Do we really need to believe that Jesus rose from the dead?

I once heard an older pastor talk about his first days at seminary. One of the professors asked the then student if he really believed that Jesus bodily rose from the grave. When the student confessed that he did, the professor told the student that he would get “over that” within a few semesters.

For a while now, some have questioned if the church needs to retain the doctrine of the resurrection. Do we need to believe that Jesus of Nazareth walked out of a tomb in a resurrected human body to call ourselves Christians? Why can’t we boil Christianity down to principles to live a good life, love our fellow man, and leave the supernatural baggage behind? Surely that stuff does not fit with modern thinking. Must one believe in the resurrection to be a Christian?

Before we answer that question, let us look at what Scripture says about Jesus’s resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-6, Paul gives us a logical justification of the resurrection. In four parts, Paul defends the resurrection to the first-century church at Corinth. First, Jesus died just as the Scriptures foretold (Psalm 16:10). Jesus was a historical figure who was crucified by the Romans, a fact that is verified by non-Christian historians from the first century. Second, he was placed in the tomb of a known citizen in Jerusalem, Joseph of Arimathea. Third, that tomb was found empty. No credible source in the first century claimed to have had Jesus’s body. Instead, a rumor was circulated that the disciples stole his body from the tomb. Which makes sense if you believe that the disciples who were scattered and fleeing for their lives suddenly rallied, transformed into a crack special ops unit, defeated the Roman legionnaires, stole Christ’s body, and spent the rest of their lives being persecuted and martyred to cover up their deception! Fourth, Jesus appeared to over 500 people. Some of whom had died by the time Paul wrote his letter, but many of them could still be found in the Mediterranean region.

Paul not only argues that the resurrection happened, but he also tells the Corinthians that it is essential to their faith. He states that if Christ did not rise from the dead, his message and their faith is in vain (v. 14). If Christ is not alive then they are still in their sin, or guilty before God for breaking His law. If Christ is not alive, Paul writes that Christians who have died perished and those still alive are to be pitied. The cross does not result in life for the believer unless Jesus rose from the dead. However, Paul writes, “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20, ESV). Just as Jesus rose from the dead, so will all of those who belong to him! There is more to come for those who believe.

Jesus has risen! He ate fish with his followers and let them touch his wounds. Then he ascended to God the Father’s right hand in a human body. The answer to our question, yes, it is essential that Christians believe in Jesus’s resurrection. The doctrine of the resurrection is foundational to the genuine Christian Church. Therefore, the resurrection is a prominent feature of the ancient Christian statements of faith. Why is this encouraging for Christians? Just as Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection — his followers are the full harvest.

Alan W. McElroy is pastor of White Cliff Church (Southern Baptist Convention)

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Perspectives is a regular column sponsored and written by members of the Ketchikan Ministerial Association.