Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Years ago an actively engaged congregational leader confided that Easter was his least favorite Sunday “because you can’t escape the idea of Jesus’ resurrection on that Sunday, and I can’t make myself believe in it.” This week falls in the Epiphany season, not Easter, but if the Apostle Paul has his way, there’s no Sunday of any season or any day at all where one can escape the reality of resurrection. For Paul, without it, we’ve got nothing (15:17).
It’s worthwhile to look at what Paul does and doesn’t say about resurrection or how resurrection manifests itself in our lives.
In this passage, Paul offers three arguments about Jesus’ resurrection. Or more precisely, he makes one argument twice (15:13-14 and 15:16-18), and he makes another—and more important—argument once (15:15).
It’s important to note that his arguments do not try to prove the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. The reality of resurrection constitutes his arguments’ starting point, not their conclusion. He points us beyond what we might or might not believe, aiming to reach deeply, as far down into truth as we can go. For Paul, this is not an abstract theological argument, some early version of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Resurrection lies right beside love at the concrete, indispensable center of the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the Gospel.
He argues that resurrection exists as one of life’s fundamental realities, whether anyone believes in it or not. He’s not as concerned about what we believe to be true, as he’s concerned about what is true and why it matters. He wants us to understand that we can stake our lives on the reality of resurrection.
In response to an objection raised by some people in the Corinthian congregation—“some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12)—Paul, twice, bluntly states a crucial problem with that view of reality: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised” (15:13). “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised” (15:16).
Again, he doesn’t make this as a theological argument. He’s not saying, “Our theology requires that Jesus was raised from the dead, so if we don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection, our theology collapses. So, you have to believe in Jesus’ resurrection; otherwise you have no legitimate theology.” His argument is not “without resurrection, your theology collapses,” but “without resurrection, everything collapses, our lives collapse.”
He’s not worried about doctrinal consequences but existential consequences. Without resurrection, “our proclamation has been in vain,” “your faith has been in vain” (15:14), “your faith is futile,” “you are still in your sins” (15:17), and “everyone who has died in Christ has perished” (15:18). If God is not—at the very heart and center of God—a God of life, who above all else desires life for every created being, and who not only wants it but has power to give and sustain it … if that is not true, then, yes, the Corinthian objection would be true. And its consequences would mean no resurrection, no resurrection of Jesus, no redemption of our bodies, nothing of lasting importance here and now or hereafter (15:19).
But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on, asserting, not arguing, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (15:20). How does he so confidently assert that resurrection is real, not just resurrection in general, but specifically Jesus’ resurrection and our own?
How resurrection manifests itself in our lives
By reversing the order of Paul’s other argument in this passage, we can see its logic (13:15). Paul asserts (starting at the end of the sentence and moving backward), “If it’s true that the dead are not raised,” then God did not raise Christ, and we are misrepresenting God by saying that God can give life to the dead. Without resurrection, our proclamation and our testimony would stand as lies, falsehoods, misrepresentations of who God is and what God desires for us and for creation (15:12, 14, 16). By word and deed, we would be bearing false witness against God (13:15, Greek, pseudo-martures), taking God’s name in vain.
Why does Paul say that so emphatically? What is his basis for such a claim?
We see the major grounds for his claim in the verses immediately preceding this pericope (15:1-11). First, he cites as reliable the eye-witness testimony of Christ’s resurrection by original followers, including the apostles (15:5-7). Second, Paul asserts the reliability of his own vision of the resurrection “as one untimely born” (15:8); see also 1 Corinthians 9:1; Galatians 1:13-17). But, third, he doesn’t expect people just to take his and their word for it. We can also see the reality of resurrection in the reality of changed lives—like his own, in being transformed from persecutor to apostle (15:9-10a). And, fourth, we see that reality not only in one-time moments of conversion, but also in the ongoing growth and transformation that flows out of the ongoing grace of God (15:10b).
Finally, resurrection lies at the heart of the proclamation of scripture and the church (15:3, 4, 13, 14, 15). Again, this happens not for the sake of supporting theologies. Resurrection lies at the heart of scripture because those who have seen resurrection at work in people’s lives have preserved those stories, passed them down as reminders of the possibilities that God provides for all people and for all time (15:20). People continue to proclaim those stories because they see resurrection at work in their own day, in their own lives, and in the lives of others around them.
It’s not possible to proclaim that “there is no resurrection of the dead” once we have seen resurrection made visible in people whose actions bear witness to God’s life-giving power. We don’t have to make ourselves believe it. It speaks for itself all around us and among us, from creation to Exodus, to prophets, to Jesus, until now and forever.