There’s a resurrection-shaped hole at the heart of evangelical theology. We may agree in principle with Paul that our faith is “futile” if Christ has not been raised (1 Corinthians 15). We may even recognize that, historically speaking, the resurrected Christ has always been the central truth claim of the Christian religion. But I daresay that outside of Easter Sunday, we’re usually far more interested in exploring the meaning of Jesus’ death than we are in talking about his resurrection.
Consider, for example, that no evangelical Christian would ever make the mistake of preaching “the gospel” without explaining that Jesus bore our punishment and died on our behalf. But I suspect that many of us could hear a gospel presentation that left out the resurrection without so much as noticing. In fact, I more than suspect. I know it to be true, because I’ve seen it happen.
A Resurrection Experiment
In order to demonstrate our collective tendency to forget about the resurrection, I recently tried a little experiment. I was teaching an adult Sunday School class at our church, and I brought in a bunch of copies of a tract: The Promise of Heaven by John MacArthur. I had everyone read the tract for a couple of minutes, and then I asked people what they thought about it.
This exercise prompted a lot of discussion, and people had many encouraging insights about evangelism and the gospel message. But nobody brought up the tract’s one glaring omission: it never once mentions the resurrection of Jesus.
I should point out, by the way, that this tract is thorough. It’s five or six pages long. It quotes scripture at length. It even goes so far as to define theological terms like “atonement” and “imputation.” And yet it doesn’t make it to the resurrection. And nobody even noticed.
Now, I don’t think that the results of this little experiment were particularly unique. In fact, I think that I could easily repeat it in a dozen evangelical churches and end up with basically the same outcome almost every time.
But if we agree with Paul that our faith is futile if Christ has not been raised, then I think this experiment raises some really interesting questions for us as Christians. Why is it that a respected evangelical pastor can write a 1,000 word tract that defines “imputation” but doesn’t mention the empty tomb? And why is it that a bunch of college-educated, theologically-minded evangelical Christians can read the tract without even noticing?
In other words, why is the resurrection such a blind spot in evangelical theology?
The Gospel Without Resurrection
Ultimately, I think that the reason we can so easily overlook the resurrection of Jesus is that “the gospel” in modern evangelical culture essentially means two things, neither of which necessarily seem to require a risen Christ.
First, “gospel” in modern church culture means that Jesus took our punishment by dying in our place (i.e., “penal substitution”). In fact, most “gospel” presentations go something like this… We are all guilty of sin, the just punishment for sin is death, but Jesus died in our place so that we could have eternal life with God. We’ve all heard this presentation a thousand times.
Second, modern evangelicals often use the term “gospel” to speak about “salvation by grace through faith.” In other words, it’s the idea that there’s nothing that we need to do, no rules we need to keep, in order to be accepted in God’s sight. We need only respond to him in faith.
But, while both of these things are beautiful Christian truths (and I should stress that I wholeheartedly affirm both of them), neither of them seem to require a resurrected Jesus. After all, if Jesus had stayed dead, couldn’t his death still have paid our debt? And couldn’t we still receive the benefit of that substitutionary death by faith? I believe it’s only natural to forget about the resurrection if we think about the gospel exclusively in these terms.
But the Bible sees things a little differently.
The Gospel as Resurrection
As I mentioned before, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that our faith is “in vain” and “futile” if Christ has not been raised. Clearly, then, he believed that the resurrected Jesus was an essential, if not the essential truth claim of the Christian faith. Without the resurrection, nothing else matters.
Of course, 1 Corinthians isn’t the only place that we find Paul putting the resurrection at the forefront of Christian belief. In Romans 10:9, that famous “Romans road” text, Paul has this to say.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Here, Paul is listing what we must affirm to be saved and he apparently thinks that the two most important things to discuss are the resurrection and the fact that Jesus is Lord (meaning both God and king). Resurrection and lordship. Essential truth claims of the Christian religion.
And things get even more interesting if we turn back to Romans 1. There, Paul says that he’s been “set apart” to preach “the gospel,” and he goes on to give a little summary of what that gospel is. Here’s what he says.
[The gospel] concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…
Here, Paul again focuses on the resurrection and lordship/kingship of Jesus as the two essential components of “the gospel!”
And Romans 1 is just as noteworthy for what it doesn’t mention as for what it does. Paul is apparently capable of summarizing “the gospel” without any mention of sin, guilt, Jesus’ death in our place, or salvation by faith! But the resurrection still comes through loud and clear.
At the very least, I think we should take this as a call to step back and evaluate our thinking.
Making Sense of the Resurrection
In the end, I believe there’s a fundamental disconnect between Paul’s emphasis on the resurrection as a central gospel truth and our seeming lack of emphasis on that same event. The evangelical church would therefore do well to explore the biblical topic of resurrection further, seeking to place it back in the center of our theological frameworks. As we do, we can then re-incorporate resurrection into our preaching, our teaching, and our telling of the gospel.
And it’s worth mentioning that I’m not the only one pushing the church to give the resurrection a greater focus. In fact, at The Gospel Coalition’s 2021 National Conference, G.K. Beale argued that downplaying the resurrection “unintentionally eviscerates the ethical power of church preaching and teaching.” He went on to say that the resurrected Christ is the central truth of the New Testament and that every other doctrine is simply a facet of the resurrection claim. That’s a bold statement!
So what are some of those doctrinal facets of resurrection? In my view, there’s three key areas that provide a good starting point for understanding the significance of the resurrection more deeply. And I’ll be covering each one at length in a future post. But for now, here’s a quick summary.
- Jesus’ resurrection is the basis of our justification, the foundation of our right standing before God (Romans 4:25)
- Dying and rising “with Jesus” is a dominant way the New Testament talks about sanctification or growth in godliness (Romans 6, Colossians 3, Galatians 5)
- The resurrection marked Jesus out as the king (something we’ve already seen Paul highlight in Romans 1)
There are certainly other ways in which scripture makes sense of the resurrection, and we may get into some of them as well. But these three form a solid foundation. And they directly relate to our understanding of some of the most fundamental gospel truths of the Christian faith. Exploring each one will get us a long way towards plugging that resurrection-shaped hole I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
If you’d like to learn more about the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, be sure to come back next week. You can also follow me on Twitter—I usually post my new articles on there when they come out.
In the meantime, please let me know if you have any comments or questions. If there’s something you’ve always wondered about the idea of resurrection, ask away. Maybe I can incorporate it into a future post!