As we anticipate the annual celebration of the resurrection of Christ, Chip from Georgia writes in to ask, “Pastor John, Christian Hedonism seems to say that our deepest longings in this life can only be satisfied by God and it’s only in him that we can be truly happy. If God makes us happier than people who simply pursue the world, why does Paul say we are to be pitied most of all men if there is no resurrection? Isn’t our life, even now, more satisfying than that of a non-Christian?”
I am smiling real big. I love sharp, biblically rooted questions. So I have asked this. In fact, I have spoken on it. Years ago I spoke to the Wycliffe folks in Cameroon on this very question. So I was trying to remember what I said. It is a really important and good question rooted in 1 Corinthians 15. So let me just bring Chip the rest of us up to where I am thinking today. I don’t know that I have the completely satisfying answer, but I have some answers that have helped me.
Just a clarification to start with about Christian joy in this painful life. A huge part of our joy as Christians is what Paul calls rejoicing in hope from Romans 5. In other words, joy is not complete in what we can know and have of God here now. Our joy is in hope of what we will know and have of God in the future also. Our joy here is a foretaste of the fullness of joy there and so it is not complete now. We see through a glass darkly and we know in part. So our joy is in part. It is strong now. It is deep now. It is enough to carry the day now, but it is nothing near like what it will be.
So Romans 5:2 says, “Through him we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” That means that the joy we anticipate in the age to come flows back into this age in measure — not in fullness, but in measure. We rejoice in our sufferings, he says, “knowing that our suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope” (vv. 3–4). So we are people who have this strange emotional experience of rejoicing in what we don’t yet have to make us happy.
So I don’t want to overstate the joy of the Christian Hedonist in this age. It is not nearly what it will be in the age to come and much of it is anticipatory now. So here are the key words that create the problem in 1 Corinthians 15.
The context is Paul is talking about whether Christ has been raised from the dead or not. And he says, “If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting [that is we are false witnesses of God, we are liars about God] because we have testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise, if it is true that the dead are not raised (1 Corinthians 15:14–15).
And then verses 17–18: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. You are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” We are going to come back to that. That is really crucial. Christians are going to hell. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. They have gone to hell. “If in Christ we have hope only in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied.” And the question is, “How can Christians who have more joy than anybody else be most to be pitied?” That is the question. And I am asking, “Why did you say that, Paul?” I think I see four reasons for why Paul says this.
1) Evidently Paul believes that a life of delusion is to be pitied even if it is a happy delusion. It is not just that what we are experiencing in this life proves to be more or less happy in the other; it proves to be non existent in the other. If Christ is not raised from the dead, then my joy in the living Christ is not joy in the living Christ. There is no living Christ. And therefore I am not experiencing joy in the living Christ. I am an absolute idiot. I am a fool.
Paul’s first conviction, it seems to me, is that this is not true. Christ is raised. And his second conviction is that it is a delusion if he is not raised and it is an enormous delusion, more pitiable than anything he can think of, evidently. So that is the first reason, a delusory life, a life lived in absolute delusion is to be pitied.
2) Paul’s life would be pitiable, because he willingly embraced so much suffering that he could have avoided. Those sufferings were sustained by Paul’s joy in Christ. Not the other way around. The sufferings didn’t create the joy in this life. So if there is no resurrection, those sufferings were absolutely pointless. That is the second reason.
3) We deny ourselves many pleasures here precisely for the sake of the reward of the age to come. So Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad now, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11–12).
So we renounce retaliation and the joy of getting back at people. We renounce that. We renounce the comforts of fitting into the world so we don’t ever have to be criticized or reviled. We renounce that. Why? Precisely because we believe it will be made up to us in heaven, which means we didn’t just fail to maximize the pleasures we could have had here. But we bargained that the self-denial would be rewarded in the resurrection, and there is no resurrection and the bargain failed.
4) And here is the fourth and last reason I think he said this. This one comes straight out of his words. If Christ and we are not raised from the dead, then Paul doesn’t infer Atheism. He infers hell. That we enter a worse punishment in hell than others, because we didn’t just make a mistake, we actively misrepresented God.
I notice I have oftentimes read this chapter and this argument like this: “Well, if there is no resurrection from the dead, the whole biblical religion is false. There is no God. Que, sera, sera. Let’s eat, drink, and be merry.” That is not what Paul does. He didn’t argue like that. He says, “If Christ has not been raised, God is going to send me to hell, because I have been telling everybody that this is his Son and he has been raised from the dead and I am a false prophet. And, therefore, I am of all people most to be pitied, for I am going to get the worst punishment.”
So to sum it up, here they are: If there is no risen Christ, no resurrection of believers unto eternal reward and joy, then, 1) The Christian life is a delusion. 2) Voluntary suffering is painfully pointless. 3) Hope in heaven is futile and all of our basing our self-denials on it was ridiculous. 4) Any attempt to speak for the living Christ would be a damnable scam and a false prophecy which would deserve hell even more than others and we would perish under that severe sentence. So we are of all people most to be pitied.