What the resurrection means
Of all religions, Christianity is the one that has the most historical evidence, and therefore the least to hide, in what it purports. We should never hide from, or routinely dismiss, the historical aspect of Christianity.
If all we have are historical reasons for our belief in the resurrection, then it is possible to conclude, with a certain amount of probability, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened in history.
However, we also recognize that, when we are thinking about the “why” question as it pertains to the resurrection of Christ, Christians should never be content to begin and end their belief in the resurrection of Christ with only historical data. Those data can support our belief in the resurrection. They can supplement what we believe and why we believe it.
But historical data cannot be the center of our response to the “why” question. If the historical data are at the center, then the best we can say is that we believe the resurrection probably occurred. But that will not do; we do not believe in the probability of the resurrection.
Instead, the center of our response to the “why” question of the resurrection is that, without the resurrection of Christ, there is, in fact, no Christianity at all.
The historical fact of the resurrection
The reason for this is because the meaning of the resurrection must be tethered to its factual, historical occurrence.
Suppose, for example, that someone comes to believe that the resurrection of Christ happened in history. Since our precommitments and prejudices interpret such things, we might want to ask why someone believes such an apparently impossible event. Maybe the response would be, as the Queen of Hearts said to Alice, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Belief in the resurrection would simply be a belief in something impossible, and nothing more.
The fact of the resurrection of Christ can easily be incorporated into a view of the world that thinks random chance is ultimate. If the universe is running according to the progression of random events, then a resurrection is just one of the “six impossible things before breakfast.” After all, strange things happen in a random world.
The reason that Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ, however, is not simply because we believe in miracles or in life after death. The reason that Christians believe in the resurrection is because, since sin came into the world, the fact of Christ’s resurrection, together with its meaning, comprises the center of God’s entire plan for the world.
The apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians around the middle of the first century, some twenty-five years or so after Christ ascended. At the end of this letter, he describes for the church the centrality and significance of Christ’s resurrection. His description has little to do with the miraculous character of the resurrection, although it certainly was miraculous.
Instead, Paul writes to the church that the resurrection is the central “key” that unlocks the whole of Christianity.
3 reasons the resurrection is central to Christianity
There are three aspects to the resurrection that make it central to Christianity, each of which, taken together, answer the “why” question.
1. The resurrection is at the center of redemptive history
The first aspect that Paul mentions is this: “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” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).
Paul is reminding the church of his ministry among them. In that ministry, Paul is reminding them of the most important part of his ministry to them, and, therefore, of the Christian faith. What is of “first importance” is that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and that he was raised on the third day. Any Christian will readily see that this is the gospel. The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is summed up in this one passage.
But notice one crucial aspect to this good news. Paul repeats it two times in order to highlight its source. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ were all according to the Scriptures.
We might be tempted to think that Paul is referring here to the New Testament Scriptures. But that cannot be the case, since much of the New Testament, including the Gospels, has yet to be written as Paul writes this letter. When Paul says he delivered this gospel according to the Scriptures, he is telling them that the gospel he delivered to them has its source in the Old Testament!
Paul is not alone in his affirmation that the work of Christ was given in the Old Testament.
After Jesus was raised, he told his disciples the same thing:
“He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day’” (Luke 24:44–46; see also John 20:9, Acts 26:23).
The Lord himself testifies that the Old Testament, if properly read, refers again and again—in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms—to the fact that Christ will die and rise again.
On one occasion, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because they were clamoring for a “sign” that would point them to his true identity. Jesus tells them that their request is evil and that they already have a sign, which was given to them in the Prophets:
“He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” (Matt. 12:39–40)
Their very request for a sign illustrates their lack of understanding of the Old Testament.
Another example of this is given in Paul’s address in the synagogue in Antioch. Paul reasons with those who were there that day on the basis of what the Old Testament says about Christ and his work. He tells them, for example, that Psalm 16:10 refers to Christ’s resurrection:
“‘So it is also stated elsewhere: “You will not let your Holy One see decay.” Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.’” (Acts 13:35–37)
Those who knew their Bibles (Old Testament) should have seen that David’s statement that God’s “Holy One” will not see decay could not refer to David. David was dead and his body had decayed. They should have seen that it would refer to a “Holy One” who would die but not suffer the bodily decay of death, so that he would live again!
Christ himself, as well as the apostles, after the resurrection, took their Bibles, which consisted only of the Old Testament, and showed people how the entire Old Testament foretold and looked forward to the work of Christ, which culminates in his resurrection.
The resurrection is more than miraculous. It is the golden thread that wraps around and bundles together the entirety of redemptive history.
Ever since Adam brought death into the world, the plan of God has been to destroy death through life after death.
2. The resurrection shows that only the living can save the dead.
The second reason that Paul gives for the centrality of the resurrection is just as comprehensive as the first reason, though instead of comprehending history, it comprehends the entirety of biblical faith.
1 Corinthians 15:14–15 says:
“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.”
This is a stunning admission.
If Christ’s resurrection did not happen, then preaching, and the faith that follows it, are all in vain. If there is no resurrection, then “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19) because we are basing our entire lives on a futile and meaningless lie.
The stinging consequence of the sin that Adam brought on himself and on all humanity is death. It is a corruption of that which God gave to Adam and Eve when he made them in his image. He breathed into them the breath of life. Sin kills that life (though it does not kill our eternal existence), but God is determined to make life continue. It can only continue if sin is overcome, that is, if death can be defeated.
But how can sin be overcome?
It cannot be overcome by sin, but it has to be overcome by one who is not subject to sin.
If there is someone who is not subject to sin, then sin does not overcome him, even though it continues to reign over those who sin. Sin has to be overcome by one who is sinless and who takes sin’s penalty on himself.
Because of Adam and his progeny, therefore, there must be one who is sinless, and who experiences death, but conquers it by living again, so that life might continue in spite of the death that sin requires.
This is why our faith, which unites us to Christ, is futile, meaningless, and vain if there is no resurrection.
The resurrection of Christ is the only way that faith can be living and not futile faith. The dead cannot save the living. To trust in one who is dead (which is the predicament of virtually every other religion) is to render that trust empty and without hope.
To put it in terms of our first and second reasons, if Christ has not been raised, then all that the Old Testament indicates, all that the New Testament declares, all that we gladly admit and assent to—every single bit of Christian truth—is utterly meaningless and without content. It is, in its essence, dead.
3. The resurrection points to life after death
The third reason why we believe in the resurrection is connected to the other two. Twice in 1 Corinthians 15, in verses 20 and 23, Paul describes Christ’s resurrection as the “firstfruits.”
This term refers to the practice in the Old Testament of bringing the firstfruits as sacrifices to God (Ex. 23:19).
The reason for bringing the firstfruits was not because only the firstfruits belonged to God. Instead, it was a sacrifice that was meant to confess that the entire harvest belongs to God and is of his own making!
Bringing the firstfruits as a sacrifice to God was Israel’s way of saying, “Lord, all that I have belongs to you; not simply these firstfruits, but all that you have given.” The firstfruits were an offering given that declared that the entire harvest was God’s.
The Bible teaches that the resurrection of Christ is the beginning of one single “harvest” event. That event is the resurrection of all who have life in Christ because they have faith in Christ. Faith gives us “a new life” (Rom. 6:4).
In other words, the resurrection of those who are in Christ begins when we are in Christ. It is not something that has to wait until we receive our new bodies on the last day. Our resurrection reaches its climax when we receive those bodies, but our new bodies are the completion of what began when we were, by faith, raised in and by Christ himself.
This is why our faith would be in vain without the resurrection. Our faith inaugurates and establishes our resurrection.
But if Christ has not been raised, then neither can we have a new life. Without the resurrection, sin remains the principle of death in us. It reigns in us. If that is true, then we should “‘eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32).
This last point brings us to consider life after death. In our consideration of the resurrection of Christ, we come to the central reason—and main focus—of why we believe in life after death.
The principle of life is not one that remains in us intrinsically. It is true that since people are made in the image of God, they will continue to exist for eternity. In that sense, never-ending existence is tied to what it means to be in the image of God.
In the Bible, however, the notions of “life” and “death,” while they assume the never-ending existence of each and every person, are much richer concepts than “mere existence.” Since the entrance of sin in the world, the notion of “death” is not tied, in the first place, to the end of our earthly existence. “Death” in the Bible means an existence without fellowship and communion with God. When Adam sinned, he and Eve were driven from the Garden, which was the place where life had been promised (Gen. 3:22). The tree of life was closed off to them, and they began their mortal existence barred from the life that they had been offered.
In Revelation 20:6, John writes of a “second death”:
“Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.”
The ones who “share in the first resurrection” are the ones who are included in the “firstfruits” of Christ’s resurrection. They are the ones who have life. They have life because of the life of Christ in his resurrection.
The resurrection life of Christ is the life that has remained sinless, died, and risen again, and so it is not subject to the effects of sin. Even though Christ was sinless, the resurrection life of Christ is the life that conquered death by dying! The death that conquered death was not a death deserved. It was the only death that was not deserved. Instead, it was a death donned, a death taken, a death accepted, so that those who deserve it would not, in Christ, have to endure it for eternity.
Life, in Scripture, is not merely never-ending existence. It is existence in the One who is life because he sinlessly conquered death. All in him will live for eternity. Those who are found to be against him will be consigned to the “second death,” which is the eternal lake of fire (see Rev. 20:14; 21:8).
Christians believe in life after death because Christ is risen. He is not probably risen or probably alive. If he is probably risen, then our faith is probably in vain.
But he is risen, and because he lives, we will live. The rest, who exist in opposition to him and his life, will exist eternally in the “second death.”
The certainty of the resurrection of Christ gives us the certainty that those in him will live. Any other reasons for believing in Christ’s resurrection, other than those given to us in Scripture, can never establish the bedrock truth that Christ is alive, nor can they give us lasting confidence that because he lives, we will live also.
This post is adapted from Scott Oliphint’s unit on the resurrection in the Know Why You Believe online course. Take a look at the free preview of the course: