In 1 Cor 15:19, Paul makes a statement that confused me for years. Maybe I am still confused, but I think I now know what Paul means. You can be the judge of that!
Paul states that if Christ has not risen from the dead, “we are of all men the most pitiable.” Some translations use the word miserable. For years I held the view that Paul is saying that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is a lie. If that is the case, then Christians are the most miserable people on earth.
I always assumed the reason for this is that Christians are looking forward to living in an eternal kingdom. But if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our hope is in vain. We thought we were going to Paradise, but this life is all there is. We are pitiable people because we will be disappointed. It would have been better to know the truth that there is nothing after death. The unbeliever is better off because he is not expecting anything after death, and that is what will happen.
But is that true? If there is no kingdom and no resurrection, aren’t the believer and unbeliever exactly the same after death? Both enter a state of non-existence. What difference does it make if the Christian thought he would live forever? He will not know that he was fooled. In fact, one could argue that even a Christian faith that is false provided some joy in this life, as the believer looked forward to that day. The church could also provide a sense of community, or a place to meet new friends. Many, many, people have met their spouses at church.
Even if it is all a lie, can we say that we are more miserable than an unbeliever? Take, for example, an unbeliever who says this world is all there is. He might become addicted to drugs or engage in other harmful activities and die at a young age. Is the believer who avoids those things and lives a long and healthy life any more miserable than that–even if there is no kingdom on the other side?
At an even more basic level, however, I thought that if there is no kingdom, then it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t believe. We are all in the same boat. What difference does it make if I live 100 years or twenty? From an eternal perspective, if we are not raised, then the life of the unbeliever and of the believer is less than a nanosecond.
I think the reason for my problem with Paul’s statement was that I did not fully appreciate that 1 Corinthians 15 is not a chapter that deals with how a person “goes to heaven.” It is a chapter that deals with rewards in the coming kingdom. What Paul is saying is that for people who, like him, live for the approval of the Lord at the Judgment Seat of Christ, all their work is futile if our bodies are not raised. There were people at Corinth who believed in a coming kingdom but no resurrection (v 12). A believer who makes sacrifices in this life because he believes he will be rewarded for those sacrifices has been fooled. Our good works, suffering for the Lord, and sacrifices are foolish if there is no resurrection. Only if the body is resurrected can a believer receive rewards for the things done in that body.
It is like two people who inherit 100,000 dollars. One goes through the money quickly, spending it on whatever pleasures he desires. The other invests the money for his old age. If the invested money is lost or stolen, the second person would have been better off spending it when he had the chance.
Many Christians do not believe in rewards. If that is the case, the obedient believer is a sucker. He should just eat, drink, and be merry. To invest in a world in which there will be no return on that investment would be foolish. Look at a believer who wants to please the Lord. If there is no resurrection of the body, he is somebody to be ridiculed. We might say he is one to be pitied. Thankfully, that is not the case.