If Christ Be Not Risen...

Martin L. Dawson, Sr.

The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is a cardinal doctrine of the Christian religion. For twenty centuries, the church has confessed, as part of the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in the resurrection of the body."

The resurrection was prominent in the apostles' preaching. They startled the world by preaching that their religion was based upon the resurrection of the dead—the rising of dead bodies to life again. The proof was that Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven, became man and was put to death for the sins of his people, and then rose again on the third day for their salvation.

No other religion had such a doctrine. By some common grace or common understanding, people in virtually every tribe and nation, bearing the image of God, have some idea that there has to be more than this life. So the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids, expressing the hope that the pharaohs entombed in them might live appropriately in the next world.

In the Eastern religions, we see the doctrine of reincarnation: if you behave yourself, you may return as someone higher up on the scale of being; but, if you misbehave, you may come back as an animal or an insect. After countless lifetimes, if you finally behave well enough, you may reach nirvana, where your soul gets lost in an impersonal ocean of the godhead. I guess that's supposed to be a comfort, but I can't imagine why.

We see the Valhalla of Norse mythology, where the souls of slain heroes are supposedly received. We see the "happy hunting ground" anticipated by the American Indians. There just has to be some kind of life after death.

The Roman world in which the apostles preached was philosophically Greek. They believed in life after death for the soul. But they were firmly convinced that the body is "the prison house of the soul." When the body dies, in their view, it is dead forever.

Unique among the religions of the ancient world, Judaism taught that there would be a resurrection coming. It is true that some Jews in Jesus' day, especially the Sadducees (who were like our modern theological liberals), denied the supernatural, angels, and the resurrection. But orthodox Jews believed that dead bodies would rise again. However, they did not have the full light of the gospel. Later Rabbinical writings show that they believed that human beings would arise to an existence identical to their previous life. The same body will come back to life as a Jewish farmer, or whatever, again.

Resurrection in the Old Testament

The Old Testament certainly teaches the resurrection. We don't find it with the same prominence as in the New Testament. But every doctrine in the New Testament can be found, at least in shadowy form, in the Old Testament. For example, in his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul proves the doctrines of justification by faith, election, and reprobation by expounding passages from the Old Testament.

It is true that in the Old Testament you won't find anything like Paul's detailed discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. But that's not to say that the doctrine isn't there. In what is perhaps the oldest book of the Bible, Job has these famous words: "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body"—that's physical death—"yet in my flesh shall I see God"—that's physical resurrection (Job 19:25-26).

Psalm 22 predicts the Messiah's crucifixion. He can count all his bones, he is pierced, and his executioners gamble over his clothes. And after all this, what does he say? "I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee" (vs. 22). This passage is quoted in Hebrews 2:12, where it is interpreted as referring to the living Christ singing in the midst of his church. In other words, Christ's resurrection follows his crucifixion. That doctrine is shadowy in the Old Testament, but it's there.

Isaiah 26:19 says, "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise." This is the Messiah speaking, and this is one reason why the Jews believed in resurrection. The verse continues: "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for ... the earth shall cast out the dead." Now that's clearer.

But listen to Daniel 12:2, which is clearer still: "Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." There you have resurrection, not just of believers, but also of unbelievers—not just to glory, but also to damnation.

You have a moral context for resurrection, too. What people do on earth is the evidence of whether or not they belong to the Redeemer. "And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever" (vs. 3).

Yes, the Old Testament certainly does teach resurrection, not only of the Messiah, but of the whole human race, the just and the unjust.

The Resurrection of Christ

When we turn to the New Testament, we find the full light of the truth of this doctrine. First, we find Christ and his resurrection. On the third day, he rose again from the dead. You can't be a Christian and deny that. Some do call themselves Christians and deny it. But the fact is so important that God himself says: "If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17). The Holy Spirit says through the apostle that if Christ really wasn't raised from the dead, there is no salvation and there is no Christian religion.

Christ's resurrection is one of the best-attested facts of history. His tomb was sealed and closely guarded, yet on Easter morning it was found to be empty. Christ appeared on that morning to various women. He appeared behind locked doors to the eleven disciples. He appeared to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. In the New Testament, there are ten accounts of Christ's bodily appearance after his death during the forty days before his ascension. Once he even appeared to five hundred people at once; they saw him in the flesh, raised from the dead. "Last of all," Paul says, "he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time" (1 Cor. 15:8). So there was certainly evidence. The apostles and many others were eyewitnesses. There was no doubt in their minds about the fact of Christ's resurrection.

Isn't that striking? One of the things that Jesus' disciples understood the least was his teaching that he would be killed and then rise from the dead. We even read in Mark 8:32 that Peter rebuked Jesus for saying it. Jesus said, "I have to die and be raised from the dead"—and Peter rebuked him. The apostles did not want that to happen, and when he was killed, they all hid themselves for fear of the Jews. They were a defeated, demoralized band. No, they were not eager to proclaim resurrection theology. They opposed it every step of the way. Only when Christ had clearly manifested himself to them as being alive and glorified after his death, did they go forth at his command to preach this good news. Only when they knew that it was true would they rather be put to death than deny it.

There was no doubt in their minds, and they established churches with Sunday as the new Sabbath. The first day of the week is called the Lord's Day because he arose on that day. Churches meet on the day that remembers the resurrection. On the Lord's Day, they celebrated the Lord's Supper. Well, what is that? It's the commemoration of his death, but it's also a recognition that he lives. We don't just remember a dead martyr. We commune with a living Savior. On this resurrection day, they also practiced baptism, remembering his death for our sins, but also that we are raised with him (Rom. 6). Resurrection is central to the Sabbath. It is central to baptism. It is central to the Lord's Supper. The resurrection of Christ is at the heart of the Christian faith.

The Resurrection of the Christian

I said earlier that all men will be raised. The whole race that God made will be resurrected. God is going to resurrect the lost, too, but they will be raised to damnation. As Daniel says, there is resurrection of the wicked to shame and everlasting contempt. And so Jesus teaches in John 5:28-29, "The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation." The wicked will be resurrected with a body made for endless punishment.

I remember once hearing the gospel introduced this way: "Do you know that your soul will spend an eternity somewhere?" The idea, of course, is that it will go to heaven or hell. But you could also ask this question: "Do you know that your body will spend an eternity somewhere?" Not just your soul, but your body as well, will spend an eternity somewhere.1 Where will it be? Heaven or hell?

Most importantly, there is the blessed resurrection of those who belong to Jesus Christ by faith. For them, Jesus said, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25).

What will the believer's resurrected body be like? Well, Paul speaks of it at some length in 1 Corinthians 15. But even though we're living in the glorious light of the New Testament, we only see through a glass darkly. Paul begins by saying that our physical body will be raised, but at the same time will be transformed. It will be the same body, but it will be completely altered and glorified. Yes, the same body. The body that hung on the cross was the one with which Christ arose—the same body, but now a glorious body.

Paul illustrates this from nature. You take a seed and plant it in the earth. That seed doesn't look anything like a rosebush. It doesn't even look like it's alive! Who could ever guess that it's going to produce a rosebush? You don't feed it anything—it just grows. It feeds on dirt and water! And it makes living roses. So it's the same body, but it's different.

Similarly, there is a glory of the sun, and there is a glory of the moon. You are in the image of God, but your present glory is only like that of the moon. When you are raised from the dead, your glory will be like that of the sun, compared to what it is now. Remember how Jesus appears in Revelation 1. His face shone "as the sun shineth in his strength" (vs. 16). The same body, but transformed.

How different will the resurrection body be? Paul doesn't go into much detail, but he does say, "It is sown in corruption" (1 Cor. 15:42). It's pretty hard to get out of the world without dying of sickness, isn't it? You might get out by being killed, but the body must be corrupted somehow before it's "sown."

How, then, is it raised? "It is raised in incorruption" (vs. 42). It can't get sick; it can't have pain; it can't die (see Rev. 21:4)! The body is sown in weakness. The heart becomes so weak that it can't pump any more. The body is raised in power, like that of the angels. The body is sown in dishonor. It's pretty dishonorable that we who have been made in the image of God to rule the earth, have to end up in a box in the earth. But our body will be raised up in glory. It will be raised up from earth to a paradise.

I think we can best understand this from what the apostle Paul says in Philippians 3:21: The Lord Jesus Christ "shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body." That's what it will be like. We don't know a great deal about Jesus Christ's glorious body, but we do know some things about it from the Bible.

We know that Jesus could appear and disappear after his resurrection. He appeared to two disciples along the road to Emmaus, taught them from Scripture, broke bread, and then disappeared. That was in his resurrected body! On two occasions, he suddenly appeared in the midst of his disciples, in a room with the doors locked.

He was able to eat ordinary human food, such as fish and honey. We can assume that in our resurrected body we will not have to eat, but that, like the angels, we will be able to eat if we want to. Doesn't that sound good?

The Resurrection in the Christian Life

Why is the resurrection important to you and me as Christians? It's important because, according to the apostles, our whole faith depends upon it. "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain" (1 Cor. 15:14). The Christian religion is meaningless without a resurrection to look forward to. You might as well go out and eat, drink, and wait for death, like all the other people on the party circuit. If Christ was not raised from the dead, that is the only conclusion. Faith in a dead Savior is vain. The preaching of a dead Savior is vain.

But Christ is raised! That's important to us because it's at the heart of our justification. Christ was indeed delivered for our offenses, but he was raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:24). Believer in Jesus Christ: you are going to stand before God with a clean record, both because Jesus died for you and also because he rose for you.

Christ's resurrection is also at the heart of our sanctification. Scripture says, "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.... For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:1-3). Christ's physical resurrection, your present spiritual resurrection in him, and your future physical resurrection should make your whole perspective on life different. This life is not all there is. This is only temporary. We should be occupied with our Father's business until Jesus comes back. We should do the best we can with the life that God has given us because we'll give an account for it. But to put it into perspective, this is only something we're passing through. There is a renewal of the universe coming, a rebirth to glory.

Resurrection is in the Bible, even in the Old Testament. You can't be a Bible believer and not believe in the resurrection. The resurrection in Christ is central to our faith. It's central to our day of worship and to our sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. It's at the heart of our Christian walk. It's the basis for our faith, our salvation, our power to live right, and our view of the future. In our future resurrection, not only our soul, but also our body, will spend eternity somewhere. God, who has made a physical universe, is in the process of redeeming it. At the end of the world, it will begin anew, only then in consummate glory and eternal incorruptibility. "I believe in ... the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen."

The author is the pastor of Stratford OPC in Stratford, N.J. He uses the KJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2002.