life and there are no everlasting rewards.
If the resurrection is not true, then the promise of eternal rewards for work done for the Lord is as worthless as the promised wages of a crooked contractor. In the trades, workers frequently come to jobsites looking for work. They find a subcontractor, a framer let's say, and they agree to work for him for so much an hour, to be paid at the end of each week. Sometimes there is no paycheck at the end of the week. The subcontractor just disappears, leaving the laborers unpaid and out of luck. If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, there will be no payday for Christians. The promise of rewards would be a cosmic scam.
Since the Resurrection Is True,
Christians Are Most to Be Admired
The resurrection is no hoax. Many people, Paul included, were eyewitnesses of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James [the half-brother of the Lord Jesus], then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
―1 Corinthians 15:3-8
We don't need to demythologize Easter since there is no myth in the empty tomb. It is not a story concocted by the apostles. Far from being a story they invented, it is a story which the apostles initially rejected. They were discouraged and doubting. They didn't believe in the resurrection until Jesus repeatedly appeared to them. The apostles were so transformed by seeing the risen Lord that they willingly sealed their testimonies to His resurrection with their very lives. They knew that He would raise them from the dead someday, and that they would be rewarded by Him for their service. This motivated them to lay down their lives for Him.
Two agnostic attorneys in England, Lord Lyttleton and Gilbert West, set out to disprove Christianity. They each took a year to study what they considered to be the key support of the Christian faith. West studied the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and Lyttleton the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The conversion of this man Saul of Tarsus was built on the resurrection of Jesus since Saul claimed to have seen the resurrected Lord on the road to Damascus and there to have come to believe in Him.
A year later they came together and discovered that they had both come to similar startling conclusions. Lyttleton found that Saul of Tarsus did become a radically new person through coming to faith in Jesus Christ who appeared to him on the road to Damascus. West found that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus indeed rose bodily from the dead.
Agnosticism cannot withstand a diligent examination of the facts of Jesus' death and resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a proven fact.
Don't Uncouple the Resurrection from the Gospel
The death and resurrection of Christ are like the engines of a train. The promise of eternal life and of the forgiveness of sins to all who believe in Christ are two of the cars behind the engines. Over the course of Church history the death and resurrection of Christ have been uncoupled from His guarantee of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins.
There are many people who believe Jesus died on the cross for them, that He rose bodily from the dead, that He's coming again, and yet they are not sure they have eternal life. They've uncoupled the cars from the engines. The bottom line is this: they don't believe His promise of everlasting life to whoever believes in Him. They feel there is more to it than that. They see the death and resurrection of Christ as necessary, but not as enough. They believe that something must be added to faith (or that faith must be defined in such a way as to include commitment, obedience, confession, etc.) in order for a person to have eternal life.
If someone believes that he must do more than believe in Christ for eternal life, then he doesn't believe Jesus' promise that "he who believes in Me has everlasting life."
The death and the resurrection of Christ show why He can give us eternal life. He can give it to us because He is God in the flesh, He paid the penalty for our sins, and He rose from the dead triumphant over death. We cannot uncouple eternal life from the death and resurrection of Christ without destroying the good news in the gospel. The death and resurrection of Christ were not only necessary, they were enough. All we do is believe in Him for eternal life and we have it. The Lord Jesus Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords. He's coming to set up His kingdom and He's going to reign forever.
To be a Christian is not to be the most pitiable person in all the earth. Because of Christ's resurrection―and His guarantee that He will resurrect all who believe in Him―we are the most fortunate, the most blest people on the planet! Our faith is effective, we are not in our sins, our departed loved ones are with the Lord, and the labor we do for Him is not in vain.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is greater than nuclear power. Meditate on His resurrection and let its wonder and promise permeate your life and there is no telling what you can do for Him. He is coming again. Soon. Live moment by moment in light of His soon return and you will hear the blessed words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."