It is frequent, in discussions of the resurrection, for those who are persuaded that our beliefs on this topic ought to remain static to appeal to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:17, which says that “if Christ was not raised, your faith is in vain”. What makes this interesting, and somewhat ironic, is that, for most contemporary Christians (N. T. Wright and a few of his readers excepted), resurrection is something unique that happened to Jesus. If they are asked about their own hope for an afterlife, they will most likely reply in terms of “going to heaven when I die”.
For Paul, however, resurrection was the form that the afterlife would take for everyone. This point is crucial to the logic of his argument in 1 Corinthians 15. Resurrection is to be the hope of all Christians, and so (as Paul himself says) if there is no resurrection, then it is not merely that Christ has not been raised, but “those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (v18). Christ is viewed as the firstfruits from the dead, the forerunner who has undergone already what all will one day (v20).
And so the irony is that the verse quoted reflects an argument that most Christians (including conservative, “Bible-believing” ones) do not understand, or if they understand it, they themselves do not find Paul’s logic persuasive. And so, while they turn belief in a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus into a sine qua non of the Christian faith, the whole context of that belief and its implication for Christians in general is changed into something other than what Paul himself seems to have believed. Hence my bad pun about a sort of faith that is in “vane” – itself turned by the winds of time and changing worldview, and yet often without those who adamantly hold to it realizing the shift that has taken place.
What should Christians do about this? One option is that advocated by Wright, namely a return to the early Christian doctrine of the general resurrection. Another (which I discuss in my book The Burial of Jesus) would be to rethink the resurrection of Jesus in relation to what it makes sense, in light of theological, philosophical, scientific and other considerations, to say about the afterlife in general. While some will understandably immediately incline towards the former, there is a very real sense in which Paul’s own articulation of his understanding of the resurrection – on the one hand emphasizing (indeed, assuming) that the afterlife is bodily, on the other hand allowing his interaction with other cultural assumptions and schools of thought to shape his thinking about the nature of such bodies – can be said to reflect the latter approach.
Before closing this topic, I ought to mention that a notion not entirely unlike “resurrection” was touched upon on the most recent episode of Dollhouse, in which a dead person’s mind was imprinted onto one of the dolls, allowing the woman in question to try to solve her own murder. It isn’t the Biblical idea of resurrection, of course, but the show did touch on it, asking what will happen to human societies if science rather than religion becomes the purveyor of eternal life.