The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is arguably the most significant event in human history. Of course, Christ’s resurrection is intrinsically interwoven with His birth, life, and death—but the absolute test of whether or not Christ’s teachings are valid and defensible is His resurrection. If Christ had not resurrected from the dead, His life and teachings would be absent the final stamp of validity; indeed, all would be lost—the premise of Christianity would be eroded and the entire Gospel would crumble faster than a sandcastle when the tide comes in.
The Christian faith rises or falls with the resurrection: if Christ rose from the dead, we have everything, but if He did not, we have absolutely nothing. The whole of Christianity is hinged upon the literal, bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus as an actual event in history. This inescapable conclusion is the thesis of the Apostle Paul’s dissertation on the resurrection which he gave to the Corinthians: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” (1Co 15:14).
Those who call themselves Christians and yet deny the bodily resurrection our Lord espouse an absurdity; Christ clearly foretold His resurrection, utterances which His disciples admit they did not understand until after He was raised, and to account His resurrection as allegorical is to render powerless the Gospel and erode the entire tenets of Scripture. A New Testament without the resurrection would place it alongside Aesop’s Fables or Gandhi’s writings—or perhaps lower, for its account would be of someone who was deluded about himself and who intentionally duped others. Such an account would not be moralistic literature, but crass and dishonorable, which Paul confirmed when he flatly states that if Christ were not raised, “we are found false witnesses of God.” (1 Co 15:15).
An essential aspect of Christ’s resurrection, aside from its very underpinning of the Christian faith, is the hope it gives in the face of death. Have you ever heard the agonized soul cry of someone who grieved without hope over a departed loved one? I have, and it is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life. Our Western society has trimmings which soften and mollify the cruel reality of death, but in many cultures, death comes with a starkness that leaves mourners empty, utterly hopeless, and often senseless with grief. Those who labor among peoples who are unreached with the Gospel testify that about the most painful and agonizing part of their entire work is witnessing the wailing and hopelessness that accompanies burying the dead.
In Bruchko, Bruce Olson tells of such an encounter while living and working with the murderous Motilone tribe in South America. A Motilone had been bitten by a poisonous snake and had died. Bruce came upon a scene of desperation and despair. The dead man’s brother had dug a deep hole in the jungle floor, and with disheveled hair and wild eyes, was calling into the hole, “God, God, come out of the hole.” He believed his brother was lost and without hope, and was trying to intercede and find God for him. Motilones never cried or even whimpered under the greatest pain, but this man was beside himself, uttering excruciating yells and cries. He had been shouting into the hole since sunrise, and came up to Bruce with eyes empty as night, exclaiming, “It’s no use. We have been deceived.” That moment was a turning point in Bruce’s ministry, and using that experience, he presented the Gospel to the Motilones in a way they could comprehend.
The reality of death without hope is also poignantly illustrated in the story of the Mouk tribe of Papua New Guinea. The typical Mouk response to the Gospel was extraordinary and singularly impressive: at the time a village comprehended the Gospel, nearly the entire populace spontaneously erupted in joy and with exuberant celebration, often lasting for hours. The Mouk of one such village, after an initial display of joy, suddenly began weeping and mourning; when asked by the perplexed missionary of the reason, they gave their stirring reply. They were weeping for all their ancestors and loved ones who had died without knowledge of the Gospel. They were weeping because the Gospel had come too late—generations too late.
And I wept, too, as the heart-wrenching reality of eternity without Christ sank deep into my being. Lost, doomed, dammed. Without hope, and forever gone. In the story, the Mouk rejoiced again after a period of grieving. But I could not rejoice so soon, and my heart still grieves for the Mouk and countless other people groups who lived and died—and who to this day live and die—without knowledge of Christ.
This pointed grief is precisely what Paul referenced in his case for the resurrection: if Christ were not raised, then we are yet in our sins, those who died are perished, and “we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Co 15:17-19). To the Thessalonians, he explained that because of the resurrection, we Christians do not grieve for those we died in Christ “as others which have no hope.” (1 Thess 4:13).
No wonder that Paul, after outlining the litany of hopelessness had not Christ resurrected, interjects with triumph, “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.” (1Co 15:20). Since Christ has arisen, the dread power of death is destroyed. The resurrection is a coup d’état on the grandest scale; when Jesus’ body was restored from the grave, the inexorable grip of the enemy was shattered. What this portends for man is staggering: the universal fear of death is broken, and the gaping grave is no longer victorious. Because Christ arose, we who believe in Him shall also. He is the firstfruits; the full resurrection harvest of the righteous of all the ages will follow.
Death is a miserable foe; though the power of death is destroyed and its sting is removed, in the present order, Death still conquers. But for those who embrace the last Adam, its triumph is momentary, and shallow. We know that upon the return of our Lord Jesus, graves will burst and our earthly bodies will be transformed “like unto His own glorious body.” (Phil 3:21). Then Death, the last enemy, will be forever vanquished. There is no way to express our triumph and humble praise more aptly than to rejoin with Paul: “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Co 15:57).