Biblical Christianity consists of several nonnegotiable doctrines, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the future bodily resurrection of believers. The Apostle Paul has established an unbreakable connection between these two doctrines: we cannot affirm one and deny the other (1 Cor. 15:12–16). Continuing in this train of thought, in today’s passage Paul explains the consequences of believing that there is no future resurrection in terms of what the ensuing denial of Christ’s resurrection means for us.
If the dead will not be raised, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, our “faith is futile and [we] are still in [our] sins” (vv. 16–17). Paul’s statement is remarkable, for it demonstrates the Apostle’s conviction that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the only way possible to be saved. We should not think that if Jesus had remained dead, God could have or would have saved us another way. No, when our Creator established death as the penalty for sin, He established that atonement would require death and that only the death of a perfectly righteous man in place of sinners could atone for sin. Moreover, since death is the penalty for sinners, death cannot hold on to those who are perfectly righteous, so the death of a righteous substitute had to be followed by His resurrection (see Acts 2:24–28). Apart from the death and resurrection of Christ, there is no hope of forgiveness. John Chrysostom comments: “If Christ did not rise again, neither was he slain, and if he was not slain, our sins have not been taken away. If our sins have not been taken away, we are still in them, and our entire faith is meaningless.”
We who are living are still in our sins if Jesus has not been raised, but so are those who have already died. In fact, they have perished (1 Cor. 15:18). The absence of the future bodily resurrection does not mean that people will live forever in some other non-bodily way, as the Corinthians who denied that resurrection believed. If there is no future bodily resurrection, there is no resurrection of Christ, and if no resurrection of Christ, then everyone dies in their sins, and if everyone dies in their sins, then even Christians have no hope of eternal life but will experience only eternal death in hell.
Denying the future resurrection gives us hope only in this life, making us those who are most to be pitied (v. 19). We give up much to follow Jesus, but if there will be no reward for doing so—which is so if there is no future resurrection—we are wasting our lives.