Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you. . . . For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them-yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
-1 Corinthians 15:1,3-10
The heart of the Christian faith is the gospel. "It is the power of God that brings salvation," Paul says in Romans 1:16. The gospel is infinitely rich and can be expounded at great length, as we see in the books of Galatians and Romans. But the value of this passage in 1 Corinthians is that Paul gives us the gospel briefly, and this enables us to get a clearer view of all of its constituent aspects and points. The passage tells us that Christianity is a historical, reasonable, and gracious faith.
A Historical Faith
The gospel begins with the reporting of certain historical events. Christianity is rightly seen as a life-changing experience, but it will transform you only if you accept as facts that certain events occurred in history.
When I was in college I took courses studying the religions of the world. Looking back on my studies, it became clear than no other faith started by saying, "Above all and before everything else, you must believe that these historical events happened." Certainly all the religions had origin stories and accounts of various heroes of the faith. But such stories were provided primarily as examples to emulate. The main message was "Live in this way and find the path of wisdom and you will find unity with the infinite."
Christianity opens not with "Here''s how you have to live," but "Here''s what Jesus did for you in history." First, he died for our sins and was buried, and second, he was raised to life on the third day and he appeared to many eyewitnesses.
An Ahistorical Faith?
One reason to stress the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection is to provide a note of caution about the ongoing effort that started two centuries ago to create a liberal Christianity that is more like other religions.
In the early part of the nineteenth century there was a movement to remove the supernatural elements from Christianity in order to align it more with modern sensibilities. Friedrich Schleiermacher taught that Christianity was not a matter of faith in historical events but rather an internal feeling of dependence on God. Albrecht Ritschl taught that we could no longer believe in miracles, and so we had to reread the reports of Jesus''s incarnate birth, death, and resurrection not as historical events but as legends and parables and examples of how to live. The basic reasoning of this movement went something like this: "There are many superstitious, miraculous elements in the Christian faith. Modern people can''t believe these things actually happened. So if we are going to appeal to the modern world, we will have to reinterpret them as fiction, but fiction that preserves the essential principles of living that are in the Christian faith."
How did this program of modernization treat Easter, the doctrine that Christ was raised bodily from the dead? The new account went like this: "We can''t believe in a literal, physical, historical resurrection anymore. Ah, but we still have the idea of Easter. Doesn''t nature itself teach you that after winter comes spring? That even in a disaster and after death there can be new beginnings? That even in our misfortunes we can discover lessons and we can grow and we can begin afresh? That''s the principle of Easter."
Liberal Christianity has taught that it doesn''t matter whether these events in the story of Jesus''s life actually happened. All that matters is that Christians be good, ethical people who love others and make the world a better place. This is an effort to create a non-historical faith, one that isn''t grounded in what God has actually done in history, but only in what we do and how we live. Liberal Christianity even tries to read itself back into history as the original, true Christianity. It claims that the original Jesus was simply a human teacher of justice and love. Only decades later did these miraculous, supernatural elements get introduced into the legends about his life, and only then was he presented as a Son of God who rose from the dead. In this telling, the original faith was not about miraculous historical events but rather was simply an ethic of love.
This narrative, however, is not actually an updated version of Christianity. Rather, it is the creation of a different religion altogether. Christianity''s unique message-that you are saved not by what you have to do but by what God has done-is swept away. The crushing weight of self-salvation is put squarely back onto the believer, whereas the historical gospel took that burden off of us.
The stark difference between liberal Christianity and the original faith was put famously by H. Richard Niebuhr. He described liberalism thus: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a Cross." And, he could have added, without a resurrection. Liberal Christianity-a message of simple ethical love and hope-could never have turned anyone''s life, much less the entire Roman world, upside down.
The electrifying original message was this: God''s power has come from outside of history into this world. Jesus died for our sins in our place so that through faith we can know his love and receive a guarantee of eternal life-all by grace, as a gift. He also rose from the dead to bring into history the powers of the age to come, in which we will all be resurrected and every tear will be wiped away (Hebrews 6:5; 2 Peter 3:13; Romans 8:18-25). Because Jesus''s death for sin and resurrection happened in history, everything has changed. Everything.
In 1 Corinthians 15:14 Paul says, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless," and the Greek word for useless is kenos, without power. Paul is saying that mere ethical exhortations-that "we need to work against injustice" or "we need to keep up hope in the face of anxiety"-as right as they are, are nonetheless impotent if Jesus hasn''t been raised from the dead in history. If he was raised, we have not only every reason in the world to work for the good, but also the actual inward power to do so. But if he was not raised, then, both the ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree, the world will eventually burn up, and no one will be around to mourn for it, and nothing anyone does will in the end make any difference.
Liberal Christianity, though now in steep demographic decline among believers, is nonetheless highly popular with the modern media, which sees it as the only viable version of the faith. But a non-historical faith-a non-supernatural faith-simply won''t do. It did not change lives and the world at the beginning, and it won''t do so now. As John Updike wrote:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cells'' dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
it was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then regathered
out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-m‰chŽ
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck''s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
A Reasonable Faith
Because Christianity is a historical faith, it is also a reasonable one, and 1 Corinthians 15 is brimming with reasons to believe. Many modern theories have been developed to explain away the claim of the resurrection, but these verses provide answers to them all.
One of the oldest theories is that the legends of Jesus''s resurrection developed only many decades after the actual events had faded from living memory. But the 1 Corinthians text is itself an important piece of evidence against that view. Verses 3-7 are now seen by most New Testament scholars as not an original Pauline composition but rather an early gospel summary used by the earliest church in its evangelism and instruction which Paul is citing. As he says in verse 3, these words were "received," not created by him, and then "passed on" to others. Scholars also show that the vocabulary in these verses-"according to the Scriptures," "on the third day," "the Twelve" are not terms Paul uses elsewhere in his writings. So this was a gospel summary that was already in widespread use by Christians all around the Mediterranean world when Paul wrote. Since this letter to the Corinthians was written only fifteen or twenty years after Jesus''s death, the eminent biblical scholar James Dunn concludes that "we can be entirely confident" that this summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 "was formulated . . . within months of Jesus''s death."
That disproves the theory that Jesus''s resurrection was a legend developed only after all the people who were present at his death were gone. Instead, this text demonstrates that almost instantly thousands of Jewish men and women were worshipping Jesus as the Savior and risen Lord (Acts 2:41). Unlike the Romans, the Jews "did not believe that a man might become a god. . . . [Such] claims [were] as stupefying as they were . . . repellent. . . . Not merely blasphemy, it was madness." A growing movement of Jews who worshipped a human being as the Son of God was completely unprecedented. And it happened immediately after Jesus''s death. Something momentous must have happened to bring this about. If it was not the resurrection, what else could it have been?
Paul also says Jesus was raised "on the third day," which undermines a second modern theory, that the earliest followers of Jesus did not literally see the resurrected Christ with their eyes but only experienced his continued presence with them in their hearts. "The third day" shows that Jesus''s resurrection was an actual event with a time stamp.
Paul then goes on at length to report that the risen Jesus appeared "to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born" (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). This list challenges a third modern hypothesis, namely, that the resurrection was a hoax. The problem is not only that Peter, Jesus''s brother James, and Paul himself all claimed to have literally seen Christ back from the dead. Jesus also appeared to five hundred people at one time. There were literally hundreds of corroborating eyewitnesses.
Contemporary readers might think that in Paul''s day everyone was highly credulous and superstitious. So if you wanted to claim that the founder of your religion had risen from the dead, all you''d have to do is say, "He rose, and you must believe it because I say so." Instead, Paul writes as if his readers would be unwilling to accept such a claim without evidence-much like people today. So over 75 percent of the words in this gospel presentation are dedicated to listing the eyewitnesses of the resurrection. When he gives their names and says "most of [them] are still living," he is inviting anyone to seek them out and hear their eyewitness testimony for themselves. In other words, Paul is not what has been called a "fideist," someone who says, "I have no arguments or reasons for you; you must just take a wild leap of faith in the dark and believe what I''m telling you despite the lack of evidence."
We might ask why an ancient audience would be so slow to believe in something like the resurrection. Surely people in those days were less skeptical about claims of miracles than people are today? But in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, biblical scholar N. T. Wright explains at length that both Greco-Roman culture and Judaism of that time had strong beliefs that made the claim of an individual bodily resurrection incredible. Jews of Jesus''s day either did not believe in resurrection at all or believed only in a general resurrection of the righteous at the end of time when the whole world was renewed. What they did not think possible at all was a single, individual resurrection in the midst of history while evil, suffering, and death continued as before. This then refutes a fourth modern belief, that Jesus''s followers were so grief stricken and desirous for him to be alive that they convinced themselves he was resurrected. Wright makes the strongest case that this could not have happened. Such a resurrection was too unimaginable for Jews. It was only the evidence of the empty tomb and all the eyewitness accounts that overcame their deep skepticism about the claim of resurrection.