As a brand-new, twenty-something Christian, spending a year doing intern youth ministry, I had just shared the gospel to a class of jaded twelve-year-olds, when a boy swamped in an over-sized school blazer approached me. By the look on his face the cogs of his mind were spinning fast. He politely asked if he could ask me a question and said, “What if you’re wrong? What if it all just isn’t true?”
I was flummoxed. As I floundered for an answer, a forgotten Christian lyric unfiled itself and jumped to the front of my brain:
And if I die with no reward/Then I know I had peace ‘cause I carried the sword.
I hastily quoted the line, trying to sound like some old sage. And although the boy nodded and walked away, I knew he was as unconvinced as I was.
The senselessness and emptiness of my words haunted me. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I found the biblical answer to the boy’s question. And it winded me like a blow to the gut! What if we have it all wrong? What if the gospel is not true? Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied’ (1 Cor. 15:19). No Christ . . . no reward . . . no peace . . . no nothing! Just pity – more pity than the most pitiable!
More pitiful than the new-born baby found wailing in the woods because it was unwanted by its mother. More pitiful than the one long imprisoned and enslaved, denied even an ounce of humanity. If we Christians die with no reward, we are more pitiful than these!
As the death toll continues to climb and we now see death in a way that for many of us was confined to history textbooks; what peace can we have if we hope in this life only? Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 couldn’t be further from the hollow optimism I had conveyed all those years ago; missing completely the true weight of gospel hope in Christ. Paul, in seeking to defend the resurrection of the dead on the Final Day, is fighting the Sadducees’ denial of resurrection on one side, and the Graeco-Roman ideals of total ‘end game’ or a wisp like half-life in Hades on the other. So, he underscores the necessity of Christ’s resurrection to the gospel and the union of Christ’s past resurrection to the future resurrection of His saints. ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Cor. 15:14). ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins’ (v.17). We Christians are those who declare in joyful song each week that Christ is our righteousness and freedom, even when we are stuck at home in isolation. Paul makes the point that if Christ were just a Nazarene, still lying dead in a grave in Palestine, then we are deceived and our faith is a sham. And ‘those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished’ (v.18). Meaning the belief and comfort that we will see our loved ones again is utterly ludicrous!
This is a real challenge to our spirituality at a time of global pandemic. Does our hope in Christ stretch beyond the grave, second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, with such confidence that without it we are most miserable?
We are reminded that confessionally our resurrection hope in Christ is unique and unreserved. So much confidence we put upon the resurrection witness of the New Testament writers (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-8) and the witness of the Spirit to our hearts, that we are kings and queens – conquerors even – awaiting the promise of a mighty inheritance! We will not be left to maggot and decay. Our Lord Jesus, with whom we are supernaturally fused, is our power beyond the grave. His resurrection is our resurrection (vv.20-23). Do you hope in Christ like those who, out of 7 billion, would be the most to be pitied?
I have a young daughter nicknamed ‘Bee’ who loves to pretend to be a bee. She buzzes around the house, punctuating her flying with attacks to innocent members of the family. “STING! STING! SHARP! SHARP!” she says to make the point. It always reminds me of Paul’s victory cry at the end of 1 Corinthians 15 (v.55).
Death certainly has a sting. Whether by means of a slow decline or a sudden tragedy, like a scorpion, death delivers a swift, sharp and painful shock. We have certainly experienced this in recent weeks. In an instant, someone we love is gone and we are forced to bury one we don’t want to live without. Yet in the gospel there is life in death. Never before has a grisly execution been the means of eternal life, bringing about the death of death itself! When anxiety drains you of peace during the night, remember death was defeated by the Easter work of Christ, and it will not survive its own final Ragnarok on the Day of Judgement. ‘For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (vv.25-26).
We are not pitiful but those united to ‘the Resurrection and the Life’ (John 11:25). Christ is our comfort, hope and victory in the merciless face of death. Christ is our certain reward!
So now death ‘where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ (1 Cor. 15:54-55).
Adapted excerpt from Natalie’s new book, The Good Portion: The Doctrine of Salvation, for Every Woman.
Natalie Brand (Ph.D. Trinity St. David) is adjunct lecturer in historical and systematic theology at Union School of Theology. She is the author of The Good Portion: The Doctrine of Salvation, for Every Woman, part of The Good Portion series published by Christian Focus. Her other works are Complementarian Spirituality: Reformed Women and Union with Christ and Prone to Wander: Grace for the Lukewarm and Apathetic. She is lives with her husband and three daughters, and hopes one day to move to Bag End in the Shire.
*** Look for a Facebook Live discussion with The Good Portion authors, Natalie, Keri, Rebecca and Jenny, on the Christian Focus Publishing page Monday, May 18, 2:00 p.m. E.S.T.