Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
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 Peter, and then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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 15:1-8)
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is integral to the gospel. It is a necessary part of the Christian faith. Although this is obvious to many of us, it still needs to be emphasized. This is because there are people who deny the fact of the resurrection but still claim affiliation with the Christian faith. They present themselves as followers of Christ, and even teachers and theologians of the church. Thus we must continue to reaffirm and clarify the gospel, and in doing so we must refute this notion that it is acceptable to deny the resurrection, and spell out the implication of this denial.
First, Paul writes, Christ died according to the Scriptures. This is a most significant point. Long before it happened, God testified by the prophets that the Christ would suffer and die by the hands of wicked men, and Jesus repeatedly told his disciples this during his earthly ministry. We could have known about the death of Christ entirely apart from eyewitnesses, since nothing could have rendered the event more certain than the inspired words of the prophets. Even if the Bible says nothing about his actual death, we would know that it must have happened. The prophets predicted it, and in the Gospels Jesus said it would happen to him.
Nevertheless, the Bible also testifies about his actual death, and there were many eyewitnesses. Now, the eyewitnesses in themselves provide a far inferior testimony than the Holy Spirit’s infallible testimony. Our certainty, therefore, does not rest on the idea that there were eyewitnesses, but in the Bible’s record about these eyewitnesses and what they saw. The distinction is crucial because it is only when we put it this way that our attention never departs from the perfection and truthfulness of God, and our faith never rests on anything less than the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When it comes to the things of God, or infallible knowledge about any event, if man witnesses anything at all, it is not man’s witness that verifies God’s testimony, but God’s testimony that verifies man’s witness.
We would have known about the death of Christ apart from his burial, but mention of his burial draws attention to the historical nature of his death. It renders the Bible’s testimony even less subject to misinterpretation. His death was not something metaphorical or imaginary, nor was it meant to be understood that way. It was a physical death. His body expired, and he was handled and examined, embalmed, and buried in a tomb. This sets the stage for his resurrection, since in order for his resurrection to be what the Bible says it is, his death must be what the Bible says it is.
Jesus Christ was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Again, he repeatedly told his disciples about this before it happened. The prophets predicted that the Christ would be raised, and Jesus confirmed that the prophets were talking about him. Thus even apart from his post-resurrection appearances, we could be certain that he was raised from the dead, and that he is alive today. Our confidence rests not on man’s witness as such, but on God’s testimony and his assurance that man’s witness about the resurrection is true.
And he indeed appeared to many men and women at different places and on different occasions. They handled him, walked with him, and talked with him. He took a piece of bread and broke it apart. He even cooked and ate with them. Thus the resurrection was not something metaphorical or imaginary. He was not raised as a phantom, but he was raised with a body that was physical, even though it was enhanced with heavenly features and abilities. He appeared to specific people that Paul could name: Peter, the Twelve, James, and himself. Once he appeared to five hundred people at the same time, most of whom were still living when this letter was written, so that the Corinthians could even interview them if they wished.
The resurrection of Christ is a definite and unambiguous doctrine that leaves no room for distortion or figurative interpretation. Paul writes, “This is what we preach, and this is what you believed,” and “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” The Corinthians were counted as Christians because they believed this message. If they had rejected it, or if they had failed to hold on to it, then they had “believed in vain,” and they would not have possessed the benefit associated with the gospel. That is, they would not have received salvation.
The Christian message demands its hearers to take a stand for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not in some ambiguous or metaphorical sense, but as actual events in history. The Christian faith is not first to be taken as a message for ethical reformation or social progress, but the ethical is founded on the historical – creation, fall, and redemption. Nevertheless, contrary to some who are eager to preserve this historical aspect of the faith, it is a mistake to think that the ultimate foundation of the Christian faith is historical. It is not, because the historical itself is founded on God’s eternal existence and decree. In any case, it is futile to merely imitate the ethical aspect of Christianity. There is no salvation in this. The basis of the Christian faith is the eternal, which effected the historical, and which is the foundation for the ethical and social. There is salvation only in this understanding of the gospel.