April 11, 1993
ALL OR NOTHING
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead…” (1 Corinthians 15:20)
Is he alive, or is he dead? That’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Right now Jesus Christ is either powerful and alive in an immortal resurrection body, or else he’s nothing but dust. It’s one or the other. Sometimes we make life more complicated than it really is, but this matter isn’t complicated at all. If Jesus is alive, you’d be a fool not to become a Christian. If he’s dead, you’re a fool if you are a Christian. It’s that simple. There’s no in-between. It’s all or nothing.
If you’ve been asking yourself whether Christianity is something you should take seriously, I’m glad you’re listening right now, because I don’t plan to beat around the bush or insult your intelligence. It all comes down to one simple question: Did Jesus actually rise from the dead?
You may well have other questions about the Christian faith, but those questions can wait. First, make up your mind whether Jesus is alive or dead. If you conclude that he’s dead, you won’t need to bother with the other matters. You can forget about Christianity altogether. If, on the other hand, you conclude that Jesus is alive, you’ll want to be a Christian, no matter what your other questions might be. It’s all or nothing. It all depends on the resurrection.
Now, I realize that this isn’t the way a lot of us tend to think about religion. We often think about it more in terms of private opinions and feelings and sentiments than in terms of definite facts and concrete physical realities. You sometimes hear things like, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere about it” or “What you believe is true for you, and what I believe is true for me.” Well, that all sounds very open-minded, but (as the saying goes) sometimes you can be so open-minded that your brains fall out.
The fact of the matter is this: If the resurrection didn’t happen, if Jesus is dead and his body is decayed, then Christianity isn’t true. It’s not true for you or for me or for anyone else. It’s false. It is not a question of feelings. It’s a question of fact. If the resurrection never happened, you can have all the feelings and opinions you want, but it won’t change the fact that Jesus is dead and your faith is worthless.
You see, the Christian faith isn’t just spiritual; it’s also very physical. Christians claim that God became flesh in the person of a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. We believe that after this carpenter was tortured and executed and buried, his dead body was raised to life again by the power of God. We believe that certain women spoke with him and even touched him after his resurrection, that the risen Christ spoke with his disciples, that he broke bread with them and even ate broiled fish with them. We believe that today Jesus is physically present in heaven in his immortal resurrection body, and that he will someday return to earth physically and visibly to raise and transform the bodies of all his people and to judge the world. These are all very definite and very physical claims, and they all depend on whether or not the resurrection actually happened.
So let’s think some more about how everything about Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection. Once we’ve done that and we understand what’s at stake, we’ll consider some solid evidence which supports the claim that Jesus is alive.
To begin, then, why does the resurrection matter so much? What difference would it make if Jesus were dead? In 1 Corinthians 15, one of the landmark chapters of the Bible, the apostle Paul writes:
If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
But [says Paul] Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
There are several important points to consider here. The first is that, if Christ has not been raised, then the foundation of Christian teaching is destroyed. The apostles were liars, and the New Testament belongs in the garbage. The apostles would be false witnesses about God, says Paul, since they “testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead,” which is a lie if it never really happened. And if the apostles are liars, it means that the New Testament itself is a web of lies, since it is the written record of the apostles’ testimony.
The foundational writings of Christianity are completely unreliable if Christ has not been raised, and the founder of Christianity turns out to be a liar himself, or else somewhat of a lunatic. After all, Jesus claimed to be equal to God. He predicted that he would die for the sins of his people and then be raised again by the power of God. Obviously, if Jesus didn’t overcome death, it means that he was wrong and that he wasn’t God at all. In that case, this man who claimed to be God was either a deliberate deceiver or else someone who wasn’t in his right mind. Either way, he’s not worth listening to.
However, if Jesus has been raised, if he’s alive right now, then the situation is completely the opposite: the foundations of Christianity are firm and immovable. If Jesus has been raised, then he was and is exactly who he claimed to be–the almighty Son of God. What’s more, his hand-picked apostles who testified as eyewitnesses to his resurrection are accurate and inspired, and we should believe every word they wrote under God’s inspiration. If Jesus is alive then the New Testament is rock-solid and reliable, for it bears testimony to the triumphant Christ. In short, if the resurrection is for real, it proves the divine identity of Jesus, it confirms that the Bible is true, and thus the foundations of Christian belief are firmly established. If Christ has not been raised, our faith is in vain, but if he has been raised, our faith rests on a foundation that cannot be destroyed. It’s all or nothing. It all depends on the resurrection.
Paul then makes another point. He says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” In other words, God’s forgiveness is real only if the resurrected body of Jesus is real. No resurrection, no forgiveness.
You see, if Jesus was not raised, it means that his death was basically meaningless. It means that God did not accept the death of Jesus as a sufficient sacrifice that paid for the sins of the world. If God didn’t raise Jesus, then the death of that carpenter-turned-rabbi was just another case of a man getting himself killed. It may be a sad story, but that’s all it is. It has no further significance.
However, if God did raise Jesus, it means that he accepted Jesus’ death as the sacrifice and final payment for sin. It means that God’s forgiveness applies to everyone who belongs to Jesus. If Christ has not been raised, his death was useless and we are still in our sins, but if he has been raised, it means that Jesus is the way to experience God’s forgiveness, the only way. It’s all or nothing. It all depends on the resurrection.
Paul makes still another point about the importance of the resurrection: If Christ has not been raised, he says, Christians have no future. “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (v.18-19). Christians believe that their bodies will be raised and that they will live forever only because they believe that Christ arose and lives forever. But, if Christ didn’t rise, then Christians won’t rise. Once they die, they’re goners. They are dead and decomposed, just like the mixed-up carpenter they believed in. If that’s the case, says Paul, Christians are the most self-deceived, pitiable fools around. You can feel sorry for them if you want, but you certainly shouldn’t become one of them.
On the other hand, of course, if Jesus has been raised in a glorified resurrection body, then those who have gone to their graves trusting in him will also be raised to everlasting life. Death is not the end of the story. Life has conquered death, and the followers of Jesus can look forward to a splendid future. They will enjoy everlasting life and joy and eternal pleasures and blessings with their risen Savior.
So Christians have either a bleak future or a blessed one. They are either the most pitiable people on earth, or else they are rich beyond measure. It’s all or nothing. It all depends on the resurrection.
Paul makes a final point about the significance of the resurrection a bit later in 1 Corinthians 15, where he says that without the resurrection, life has no final meaning or purpose except to maximize your own pleasure and minimize your own pain. Paul writes, “If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Why would anyone stand up for his beliefs, even to the point of being thrown to the lions, if death is the end? If there’s nothing beyond death, then it’s stupid to be a hero. Be a hedonist instead. Grab the gusto while you can. Have as much fun as you can before you become food for the worms. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” If death is the end, then there is no ultimate meaning to your life, and no final reckoning; God will never call you to account. If you’re going to die like an animal, you might as well live like an animal, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. If the dead are not raised, then Mother Teresa is stupid, and Hugh Hefner is smart; Paul was stupid and Caligula was smart.
But, if Christ has been raised, then death is not the end, and each of us must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Selfishness will be punished, and self-sacrifice rewarded. Hedonism will turn out to be stupid, and heroism will turn out to be smart. Rejecting Christ will prove to be hell, and accepting Christ will turn out to be heaven.
So when you think about the final meaning and purpose of your own life, you have two basic choices, says Paul: you should either live it up and do whatever you like, or else you should devote your life to following Jesus, loving God and loving others as he commands, even if it means great sacrifices. It’s all or nothing, and it all depends on the resurrection.
I trust you can see why we can’t afford to be fuzzy in our thinking when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection. We need to be clear and definite because so much depends on it. The foundations of Christian teaching, the forgiveness of sins, the future destiny of Christians, and the final meaning of life all depend on whether Jesus was in fact raised. If he’s dead, the only sensible choice is to forget him. If he’s alive, the only sensible choice is to follow him.
Once we understand clearly what’s at stake in the resurrection, the next thing to do, obviously, is to find out whether it actually happened. What evidence do we have? Are there any solid reasons for thinking that Jesus is alive?
The Christian faith stakes everything on the belief that Jesus did indeed rise again, and that he’s coming back. So if you’re wondering about Christianity and whether you should become a Christian yourself, you need to make up your mind whether Jesus is dead or alive.
And to do that, you need to look at the evidence. Is there really any more reason to believe that Jesus Christ lives than to believe that Elvis Presley lives? Do you have to shut your brain off when you think about the resurrection? No, the Bible encourages us to look at the data, to consider the evidence, to weigh the arguments.
One line of argument is that the resurrection fulfills Old Testament Scripture. Near the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
When you read the books of the Old Testament, written long before Jesus was ever born, you find all sorts of prophecies about the Messiah that came true in the life of Jesus. Is that just a coincidence? If all the predictions about the Messiah seem to fit one particular man, then that man almost has to be the Messiah. And if he is, doesn’t it make sense that he would also fulfill the Scriptural predictions about his resurrection?
Take just one example, from Isaiah 53, written centuries before Christ. The prophet says, “For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” Then, in verse 11 of Isaiah 53, the prophet says, “After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.” This is just one of the many Old Testament predictions about the resurrection that would be fulfilled if, in fact, Jesus rose from the dead.
Still, if prophecy had been the only proof, it’s unlikely that any of the early Christians would have come to believe in the resurrection. As the apostle John puts it, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9).
John tells us that what first convinced him of the resurrection was the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty. John went into the tomb, and he saw with his own eyes that the body was gone. He saw the strips of linen and the burial cloth which had been wrapped around Jesus’ head still lying there, but Jesus himself was nowhere to be found. John saw that, and he believed (John 20:3-9).
So here’s another item we have to take into account when we’re wondering whether the resurrection really happened: the empty tomb. There’s no denying that Jesus’ body was gone. Otherwise, when the disciples started saying Jesus was alive, the government officials and religious authorities would have produced the body to show that he was still dead. But Jesus’ body had disappeared, and it wasn’t easy to explain how.
Some of Jesus’ enemies spread a rumor that his disciples had come and stolen the body and then had tried to fool people into believing that Jesus was alive. But how likely is that? The disciples were shattered by Jesus’ death. They were in no mood to pull a practical joke and try to fool everyone into thinking he was alive. Besides, there was a squad of heavily armed soldiers was guarding Jesus’ tomb at the time. How could a few heartbroken fishermen sneak past these professional troops?
And what did they have to gain by stealing the body and preaching Jesus’ resurrection? This wasn’t some elaborate swindle where they all got rich. All they got out of it was persecution, prison, and death. All of the apostles were either martyred or exiled and so it’s downright silly to explain the empty tomb by saying the disciples stole the body and then lied about the resurrection because they had something to gain by it. No, the only explanation that makes any sense of the empty tomb is that Jesus actually came back to life.
But even the empty tomb didn’t really convince most of the disciples. It was enough to convince John, but most of the others were convinced only by an encounter with the risen Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul mentions these encounters as a primary reason for believing in the resurrection. Paul writes that Jesus
appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last, of all he appeared to me, as to one abnormally born.
According to the biblical record, the risen Jesus appeared on quite a number of occasions. And these weren’t just mysterious visions or apparitions. No, Jesus actually spoke with his followers, he broke bread, he ate fish, he even allowed Thomas, the most skeptical of the disciples, to touch his scars. When he appeared to some women, they fell before him and actually held on to his feet and worshipped him. Not only that, but on some occasions, he appeared to large groups who all saw and heard him at the same time. There was no way they could all be dreaming or hallucinating together.
Now, if you were in a jury, and you had the testimony of hundreds of reliable, level-headed people who all said they saw a certain person–and those people who were even willing to die rather than change their story–wouldn’t you believe them? Listen to Sir Edward Clark, a British lawyer, who wrote, “As a lawyer, I have made a prolonged study of the evidence for the events of the first Easter day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.”
Paul mentions a final kind of evidence in 1 Corinthians 15 which is also very important: the change that Jesus makes in people’s lives. Paul points to himself as a prime example. He says, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” Jesus didn’t just appear to Paul; he changed him. Paul was once a proud, self-righteous man who helped to imprison and kill Christians, but the living Christ transformed him into the greatest missionary who every lived.
And Paul wasn’t the only one Jesus changed. The apostle Peter had denied Jesus, but after the resurrection, he became a courageous preacher. Jesus’ half-brother James, along with the rest of his relatives, had once thought Jesus was out of his mind. But when Jesus appeared to his brothers after his resurrection, they believed in him, and they became completely different people. Jesus makes a difference wherever people put their faith in him.
That’s as true throughout the history of the Christian church, and it’s still true today. Physically, Christ has remained in heaven since his ascension, but by the written testimony of his apostles and by the power of his Spirit, Jesus continues to convince people that he is real, and he turns them around, and he changes their lives. Millions of people from every nation and racial background, young and old, rich and poor, illiterates and geniuses, have been changed by Christ. They’re not only convinced that Jesus is alive, but they love him and have a vital relationship with him.
When you put the evidence together–the Old Testament predictions, the empty tomb, the hundreds of calm, rational people who insisted they saw the risen Christ and even talked with him and touched him, and the millions throughout history whose lives have been changed by him–it makes good sense to believe in the resurrection. It makes good sense to say with Paul, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!” And so it makes good sense to become a Christian, to put your faith in Jesus as the risen Lord and the eternal Son of God.
Ultimately, of course, it’s not enough simply to weigh the evidence and decide on a historical fact. As we saw earlier, once you conclude that Jesus is alive, there are all kinds of important consequences. His resurrection means that you must worship him as the Son of God, that you must believe and obey the Bible as the Word of God, that you must ask forgiveness of your sins through faith in his blood, that you can rejoice in the hope of life eternal, and that the meaning and purpose of your life is found in obeying Jesus, no matter what it costs you. Because Christ has been raised, he will raise you too, and any sacrifices you make will be nothing compared to resurrection glory.
My friend, there is no way for you to avoid Jesus. If he were dead, you could forget about him and do your own thing. But he’s not. He’s alive. Once you’re convinced of that, you must give yourself to him completely. It’s all or nothing.
Lord Jesus, we praise you for conquering death, and for giving us hope. Thank you for making the good news of the resurrection so clear in your Word. Now touch those listening to me with your Spirit. Fill their minds with the certainty that you are alive, and fill their hearts with your love and joy. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.