“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” the Misfit continued, “and he shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do now but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said, and his voice had become almost a snarl.” (The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”)
Prominent in all human societies throughout history is the recognition that death is a major hindrance to life right now. If one day I am inevitably going to die and cease to exist, it is profoundly difficult to avoid the experience of seeing my motivation for all work and productivity debilitated on a grand scale. Why ought I to labor and strive to accomplish anything now, if the ultimate end result of my existence—nothingness—is the same no matter what I do or don’t do in the present hour? Whether I am a virtuous exemplar of a human being who lives for the sake of others and manages to achieve some semblance of self-actualization and joy in doing so, or whether I conclude in nihilistic fashion that there is no final meaning or moral rhyme and reason to the cosmos and thus opt to live selfishly and violently—well, aren’t these distinctions without real differences if death has the last word? Who will care after the universe has collapsed in upon itself and only the distant echo of our own pathetically futile striving remains?
From Ecclesiastes to Woody Allen (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying”), this seemingly irrefutable lesson learned at death’s door is passed down from generation to generation. What reflective person has not frequently experienced the worst sort of moral paralysis merely at the thought of his or her own impending doom? Especially when suffering arises (as it always does if we endure long enough), the existential dilemma within the everyday routine of life becomes acute. It would seem that the only thing that can make life worth living right now is the sure hope and promise of more life in the future. Apart from this, we cannot flourish so long as we are still constrained by the logical coherence of our indelible human yearnings for unending beauty, goodness and relationship. These are what make life so compelling to us, and work in particular significant. But death casts its pall upon them all, bidding us to look upon them as mere illusions, as cruel whispers which promise far more than they can possibly deliver. What we have longed for and grown excited over will soon be taken away from us, without any explanation.
1 Corinthians 15 is the most extended treatment of the resurrection from the dead in the Scriptures, and Paul shows every sign of possessing a heightened awareness of this predicament. His faith was not a blind fideism that could not bear to imagine the “what ifs” of his own potential wrongness. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then neither will we—and so the gospel message is “empty” or “in vain” [kenos] and our faith is “futile” [mataios, the word that appears so often throughout Ecclesiastes] (v. 14, 16). If Jesus in still in his grave, then everyone else who is already in the grave has likewise perished; we have heard the last from them already, no matter how much we have loved them (v. 18). If there is no resurrection, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (v. 32). Dostoyevsky, who once remarked that if there is no God, all things are permissible, understood this insight well.
In particular, Paul highlights how the energizing force which so passionately drove his own life and ministry—the hope of bodily resurrection in the kingdom of Jesus which is coming (vv. 20-28)—must be evaporated if death will be the lone victor standing upon the stage of human history in the final hour. Why baptize, or place myself in danger of others every hour, or die daily for the sake of the gospel, if now is all I and others have (vv. 29-31)? What benefit is that to me (v. 32)? Why get out of bed on Monday morning? Why stay faithful to my wife, or forgive an enemy, or push on through hard, challenging seasons of life, or make individual sacrifices to my well-being with a view towards a new and better world tomorrow? To ignore the validity and force of such questions requires the denial of our own humanity and a plunge into moral stupidity, the kind that is probably only available to academics and the comfortably powerful.
Yet Christians live by another story. They inhabit a different symbolic world, their moral imaginations re-enchanted away from the dark pulls of nihilism because of their communal confession that Christ is risen from the dead within history, and henceforth Lord over all. The life-giving scope of the ethical vision this confession dynamically produced in Western history cannot be sustained apart from the structure of this belief itself, as David Bentley Hart has demonstrated so compellingly in Atheist Delusions. Moral sentiments—such as that life is worth living, that it has a point and a telos beyond simply experiencing it willy-nilly, that what I do now actually matters in light of what the future holds, that I should or should not do certain things to other human beings—do not arbitrarily come out of nowhere. They receive their origin from traditions of interpreting the world in certain ways, from foundational commitments to specific perceptions of what it means to be human and where this human race I am a part of is going. Apart from all such stories which originally gave rise to them, such moral stances—which, in turn, issue forth in quite specific emotions and actions and possibilities in those under their sway—are untenable over the long haul. As Joseph Harountunian once noted, “The ideas of a culture often survive their historic occasions, and become components of new structures; but they thereby change their minds.” (Piety Versus Moralism: The Passing of New England Theology, xi)
What Paul saw so clearly in his life was the massive connection between meaningful human activity and the resurrection of Jesus. In spite of his quite significant reasons for despairing in life—he persecuted the church, he was found to be misrepresenting God Himself in his zealous obedience to the law against Christ, and he was thus the least of the apostles (vv. 8-9)—Paul discovered a rationale for living which unleashed his ability to rejoice and persevere and love even in the midst of suffering, unpopularity and the looming threat of death. In 15:10, he writes this:
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain [kenos]. On the contrary, I labored [kopiao] abundantly more than [perissos] any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
This verse is often disconnected from the narrative flow of the chapter in which it is found, and read as a kind of heroic spiritual capacity in Paul individually, or as a paradigm of the relationship between divine agency and human freedom. Such interpretations are true enough, and fair to point out. But they run the risk of forgetting why Paul was enabled to exhibit such a radical mindset and lifestyle. Immediately after this statement, he proceeds to discuss the resurrection (both of Jesus and believers, which of course are intertwined) in 15:11-57. In 15:58, he summarizes his entire argument with this statement, which must be heard in light of 15:10—indeed, it is an extension and application of Paul’s own motivational vision to all believers because of their future resurrection from the dead:
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding [perisseuo] in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor [kopos] is not in vain [kenos].”
Notice the obvious wordplays here, the allusions between Paul’s own attitude and energy in 15:10, and the “normal” Christian life he exhorts all of us to likewise embody in 15:58. What holds these two visions together? In a word, resurrection. Because Jesus has been raised from the dead by God—guaranteeing our own resurrection with him in the future by that same God (vv. 20-23, 57)—we find significance in what we do now, whether Paul or the Corinthians or me. The work of our hands will not cease to exist after our death, anymore than we will. Even the new world to come will be marked by a marvelous continuity with this one—our works will endure through the purging judgment and renewal of all things which is to come. As the prophet Isaiah wrote centuries before Paul—and whose wording below Paul was obviously alluding to in 1 Corinthians 15—the future which God has promised to His people determines everything about how they live now in the midst of decay, sin, suffering, and the intrusive parasite of death within God’s good creation. The future resurrection of the entire universe (for such is Isaiah’s meaning, and Paul’s in Romans 8 ) serves as the rallying point for Christian motivation today. In the office and in recreation, in marriage and in hard relationships, in disillusionment and in disaster, in trying times and in personal failure, living by faith in this future resurrection is the animating center of the good life:
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor [kopiao] in vain [kenos] or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.” (Isaiah 65:17-25)
Or as Karl Barth once paraphrased:
“If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness.” (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 123)
Let us rejoice at the future glory of God’s people that we have been wondrously reminded of this Easter Sunday. Death, which along with sin has malevolently high-jacked God’s original designs for human beings, is soon to be cast into the outer darkness. Death will die. But for now, let us get back to work on Monday, even as we wait. Our labor is not in vain, for Christ is risen from the dead.