Starting today, we have a bundle of apologetics questions lined up on the person and work of Christ. Next time, we will look at several answers to the question, “Why did Jesus leave earth after Easter?” Imagine if Christ were still here with us. Well, he’s not. Why not? That will be APJ 1978. Then, a week from now, we’ll address the question, “Why didn’t Jesus have to pay eternally for our sins?” Isn’t that the price — eternal judgment? So, why is his suffering done? That will be APJ 1979, on the 25th of this month. Then comes the question, “Why don’t we have more archaeological or historically written evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ?” That will be APJ 1981, our first episode in October. A lot of ground to cover until then.
We start with today’s question. Because even if the Christian faith is untrue — if the cross and resurrection didn’t happen — aren’t Christians still happier than non-Christians in this life? Don’t our present life priorities make for a more fulfilling experience of this life than non-Christians seeking their joy in the world, even if we are wrong?
It’s a question from Chip, a listener from Georgia. “Pastor John, hello to you! Christian Hedonism seems to say that our deepest longings in this life can only be satisfied by God, and it’s only in him that we can be truly happy. If God makes us happier than people who simply pursue the world, why does Paul say we are to be pitied most of all men if there is no resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:19)? Even if Christ was not resurrected, isn’t our life, now, more satisfying than the life of the non-Christian?”
I’m smiling. I love sharp, biblically rooted questions. I’ve asked this; in fact, I’ve spoken on it. Years ago, I spoke to the Wycliffe folks in Cameroon on this very question, so I was trying to remember what I said. It is a really important and good question rooted in 1 Corinthians 15. So, let me just bring Chip up, and the rest of us, to where I’m thinking today. I don’t know that I have the completely satisfying answer, but I have some answers that have helped me.
Foretaste Awaiting Fullness
Just a clarification to start with about Christian joy in this painful life. A huge part of our joy as Christians is what Paul calls rejoicing “in hope” (Romans 5:2). In other words, joy is not complete in what we can know and have of God here now; our joy is “in hope” of what we will know and have of God in the future also. Our joy here is a foretaste of the fullness of joy there, and so it’s not complete now. We see through a glass darkly, and we know in part, so our joy is in part (1 Corinthians 13:12). It’s strong now, it’s deep now, it’s enough to carry the day now, but it’s nothing near what it will be.
“The joy we anticipate in the age to come flows back into this age in measure — not in fullness, but in measure.”
“Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). That means that the joy we anticipate in the age to come flows back into this age in measure — not in fullness, but in measure. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4). We are a people who have this strange emotional experience of rejoicing in what we don’t yet have to make us happy.
So, I don’t want to overstate the joy of the Christian Hedonist in this age. It is not nearly what it will be in the age to come; much of it is anticipatory now.
Four Fearful Hypotheticals
So, here are the keywords that create the problem in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul’s talking about whether Christ has been raised from the dead or not.
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God [that is, we’re false witnesses of God, liars about God], because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. . . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. (1 Corinthians 15:14–15, 17–18)
We’re going to come back to that. That’s really crucial. “Christians have gone to hell. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished; they’ve gone to hell.” Then he continues, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19)
And the question is, How can Christians — who have more joy than anybody else — be most to be pitied? That’s the question. I’m asking, “Why did you say that, Paul?” I think I see four reasons.
1. We live under a delusion.
Evidently, Paul believes that delusion — a life of delusion — is to be pitied, even if it’s a happy delusion. It’s not just that what we’re experiencing in this life proves to be more or less happy in the other; it proves to be nonexistent in the other. If Christ is not raised from the dead, then my joy in the living Christ is not joy in the living Christ. There is no living Christ, and therefore, I am not experiencing joy in the living Christ. I am an absolute idiot — I’m a fool.
Paul’s first conviction, it seems to me, is that this is not true; Christ is raised. And his second conviction is that it’s a delusion if he’s not raised, and it’s an enormous delusion, more pitiable than anything he could think of, evidently. So, that’s the first reason: a delusionary life — a life lived in absolute delusion — is to be pitied.
2. We suffer in vain.
Paul’s life would be pitiable because he willingly embraced so much suffering that he could have avoided. Those sufferings were sustained by Paul’s joy in Christ, not the other way around. The sufferings didn’t create the joy in this life. If there’s no resurrection, those sufferings were absolutely pointless.
3. We renounce sin in vain.
We deny ourselves many pleasures here precisely for the sake of the reward of the age to come. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad [now], for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11–12).
“If Christ and we are not raised from the dead, then Paul doesn’t infer atheism; he infers hell.”
So, we renounce retaliation and the joy of getting back at people. We renounce the comforts of fitting into the world so that we don’t ever have to be criticized or reviled. Why? Precisely because we believe it will be made up to us in heaven, which means we didn’t just fail to maximize the pleasures we could have had here, but we bargained that the self-denial would be rewarded in the resurrection — and there is no resurrection, and the bargain failed.
4. We slander God and hell awaits us.
If Christ and we are not raised from the dead, then Paul doesn’t infer atheism; he infers hell. We enter a worse punishment in hell than others, because we didn’t just make a mistake; we actively misrepresented God. Oftentimes, I’ve read this chapter in this argument as though, “Well, if there’s no resurrection for the dead, the whole biblical religion is false. There is no God. Que será, será. Let’s eat, drink, and be merry.”
That is not what Paul does. He didn’t argue like that. He says, “If Christ has not been raised, God’s going to send me to hell, because I’ve been telling everybody that this is his Son and he’s been raised from the dead, and I am a false prophet. And therefore, I am of all people most to be pitied, for I’m going to get the worst punishment.”
Most to Be Pitied
So, in sum, if there is no risen Christ — no resurrection of believers unto eternal reward and joy — then (1) Christian life is a delusion, (2) voluntary suffering is painfully pointless, (3) hope in heaven is futile, and all our self-denials based on that hope were ridiculous, and (4) any attempt to speak for the living Christ would be a damnable scam and a false prophecy, which would deserve hell even more than others, and we would perish under that severe sentence. So, we are, of all people, most to be pitied.