Paul’s account of the Resurrection in First Corinthians is (with all its theological implications) one of the great doctrinal rocks upon which the historic Church is founded, and as such is important enough to demand attention in any discussion of Paul as a Christian moralist. But it is also of special interest to the modern religious humanist. For it challenges him, in a peculiarly direct and uncompromising way, to give if he can his own account of the matter; and this is what I propose to do in an effort to bring out the difference between the Christian and the humanist interpretation of certain vital facts of our spiritual experience at a point at which (I believe) it can be most forcibly exhibited.
THE HUMANIST RECONSTRUCTION
Speaking, accordingly, in the manner of men, as a humanist, and therefore without reference to the supernatural aspect of the matter upon which the historic Church puts all its emphasis, the meaning of the Resurrection may be said to be the immediate, inward experience of the indestructibility of the saving knowledge that the man Jesus Christ brought into the consciousness of men. This was the knowledge of the redemptive power of love; and the Resurrection was the most complete and most glorious affirmation of its indestructible power to redeem. And (the humanist would go on) what the historic accounts of the Resurrection in the Synoptic Gospels and the Acts may be taken to express is the fact that this saving knowledge that Christ brought into the consciousness of men was not destroyed when Christ died on the cross because it could not be destroyed, being in its intrinsic nature indestructible. It could indeed be eclipsed; but only for the shortest space of time—according to the New Testament story, only for the space of the three terrible days immediately following Christ’s death, when the disciples, who had been charged to preach and propagate Christ’s gospel, fell into an anguish of despair and doubt, and the gospel of love was threatened with extinction. And if it had been possible that the saving knowledge that Jesus Christ brought into the consciousness of men should pass forever out of their consciousness, if it had been possible to lose forever the saving power of that knowledge, then, as Paul says, we should have been of all men the most pitiable. But in fact (to complete this interpretation of the gospel story) the anguished prayers of the disciples for reassurance were answered. Faith and hope were restored to them—faith in the redeeming power of love and hope in its power to save the whole world—and with these their apostolic fervor and energy; and the gospel of Christ was saved for the world from that time to the present day.
The vital point upon which this interpretation of the Resurrection diverges from the Pauline and Christian is not difficult to see. On this interpretation of the Resurrection, it does not matter whether Christ, as a matter of historical and scientific fact, did or did not rise from the dead. It does not matter on this interpretation whether the tomb, as a matter of historical and scientific fact, was or was not empty. On this interpretation, the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead is neither asserted nor denied; it is affirmed simply to be irrelevant to what is taken, on this view, to be the real, inward, permanently valid meaning of the mystery of the Resurrection—its meaning as the experienced certainty of the indestructibility of Christ’s gospel of love. And to this fact of our most inward experience, nothing is added—nothing could be added—for the humanist by the further fact of Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead, even if that fact were historically and scientifically true.
THE BIBLICAL AFFIRMATION
This, speaking in human fashion, as a humanist, is what one might say the Resurrection essentially means. But this, of course, is not what St. Paul says it means. Or, rather, he says that it does not mean only this, and that this for the Christian is not even the most important part of what it means. For Paul the Resurection is not merely the supreme symbol of the indestructibility of Christ’s gospel. What Paul insists upon is that Christ actually rose from the dead; that the tomb was empty, as a matter of scientifically verifiable fact; that the Resurrection as it is reported in the Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles was a historical event; that it happened, visibly happened, before the witnesses named in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians: “He rose on the third day, as the Scriptures had said, and … he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve; after that he was seen by over five hundred brothers all at once, the majority of whom survive to this day, though some have died; after that he was seen by James, then by all the Apostles, and finally he was seen by myself.” And he insists upon it still more explicitly and with the fullest emphasis in a great passage in the same chapter of First Corinthians—a passage that vibrates in every cadence with his passionate conviction of the truth of the miraculous event, with his terror for the world’s destruction if it should be denied, and his anguished appeal to the wretched backsliding Corinthians to see their error and repent before it is too late:
Now if we preach that Christ rose from the dead, how can certain individuals among you assert that ‘there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead’? If ‘there is no such thing as a resurrection from the dead,’ then even Christ did not rise; and if Christ did not rise, then our preaching has gone for nothing, and your faith has gone for nothing too. Besides, we are detected bearing false witness to God by affirming of him that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise, if after all dead men never rise. For if dead men never rise, Christ did not rise either; and if Christ did not rise, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins. More than that: those who have slept the sleep of death in Christ have perished after all. Ah, if in this life we have nothing but a mere hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
And again, a few verses on, with the same passionate agitation:
If there is no such thing as a resurrection, what is the meaning of people getting baptised on behalf of their dead? If dead men do not rise at all, why do people get baptised on their behalf? Yes, and why am I myself in danger every hour?… What would it avail me that, speaking in the manner of men, I ‘fought with wild beasts’ at Ephesus? If dead men do not rise, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.…
But it is not so! Christ did rise from the dead, he was the first to be reaped of those who sleep in death.
For since death came by man, by man came also resurrection from the dead; as all die in Adam, so shall all be made alive in Christ.
THE HUMANIST’S DILEMMA
If there is anything in all Christian writing that could turn even the most ferocious, intransigent humanist into a true historical Christian, it is, I believe, these passages on the Resurrection in First Corinthians. If to a mind as illuminated with all spiritual knowledge as Paul’s, and a heart as dedicated as his to the love of whatsoever things are pure and honorable and lovely, this was the most important truth about the Resurrection, it is indeed hard for the humanist to resist the suggestion that it does after all matter whether Christ did or did not rise from the dead, whether the tomb was or was not empty as a matter of historical and scientific fact.
The humanist does in the end resist this suggestion. He does in the end remain firm in his conviction that Paul failed in this instance to put first things first. He failed to put first the essential inward meaning of the Resurrection as (the humanist still maintains) the supreme symbolic affirmation of the profoundly redemptive experience of the indestructible power of love to transform and redeem the world. This, for the humanist, is the whole meaning of the Resurrection—a meaning, for him, intelligible enough and complete enough for all the ends of salvation; and it is this that Paul fails to put first, choosing instead, as we have seen, to put all his emphasis upon the Resurrection as a historical event, and insisting that it is its historical truth, and this only, that is the basis of its redemptive power.
So the humanist resists and rejects in the end the Pauline account of the Resurrection, but, in view of those passages in First Corinthians, not without the greatest difficulty. The reason I stress the difficulty is that I wish to make it plain that it is not easy to be a humanist—a ‘religious’ humanist, that is, as distinct from a scientific or naturalistic humanist. It is not easy to be a humanist if one really understands what it is one is rejecting in that central religious tradition of our civilization to which we owe whatever spiritual light we may possess. And since it is vitally necessary that the humanist should understand what he is rejecting in historic Christianity, it is necessary that he should take Christ and Paul seriously, as the scientific and naturalistic humanists on the whole do not. If his humanism is to have any claim to intellectual respectability, he must really know what he is rejecting; and to know this he must be prepared to expose himself, to the quick of his soul (as D. H. Lawrence would have said), to the full impact of that which he is rejecting. This kind of exposure is growing less and less common nowadays, certainly among non-Christians and even among Christians themselves; and for this reason it seemed desirable in this discussion of Paul as Christian moralist to present him as directly as possible, letting him speak for the most part in his own voice, so that the impact for those who need it might be as complete as possible.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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