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Imagine There’s No Easter

Category Articles
Date April 23, 2021

The following is the second chapter of Rhett P. Dodson’s newest title, With A Mighty Triumph!

* * *

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. — 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

John Lennon sang,

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today.

Imagine.

C. S. Lewis described the land of Narnia as a place where it was always winter but never Christmas.

Imagine.

Lennon wanted his generation to strive for peace and harmony without the burden of God. Lewis, on the other hand, saw the cold, dead bleakness of a world without God. Imagine with me a combination of both. Imagine a world of perpetual winter. Above this world hangs a cold, steel-grey sky. Because it is always winter, there will be no spring. Because there is no Christmas, there will be no Easter. Imagine there’s no Easter. That, in essence, is what Paul invites us to do in this passage.

It seems that people within the church at Corinth believed in the immortality of the soul. That was a common doctrine accepted throughout the Greek world. Some, however, denied that the bodies of the dead would ever be raised (verse 12). In verses 1-11 Paul defends the resurrection as essential to the gospel and in complete keeping with what Scripture teaches. He also appeals to the eyewitness evidence. Many people saw the resurrected Christ; in fact, more than five hundred people saw him at one time (verse 6). The evidence for the resurrection was irrefutable.
Next, Paul moves from a positive proclamation of the resurrection to present the consequences if there were no resurrection. His basic argument is this: If we preach Jesus’ resurrection as an essential element of the gospel, and if we can prove the resurrection from the Bible and eyewitness testimony, then how can you say, ‘There is no resurrection from the dead’? (verse 12).

Paul wants the logic of the resurrection to sink into the Corinthians’ minds and to weigh on their consciences. The Christian faith as a whole and your salvation as an individual rest on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. If the dead do not rise, then Christ has not been raised (verse 13). If Christ has not been raised, then the consequences are disastrous. Paul lists those consequences in verses 12-19, and I want us to give each of them a one-word title.

Empty

The title for the first consequence is empty. If you’ve ever had to buy a gift for a special occasion and, after hours of shopping, either couldn’t find what you were looking for or couldn’t afford what you found, then you know how disappointing it can be to return home empty-handed. To impress on the believers in Corinth the seriousness of the ‘no-resurrection’ doctrine, Paul reminds his readers that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then the church is left disappointingly empty-handed in two of its primary spheres: preaching and faith.

Without the doctrine of the resurrection, gospel preaching is void of any saving content. ‘Our preaching,’ wrote Paul, ‘is in vain.’ The word the apostle chose for preaching is a fairly rare term in the New Testament. It occurs only nine times.1 Its meaning can focus on either the act of preaching or the content of what one preaches. Paul proclaimed Christ crucified, and he preached this message as one sent by God with a divine commission.2 The verb related to this noun occurs in verse 12 where Paul writes, ‘Christ is proclaimed as raised.’ The content of the message drives the medium of preaching. The call to present Christ is the call to announce the good news, to make a public proclamation, but this public declaration must have specific content. Preaching must have something worthwhile to say; otherwise, the church becomes an echo chamber. The outward form of preaching must have the internal content of Jesus Christ crucified, buried, and raised from the dead (cf. verses 3, 4). Without the reality of God’s redeeming love in Christ demonstrated in the resurrection, evangelical declarations aren’t good news at all. Without the resurrection, they are merely sounds that fade in the air.

If empty preaching is proclamation without substance, mere words with no meaning, then the clear implication of Paul’s statement is, ‘Without the resurrection, there is no need to preach because there is nothing to preach.’ If there is no Easter, then there is no reason to gather as an assembly of believers on the first day of the week. If there is no Easter, then church and worship and preaching are all just a waste of time. Without the resurrection of Christ, we have no gospel to proclaim. If you rob the church of the resurrection, then you rob it of its primary task in the world—missions (cf. Matt. 28:19, 20)! Apart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the church has nothing to offer the world but moralistic maxims with no more authority than any other religious or philosophical system.

Paul goes further. If his preaching was vain, then so too was their faith (verse 14b). What good is faith in a risen Saviour if there is no risen Saviour? If your creed tells you that Jesus has been raised from the dead but that has not happened and his body still lies in a tomb in Israel, then your faith is empty-handed. To have empty faith is to engage in make-believe. If there is no Easter, then Christianity is no better than a fairy tale. For faith to be anything more than wishful thinking, it must have an objective, historical basis in what God has done in Christ for our salvation.

In the past, it has been common for some theologians and pastors to talk about an ‘Easter Faith.’ By that expression they meant a faith that believes in the spiritual message of Easter but not in the historical, time-and-space fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. That kind of ‘Easter Faith,’ however, is nothing more than positive thinking. It may make a person feel better about himself for a while. It may bolster a temporary optimistic outlook, a cheery disposition, an effort to pretend that everything isn’t as bad as it may seem.

At the end of the day, however, positive thinking runs headlong into the wall of hard reality. Without the true and lasting hope the gospel offers, no true and lasting hope exists.

Paul links the emptiness of preaching to the emptiness of faith because preaching and faith stand or fall together. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of Jesus (Rom. 10:17). No one can call upon the Lord to be saved unless he or she believes the Lord is able to save. In addition, no one will believe in God’s saving power unless that person hears the testimony of the gospel. Finally, no one can hear the gospel unless someone is sent to proclaim it (Rom. 10:13-15). The apostle had already reminded his readers, ‘Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed’ (1 Cor. 15:11).

Preaching and faith are, in some ways, like two sides of the same coin. That is true whether the faith to which Paul refers is the faith—the content of the Christian message—or one’s personal trust in the veracity of that message. Neither preaching and the faith nor preaching and one’s own commitment to Christ can be torn the one from the other. If the church is to give a robust and powerful witness to the truth as it is in Christ, then a recovery of the faith will lead to a revival of preaching; and that, in turn, will lead to personal transformation. That, in a nutshell, is the story of the Protestant Reformation. As Luther, Calvin, Knox, and a host of others recovered the biblical doctrines
of the faith, God raised up men to proclaim the truth. Biblical preaching led to the spiritual change that took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Biblical preaching, however, has to fight for survival in every generation. We often hear that authoritative declarations or any kind of earnest preaching is outdated. It is too old fashioned to be accepted by the world. Many folks seem content with a little talk, a few practical tips, and some positive affirmations to make them feel better about their lives. But will that kind of preaching bear witness to the risen Lord? Will it build mature, godly Christians? As the church in the West continues to decline, we need to recapture the apostolic joy and power of believing in and heralding forth the risen Christ. We need to go back to our essential gospel roots and realize not only the devastating consequences of denying them but the unsurpassed delight that comes from proclaiming them.

When the Scottish pastor Alexander Whyte asked why earlier generations had produced such godly and mature Christian men and women, he listed persecution, Reformation theology and masculine, Pauline preaching!3 It is this third area that especially seems lacking today. In the West, we are starting to feel more and more pressure as Christians. The persecution isn’t as severe as others have faced, but open opposition to the faith is on the rise. Books on Reformed theology abound. We have access to solid doctrine. The church suffers, however, from a lack of manly, Pauline, expository, theological, demanding, hard-thinking, and hard-hitting preaching.

If we are going to give witness to the reality and glory of Christ’s resurrection, then we must pray for and work for the recovery of this kind of preaching!  Pastors bear a huge weight of responsibility for this recovery, the responsibility of prayer and the hard work of biblical exegesis that goes into sermon preparation. Individual Christians and  congregations play a vital role in this recovery as well. They have a duty to pray for their pastors. Do you pray for your pastor during the week as he sits at his desk and digs into the Scriptures? Do you ask God to fill him and anoint him and use him? Your responsibility doesn’t stop there. It begins with prayer, but it includes your presence as well. A recovery of preaching requires Christians to be in the pews on a regular basis, to discipline themselves to be under the preached word. Robust, biblical preaching won’t necessarily be popular. If the current church scene teaches us anything, then it teaches us that shallow, man-centred, feel-good messages are the way to ‘build’ the church. That kind of message may fill buildings, but it will leave people with empty hearts. It may draw crowds, but it isn’t equipped to declare from the rooftops the glories of a risen, ascended, and reigning Lord!

False

Next Paul presents the opposite side of empty preaching, a consequence we can label false. ‘We are even found to be misrepresenting God’ (verse 15). Without the reality of the resurrection, the apostles and all of the other five hundred plus eyewitnesses were false witnesses in the end. The term the ESV renders misrepresenting is more literally bearing false witness (cf. KJV, NIV, NET, CSB). This particular word occurs only here and in Matthew 26:60 where it describes the false witnesses who came forward to testify against Jesus. To bear false witness is to tell something that isn’t true. It is to misrepresent the truth or, in this case, to misrepresent God himself. Paul grounds this statement, however, in the second half of the verse, ‘Because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised’ (verse 15). How should we understand the phrase about God? Did Paul mean that those who proclaimed Jesus as risen were bearing false witness because they testified against God? That would be a fairly common translation of the preposition the apostle used. Could, however, Paul mean that God had sent the apostles to testify; and if Christ hasn’t been raised then God himself sent them on an errand of falsehood?4 If the first were true, then the apostles would bear the blame for misleading their hearers. If the second were true, then God would bear the blame!

In either case, the consequences are disastrous because they are blasphemous. Whether one tells a lie about or against God, or whether one asserts that God sent him to bear a false testimony, he defames the glorious name of the Almighty. Paul wants the Corinthians to know that a denial of the resurrection of Christ left them in an untenable position. If the dead will not be raised, then Jesus has not been raised. If Jesus has not been raised, then the gospel isn’t good news but a farce, and the apostles are charlatans, hawkers of a cheap and meaningless Messiah. The gospel is an empty enterprise without the reality of history as its foundation. ‘For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised’ (verse 16).

In light of Paul’s argument, we see the church’s calling to bear a true witness to God and gospel. Had the Corinthians maintained a firm grip on the trustworthiness of Scripture and the infallibility of the apostolic witness to the gospel, they would not have strayed into questioning or denying the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Fidelity to Christ requires us to believe in and proclaim the inerrancy of the Bible.

I became fascinated by the doctrine of Scripture when I was a teenager and bought two books that played a significant role in the development of my thinking. The first was Benjamin B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. The second was Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible. While Warfield laid a solid foundation for belief that the Bible is God’s trustworthy word, Lindsell chronicled the struggle for this doctrine that occurred in evangelicalism in the 1960s and ’70s. When I read Lindsell, I was convinced that the battle for the Bible had been fought and won. Christians believed the Scriptures were from God and, therefore, without any error. The battle for the Bible, however, is never over. In each generation doubts as to its veracity are raised both from within the church and from without. We must reclaim faith in the truthfulness of the Bible in each generation.

The inerrancy of Scripture assures us that the facts we read in the Bible are true. That, of course, is essential. If the Bible isn’t true in what it asserts, then we should give up on Christianity altogether. Belief in inerrancy, however, must take us further. The Bible not only gives us the facts; it interprets those facts for us. It tells us what happened in redemptive history: Jesus died and rose again. It also tells us why these events occurred: Christ died for our sins (verse 3), and he was raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Furthermore, through its interpretations, the Scriptures reveal the character of God. They give us a true picture of what he is like. We need to embrace the doctrine of the Bible’s inerrancy not only because we need to know what actually happened, we also need inerrancy so we
know whom to trust!

The inerrancy of Scripture isn’t a mere theoretical notion; it is a most pointed and practical truth for the believer’s walk with God. As we rely upon the Lord in our daily lives, the effects of that faith become evident in the way we handle the tragedies, heartaches, and trials that come to us. Christ gives hope in the face of disaster and discouragement and as we live out that hope, our testimonies serve as a true witness that God has raised him from the dead.

Futile

We may summarize the third consequence of denying the resurrection with the word futile. If Jesus’ body still lies in a tomb in Israel, then you have a futile faith and stand under a guilty verdict. In verse 14, Paul describes faith apart from the resurrection of Christ as vain or empty. It has no content. In verse 17, the apostle asserts that if Christ Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then faith is also fruitless. Such a ‘faith’ is not only void of real substance, it is useless. It doesn’t accomplish what God intends faith to do. What does God intend faith to do? We could answer that question in many ways from many verses in the Bible, but in this context Paul’s focus is on faith’s role in salvation and forgiveness.

God has chosen faith to be the means by which we receive his free gift of pardon and everlasting life. Scripture bears witness to this truth over and over again. For example, to the Philippian jailer Paul and Silas said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’ (Acts 16:31). Paul also wrote to the church in Ephesus, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God’ (Eph. 2:8). To the church in Rome he asserted, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5:1).

Faith doesn’t earn anything from God. Believing isn’t a good work that he rewards. Faith is the empty hand that receives, the eyes that look, the mouth that calls upon the name of the Lord. By faith we trust. We believe what Scripture tells us about Christ’s saving work on our behalf, and we commit our souls into his gracious and saving hands.5 If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then committing the safekeeping of your soul to him is a pointless act. It means nothing and will accomplish nothing.

That is the reason Paul concludes verse 17 with the words, ‘and you are still in your sins.’ If the dead do not rise, and Christ’s body still lies in a tomb, then you remain under a record of guilt. In fact, without Christ’s resurrection as the vindication of his atoning death, sin has no solution. The burdened conscience has no relief. A ‘Jesus’ that remains dead has no power to forgive.

Willi Marxsen was a German pastor who became a well-known New Testament scholar. He wrote a book on the resurrection of Jesus,6 but in it he taught that the resurrection is a spiritual event rather than a bodily, physical event that took place in history. For Marxsen, the resurrection is a subjective experience that takes place in a believer’s heart. Marxsen, however, missed Paul’s point. Without a physical resurrection of Jesus, there can be no spiritual resurrection or conversion or new life in the heart of anyone. If Christ has not been raised, then we are still lost and undone. We are still in our sins and without hope.7

If the premise of verse 17 were true and Jesus Christ remained dead, then this would be the darkest, most damning passage in all the Bible because we are all conscious, to one degree or another, of our sin and guilt. We need, therefore, to be well acquainted with the gospel and the liberating hope it offers. Because Christ has been raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:25), you and I can be declared righteous in the sight of God. We can have the record of our sins purged and be right with God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this truth so well when, in answering question 33, ‘What is justification?’ it states, ‘Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed
to us, and received by faith alone.’

When we live in the freedom from guilt Christ offers us, then we say to the world, ‘Jesus lives!’ We are not, therefore, afraid to face our sin. In fact, we ask God to show us the ways we have displeased him so that we can confess our transgressions and enjoy his free pardon. We live with assurance, knowing that if we are forgiven by God, if we are justified and declared righteous in his sight, then we are certain of everlasting life.

Lost

The term lost captures the fourth consequence of denying the resurrection. In verse 18, Paul turns the focus away from the Corinthians and their current condition to the members of the church who have passed away. If Christ has not been raised, ‘Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.’

‘Those who have fallen asleep’ is a metaphorical description of believers who have died. They have fallen asleep in Jesus. This language occurs several times in the New Testament, beginning with Jesus using the phrase himself.  Christ refers to Lazarus’ death as his having fallen asleep (John 11:11). When Christ was raised, many tombs were opened, and the bodies of saints who had fallen asleep were raised (Matt. 27:52). When Stephen was stoned to death,
he fell asleep (Acts 7:60). Here in this very chapter Paul appeals to the massive eyewitness accounts of Christ’s resurrection and notes that most of those people were still alive at the time he wrote this letter, though some have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:6). Paul also makes extensive use of this metaphor for death in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15. This expression in no way implies that Paul or any other apostle believed in soul sleep or the unconscious existence of the individual between death and the resurrection. Paul could not be clearer on this issue than his statement in 2 Corinthians 5:8. When the believer’s soul is away from the body, it is at home with the Lord. When the term sleep occurs in the New Testament in relation to death, it is always an image to describe the state of the body as it  awaits the day of resurrection.

What did Paul mean, however, when he wrote these believers ‘have perished’? Did he propose they had simply ceased to exist? That meaning would not fit the cultural context since the Greeks had no difficulty believing in the immortality of the soul. Perhaps he meant the disintegration of the body. Believers who die never rise again. Their bodies return to dust, and that is the end. That meaning would fit the general context and be in line with the ‘no-resurrection’ doctrine some were peddling. The verb Paul uses could mean either of those options, but it also occurs in the New Testament to describe the perishing of the lost in hell. See, for example, the contrast between ‘perishing’ and ‘everlasting life’ in John 3:16 (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18). This meaning most naturally follows from verse 17. If believers die without the hope of Christ’s victory over sin and death, then they die in their sins and perish like the rest of mankind, lost and undone.

Like the other consequences Paul lists in this passage, the death of believers gives us the opportunity to maintain a powerful witness to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection if we demonstrate to the world how to grieve with hope. The simultaneous existence of both sadness and hopefulness in the human heart is a mystery to those who do not know Christ. They can’t understand how Christians can weep and yet have the assurance that all is not lost. We react in both of those ways because we know the deep anguish that death brings, but we also have the confidence that Christ’s life gives to us. This was the very point Paul made in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. He wrote, ‘But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Thess. 4:13, 14).

I originally wrote this chapter the week after Easter. On Easter Monday, I received a message that a friend of many years had suffered a stroke. The next day word came that he had undergone emergency surgery. The following day the doctors said he would not regain consciousness. On Thursday, he was removed from life support systems and passed away. As my wife communicated with his wife in the midst of all the stress and sorrow, when his wife knew that they would take him off life support the next day, she said, ‘Tomorrow I have to let him go to Jesus.’ That is what it means to face death with hope, with the assurance that those who sleep in Christ are not lost. Every time we  respond with that confidence we proclaim, ‘Jesus lives!’

Pitiable

The best term I know to summarize the fifth and final consequence of denying Christ’s resurrection is the word pitiable. With a final if, Paul introduces his last conditional clause. ‘Let’s imagine,’ he said, ‘that the hope we have in Christ is just for this life.’ Let’s imagine that Jesus means something only for the realm we can see, the sphere of our mortal senses. What if Christ has significance only for today and not for eternity? What if our hope to live in the bodies God gave us exists only in the present? Where would that leave us? We would be the most pitiable people of all (verse 19).

Those who have no hope in the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection to come are to be pitied because they have a misplaced faith. People who have a  Jesus for this life only should be viewed with the greatest compassion. They are pathetic and deluded fools. If Jesus has not been raised, and if there is no hope of a future resurrection, then Paul would counsel you to not make fun of Christians but weep for them.

As Christians, we must demonstrate to the world that we are not pitiable people. Our response to the resurrection must be an unbounded joy in Jesus. Whether we realize it or not, joy and rejoicing play a significant role in our apologetics. Do we want others to believe in the risen Christ? Do we want them to know the hope of everlasting life? We give evidence for that hope when we live with delight in the living Saviour.

The Rev. Lachlan Mackenzie served as a Presbyterian minister in the Scottish Highland town of Lochcarron at the end of the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth century. A brief biography combined with a collection of his sermons is entitled The Happy Man. He suffered a stroke in 1818 which put a practical end to his ministry. Though he lay paralyzed he could say to those who visited, ‘I am taking a faith’s look into heaven.’8 He knew this life was not all there was. He looked heavenward. He looked homeward. The Rev. Mackenzie passed away on April 20 the following year; and he died the happy man, a man he had described as one who ‘loves Christ, and longs for glory.’9 H He died a testimony to the living Lord Jesus.

How do you become the happy man or the happy woman, the happy Christian? It won’t happen by make-believe.  You can’t pretend your troubles away or act as though they don’t exist. You can’t excuse your sins and failures and try to convince others you have your act together. It isn’t difficult to see through the thin veneer people often try to lay over their lives. To live the happy life you must live full of the Holy Spirit.

You will find the source of true happiness, the source of abiding joy in the living Lord Jesus and the assurance that he is with you no matter what. The exercise of faith and love is the path to joy. The apostle Peter shows the way: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory’ (1 Pet. 1:8).

Paul lists for us five devastating consequences if Jesus had not been raised bodily from the tomb. Look at them again: empty, false, futile, lost, pitiable. It would be difficult to imagine five bleaker, more negative terms. In verse 20, however, the apostle turns the entire argument with the resounding declaration,

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!

Because of the resurrection, the empty has become full. What seemed false turns out to be gloriously true. The futile is no longer fruitless but filled with hope. The lost have been saved. And the pitiable turn out to be the happiest of all!

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