One of the biggest questions in life is often what happens after we die. Some people embrace death. Some people are comfortable with their own mortality. Some people resist death. Some people are afraid of death.
When the first Jewish scriptures were written there was no concept of an afterlife within the Jewish faith. Other faiths and cultures had a concept of an afterlife but the Jewish people did not. By the time of Jesus, the idea of an afterlife was being debated within Jewish culture but there was no consensus. Some Jews believed in an afterlife. Some did not.
For those that believed in a resurrection they had in image of an event sometime in the future. At that moment, all the dead would be returned to life. What that afterlife looked like was also up for discussion. No one knew for certain. No one knows for certain.
Jesus lived within the Roman empire and the early churches were established within that cultural context. The Romans absorbed the religious beliefs present within the empire. Corinth was a Greek city and many of the new Christians in Corith were Greek and so they brought their beliefs with them to their new faith. Within the Greek traditions, usually the after-life began at death with a trial and followed by a movement either to something like paradise or hell.
These traditions evolved into some of the Christian beliefs about heaven, hell and judgement day. These beliefs were absorbed and adapted from other religious traditions.
So Paul is putting his two cents into this conversation about what happens after death. Some of the new Christians believed that there would not be a resurrection of the dead. Paul argues that if there isn’t a resurrection for those who have already died then Jesus wasn’t raised either. The same rules apply for everyone. If Jesus could be raised, then others could be raised. If Jesus was not raised, then no one else could be raised either. Jesus must have been raised because there were witnesses to the resurrection.
Paul quotes from the Hebrew scriptures to ground the new Christians in what is already familiar to the Jewish Christians and what might bring a new word of hope to the Greek Christians. He quotes the prophets who believed that there would be some type of cataclysmic disaster—something terrible would happen. From that God would create something new that is more perfect than the world that has been. It wouldn’t be the end of the world but it would be a decisive moment where everything would change. In the same way, death is not the end but a moment where God’s action can change everything.
There continue to be many different beliefs about death within the Christian faith. Some Christians believe that the dead are sleeping and waiting for the moment when they will wake and be resurrected. Some believe that when we die we are judged and go either to heaven or hell depending on our relationship with Christ at that moment. Some Christians believe that God is a God of compassion and we are all welcomed into heaven. Some Christians believe that our spirit becomes part of the larger cosmos—no longer a distinct entity but one with God and all other spirits. For myself, I don’t know exactly what happens after we die. My faith tells me that there is a spirit within each of us that continues to exists separately from our bodies. I believe that God is present after death and that in some way my spirit will be united with God. Beyond that, I can say nothing with certainty but I trust that the loving and compassionate God will be present beyond death.
Earlier in Corinthians Paul reminds us that love is at the core of our relationships with each other and our faith in God. In the conversation about death it seems important to hold love as central to our beliefs to alleviate some of our fear or discomfort. If God is love and we are united with God after death then there can be nothing painful, hurtful or evil—only love. The scriptures that we heard today remind us that death doesn’t have the last word but that God’s love overcomes even death. The New Creed ends with these words:
In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.
In my mind this is all we can know for certain.