As we celebrate Easter, we should also be reminded of, and confronted by, St. Paul’s stark claim in First Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Three verses later, Paul re-emphasized it: “And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, for you are yet in your sins.”
Thus, if we believe that Paul was an inerrant explicator of the Christian faith, we must accept that the Resurrection is not just important for Christianity but essential for it. Without it, Paul argues, none of the rest of Jesus’ story matters in any ultimate sense – not Jesus’ teachings, not the Beatitudes, not the two Great Commandments, not His miracles… nothing. All those things might be instructive, might be valuable, might be praiseworthy – but they aren’t worth worshipping, and (most importantly to Paul) aren’t the means towards salvation.
On the other hand, I know this is a stumbling block for many who are tentatively struggling to embrace Christianity, but who are skeptical of the more miraculous of its claims. Many people raised in secular cultures find themselves nonetheless drawn to the Beatitudes, to the idea of service to others, to the Great Commandments, and to a mystical-spiritual union with The Holy. But the more “supernatural” are the events described, the less these people believe them, and the more they fight against making the final commitment to the faith.
I’ve heard plenty of people theorize that the Resurrection was either a story concocted by the Disciples in order to keep Jesus’ important teachings alive, or, more often, that it was a somewhat metaphorical way for the Disciples to explain their feeling that Jesus “remained with them” even after his death.
To which Paul, if he were still alive, would answer: “Rubbish. If Jesus were not resurrected, then neither will any of us lesser mortals be, and our hope for salvation and eternal life is gone.”
As all four Gospels emphasize the empty tomb (although what most scholars consider the original version of Mark stopped there rather than describing Jesus’ actual re-appearance), Paul certainly can justify his claim not just theologically but historically: This is what all the apostles agree was what really occurred; this escape from the dead was what renewed their own faith after the Crucifixion crushed their earthly hopes.
Furthermore, Paul met many of the original Eleven and was able to judge their sincerity and faith in person. He saw, firsthand, the evidence of lives transformed by an experience they shared that to those not there was almost unfathomable.
Speaking of which, those lives themselves were a testament to something extraordinary. It is hardly original to say, but still important to repeat to the skeptics who have yet to fully puzzle this all out, the following: If those Disciples were merely speaking metaphorically about some sort of gauzy, feel-good, “we-sensed-his-presence” sort of experience, they would not have been likely to devote the rest of their lives, at considerable danger to their very lives, to the cause of proclaiming that their teacher actually was God Incarnate.
The Disciples did not go back to fishing, or to various trades, or to tax collecting. They continued instead to act as itinerant preachers, traveling in some cases thousands of miles to spread their good news. They faced abuse, persecution, arrest, torture, and – they well knew – the ever-present potential of being put to death. Almost all of them, by most accepted accounts, were indeed martyred in various horrific ways.
These are hardly the actions of men merely inspired by teachings and then spiritually energized by a metaphorical re-appearance of their crucified leader. These are the actions, instead, of men who experienced something so profound, so powerful, so otherwise inexplicable, that they devoted the rest of their lives for the cause – and then gave those lives for it, too.
Every one of them said that they saw a resurrected Lord, that they felt His wounds, that they dined with Him – that, after His death, He still was present with them not just spiritually but physically. Considering how utterly devastated they were in the first days after His crucifixion, the Resurrection is just about the only thing that could explain their unanimous subsequent devotion to the faith, even unto death.
Cynics might call it mass psychosis – but have you ever seen mass psychosis so powerful as to last for decades and at the risk of hideously torturous death?
If a God is omnipotent (or even multipotent enough), so powerful that He can transform lives, and arrange redemptions big and small, and even (as most Christians believe) create a whole universe or offer eternal salvation, then why would he not be able to raise His Self-Son from the grave? And why would He not choose to do so, if doing so helped redeem the world He created?
This Easter, and every Easter, our response and our responsibility should be to lovingly accept that redemption, to try as hard as human weakness will allow to make ourselves worthy of it, to be a vessel through which redemption can find its way to others, and to celebrate the redemption with abundant gratitude and joy.
Paul’s preaching was not in vain. Christ is risen indeed!
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a degree in theology. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication in June by Liberty Island Media.