If Christ Has Not Been Raised, Our Hope is No Hope At All
Paul thinks the consequences of Christ not being raised are worse for those who believe than those who never did if it were to be true Christ was not raised.
Pascal's wager pines that evidence alone cannot prove there is a God, so the logical thing to do is take a leap of faith and trust there is one. Pascal argues if you are right, the consequences are ineffable and joyous, and if you are wrong, well, you don't have much to lose; the worse thing is you lived a life in pursuit of truth, tried to be a good moral person, and just happened to be wrong—but you’re dead now and don’t care. With all respect to Pascal, who lived in the early days of the Enlightenment while the inertia of Christendom was still very much at speed, his "wager" leaves much to be desired.
We do well to ask if a better theologian like St. Paul would agree with Pascal. He would not. Paul offers a different type of wager, one almost in reverse: "If Christ is not raised, we are the most pitiful people on earth (I Cor. 15:19)." A modern paraphrase might be, "If Christ didn't rise from the dead, then we've been living a lie, and deserve the world's mercy since our faith would offer none." That last part, "since our faith would offer none," appeals to what Paul has said in the previous context. There, he tells us that if there is no resurrection of the dead, "then Christ also has not been raised," and "we are still in our sins." If Christ has not been raised, he says, we are blasphemers, the great sin against God! (15:15). He stacks up more consequences if Christ is not raised: your faith is "futile," and those you love who have died are just bones or corpses. He says that preaching would be an empty activity (vs. 14) and our very faith—from which we gain hope—would be a lie; it would be vanity (vs. 14).
He sounds a lot like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, who found much of life hebel or vanity: a meaningless cycle of cause and effects that don’t essentially change human reality or prospects. For the author of Ecclesiastes, the great enemy is death, who cancels out all gains, levels all hierarchies, and perpetuates injustice and hopelessness in the world by stopping any meaningful human progress.
For the book of Ecclesiastes, the consequences of not having assurance in a resurrection of the dead are—at best—a life lived only focused on the here and now, a here and now that will inevitably disappoint with futility, injustice and impending death.
So, with all respect to Pascal, his wager does not take into account the appropriate way that being wrong for being faithful would be catastrophic. But let's play out the wager’s logic for a moment so we can see what Paul finds so concerning. Pascal is essentially arguing that living as if Christianity is true is still better than not doing so because faith has benefits: it gives you hope, a relationship with God, and hopefully transforms your morals and thus makes you a better citizen. But most important for him is you appear to play the best odds. And, argues Pascal, if you died and all your faith which you held to be true was false, you wouldn't know, you wouldn't care, and you would have lived a life in hope and service to human society. Of course, he says, if you are wrong, the consequences are that you remain in your sin and under God's judgment. So, choose God—you have nothing much to lose.
But the Bible doesn't think this way in either the Old Testament or the New. The writer of Ecclesiastes is agnostic about life after death. He believes in God, but he does not have enough progressive revelation to have assurance of the resurrection of the dead (Ecc. 3:18-19). What he is confident of is that "I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity, a striving after the wind”(1:14). For the book of Ecclesiastes, the consequences of not having assurance in a resurrection of the dead are—at best—a life lived only focused on the here and now, a here and now that will inevitably disappoint with futility, injustice and impending death. Life under the sun has no real purpose or meaning without a resurrection. All human effort, striving, art, love, and success, all pain, suffering, and injustice come crashing down in the infinite leveling power of death. There are no lasting advantages to all of life’s gains. Worse still, each new generation renews the cycle, on and on forever—until and unless the dead are raised. What Ecclesiastes hopes for is something “new” under the sun, something from outside that bursts in and defeats death, and clearly shows the way to new life.
Paul thinks the consequences of Christ not being raised are worse for those who believe than those who never did if it were to be true Christ was not raised. This is the exact opposite of what Pascal argue because for Pascal the outcome is a wager. For Paul, it is a matter of purpose. Why does Paul think this way? Because being a Christian is hard and requires sacrifice. Not for our own justification, which Christ does alone, but because, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, we are made into a new people, given new hearts, and commissioned for eternal work. We give up a lot of pleasure and make many sacrifices to "take up the cross" and follow him, imperfectly but with devotion. Some Christians even are persecuted and martyred for the name. If Christianity were not true, we would waste so many pleasures and opportunities this fleeting life offers and engender countless dangers that would be unnecessary. In other words, Christians would be living a lie.
For Paul, and therefore for us, Christ being raised is the central and most important new thing in all creation.
But worse still—and this is where Paul is most concerned–Paul draws us to the cosmic consequences of no resurrection. If Christ is not raised there is no forgiveness of sins, there is no hope, and we are all bound for hell since we are all stuck in our sin. This life would only be a life of collecting evidence for the prosecution to convict us in the Heavenly Court. Lacking our own righteousness, we would be left in the guilty state our father Adam gave us. For Paul, and therefore for us, Christ being raised is the central and most important new thing in all creation.
Again, look at what the writer of Ecclesiastes says at one point:
“…there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘see this is new?’ It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after (Ecc. 1:9b-11)."
Interestingly, Ecclesiastes, Hinduism, and Buddhism find some common ground in a broad observation. All three ground human suffering and pain in a cycle of unending and unfixable repetition. "Samsara"—the cycle of reincarnation or rebirth into life is a great problem that must be overcome in Hinduism and a form of suffering in Buddhism. For Ecclesiastes, the seemingly fated reality of life as meaningless gives rise to human meaninglessness. In other words, even other religious recognize that without something—or Someone—new to break-in and redeem, renew and restore creation, life has no true meaning.
But now hear what the New Testament says about God’s work in Christ:
Revelation 21:5: And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also, he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true."
Ephesians 2:15: by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…
- Ephesians 4:24: put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
- Hebrews 8:13: In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
And when Isaiah, looking forward to Christ's work, prophesied, he said:
Isaiah 43:18-19a: Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 65:17: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
Far from being a minor consequence if we are wrong, the resurrection of the dead through the work of Jesus Christ is our hope, our faith, our joy, our worship, our message—the very new thing that God has done to renew the creation, to break the grip of sin and death, and to give meaning to life, suffering and every good thing. The reason to cast a “wager” on God is not because if you are wrong and find out your faith wasn’t real, you’d have nothing to lose. No, it is better to not speak of wagers, probabilities, possibilities or odds. Instead, the empty tomb and the testimony of eyewitnesses is enough of a firm ground to lay our hearts and for faith to take root.