Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
In the name of Jesus, amen.
If you have spent as much time in the bowels of religious internet discussion pages as I have (a fact about which I am not proud), you will have often come across members of the New Atheist set— those disciples of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others— who claim that Jesus Christ never existed. They’ll often parrot the former president of the American Atheists, Jon Murray, in saying things like, “There was no such person in the history of the world as Jesus Christ. There was no historical, living, breathing, sentient human by that name. Ever.” Or they’ll say that the New Testament writers made Jesus up out of whole cloth and hoodwinked the whole world for 2000 years.
Others of them claim that Christ is an amalgam of old pagan gods who supposedly died and rose again, like Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, and Horus, but the stories that apply a dying and rising quality to these gods often postdate Christ (in the case of Horus, they were totally made up by an archaeologist). At least one New Atheist claim (coming from a software engineer in Britain) makes Jesus out as a hoax perpetrated by, of all people, the Romans in order to keep the Jews compliant. (I have not yet seen anyone put forward the claim by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, John Allegro, that Jesus was actually a psychedelic mushroom— I am not making this up; it ruined his career.) Furthermore, these people who think that Christ is a myth argue that the Bible cannot be a viable source of truth about who Jesus is because it talks about him as the Son of God. Surely, they say, such a thing is impossible. And so they try to cast doubt on the claims of Christians about Jesus, even though very few serious scholars of the New Testament, regardless of whether or not they are believers, actually take these claims that Jesus never existed seriously.
But the New Atheists aren’t the first to question the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The last two centuries saw a concerted hunt for the “historical” Jesus, which continues to this day. Prominent theologians and historians, including the famous theologian, physician, and organist, Albert Schweitzer, sought to uncover the “real” Jesus divorced from the shackles of Scripture and theological frameworks. All came to the conclusion that the picture of Jesus put forward in Scripture couldn’t possibly describe the real man, that for whatever reason Jesus could not possibly have done what the Gospel writers and apostles say he did. They argued that Jesus must have been a prophet or a mystic or a rabbi or a rabble-rouser (or all four at once!), but that he couldn’t have possibly been the Son of God. In the case of Schweitzer, he came to believe that Jesus was mistaken about himself, and that he died a failed prophet. But those hunting for the historical Jesus, whatever that means, discounted what Scripture says about him in order to create a portrait of a man who, to them, seems “likely” to have been real. The “historical” Jesus, they argue, didn’t rise from the dead. To them, such a thing is not historically possible or probable. The “real” Jesus, they say, was just a man who died on a cross. End of story.
Paul, writing to the Corinthians in our epistle reading this morning, would have recognized these arguments against Christ. It seems that similar arguments were already current in Corinth and were threatening the faith of the congregation there. Corinth, a port city, was home to numerous Greek cults and philosophies that were antithetical to Paul’s preaching of the Gospel— that Christ had died and risen from the dead as the first of a general resurrection. The Greek and Roman pagans, by and large, did not believe in any such resurrection. For them, you died and went to the underworld, and maybe if you were really good, you got to live in the upscale part of it. People didn’t just “come back,” and if they did, it was only in the myths and under exceptional circumstances, usually when Hercules hauled you out of the underworld to complete a quest. And the Epicureans, one of the philosophical groups present in the city, taught that death was nothingness and that life’s chief aim was to achieve freedom from pain. These groups denied the reality of the resurrection, and it seems that their teachings had made their way into the congregation at Corinth and some folks believed them. Paul had to impress upon the Corinthian flock the implications of not believing that Christ’s resurrection had occurred and that the resurrection of all people was coming. Denial of this central tenet of the Gospel had very real consequences. We heard Paul lay out the argument earlier:
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? 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[a] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 1:12-19)
Paul precedes all this with a catalogue of witnesses who saw the risen Christ and who attest to the truth of “the gospel…which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2), namely 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” (verses 3-4). These include Simon Peter, the whole host of the apostles, nearly 500 other disciples, James the Greater (Jesus’ half-brother who headed the church in Jerusalem), and finally, Paul himself. Yet even with all these corroborating witnesses, some members of the church at Corinth denied that the resurrection had happened, or could even happen. Was it merely a denial that God could raise the dead if he wanted to? A rejection of miracles? Perhaps they had come to hold a belief that was current just across the sea in Ephesus at the time: that the resurrection was merely spiritual and that there would be no physical one.
Either way, the implications of a rejecting of the resurrection are clear. Paul says that if the dead cannot be raised— if it is not part of God’s plan as some of these people in Corinth asserted— then Christ cannot have been raised from the dead. And if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then Paul, the apostles, and all those who preach that Christ has been raised from the dead are liars, making God out to be a liar, too. And if that is the case, then one’s faith in Christ is futile because Christ didn’t die and rise to save all people from their sins. If there is no resurrection, then death is still death, this life is all there is, and Christians are a sad and sorry lot who have been living a certain way based on a falsehood. They have been denying themselves and struggling with the world’s enticements when they could have been eating and drinking and being merry with abandon because “tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). And, regardless of the reality of the resurrection, for Paul, acting as if the resurrection is nothing becomes, for the individual, tantamount to making it untrue for oneself. If you reject the resurrection and believe that Christ had died in vain, then his death is in vain— for you.
If you deny Christ’s resurrection and live as if it has not happened, then for you, this life really becomes all there is, and if you live as if this is it, then the meaning of Christian life is lost. You become a nihilist. And when you become a nihilist, you find, as Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power, “that the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; [the question] “why?” finds no answer.” For if God did not send his Son to die for you so that you might be reconciled unto him and saved from your sins, then what is the point? For you, there is no escape from sin and death, no salvation. For the nihilist, God becomes essentially unimportant— “dead,” if you will— because he no longer gives meaning to your existence, and you are faced with the task of becoming your own savior and your own god. You must, following Nietzsche, impose your own meaning and will on the universe in order to give it sense. But this is a terrible burden, because how can the human intellect make total sense of what goes on in this fallen, sinful world? David Foster Wallace, the author of the cult classic, Infinite Jest, held that, in a world ruled by nihilism where God is essentially treated as dead, one had to find positive value even in the most evil circumstances and actions. But there is a limit to all human understanding, and eventually, the burden of trying to ascribe positive meaning to the horrors and terrors of sin and death becomes too great, and you are left to fall into despair.
Most people in the western world today, it seems, are already functional nihilists. We give lip service to the resurrection, but we act as if it is not part of our reality. We live as if we will die tomorrow, and we seem to have convinced ourselves, on some level, that this life is all there is; that we can only live our “best life now;” that once death comes, that’s it. And so we distract ourselves with material goods and pleasures, trying to mask or drown our fear with hedonism. We buy things to make ourselves feel better (I know I sometimes do). We seek happiness in creation rather than in the Creator, and we do this to our peril. When we act as if Christ’s resurrection didn’t occur and that the resurrection of all flesh isn’t coming, we make idols of ourselves and our possessions and we ignore God, making him into a placeholder for whatever we want him to be. When we live this way, we may find ourselves indulging our sinful desires rather than fighting them, even calling sin a good thing. We may even find ourselves rejecting Christ outright. And should we die thinking such, we will be dead in our sins. At that point, we will truly know despair.
But Paul provides good news in the face the despair that comes from nihilistic hedonism. The resurrection happened. It is a historical fact. Paul says, contrary to those who believe that “we have hope in this life only,” that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The Christian doesn’t place his or her trust in some myth that happened in a far-off dream-time, buried somewhere in a distant, primordial past beyond reckoning. Christ came into the world, died, and rose again all within a real frame of time in a real place: in the city of Jerusalem in the province of Judaea during (depending on our modern dating) the 16th or 19th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, likely in the month of March. And people saw him! The Corinthian doubters who argued against the resurrection could go to any of the over 500 witnesses of the resurrected Christ and hear from them, first-hand, about the One who saved them from their sins. And since Christ was indeed raised from the dead, then the coming resurrection of all the dead is itself a fact. If the Corinthian doubters needed more validation for Christ’s work, they could see that the words of the prophets spoke to what Christ had done. Christ did what God had promised he would do. It really happened. The apostles devoted their lives to it. Only one of them, John, died of old age— the rest were martyred for their belief in the risen Christ. They would not have given their lives had things been otherwise. They knew that Jesus had defeated sin, death, and the devil. He saved the world from sin. He did not die in vain.
Because Christ rose from the dead, the doubters in Corinth had no reason to think that this life was “it.” They did not have to numb themselves to the pain of a sinful world by adopting lives of hedonism or attempting to make themselves the masters of a senseless and violent universe. They could take hope in an objective reality that God took on human flesh and died and rose for them. Their faith was not in some unknowable event— Christ had really done it. Their faith in him was not futile.
Despite the claims of those who argue that our faith is futile— the New Atheists, those who argue against Jesus’ being the Christ, those who argue that the physical resurrection is not a reality— we can point to the fact that our faith is in the One who did indeed die and rise again, even though we ourselves were not physically there to witness it. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We weren’t there, but we still have the testimony of those who did see and know him, and even if we did not have their testimony, it still would not change the objective fact that Jesus did what God said he would do. Our faith is not in the testimony, but rather in the One who gives it validity. With the children we sing, “Jesus loves me, / This I know, / For the Bible / Tells me so.” And this is true. But just as the promise of the resurrection doesn’t mean much without the reality of Christ having died and risen, so it is with the testimony of Scripture. Scripture is true because Jesus died and rose again. The Bible tells us of the love of Christ because he did indeed (and does) love us so much that he took our sins upon himself and buried them in his own death on the cross. Our faith is in the fact that he did it.
So when you find yourself feeling like there is only hope in this life; when you are living only for today and are indulging your senses because you think it will make you happy or give your life some kind of meaning that is otherwise lacking; when you feel despair because you cannot make sense of things or because your sins seem to be the defining feature of your life and you cannot or will not be saved, do not give up hope! Christ, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, died and rose again for you, so that you might live with him. It really happened, and by virtue of your baptism, you have a share in the resurrection promise. Trust in it! This life is not the only one. His death and resurrection give us a reason to live and to hope for tomorrow, because in him we have a tomorrow. He has forgiven our sins and given us life. Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, and because of him, we can gladly say with Hosea and St. Paul: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57). Amen!