If Christ has not been raised, the Dead in Christ are Lost
If it’s all a fiction spun by disappointed disciples, if it’s a mere symbol for the idea of an inner awakening, if it’s not a fact that Christ has been raised, then our grief and loss have no end, and we have no hope.
When I was a kid, I loved long words. In first grade we read Dr. Seuss’ Hop on Pop, and I was excited to be able to read not just “No, Ned, no! Don’t sit on that!” but also the big words on the last page: Timbuktu and Constantinople. Imagine my delight later in my growing-up years to learn what I was told was the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism. It was just a string of letters, but I know now that it has a history as long as itself.
In the early years of the American republic, many states still had laws bidding citizens to follow certain religious practices — even after the passage of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. My childhood longest word referred to those who fought against (“anti” and “dis”) the notion that we should have to divest our government of all religion (“establishment”). One of the greatest proponents of disestablishing religion was the tobacco farmer, slave holder, third president, and fervent ultra-rationalist, Thomas Jefferson.
Often Jefferson’s aversion to religion has to be found by implication in his other writings, though it was well enough known that in the 1800 presidential election, he was accused of atheism. But when he died he left behind evidence in his library, what’s now known as “Jefferson’s Bible,” that reveals not atheism but deism. Jefferson did a cut-and-paste job on the Bible, eliminating anything that, to him, smacked of superstition. He glued the remaining passage in the equivalent of an 18th century Moleskin journal. What didn’t make it into his expurgated Bible were the miracles, Jesus’ ascension, and most importantly, the resurrection.
Because it is Jesus, God-with-us, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Suffering Servant who is raised, there are far-reaching consequences.
What’s left is a presentation of Scripture as the founding documents of a moral system and was meant to help rational people achieve the amendment of their lives and the betterment of society. It was out-and-out deism with God as a helpful idea at best. And it’s a perfect example of Paul’s great subjunctive in 1 Corinthians 15: “If Christ has not been raised.” If it’s all superstitious tripe. If it’s all a fiction spun by disappointed disciples, if it’s a mere symbol for the idea of an inner awakening, if it’s not a fact that Christ has been raised, then our grief and loss have no end, and we have no hope.
When the believers in Thessalonica expressed to Paul the anxious questions about death and resurrection, he was quick to remind them that the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith marked them as different from those who, like Thomas Jefferson, only had their five senses as a foil to death and loss. The deep hole of grief left when a loved one dies has nothing in the material world that our rational mind can use to counter its depth and breadth. The world can only regard death as the logical conclusion of either a well or ill lived life.
But the resurrection brought Paul something new he hadn’t previously known. On the road to Damascus, he encountered no memory or symbol of the Jesus that was. He met instead Jesus with a voice who was risen from the dead, the presence of the one Stephen proclaimed when Paul played coat-check attendant at the first Christian martyr’s death. Of course, unlike the Sadducees, as a Pharisee, Paul saw resurrection as a possibility. But it was this man whom he considered a blasphemer rightly crucified who was raised. And that made all the difference.
Where faith is present, death can be regarded as nothing more than a long nap.
Not only is the resurrection a fact, but because it is Jesus, God-with-us, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Suffering Servant who is raised, there are far-reaching consequences. For the Risen One is this Lord and Savior who promised in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” If Christ is risen, then his promises did not end at Calvary. If Christ is risen, then those for whom he died remain right where he kept them: in the spear wound in his side. If Christ is risen, then those who have fallen asleep in him, that is, those who trust him to accomplish what he promises, are certainly not lost.
In Ephesians 5:14, Paul tucks a bit of a hymn into his letter that adds to 1 Corinthians’ assertion that the dead are not lost: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Where faith is present, death can be regarded as nothing more than a long nap. If Christ is raised, then the grave is no more to be feared than my armchair and ottoman where I take a quick twenty-five winks after work and wake recharged in time for supper and an evening of Netflix. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, has permanently grafted us alien branches to his vine. His Triduum sleep is ours; just so, his waking and tearing off his graveclothes is ours as well. To add yet another metaphor, the Christ remains the shepherd even of sheep that are lost to death, and if he is raised then he is also able to snatch his lambs from the grave’s wolfish maw.
“Lost. Schmost,” says Jesus. “The waters of your baptism my be a past-tense event, but the promise attached to them lasts forever.” If Christ is raised, then baptism is a present-tense reality, and you’re already as good as raised right now. It’s been established, and no disestablishment naysayer to the resurrection (not even Thomas the Deist) and the resurrection’s certain promise can take it away.