You probably heard on the news a couple of weeks ago that Stephen Hawking died. Hawking was a renowned physicist and probably the best-known atheist in the world. He lived for decades with Lou Gehrig’s disease. In an interview he gave in 2011, he said that he “wasn’t afraid of death,” but he was in no hurry to die.
He went on to say in that interview, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
How do we respond to something like that? Is it possible that our belief in eternal life is merely a fairy tale? Could it be that we have invented a story about everlasting paradise simply because we’re afraid of the darkness of annihilation?
Now, of course, when Stephen Hawking made that statement, he was still alive, and so he didn’t know for sure whether heaven and eternal life really exist. Although, I think it’s safe to say that he knows now.
But Hawking did not come to his conclusions regarding heaven or everlasting life through observation, experience, or anything resembling the scientific method. He didn’t run any experiments to demonstrate that humans have no eternal soul. Nor did he derive a mathematical equation that somehow eliminated God.
But, of course, the same thing could be said of Christians. We have not come to our conclusions about heaven and eternal life through the scientific method. We can’t prove that heaven exists by running an experiment. We can’t prove that there is life after this life through a mathematical equation. The truth is, science is incapable of answering questions like, “What happens after we die?” And so, it might seem that we don’t have any more definitive answers to that question than Stephen Hawking did.
But there is one thing that gives us a definitive answer, and it’s the thing that millions of people around the world are celebrating today – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:12, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
Paul’s argument is basically this – if God has the ability to raise one person from the dead, then he has the ability to raise others from the dead. Which is why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so very important. There is nothing in this world that gives us as much hope as the empty tomb does.
Which is why Paul says earlier in chapter 15 that the most important thing he preached about was that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (I Corinthians 15:3-4).
The fact that Jesus died on the cross is important, but it wasn’t just the crucifixion. Over the years, there have been many people who have died by crucifixion. For example, in the sixth century BC, the Persian king Darius cruci¬fied 3,000 Babylonians. Thirty years after Jesus hung on a cross, the Romans crucified 3,600 Jews. And there probably would have been more but they ran out of wood for the crosses.
It is not merely the fact that Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross that makes people look to him for salvation. It is the fact that three days later, his tomb was empty. Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
A few days ago, I texted Tom my sermon topic and I said I’d be preaching on the resurrection. I added, “no surprise there”. Tom’s reply, though was, “It was a surprise just over 2000 years ago.” And he’s right. It was a surprise. But it shouldn’t have been.
Because during his earthly ministry, Jesus repeatedly said that he was going to be raised from the dead. In Matthew 16:21, “From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.” Even his enemies told Pilate, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’'” (Matthew 27:63).
Furthermore, Jesus said that his resurrection would be the single greatest sign to mankind about who he truly was. If it had not been for the resurrection, the ministry of Jesus would have ended, his claims would have been ignored, he would have been merely anoth¬er religious martyr, and he probably would have been forgotten long ago.
So there’s no way for us to over-emphasize the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are a lot of things that we can disagree about, but that one doctrine is central to the Christian faith. In the first part of I Corinthians 15, Paul goes over some of the evidences for the resurrection not so much to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead, but as a reminder to the Corinthians, because as he says in verse 11, “So we preach and so you be¬lieved.”
The truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ then forms the basis of Paul’s argument throughout the rest of this chapter. And his primary point is this — because Jesus was raised from the dead, it’s also possible for us to be raised from the dead as well.
Now it may seem strange to us that some of those Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus, but they weren’t so sure that they were going to be resurrected someday. No doubt, they had been influenced by the philosophies of their day, because just like today, people of their day had a lot of opinions about what happens to us after death.
There were the materialists who, like Stephen Hawking, believed in utter extinc¬tion, total annihilation. Nothing human, physical or otherwise, survives after death. Death ends it all.
And then there were others who taught reincarnation, where the soul or spirit is continually recycled from one form to another — even from human to animal or animal to human.
In addition to this, there was a lot of Greek philosophy that was based on the idea that everything spiritual is good and everything physical is bad. That was the view of the Gnostics. To anyone holding that view, the idea of a resurrected body was a repulsive idea. For them, the very reason of going to the afterlife was to escape this body.
And so, they believed in the immortality of the soul but they were strongly opposed to the idea of a resurrection of the body. Paul preached at Athens “and when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.” (Acts 17:32).
And it’s possible that there were even some Jewish Christians in Corinth who doubted the resurrection. Despite the fact that the resurrection is taught in the Old Testament, some of the Jews, such as the Sadducees, didn’t believe in it.
But Jesus was clear. In John 6:44, he said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” When Lazarus died, Jesus said to his sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25).
The foundation of the teaching of the apostles was that Christ rose from the dead and that all who believe in him will also be raised one day. When Peter and John preached in Jerusalem, “they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” (Acts 4:12).
And yet, despite the fact that the resurrection is taught in the Old Testament, and it was taught by Jesus and his apostles, some of the Christians in Corinth were having some doubts. And that’s why Paul deals with this subject in I Corinthians 15.
Now, as I’ve already pointed out, his first argument is simple and logical: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (I Cor. 15:12). The Christians in Corinth believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. So how could they say that it’s impossible for us to be resurrected? If Christ has been raised from the dead, then obviously resurrection is possible.
And to this, the Corinthians would have said, “Yes, we agree that Jesus was raised from the dead; we just don’t think the rest of us will be.” To which Paul said very bluntly, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” (I Cor. 15:13).
Paul wants them to see the implications of what they’re saying. If it’s impossible for the dead to be raised, then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. If you take away God’s power to raise the dead, then Jesus is still in the grave.
But, of course, the resurrection of Christ is very much a reality. Peter quoted David and said, “he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:31-32).
In his vision to John on the island of Patmos, Christ declared, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore.” (Revelation 1:17-18).
“If Christ Has Not Been Raised…”
In I Corinthians 15, Paul says if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then there are six terrible things that would be true. Notice with me the six things that he mentions:
(1) Verse 14: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain.”
If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then I’m wasting my time up here. Our preaching of the gospel would be completely meaningless. Because as Paul has already said, the very heart of the gospel is Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.
(2) Verse 14: “If Christ has not been raised, then…your faith is in vain.”
If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then you’re wasting your time trying to follow Jesus. Faith in a gospel that doesn’t include the resurrection would be of no value. A dead savior can’t give life.
If there is no resurrection, the list of the great men and women of faith in Hebrews 11 would instead be a list of foolish people. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, David, the prophets, and all the others would have put their faith in God for nothing. They would have been mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, afflicted, and put to death completely in vain. In fact, all believers throughout all the ages would have believed for nothing, lived for nothing and died for nothing.
(3) Verse 15: “If Christ has not been raised, then we’re liars.” “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.”
If there’s no such thing as resurrection of the dead, then every person who ever claimed to have witnessed the risen Christ and every person who has preached the risen Christ is a liar, including Paul and all the other apostles.
(4) Verse 17: “If Christ is not risen, …you are still in your sins!” (I Cor. 15:17)
“The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23). If Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, then he doesn’t have the power to free us from the grip of death, and that means that death wins. And so there can be no forgiveness of sin or salvation or reconciliation or eternal life.
(5) Verse 18: “If Christ is not risen, “then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” (I Cor. 15:18).
“Fallen asleep” is a euphemism for death. If there is no resurrection from the dead, then every follower of Jesus Christ who has died has forever perished. Paul himself, all of the other apostles, and every Christian who has ever lived will spend an eternity apart from God and without hope, if there is no resurrection.
(6) Verse 19: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Cor. 15:19).
Sometimes you’ll hear Christians try to convince non-Christians by saying, “Even if all of this stuff isn’t true, you’ll still live a better life as a Christian than you do right now.” No! Paul says without the resurrection, Christiani¬ty would be pointless and people ought to pity us. Because without the resurrection, we are living our life under a delusion. We would have no Savior, no forgiveness, no meaningful faith, no life, and no hope of any of those things. And we have wasted our entire life believing in a “fairy story”.
So, Paul says, if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, then all of these negative things are true. But, what I want to do this morning is to flip it around. Because we know that Jesus was raised from the dead. And, as a result, instead of a bunch of negative consequences, there are some very positive consequences. For starters….
(1) Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we are forgiven of our sins.
Paul said in verse 17 that if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins. But, the flip side of that is that because Jesus was raised from dead, we know that we are forgiven of our sins.
And there’s nothing more important to us than that because if God holds our sins against us — and we’ve all have sinned! — then there is no hope of anything else from God. The foundation for every other blessing from God is that God won’t hold our sins against us. Everything else hangs on forgiveness.
But, how is the resurrection connected to our forgiveness? Isn’t it the death of Jesus that takes away our sin, because Jesus bore our sins on the cross and he paid the price that we should have paid? Yes.
But the connection with the resurrection is very important. Romans 4:25 puts it like this – “[Jesus] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Let me put it another way – Jesus died to take away our sins, but he rose from the dead to give us new life.
Baptism is a symbol of our death to sin and being raised to walk in newness of life. But it wouldn’t do much good if we buried someone in water so they could obtain forgiveness of sins, and then we didn’t raise them back up. What good is forgiveness of sins if you don’t have new life to go along with it?
Everybody in this room needs forgiveness, and deep down inside, even when we don’t think about it, we long for it. We long to be accepted by God. We feel the burden of our guilt. But Paul says, because Christ rose from the dead, when we connect with him through baptism, we are no longer in our sins.
(2) Because Jesus was raised from the dead, our faith is well-founded.
In verse 14, instead of saying of saying negatively that that our faith is not in vain, we can say positively that because of the resurrection, our faith is well-founded. Or, to put it more personally, because of the resurrection of Jesus, there is someone we can trust completely.
I believe that deep in the heart of every person is a longing for someone that you can count on through thick and thin. Someone who is absolutely trustworthy. Someone who, if you put your faith in him, it won’t be in vain. He won’t let you down. He will always be there.
And now that we are no longer in our sins, this longing too is satisfied by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus proves his love for us, and his resurrection proves his power over every enemy of life. And so, there is someone you can count on. Someone absolutely trustworthy. Someone who will never let you down. “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20).
(3) Because Jesus was raised from the dead, what the apostles preach is true.
From verse 15, instead of saying negatively that the apostles are not false witnesses about the work of God, we can say positively that because of the resurrection, the apostles preach what is true.
Our young people are being taught (and many of us were taught) that there is no absolute truth. And without the conviction that there are absolutes that can be shared and made the basis for society, the only result will be a world where everyone does what is right in his own eyes.
So, there is a need for truth that is a deep need of the human soul and human society. And Jesus came into this world to say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). And then he rose from the dead to prove it. Jesus has a right to tell us what is absolutely true because in the resurrection God proved him to be absolutely true.
(4) Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we are to be envied
From verse 19, instead of saying negatively that we are not to be pitied, we can say positively that because of the resurrection we are to be envied. Our preaching is not in vain — it is meaningful, valuable, significant.
If Christ is not raised, then living for him, doing what he says, following his will is a great delusion. We should be pitied like insane people who live with hallucinations. But since he has been raised and is alive and reigns as king forever, our obedience, our love, our self-denial is not just not-to-be-pitied, but is positively enviable.
There is within every one of us a longing, a desire that our lives be well spent — that our lives count for something, that they have significance and usefulness, that we don’t come to the end of our days and say, it was all in vain, pointless, insignificant.
Paul knows this. That’s why he ends this whole chapter on the resurrection with the words: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:58)
That’s the longing of our lives. Let me not come to my grave and say, as so many do, “I’ve wasted my life!” It doesn’t have to be that way. Christ is risen from the dead and everything done in his name — by his strength and for his glory — is not in vain. It is to be envied. Because it is significant, valuable, eternal.
(5) Because Jesus was raised from the dead, those who have died in Christ are alive
There is a longing in our hearts that we will live forever in joy. That we not come to an empty end after a full and valuable life. That we not cease to exist. And so Paul says in verse 18 that because Christ is raised those who have fallen asleep in him — those who have died in faith — have not perished. Or to put it in positive terms, they are alive. They will live forever. They will spend eternity in the presence of their Savior.
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (I Corinthians 15:20).
Paul calls Jesus the first-fruits of the dead. In the Old Testament, before the Israelites harvested their crops, they were to bring a representative sample, called the first fruits, to the priests as an offering to the Lord. The full harvest could not be made until the first fruits were offered.
That’s the image that Paul uses here. The fact that Jesus is the first fruits indicates that the rest of the crop is going to be harvested. His resurrection implies that there is more to follow.
There’s a story that’s told in Brazil about a missionary who discovered a tribe of Indians in a remote part of the jungle. They lived near a large river. The tribe was friendly and was in need of medical attention. A contagious disease was ravaging the population and people were dying daily. An infirmary was located in another part of the jungle and the missionary determined that the only hope for this tribe was for them to go to the hospital for treatment and inoculations. In order to reach the hospital, however, the Indians would have to cross the river — something they were unwilling to do.
They believed that the river was inhabited by evil spirits. To enter the water meant certain death. If you were that missionary, how would you go about the difficult task of overcoming the fear of that tribe?
As the story goes, the missionary began by explaining how he had crossed the river and arrived unharmed. No luck. He led the people to the bank and placed his hand in the water. The people still wouldn’t believe him. He walked out into the river and splashed water on his face. The people watched closely, but still were hesitant. Finally, the missionary turned and dove into the water. He swam beneath the surface until he emerged on the other side.
Having proven that the power of the river was a farce, the missionary raised a triumphant fist in the air. He had entered the water and come out safely on the other side. The Indians broke into cheers and followed him across.
Jesus came into this world and he found a people enslaved by a fear of death (Heb. 2:15). He could have explained that the river of death was nothing to fear, but we wouldn’t have believed him. He touched a boy and called him back to life, but his followers were still unconvinced. He brought life into the dead body of a girl, but the people were still cynical. He even let a dead man spend four days in a grave and then called him out. But that still wasn’t enough.
And so, it was necessary for Jesus himself to enter the river, to submerge himself in the waters of death only to emerge three days later on the other side. Because of that, we can be certain that death has been conquered, that Jesus has “destroyed him who had the power of death.” (Hebrews 2:14).
It is essential that we have confidence in regard to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because without the resurrec¬tion, there would be no Christianity. And Stephen Hawking would be right – “There is no heaven or afterlife…that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
But, because Jesus rose from the dead some 2,000 years ago, we have life and we have hope for the future. Something better lies ahead for all of us. If we have been raised with Christ in baptism, we are confident that we shall be raised with him for all eternity.