“For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised.”
—I Corinthians 15:16
The resurrection of the body is something that human reason tends to reject, or at least to regard with much skepticism. Recall how the Athenians at Mar’s Hill listened to the preaching of St. Paul with interest until he mentioned the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:32). It should not surprise us when the unbelievers mock our belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead, since it is something that lies completely outside the realm of anything we are able to observe in the world around us. Especially considering how thoroughly and completely the human body decays after it dies, it is understandable why human reason might dismiss as utter nonsense any ideas that a disintegrated body could be restored again to life. Certainly, after death our bodies will decompose—“they die, and return to their dust” (Psalm 104:29). However, the same God who had the power to make man out of the dust of the ground in the beginning is equally able to reconstruct and resurrect bodies that have long ago died and returned to dust. Anyone who believes in an omnipotent God should have no problems accepting this fact. But sadly, even among many who call themselves Christians, the resurrection of the body is regarded as an unbelievable fiction. Modern rationalists deny both the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, and there are even so-called “Lutheran” pastors among them! In so doing, such false Christians in effect reject both the authority of the Scriptures and the chief doctrine of the Christian religion, namely, that our sins are forgiven on account of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ without any merit or worthiness in us (Romans 3:24; 5:6, 8, 10).
This is not, however, a strictly “modern” trend. Already in the church at Corinth there were some, in spite of the faithful teaching of Paul, Apollos, and Peter, who denied the resurrection of the dead (I Corinthians 15:12), and therefore, though perhaps they did not realize it, denied also Christ’s own resurrection (v. 13). Although they were outwardly members of the church at Corinth, if they denied the resurrection of Jesus Christ, their professed faith in Him would be meaningless and they would still be in their sins (v. 17). But how was it that such people were allowed to continue in the Corinthian congregation? The answer is simply this: In the absence of the Apostle Paul, church discipline was not being exercised according to the Lord’s instruction in Matthew 18:15–17. This, then, as one would expect, resulted in a number of open sins and errors being minimized, overlooked, and tolerated in the congregation. However, when Paul became apprised of these matters, he rightly dealt with them in his apostolic letter even before he was able to travel to Corinth himself. Consider the following quotations from his first epistle to the Corinthians: “It hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you” (1:11). “Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will” (4:18–19). “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife” (5:1). “Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (5:13). “I speak to your shame. …Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. …Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren” (6:5–8). “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (11:29–30). “Now if Christ be preached that He rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (15:12).
Indeed, these were serious matters that needed to be addressed; they could not be ignored. Since this latter error in particular was being tolerated, there were obviously those in the congregation who did not realize why it was such a “big deal” that some chose to deny the resurrection of the dead. The Holy Ghost, therefore, moved the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15 to show, by means of sound logic, the consequences of denying the resurrection of the body: If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ, who truly died on the cross, could not have been raised to life again (vv. 13, 16); and if Christ did not rise from the dead, then Paul and his fellow apostles were false witnesses; for they proclaimed His resurrection and testified that they had seen Him alive in His resurrected body (v. 15; also vv. 4–9). Furthermore, if Christ did not rise from the grave, the Christian faith would be meaningless and without profit (vv. 14, 17); for if Christ had remained dead in the grave, His work to redeem us would have been but a failed attempt, His declaration “It is finished!” would have been a lie, and we would still be in our sins (v. 17; see also Romans 4:25). Accordingly, if there is no resurrection of the dead, and if Christ is not risen, then all those who departed this life trusting in Jesus are perished forever in hell (v. 18). And if the resurrection of the body is nothing but a myth to help us cope with the thought of death as we live our lives here on earth, and if our Christian faith is confidence in a mere delusion—then in reality “we are of all men most miserable” (v. 19). These are the serious and horrendous consequences of denying the resurrection of the body!
All of these consequences are set forth in I Corinthians 15 using clear and penetrating logic. Even though our faith is not based on reason but upon the Scriptures, sound reasoning should not be automatically rejected by Christians as if logic, in and of itself, is a bad thing. The Lord Jesus Himself employed the technique of logical argumentation when He told the unbelieving Jews: “He that is of God heareth God’s words; ye therefore hear them not because ye are not of God” (John 8:47). Human reason and the rules of logic can be used properly in theology, as long as they are placed under the authority of the Scriptures to serve divine revelation [ministerial use of reason], and are not exalted above God’s Word [magisterial use of reason]. Certainly the rationalism of the Reformed—which shows itself in such errors as their denial of the real presence of Christ’s true body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar—is a blasphemous use, a misuse, of reason that must be condemned and rejected, as Paul declares in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (10:5).
There are things about God and His ways that simply exceed the bounds of human understanding, reason and logic (such as the mystery of the Trinity and why God did not predestinate all to salvation). That there are such things that transcend our reason should not surprise us or offend us; but it should humble us, and remind us how inferior our minds are to the mind of the Lord God. “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ saith the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8–9). “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His counselor?” (Romans 11:33–34). We do not need to understand exactly how God is going to resurrect bodies that have long ago died, decayed, and become absorbed into the ground or been consumed by animals. We leave that to the Lord and simply trust His Word that on the Last Day “all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth” (John 5:28–29). So each one of us can confidently affirm in the words of Job: “Though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another, though my reins be consumed within me” (19:26–27).
Despite such clear declarations from the Bible, there are those who call themselves “Christians” who reject the possibility of dead, decayed bodies ever being restored to life purely on the grounds that it does not seem reasonable to them that such a thing could happen. This is a clear example of blasphemously bowing to “reason” instead of to God, since it mocks and rejects what the Lord has said in Holy Scripture. Nevertheless it can be argued (even with a person who is an agnostic), using only reason and logic, that if one conceded the existence of a god that had the power to create anything and to bestow life upon his creation, then such a god would also have the power to re-create from dust and ashes the decayed bodies of those who long ago died and to restore them to life. But let us never forget that human reason and logic cannot raise a person out of the spiritual death of unbelief (in which all are conceived and born) and work in him a living faith in Jesus as his Savior and Redeemer. No, this can only be accomplished by the power of God working on the heart of man through the Scriptures—the Law convicting him of his sins and utter unworthiness before God, and the Gospel declaring for all mankind forgiveness, peace, and everlasting salvation earned by the perfect, vicarious life, suffering, and death of Christ. By raising Christ from the dead, God the Father confirmed the promises of the Gospel as being absolutely true; and He sealed to us and to all mankind the assurance of reconciliation and of the objective justification, or forgiveness, that He had granted to the entire world in eternity already (Revelation 13:8) for Christ’s sake. “[Jesus our Lord] was delivered for [on account of] our offences, and was raised again for [on account of] our justification” (Romans 4:25).
Oh what a tragedy for us and for all mankind if our crucified Lord had remained dead in the grave! We would be “of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15:19); for “if Christ be not raised, [our] faith is vain; [we] are yet in [our] sins” (v. 17). “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57); for “now IS Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (v. 20). Because Jesus rose from the dead, we too shall rise; because He rose from the dead, the promises of the Gospel are true; because He rose from the dead, our faith is not in vain; because He rose from the dead, our forgiveness is assured; because He rose from the dead, we do not have hope only in this life but the expectation of eternal life in heaven; because He rose from the dead, we who trust in Him as our Savior are of all men most joyous!
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands,
for our offenses given;
but now at God’s right hand He stands
and brings us life from heaven.
Therefore let us joyful be
and sing to God right thankfully
loud songs of hallelujah. Hallelujah!
(TLH 195, v. 1)
—P. E. B.