Reading: I Corinthians 15
Last week I mentioned a joke that Biblical scholars and theologians don’t talk to each other much; though, I also said that I’ve not found that to be true in my own experience. Last week, we read a passage that has people either trying to harmonize it with their theology, or simply admitting that Luke’s account on the Crucifixion tells us about Jesus, but it is not a lecture on how Salvation works.
Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians is different; he is definitely talking about theology, and specifically why the Resurrection is important. Apparently, there are people who think that the preaching of the resurrection is metaphorical and not literal — they say that there is no resurrection. Paul points out that Resurrection is important, even central.
It is somewhat surprising that second generation Christianity was already arguing about how to understand the resurrection. Those who saw Jesus in person were still alive, but, people were debating whether or not there was a resurrection of the dead — as Paul said: “If there is no resurrection, then Jesus was not raised.” This seems so obvious, one wonders why this conversation is necessary.
You might remember, this argument did not originate in Christianity. The Sadducees did not believe there was a resurrection; this means that religious elite in the Temple likely did not consider resurrection important, if they believed in it at all — because the Sadducee’s were the party that supported the power of the priests and the importance of the temple.
Now, I grew up with resurrection, heaven, and hell. It is hard to mentally separate these beliefs from faith in God. If one is not looking to the afterlife, where does one find salvation — what is one saved from? Why be religious if there is no resurrection, no judgment and this life is everything that there is.
The most obvious answer is that those of us who have sin in our lives live with the damage of that sin in our lives. Scripture, as well as our own experience teaches us that sin hurts us and it hurts those around us. If we learn to live better, it makes things better for everybody. Torah is about how to live, and what to do — it is not about what happens after we’ve finished doing.
Another answer, obvious if we remember the question people asked about the blind man before Jesus healed him: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind.”. There was an idea that we face God’s judgment on Earth, and when we have misfortune in our life it is punishment. The idea of reward or punishment on Earth can be an effective motivator — though, various scriptures in both the Old and the New Testament challenge the idea that life is fair in this way.
There is nothing wrong with the idea that God wants us to live better, and to lead us away from the destructive power of sin in our lives — in fact, there is much right with this idea. We are all familiar with 12 step programs like AA. If you go through the 12 steps, it is about, with God’s help, breaking the power of sin to destroy your life and seeking to make amends and repair relationships broken by sin — and, there is nothing about that which theologically offends me; Jesus came to save us from our sins, and we definitely need saved in life.
Jesus used death language metaphorically when he told the disciples they needed to take up the cross every day. Paul used the language metaphorically when he taught that we died to our old selves, and were raised again in Christ. There is something important about this; we need Christ transforming power in our lives — we metaphorically need new life, so there is nothing wrong with that.
Paul makes it clear though that he is not talking about metaphor here — he is talking about a resurrection that we will participate in. Whether or not there is a resurrection of the dead doesn’t matter when you are talking about metaphor, but it matters a whole lot when you are talking about something that will happen. You are likely familiar with the Nicene creed that ends with the words: “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Christianity makes a literal resurrection, and life to come after death as a central part of our faith.
Paul writes that: “if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised from the dead.” Everything about Christianity depends on Resurrection being real. Jesus’ message needs resurrection to be more than a metaphor. The metaphor is important — we should never neglect the metaphor; but we also need to remember that we look for the resurrection that is to come. We believe Christ is raised from the dead — and we look forward to being raised as well.
Last week, I mentioned that there are a several models people made to explain how we are saved; and Luke’s picture of Jesus on the cross didn’t really get into salvation beyond Jesus telling a thief on the cross that he would be in Paradise this very day, and Jesus suffering great injustice and forgiving those who put him on the cross — even while he was suffering from that injustice. This tells us that God’s capacity to forgive is great — but it really does not get into how salvation works.
Paul, talking about why resurrection is important does get into Soteriology. Paul, in several places, explains some things. I’ve heard a joke that as a theologian who understands the Bible — if I’m ever asked what I believe about salvation, or sanctification, or anything like that, instead of answering I should say: “I believe what Paul teaches;” because I will be telling the truth, and the person who asked will believe that I just agreed with him. The problem with our models is they are over-simplified and incomplete — a good number of them work well together. This reading, in fact, can be understood by a number of the models.
There are two models in what we read that I would like to focus on; if you recall, last week I said I really didn’t want to get into Theosis, because it was a bit esoteric, and not especially relevant to the passage — well it is relevant here:
Paul talks about the first and the 2nd Adam. Because of the first Adam, we have our sin nature — death came through the first Adam. There was something about Adam’s sin that touches all of Humanity. I might not have personally eaten the fruit — but yet, this had a significant effect on all of humanity that followed. The doctrine of Original Sin says that even if I am not personally guilty, there I am personally touched in a destructive way by this sin.
Jesus is the second Adam; just as Adam brought us all death through Original Sin, Jesus brings us life through His Incarnation. Paul does not get into the details of it, but largely Eastern theologians worked pretty hard to develop it. As simple as I can put it — Jesus was fully God, and fully Human — and somehow who Jesus was changes what Humanity is in a profound way just as what Adam did changed humanity in a profound way. We Christians participate with Christ’s humanity, and we are transformed into something more like God. Theosis is a word that describes this change through Jesus. If you ask an Eastern Christian when he was “saved,” he looks to the life of Christ and might say Easter, or Christmas; salvation comes through Christ’s work in the world, just as sin comes from Adam.
The second major theory of atonement in this passage is Christus victor — the idea that Jesus saves us by conquering the big enemies. As Paul writes in verse 26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Jesus defeats death in a very real and obvious way on Easter Sunday, however, one thing that we’ve all been able to observe is that death is still a pretty big thing. Death has not suffered its final defeat; when we look forward to the general resurrection, we look forward to when Jesus will have completely defeated death — our own death included; for what good is a salvation that comes from Christ defeating His death but not the death that destroys our lives?
One thing that both of these views of salvation have in common is that we are not, right now, “saved” in either way. Jesus’ final defeat of death has not happened, none of us are walking around in our resurrection bodies. In terms of Theosis, I don’t believe any one of us is as Christlike as we are going to become. I don’t yet live on Earth exactly as I hope to live in heaven. I still say cross words to people who don’t deserve them; I still act selfishly, I still do not love as wholly as I will when I grow into Christ’s image. Jesus is still working on me — as Paul says in various places, we now have two natures fighting each other; and I can tell you right now one will win. An old of mine, who I’ve not seen for over 10 years, Ted Blakley, once said that we all are now living in heaven or hell, or bit of both. If I understood Ted, he saw eternal destiny as a result of being where we choose to make our home on Earth. The good news is that Jesus not only came to forgive us (He managed that on the cross, without anybody asking for it), but to save us. The good news is that we are being saved — from our sins, from any broken parts of our nature, and even eventually from death itself. Christianity isn’t about a single prayer, it is about continuing to, in the words of Paul, work out our salvation. This is good news, because I need saved from far more than the consequence of my sins — I need to be remade in Christ image.