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“For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: 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 Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

This short passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians offers one of the most concise summaries of the Gospel: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures.

The language suggests this was a creedal statement already familiar in the early church, which Paul received and passed along to the Corinthians, calling it most important. The Apostle then launched into an extensive defense and explanation of the Resurrection.

Why? Because the Gospel is the central truth of the Christian faith, and the truth of the Gospel stands on the reality of the Resurrection. Then as now, the Resurrection has implications believers don’t always consider, but which offer powerful support for our faith.

A real event in history

In Paul’s time as in ours, the historicity of the Resurrection has been challenged, not only by skeptics but also by professing believers within the church. Hence Paul’s first order of business was to show that the Resurrection of Jesus was a real event in history. He appeals to the vast array of eyewitnesses to whom Jesus appeared after he rose: individuals and groups in a variety of settings, including a group of over 500 brothers and sisters in Christ, most of whom were still alive at the time of writing.

This is a most powerful form of historical evidence – a large and diverse group of living witnesses who can corroborate and verify that an event took place. It won’t do to argue that they were experiencing a shared delusion based on wishful thinking. Human psychology doesn’t work that way. If hundreds of people came forward, claiming to have shared an experience 25 or 30 years ago, the last thing anyone would think is that they were all imagining it – especially if it was something none of them had expected.

When Jesus died, his followers thought it was done. The disciples scattered in fear and the women went to prepare his body for burial. Three days later, they encountered the risen Lord and were transformed. They went out proclaiming that Jesus was alive, that salvation was available through him, and they turned the world upside down with their message, suffering imprisonment and death for their efforts. Again, it won’t do to argue that they stole the body and made the story up. People may be willing to suffer and die for a mistaken belief, but not for one they know to be false.

Nearly all belief systems, ancient and modern, are based on philosophical ideas, ethical teachings, or timeless myths outside of history. Christianity is unique in that it rests on verifiable historical events: the state execution of a 1st-century Jew named Jesus of Nazareth under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, and Jesus’ Resurrection three days later.

Essential to the Gospel

More than just an actual historical event, the Resurrection of Jesus is essential to the Gospel for several reasons. First, it demonstrates that Jesus was who he said he was. During his time on earth, Jesus made some staggering claims: He was the eternal Son of God, equal with the Father and sharing his divine name, I AM. Together with the Father, he enjoyed a glorious, loving relationship before the creation of the universe. All authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him. Faith in him is the only way to God. At the end of time, he would return to judge every person who has ever lived. Jesus also predicted his own death and that he would rise from the dead after three days. All these claims would’ve tumbled like dominos if he’d stayed dead. But he didn’t.

Second, Jesus’ Resurrection is proof that the sin of humanity has been atoned for. In his own words, Jesus’ mission was to save the world and to give his life as a ransom for many. If he had remained in the grave, there would be no assurance that he had succeeded in that mission. By raising him from the dead, God declared that his Son’s sacrifice was accepted, the debt for sin paid in full and the doors of grace opened wide. As a result, Jesus’ followers could spread the good news of forgiveness through his name because he had been raised from the dead.

Third, the Resurrection offers conclusive evidence, for the first time in history, that death is not the end. Since the beginning of time, people have created various visions of an afterlife, intuiting that there surely must be something more on the other side of death. By rising from the dead, Jesus assured the world that eternal life after death is not only possible, but certain for those who trust in him.

Essential to our faith

All evidence aside, there have always been critics of the Resurrection, even among professing believers. They claim it never actually happened but was merely spiritual or symbolic in nature. Jesus’s death wasn’t an atoning sacrifice for sin, they argue, but rather an example for sufferers facing oppression. His Resurrection wasn’t literal or physical, but only a metaphor of hope for humanity. Even if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, they suggest, Christianity still offers a good way to live one’s life.

Paul’s argument against these types of assertions is blunt and devastating. If the Resurrection never happened, then the Christian faith is a meaningless waste of time. More than that, it’s a lie, because it makes claims about God that aren’t true. If Jesus never rose, then neither will we, and we’re still dead in our sins. Our sisters and brothers in Christ, our loved ones who died in faith, all of them are just dead and buried and we’ll never see them again. The pagan philosophers were right: let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die, and there’s nothing beyond. If we only have hope in Christ this side of the grave, then we’re the most pitiful people in the world, giving up its pleasures for a future that will never come.

But Jesus did rise, as the Apostle asserts, and this bedrock truth was the centrepiece of apostolic preaching throughout the New Testament. Whether addressing pious Jews in the synagogue or pagan intellectuals at the Areopagus, Paul (like the other apostles) always grounded his Gospel message on the historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Far from being negotiable and open to interpretation, the Resurrection is essential to our faith.

What Paul stated bluntly to the Corinthians, C.S. Lewis echoed centuries later: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

Hope for now and forever

Unlike the insubstantial hope supposedly provided by a symbolic resurrection, Jesus’ physical Resurrection offers real hope for real people, now and forever. Since Jesus rose from the dead, we know for certain that God accepted his atoning sacrifice on our behalf and the punishment for our sins – past, present and future – has been borne in full by him. We have been freed from sin’s penalty, are being freed from its power, and will one day be freed from its presence.

Because of Jesus’ Resurrection, we need no longer fear death as the dread, inevitable end of all things. Instead, it has become for us a portal, a doorway beyond which lies unimaginable beauty and joy with our Maker. Because he rose, we will rise also. This is an invaluable encouragement, especially during those times when we face our own mortality. We can see beyond, where there’ll be no more pain, suffering or death. As Paul puts it, death is the final enemy that will be defeated.

Our resurrected bodies won’t just be enhanced versions of our present ones, a sort of humanity 2.0. They’ll be off the charts, an entirely different order of being. The Apostle points to some mindboggling analogies: We’ll be as different as fully grown plants are from their seeds, as humans are from fish and birds, as galactic superclusters are from dwarf stars. And yet we will still be us, delighting with our glorified brothers and sisters in the presence of our glorious God and enjoying him forever.

Most of all, by virtue of his Resurrection, Jesus has risen to the place of ultimate authority at his Father’s side, from where he intercedes for us and maintains the cosmos by the word of his power. He is making all things new, and one day all things will be subject to him. In the New Creation, he will rule forever as our righteous, kind and loving brother and Lord.

Jesus’ Resurrection assures his followers that our faith is built on verifiable historical reality, not on myth or wishful thinking. It offers us joy and hope – no matter our circumstances – at present and for all eternity.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

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