A close friend of mine made a most peculiar and startling statement to me recently after reading Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church. This friend, by the way, is agnostic and, I assure you, of quite sound and sharp mind. He drew my attention to one key verse in particular where Paul declares, "Be Christ not risen, then is all our preachings in vain, and our faith in vain" (1 Cor 15:14). A key verse if there ever was one! This declaration hangs Christianity on one of those doctrinal precepts that all Christians accept as true: that Christ was physically resurrected after dying. My friend found Paul's statement unnecessary. As he curtly told me, "Christianity can and should be understood in such a way that it survives whether or not Christ does."

"Wait a minute!" I thought. "Christianity without Christ rising again?! That sounds absurd!" But, as with so many principles that we accept unquestioningly and consider obvious statements of truth, when I thought about why the Resurrection is so vital I found myself momentarily stumped. Sometimes explaining and articulating the most obvious things can be surprisingly challenging (try explaining to a child why the sky appears blue, for example).

The point my friend was trying to make was simple enough. As many detractors of the Christianity would say, the Resurrection can't be true because the idea of someone rising from the dead just strains credulity. Basing an entire religion on such an incredible miracle, the argument goes, is, at best, distracting wishful thinking and, at worst, foolishness. This is the kind of argument that Paul himself would have heard from some Christians in the cities in which he preached (the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 is a response to Christians who doubted the necessity of believing in the Resurrection) and responding to this argument is just as relevant today for any Christian as it was then. It is vital for a Christian to know why the Resurrection is so important.

The fact of the matter is Christianity does, indeed, rest critically on the reality of Christ's resurrection. It is only through the Resurrection that we can understand who Christ is, what God's will through Him is and why our hope in Him makes any sense at all. In fact, after thinking about my friend's objection for just a little while, I was ready to make a seemingly bold statement: If tomorrow someone found a grave and could convincingly prove that Jesus Christ's dead body were in it, then I would stop believing all together. All then would be lost; or, as Paul put it, if we believe in a resurrection that didn't actually happen, then "we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Cor 15:19).

The Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith

The main problem with a conception of Christianity that does not hinge on Christ's resurrection is the difference it would imply between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. In orthodox Christian doctrine these two are and must be one and the same. In other words, the Jesus you and I believe in is also the same one who actually walked the Earth all those millennia ago. If Christianity, as my friend suggested, does not need the physical resurrection of Jesus to actually be true, then the historical Jesus was just a witty, miracle performing teacher who never claimed to be the Son of God, while the Jesus of faith just becomes a symbol representing a cluster of feel good ideas that helps certain people live their lives in a good way.

But if I as a Christian believe that, then I have introduced a glaring internal inconsistency that I can't reconcile. Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection and Christ's self-sacrificial love at first glance may be enough to inspire some people to live a good life, to overcome existential angst, to resurrect hope in despair and what have you. But how on earth can Christ really do that for people if they don't actually believe that the Jesus of history did in fact perform miracles, and say he was God incarnate and rise from the dead? Furthermore, I can no longer believe that my faith in conquering death is genuine if he in whom I had faith himself could not conquer it. The Jesus of faith can only make sense if it is rooted in the Jesus of history. One without the other doesn't work.

For me, if Christianity is just a bunch of feel good ideas and a moral code that doesn't
depend on what Jesus actually said and did, then that makes it quite un-special, just another "spirituality" that I can pick off the shelf at the local religion store. Ultimately, the Bible is not simply a moral code; it is a record of God's redemptive plan through the person of Christ. Nothing more, nothing less.

As such, we can't simply ignore what that written record says, what Jesus  himself is recorded as saying in the gospels about his own impending death and resurrection: "Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again" (Luke 18:31-33; see also Matthew 16:21, Mark 8:31 and John 12:20). Indeed, verses like these give us the simplest reason for believing the Resurrection to be true: The historical Jesus in whom we have faith said that it was true.

The objector would respond by saying that all of this simply means that Christianity is ultimately based on the unlikely, miraculous superstition that someone dead rose to life again. True, this is not something we see very often! As such, the resurrection is an uncommon miracle, and miracles most definitely require faith to believe. But I've merely stated the obvious here. What isn't obvious is that without the miracles that Christ performed and his resurrection from the dead we can no longer believe any of the claims of Christianity. This is because Christianity is not based on miracles, it is based on the deity of Christ, of which what he said and did (most importantly, again, his resurrection) is a manifestation. Why? Because Jesus said so in the Gospels and because the Lord said so in numerous prophesies in the Old Testament. If as a Christian I believe the scriptures are true, then I must believe that Christ was God incarnate and that, therefore, He would do the things He said He would, which includes the resurrection because He explicitly said so.

A Great Tale?

But let's grant the objector the opportunity to sketch what Christianity would look like without the resurrection and see what we get.

If what is in the Bible, particularly the Gospels, is not true then it becomes fiction, a story. Indeed, I have heard this alternative put forth before: The story of Christ is merely a story, albeit the greatest and most profound story ever told, one that teaches the most about being human. As such, this non-literal understanding of Christianity is still valuable and could become the basis for a religion – how ever you want to define that word. This interpretation, the proponent of this view would argue, also allows you to avoid any overriding obsession with eternal life, which may arguably become a false pretense for faith and spirituality. One who supports this interpretation of the Bible as a great tale could even claim that he isn't implying that Christ's pronouncements were false. What Christ says in the Gospels are now like lines of dialogue from Shakespeare or poetry out of Milton. No one claims that what Hamlet says are actually, factually true, but that doesn't reduce the resonance of "To be, or not to be." What Hamlet says is still "true" in that it is profound and of intrinsic value.

The biggest flaw in such an alternative view of Christianity is that it actually  suggests that the Resurrection is vital no matter which way you look at it. Let's start by assuming that Christianity is great literature, nothing more or less. But the Resurrection is still the crux of the story. Take that away and the story is completely altered at its core. To carry on the Shakespeare analogy, it's tantamount to saying that Hamlet in fact didn't need to say any of his monologues. But those monologues are vital part of the play that Shakespeare intended to write. Is the play the same without them? The Resurrection is a vital part of the story of Christ, by the story's own admission. Even if its only use is to learn from, surely you're learning from a completely different story without the Resurrection, one, in fact, that no longer makes a whole lot of sense on its own terms. Either Christianity is a non-factual but valuable story, in which case it requires the Resurrection; or it's factual, in which case it requires the Resurrection. Either way, you can't escape the centrality of the Resurrection!

For the Christian, the whole point of believing that the Bible - including, crucially, the Resurrection - is true is actually something much more important than living a good life or even attaining eternal life, as important as those things are. The ultimate purpose of believing is to be reconciled with God in a loving relationship with him. That, according to Genesis, is what humanity was created for. We were created in the image of God in order to be in a constant loving relationship with him. The point, then, of eternal life
for the Christian isn't its eternality but the fact that we will  permanently be reconciled with God, which was the way it was always meant to be.

Faith in the risen Christ is the only thing that makes that possible. Fortunately, we don't have to be "pitied more than all men" for believing in a false Resurrection. As Paul affirms just a few verses after spelling out the dire consequences of a resurrection that did not happen in his letter to the Corinthian church, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep...For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Cor 15:20, 23).