#1 [straight after reading]
Is there life after death?
It’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? You can’t avoid it. Nobody can. It’s one of the great world-view defining questions out there.
• ‘Where do we come from?’ – yes that’s a big one. But:
• ‘Where are we going?’ – that’s maybe the biggest of them all. Is life as we experience it today – for these few decades or whatever it proves to be – is that all there is? Or is there more?
As I say, it’s a basic worldview question that has knock-ons for the whole of life. So it’s hard to avoid it.
But of course, for lots of us, it’s a much more personal question. Have you lost someone you love recently? Or even not so recently? An elderly relative? A friend? A baby? If you have, you can’t have avoided the question.
I know we often leave it to the children to actually put it into words: it’s the drive home from the funeral and little Mabel in the back seat chirps up: ‘Mum, where is Grandad now’. We grown-ups seem to learn the lesson at some point that you don’t ask that question out loud. But you still think it, don’t you?
Where is he now? Where is she now? Is there life after death?
The Bible has lots to say about that question. Including in the passage we’re looking at this evening. But actually the question is slightly sharper here. It’s not just about whether there’s any life.
It’s whether there is specifically resurrection life.
Look at verse 12.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
Other beliefs about life after death are available, of course.
• There is spiritual life after death, for example.
That is the idea that only your soul or your spirit lives on, and it does so for eternity. That was very common in the Greek thought world that Paul was swimming in. The body was worthless. Your material flesh was just a temporary, low-grade encumbrance. That was a very common belief.
Interestingly it led to two diametrically opposite ways of living (both of which seem to have found their way into Corinth):
o some people lived it up. The hedonists. The body wasn’t going to survive death, so you may as well enjoy the pleasures it offered while you could. You can see their thinking down in verse 32 ‘let’s eat and drink for tomorrow we die’
o other people went the other way. The ascetics. The body was the junior partner to the soul, and needed to be treated that way. Kept in check. It needed to be denied fine food, fine wine, fine sex and everything else. Back in chapter 7, Paul had had to spell out to some people that getting married wasn’t sinful.
So different directions you could go in with this idea that death means the end of any bodily existence. But either way, bodily life was confined to this life. Life after death was spiritual life only.
• Or alternatively there is reincarnated life after death.
The idea that after death, the spirit is recycled and ‘rehoused’ in a new body – perhaps not even a human one – depending on your moral performance during the life you’ve just lived. This is the belief of Hinduism, Buddhish, Sikhism and so on. It’s a very different view of history from the Western mindset. And no concept of grace either – it’s a brutally performance-based system.
So, yes, other beliefs about life after death are available. But as I say, Paul is talking here about resurrection life after death.
And the point he wants to make is not just that resurrection life is in fact a reality. It’s that – for the Christian believer - resurrection life is absolutely critical to everything!
Let’s have a look and see how he puts it together.
First of all, he says, the reality of resurrection life after death is what anchors our faith.
Take the resurrection away and you haven’t lost just some nice extra – the electric sunroof. No, lose the resurrection, and you lose your wheels, your chassis, your engine. You’re left with nothing.
See how strongly he puts it:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
That is: the things we teach and the things you believe become a nonsense. We’re liars (false witnesses, v15) and you’re idiots.
No resurrection, no faith.
And there’s more.
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
That is, no resurrection, no forgiveness.
Jesus may have died, but he clearly hasn’t conquered death and found a way through it – not even forhimself, let alone anyone else.
And we’re still not done.
18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost
Which is to say: no resurrection, no future.
The thing you’ve been clutching on to as you see your loved ones die – that is, that despite the pain of separation, they do have a future with Jesus and I guess therefore with you too – all that turns out to be just wishful thinking, if there’s no resurrection.
If you’ve ever played a game of Jenga, you know what happens if you remove a support from somewhere near the top. Probably nothing, if you have a steady hand. But try and take out something at the bottom, especially one of the side ones at the bottom, and you might find the whole thing comes crashing down.
It’s the same with the resurrection is in the Christian life.
There are people, even people who identify as Christian leaders, who actually deny that the resurrection of Jesus ever happened. They’ve even been recognised on occasion as bishops. The Bible, though, would call them ‘savage wolves’. Because they’ve taken out the anchor, the foundation, the piece holding up everything else, and so destroyed the Christian faith itself in those they influence.
Or take a different image. The image of the sun: so far away, and yet so necessary.
‘What the sun is to the earth, the resurrection is to us. It is our light – the thing by which we see everything with greater clarity. It is our heat – that which gives us our energy and our zeal. It is our life.’ (Mike Reeves)
I wonder if in your mind, you’ve assigned that kind of weight to the resurrection? Have you? It can never be an afterthought. Not for the Bible-believer. No resurrection and the whole edifice collapses.
There’s more though. Not only does resurrection life after death provide an anchor for our faith. It gives definition to our history.
The history of… humanity!... is shaped by it. (This is verses 20-28 here).
One of things I love is spotting something new in the Bible – particularly when it’s about something I thought I was reasonably on top of. I feel a bit of an idiot for a moment – why on earth didn’t I know that? But then I feel invigorated and fresh and all the more eager to dig in some more.
Would you like to know my discovery this week?
My discovery this week is that the day Jesus rose was a fixture in the Jewish Calendar. Back in Leviticus 23, a series of festivals are laid out for Israel. You can flick back if you like. Lev. 23. There’s a whole events calendar here:Including
• Passover, which happens (v.5) on the 14th day of the first lunar month of the year
• And the Feast of unleavened bread which begins (v.6) on the next day, the 15th day of the month ,and goes on for a week.
• And as part of that feast, on the day after the sabbath (v.11) is the Firstfruits offering. The day when the priest waves a sheaf of the first grain of the harvest, just a little bit of the produce from the fields, but which promises masses more good stuff to come in the weeks ahead.
Now, do the maths. On the traditional way of reckoning things at least, the Passover was the day of the Lord’s Supper – Thursday. So which day was the Firstfruits Day? Have you got it? The day after the sabbath that falls in the week after that Thursday. Which is: the next Sunday – otherwise known as the day of resurrection, the Lord’s Day.
Now read 1 Corinthians 15 verse 20.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
In other words, when Paul reaches for this picture of firstfruits to describe the resurrection of Jesus, it’s not because he’s just been out in the garden looking at the tomatoes or whatever. No, he’s using the calendar to make the point that when Jesus rose from the dead he did so as the first fruits of a great harvest for the people of God, the promise of a wonderful future.
You see, so far, history has only really had one track to it. It’s the track of death.
Verse 21: death came through a man
Verse 22: in Adam all die
God said to Adam, you remember: ‘you will surely die’ if you eat from the forbidden tree. Well he did eat. And so did taste death.
And all of humanity shares in the responsibility of Adam in his sin, and therefore we all share in the judgment that fell upon him.
Now I know we don’t tend to like the idea of corporate responsibility. What’s Adam got to do with me? (I want to say). I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even born. Why do I get caught up in the punishment he deserved? Where’s the justice in that?
It’s pretty hypocritical though, isn’t it? When Saints put one in the back of the net, I’ll happily yell out: we scored! As though my own right foot did the job. When Emma Raducanu did her stuff last night, I’m all: ‘Our girl won’. If Southampton wins its bid to be European City of Culture. It’ll be ‘we made it’.
You see, for all our individualism, we do get the idea of corporate responsibility. That’s why New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern could apologize the other day on behalf of her country to the Pacific Islanders unfairly targeted for immigration offences 50 years ago. She herself wasn’t even born in 1974 when it happened. But they, the people of New Zealand, did wrong.
The human race is a single team, whose captain is Adam and whose history is the pathway to death. Or at least that’s how it was. But with the resurrection, it turns out as well as Team Adam there’s now a Team Jesus. And their history is the pathway to life.
Verse 21 again:
since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
So with Jesus and his resurrection comes a whole second track to history. And a chance to transfer across to that new track – and with the transfer fee all paid
And in fact it’s even bigger than just human history. There are cosmic implications too. Just as the earth itself was affected by sin, so will the earth be affected by the resurrection.
• V24 – everything opposed to God will be destroyed
• V26 – even death
• And v27 – what should have happened with Adam, all things been put under his feet, now happens with the second Adam. End of the verse- ‘everything under Christ’
• Hence the end result of v28: with the work of Jesus done, the Lordship of God himself over the whole cosmos will be affirmed: ‘God will be all in all’
The resurrection redefines history itself.
It anchors our faith, it defines our history. And another thing says Paul in this section. It changes our lives.
When I was growing up, environmentalism was a bit of a niche interest. Something for weird activists and radical politics. But after the freak weather we’ve had over the past decade or two, we’re all sitting up and paying attention. The taste we’ve had of what lies ahead for us in – what – 100 years or whatever it is… is getting us all to ask the question. If that’s what’s coming, what do we do now? How does that glimpse of the future change life in the present?
Well for one thing, it makes starting a new life with Jesus quite rational!
Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptised for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised for them?
Now there’s a verse to get people scratching their heads. Baptisms for the dead? What is that about? One of my commentaries lists 13 different scholarly suggestions for what Paul’s referring to here. In fact you may be aware that Mormons – on the strength of this verse – actually practice baptisms for the dead: people today getting dunked on behalf of someone else who failed to get baptised while alive.
Problem is, of course, that from everything we know of Paul, it is just unbelievable that he would either think this was ok, or even that it was not ok but not such a big deal that he needed to correct it. There’s zero chance he’s just going to let that one go. Vicarious baptisms? That can’t be it. No, the most likely background (it seems to me) is that new Christians were dying – you see that in verse 31. Some people are facing death every day. And part of the motivation for their family members to turn to Christ was the possibility of being reunited with them. There’s always a mix of things which draws people to Christ, isn’t there. Well that’s not a bad one. Dad’s dying words are: I want to see you again. I want to see you in the new creation. Please come to Christ!’ And you say? ‘nah!’??
No you don’t; you say – let me start with Jesus too! Baptism in the New Testament is often just code for starting with Jesus.
But what Paul says here is that making that start would be ridiculous if there were no resurrection for you and your loved one. No, that’s what makes a new start with Jesus sensible!
And again, it makes taking risks for Jesus worthwhile!
Look at what Paul’s been facing.
Verse 31: I face death every day
Verse 32: If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus
Not sure if he’s talking about literally, like being thrown to the lions, or just the riot in Ephesus we read about in Acts 20. But whatever it is, there is a reason for his courage – and that reason is: resurrection hope.
Verse 32 again:
If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?
No, Paul – and thousands of Christians since – have found themselves able to take courageous stands, even where it would mean certain death – because of resurrection hope. The expectation that there is more to come
Yesterday, we remembered 20 years since the 9-11 attacks. 3 planes turned into human bombs that saw 3000 die. The fourth plane, though, killed only its own passangers. And that was thanks to the leadership of one Todd Beamer who led a charge of his fellow passengers to retake the plane and so prevent further loss of life. But what was motivating him as he took that courageous initiative? It was apparently the words of the Bible itself. On a call immediately before his counter attack, he asked a telephone operator to say with him the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
The resurrection makes taking risks for Jesus worthwhile.
And finally it makes avoiding influences which might take you from Jesus commendable!
33 Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’[e] 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning
In other words, if the resurrection is real, why would you casually expose yourself to the influence of people who make little of this future hope?
There are some people around us, as there were in Corinth, who deny the resurrection explicitly. Maybe worldly people, but possibly even supposedly Christian people.
But my own view is that there are others who may be more subtle but are potentially more dangerous to most of us. Those who use Christian language but put all the focus on the here and now. As though living your life now with meaning and direction and inner strength and a sense of victory (victory over poverty, over suffering, over bad health, and so on) – that’s the focal point of where the concerns of our hearts should be.
Instead of talking of faith, and patient waiting, and taking up our cross, and walking in weakness and enduring discipline and pain and suffering until Jesus returns.
What influences are you and I subjecting ourselves to which might reorient your hearts away from the future and towards the present?
You see, the resurrection changes our lives.
Is there life after death? Is there resurrection life after death? There is, and that fact changes everything.