A QUESTION OF LIFE OR DEATH
by Bob Wheeler
Why do we die? What happens to us after we die? We moderns don’t like to think much about such questions – we try to push them out of our minds. But our ancestors knew that such questions are unavoidable. At some point we will all have to face the inescapable fact of death. It does us little good to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
When Christianity first began to spread out into the world, one of the things about it that struck many people as remarkable, if not downright odd, was its belief in a future resurrection. How, one might ask, can a dead, lifeless body which has crumbled into dust come back to life again? Not only had most people never heard of such a thing, most of them could not see how it would even be possible.
Evidently there were even some within the church at Corinth that entertained such doubts, and the apostle Paul found it necessary to address the question in I Corinthians chapter 15. It is a chapter that we moderns would do well to take a look at.
Paul addresses the issue by pointing out that if the resurrection of the dead were an impossibility then Christ Himself could not have risen from the dead. But Christ did rise from the dead. How do we know? By abundant eye-witness testimony. He was seen alive after the crucifixion by the twelve apostles on several different occasions. “After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present . . .” (v. 6; NKJV). He was then seen by James, then again by the apostles. “Then, last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of wedlock” (v. 8).
Paul then stresses how absolutely important Christ’s resurrection is to the church. The fact of the resurrections lies at the very heart of the Christian message. If the resurrection of Christ were not true, if it did not actually happen, then “our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty” (v. 14). The credibility of the apostles (and by implication their writings) is destroyed, and Christian believers have a misplaced faith. Even worse, we are still in our sins, and those who have already died have utterly perished. What a tragic waste of life! “If in this life we are hoping only in Christ, we are of all men the most to be pitied,” as we might translate verse 19.
Having established then that Christ rose from the dead Paul then goes on to draw out the implication for our own future resurrection. First of all he draws a parallel between Adam and Christ. “For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 21,22). Why do we die? The ultimate reason is our sin – ours individually the sin of our common ancestor Adam. “For as in Adam all die . . .” We are “in Adam” in the sense that he was our forefather, and as such he was acting on our behalf as our representative. His sin was an act of rebellion against God, and as a result God pronounced a curse upon him and his entire posterity. Because of Adam we are all born sinners, and because of Adam we all die.
“. . . even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” When we personally repent of our sins and put our faith in Christ as our Savior, and publicly seal that faith in baptism, we are united to Christ both legally and spiritually. We are “in Christ.” Thus He acted as the representative of all of us who are united to Him by faith, and as a result we enjoy the benefits of His death and resurrection. Our sin has been atoned, the curse has been removed, and we can now be restored back to life. Thus, in the case of believers, Christ reversed the effects of the fall and made our own physical resurrection possible. His resurrection was the “firstfruits” of what is to follow.
Paul goes on to explain how this will all unfold in the future. Christ reigns, Paul says, “till He has put all enemies under His feet” (v. 25). “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (v. 26). That happens with the resurrection of the saints, which will take place “at His coming” (v. 23). This would be the Second Coming that takes place after the Great Tribulation, when Christ defeats the Antichrist at the Battle of Armageddon. Since the rapture of the church takes place after the resurrection of the saints (I Thess. 4:15-17), the implication is that the rapture will also take place after the Tribulation, not before.
There a number of important practical lessons to be drawn from all of this. One is the vital importance of maintaining the biblically orthodox position with regards to the resurrection. The resurrection of Christ, and our own future resurrection, are central to the gospel, and without them the Christian faith is essentially gutted. Sad to say, this is largely the situation today in many of the liberal mainline Protestant churches. Their members attend faithfully, and support them financially, but they never hear the Christian gospel. They are trying to serve a dead and lifeless Christ. In the final analysis they have no hope to offer a perishing world.
But the doctrine of the resurrection has important implications for biblically conservative believers as well. The hope of a future resurrection should give us a whole different perspective on life. If there is no resurrection, if there is no life after death, what is there to live for? “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (v. 32). But instead Paul was willing to “die daily” and he even “fought with beasts at Ephesus” (vv. 31,32). Why? Because he know that something better was in store for him at the return of Christ, something that was infinitely better and would last for all eternity. For him the sufferings he endured here in this life was “money in the bank,” as it were. It was an investment well worth making.
Paul concludes this section by saying, “Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God . . .” (v. 34). The first phrase in the Greek is a little hard to translate into English. The verb literally means to become sober after being drunk. Today we might say “wake up and smell the coffee!” Most people are totally earthbound in their perspective. They stumble through life, trying to get what fleeting pleasure and happiness they can, and then they face a Christless eternity. And they do this because they “do not have the knowledge of God” They lack a consciousness of God, and they don’t think about what He wants. As a result, in the end they accomplish nothing but their own eternal destruction. How much better it would be to consider eternity, to make our lives here on earth count for something, and to live for Christ every moment.
It all depends on the resurrection!