The church at Corinth in the middle of the first century had a variety of problems. A quick read of the apostle Paul's Corinthian correspondence reveals problems involving immorality, extreme self indulgence, neglect of the poor, and disorderly worship. Not least among these was a denial by some of their number of the Christian doctrine of the bodily resurrection of all those who belong to Christ. For Paul, such a denial had serious consequences. Paul argued that if there was indeed no final resurrection of the dead, then it should not be said that Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, Christian faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:13ff). This makes sense. If Christ has not been raised, then Christians have put their faith in a corpse. If Christ has not been raised, then we are trusting in a dead man. The doctrine of Christ's resurrection is the foundation and validation of Christianity. I used to think that even if Christianity were not true, that I could be content living as a good Christian. This was foolishness. If Christ has not been raised, then Christians remain in their sin and are the most to be pitied. The resurrection of Jesus is the validation of the Christian gospel and Christian faith.
Despite denial, Christ has indeed been raised bodily from the dead. And because of this those who belong to him have the sure and certain hope of sharing in his bodily resurrection. This was necessary because death came through Adam, a human being. Likewise, the resurrection of the dead has come through Jesus Christ, a human being (1 Cor 15:20ff). In Christ we see a picture of a God who is fully committed to the redemption and healing of all that he has made. So much so that he entered into his creation to fix the problem of sin and death from the inside out. The resurrection means that death has been defeated and that all who are in Christ will ultimately share in his resurrected eternal bodily life. The Christian hope has never been to escape the earth for a disembodied heaven. The Christian hope is for a renewed bodily existence in the midst of God's good and renewed creation!
Lastly, the resurrection means that work done presently in the power of the Spirit is not done in vain. Paul does not encourage the Corinthians to sit back and wait on the resurrection. Instead, he exhorts them to anticipate it by excelling in the work of the Lord. Because work done in the Lord is not done in vain (1 Cor 15:58). I'm not sure how God plans to catch up all of the Spirit empowered endeavors into the new earth. But one thing is clear. The people of God are to be about the business of bringing signs of new creation to bear on the world. This means doing the work of evangelism and discipleship which brings people into a loving and obedient relationship with the God in whose image they are made. It also means working for the sake of those in need and who have no voice. It means that we practice the sacraments of baptism and communion which proclaim the good news that Christ has reconciled us to God and made a place for us at his table. It means we work for social justice in anticipation of the day when those who have no money will be able to eat and drink freely. "Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Cor 15:58).
Why is all of this important? I came across a quote from a recent book that illustrates the need for the church to recapture and maintain a robust theology of the resurrection, both of Christ and of all believers. In an article entitled "Victorian Death and Its Decline" Pat Jalland comments saying, "current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas" (in Death in England: An Illustrated History, eds. P.C. Jupp and C. Gittings). If those who observe the worship life of the church are able to say this, then the church's witness has gone drastically off track. Upon the occasion of preaching about the final resurrection of all believers, I have at times met the response of those who say they had never heard of the resurrection and that they only thought Christians died and went to heaven and that was it. If someone can attend a Christian church for any length of time and not hear of the resurrection, then something is wrong with the preaching at that church. Our problem is not altogether unlike the one Paul faced in Corinth. It's not so much the case that the average Christian denies the resurrection; rather, they simply have not been taught of it. The church must articulate a bold theology of the resurrection and its meaning; her very life depends on it. Resurrection is the foundation of Christian faith, the content of the Christian hope, and the goal of Christian effort. Let us look forward to and unashamedly proclaim the great day when the perishable will be swallowed up by the imperishable and death will be swallowed up in victory.