“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, of all people we are the most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:19
It is never good practice to quote anything out of context. That is especially true of the scriptures which are so often used for resolving questions they were never meant to address. In this case, however, the phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians succinctly sums up the argument in the paragraph that preceded it. Paul is in Ephesus and has gotten reports of immorality in the Christian community in Corinth. He is encouraging them to transcend the causes of immoral behavior ― the desire for personal gratification ― by keeping in mind that they will come back to life after death. The awareness of their own imperishable future happiness should dominate their lives.
Besides, it’s guaranteed. “How can you doubt that you will rise from the dead. For if you don’t rise, it would mean that Christ never rose.“ Paul is taking the resurrection for granted, and he is using it as an undebatable fact in order to drive home a point. Faith in one’s own resurrection is assured and enters intrinsically into the mindset of the practicing Christian. The result is detachment from the urges that impel immoral behavior. If there was ever any doubt about what he had in mind, the final statement on the issue made at the end of the chapter should dispel it: “For If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”
The implied mechanism triggered by our own resurrection is postponement. Selfish desire is not extirpated, or as the Buddhists would say “snuffed out,” but rather deflected and deferred, and we will be gratified in our new life after the resurrection when we will live again as ourselves, in these bodies and on this earth. Paul’s message, in this sense, is more “human” than the Buddha’s because he doesn’t demand a lifetime of asceticism necessary for quelling desire. But he also doesn’t leave any room for alternative paths.
Paul appears to be saying that the happiness guaranteed to Christians by Christ’s victory over death, is a necessary psychological precondition for living a moral life. This necessity was part of a larger worldview that insisted on the indispensability of Christianity for “salvation.” It explains why there is supposedly no alternative to Christianity. There is “no other name” by which we can be saved, because there is nothing short of eternal life that will persuade us to postpone selfishly pursuing the objects of our desire.
There are scriptural reasons for saying that this was Paul’s view. Paul had been a believing, committed Jew, a Pharisee of strict observance. The orthodox Jewish belief system did not encompass any promise of life-after-death but it did enjoin compliance with the moral law, the Torah, as encoded in the Jewish scriptures. This is relevant because in a letter to the Romans dated around the same time as the epistle to the Corinthians, Paul states quite explicitly that it was impossible to comply with the Torah. This impossibility was so indisputable for Paul that he felt justified in concluding that the commandments were issued for the specific purpose of convincing people they were incapable of even being minimally human (i.e., moral) without the help of God in the form of a miraculous force that Christians later called “grace.”
Now this is extraordinary. If that accurately reflects Paul’s thinking, it would mean that he was accusing all the Jews in the world of living in open hypocrisy, because the law they claimed to follow was not given to be obeyed, but to be disobeyed . . . they had to break it and if they were good Jews they were breaking it . . . it was God’s will that they should realize their moral impotence. By disobeying the commandments they would be fulfilling the will of God . . . a gross contradiction and an insuperable moral dilemma. Also the literalist interpretation would imply that Yahweh was not truthful about his “will” that the commandments be obeyed, despite having repeated his demands emphatically and imposed severe punishments, including exile, for non-compliance.
It is hard for me to believe that Paul was ready to say all that about the same “God” that he was now preaching as the trustworthy loving “Father” who had thrown open the doors of Judaism to the gentiles. If “God” lied about the commandments, who is to say he is not lying about this promise of resurrection?
For these reasons there are many who understand Paul’s explanation in Romans in a very different way. They say it was offered in the spirit of the Genesis parable about the disobedience of Adam. Paul was putting all the pieces of the Christ event together in story form. Similar to a mediaeval morality play, ideas are assigned to personalities whose actions in the drama illustrate the connections among ideas. So in this case, we can all relate to the difficulty of living a moral life. It’s as if we were born with DNA inherited from our disobedient ancestors. That’s why we are prone to be selfish and untrusting of LIFE. “God” knows that, and it’s as if he expected us to fail and didn’t hold it against us. But in order to break the power of Adam’s DNA, God sent Christ who died in an act of perfect obedience. When we are born again in baptism we replace Adam’s DNA with Christ’s. It’s as if we had gained a new ancestor. We inherit Christ’s power to obey; we become fearless. We are able and eager to obey the law that eluded us earlier. We can’t lose. It’s as if “God” injected us with a new human nature.
Please notice the as if’s peppered throughout that paragraph. I contend that’s what Paul meant by his narrative about “Adam’s Sin” and the “obedience of Christ.” It was a parable ― a morality play ― and the characters were Adam and Christ. When Augustine came along almost 400 years later, his Greco-Roman scientific mindset misread the Jewish story-book style that Paul was using to explain things. Augustine took Paul’s statements literally. Besides, his own concept of “God” as an autocratic Roman Lawgiver who was quite capable of trickery and deception in his manipulation of his subjects was altogether consistent with Paul’s narrative.
Paul’s real beliefs stand in stark contrast to Augustine’s ontological interpretation and it is that section of the first letter to the Corinthians that confirms it. Paul saw our own return from the grave as psychologically motivational; there was no hint of an infusion of divine power giving morally impotent creatures an ability that they did not already possess. Human moral behavior was dependent on trust in LIFE, and for Paul the fact that Christ came back from the grave and proved that all human flesh will similarly return to life provided the grounds for a trust that could change our lives from immoral to moral. It allowed us to postpone our desire for gratification.
But notice, trust is the key operator here. It is not the resurrection as a Cosmos-changing event, nor the “grace of God” as a magic potion that miraculously transforms sinners into saints. It is trust. It is knowing that we will transcend death that gives us trust in life. And it’s trust in life that takes away the fear of death and the need for instant and selfish gratification. The resurrection stands as a symbol that death does not define life. Life, and the urges it has implanted in us for more life, can be trusted. Looked at in this way, the Christ event is a human phenomenon and its transformative power is similarly human and non-miraculous. Knowing that we will transcend death motivates us psychologically because it doesn’t demand the negation of our desire for life. It simply gives us a reason to postpone the gratifications that represent life for us. That’s how “salvation” functions. Christ’s sacrifice gave us back the incentive to live a moral life because he himself rose. It gives us back our autonomy. There never was any intention on Paul’s part to define humankind as morally impotent. Paul, like any theologian, was trying to have the facts of faith make sense.
But just because Christian motivation based on the resurrection makes sense doesn’t mean that no other way can, which is what Paul’s opening statement seems to imply. The Buddha, for one, does not seem to think an afterlife provides any significant motivation for human behavior. He finds sufficient motivation in the simple desire to be happy living justly and compassionately in human community while we are alive. Like the Jews of the OT, he saw living the moral law ― the Dharma, which guaranteed social harmony ― as the greatest happiness that one can experience as a human being on this earth. He enjoined living morally as the essence of present joy and happiness, not as a condition for some future reward in another life. The Dharma, like the Torah, created a human family characterized by loving-kindness. Buddha was very explicitly calling for moral compliance with this life only in view. And paradoxically for Paul, Buddha thought that knowing you were going to die and disappear was actually beneficial because it exposed short term, gross selfish gratifications ― immoral behavior ― as meaningless and unsatisfying pursuits that did not last, did not produce a just and compassionate community and could not transcend the impermanence that embitters human life.
In this imaginary dialog between Buddha and Paul, it seems we have two dichotomously different beliefs about selfish desire which imply two different views of the human capacity to construct a just society. The Buddha says you can get rid of them by controlling your thinking; Paul says you can’t get rid of them. You can only postpone them . . . which requires that they be satisfied after death. Hence the resurrection is necessary because of the insatiability of human desire. That means to accept Christ without believing in the resurrection, is to miss the heart of the matter. The point was to give us back our power to live like intelligent, autonomous human beings in a community of loving kindness. But that can only happen if we believe we are going to live forever with all desires satisfied.
So it seems there are good reasons for saying that Paul believed that incorporation into the risen Christ is absolutely necessary for all. He was convinced there was no other way we can live a moral life and create a community of loving kindness. Given this scenario about human nature, there is no alternative to being Christian.
No Other Name?
But there is a problem with Paul’s insistence on postponement. If Christian resurrection is absolutely necessary, that leaves the rest of the world absolutely without hope. Also, even for Christians, if happiness is possible only after death, there is no incentive to construct communities of loving-kindness during life. Such communities will only occur as an accidental by-product of the trust inspired by resurrection. They are not what we really want, anyway. What we want are the postponed gratifications promised after death.
But also, look what happens if suddenly it becomes clear that Jesus’ resurrection was a faith-based projection ― that there was no literal physical resurrection — that it was symbolic. In that case, according to Paul, we are all lost. There is no possibility for any human being to live a moral life, for without the resurrection there is no motivation sufficient for postponement. Look also at what it had to have meant for the centuries of Jews who lived and died before Christ. They had no resurrection to believe in. They had to have failed to achieve the minimum humanity enjoined by the Torah and demanded by Yahweh. Many claim that this is precisely what Paul was saying in Romans. Humankind could not conquer selfish desire any other way. The resurrection was necessary because of Original Sin.
Another point that emerges from this analysis is that even though the necessity that Paul projected was not ontological, as Augustine thought, but psychological, nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that Augustine got the essential dynamic right. He caught the drift of Paul’s thinking, if not its literal meaning. For Paul was indeed talking about the necessity of sin, and therefore the necessity of the resurrection. Sin was necessary because of the distrust of life embedded in Adam’s disobedience which all of humankind inherited, and the resurrection was necessary in order to restore that trust.
These observations form the basis of a counter argument to Paul’s. My contention is (1) that belief in one’s own resurrection, while it may be effective in neutralizing dependency on selfish gratifications, is not the only motivation that can do that; and (2) the same noetic effect ― the realization that LIFE can be trusted ― can be achieved through an appreciation of one’s possession of the common and universal material that is responsible for the existential presence of our cosmos and everything in it. Detachment as the ground of morality depends on trust in LIFE, which is what resurrection symbolizes. (3) There is also the indisputable evidence of moral behavior being practiced all over the world, in every culture and religion, many like Buddhism that eschew any talk of resurrection. Paul’s claim that the Torah could not be obeyed was a projection that derived perhaps, from his own failings. His assertion that purpose of the Torah was to reveal moral impotence is a pure self-serving concoction with no basis in reality or scripture. (4) The negative historical effects of the culture-wide belief in the unique and unparalleled necessity of Christianity just to live a moral human life provide evidence of the destructive nature of this belief. In the hands of the Roman Empire which made Christianity its State religion, it provided the justification for the conquest and religious subjugation of other cultures, who had to be, by definition, inhuman, satanic and who would only benefit from enslavement to Christian masters. This “religious imperialism” was in full force a thousand years later during the enslavement of Africa and the Americas carried out by the Spaniards and Portuguese, who were Catholics, and continued on for another five hundred years by “Reformed” Protestant Christians in the form of an expanding Western military and economic domination of the third world justified as “mission.”
Finally, when Paul says that “if we have believed in Christ only with this life in view …” he is implicitly saying that Jesus’ message and the example of his life without his resurrection from the dead is worthless. Jesus preaching is of no value, and those of us who have heard his words and embrace him as a wise moral/spiritual teacher “are the most to be pitied.” It is here that Paul’s clear theological priorities emerge into full view. Paul’s idea of Jesus is dominated by what Paul sees as Jesus’ place in salvation history. Jesus is not just a human individual, to Paul, he is “the Christ” ― a concept of salvific significance in the overall Jewish relationship to Yahweh. Jesus’ message and manner of life was of virtually no interest to Paul; and he does not acknowledge the fact that Jesus himself never mentions the salvific impact of his own coming resurrection as creating the emotional detachment necessary for living a moral life.
We have to frankly admit that Jesus’ message of justice, forgiveness, compassion and loving kindness was launched entirely on the standard traditional motivations that characterized Judaism at that time. It’s also true that in all his preaching as recorded in the gospels, Jesus never once mentions Original Sin as being the very reason for his presence on earth and the purpose of his mission, which is what Paul claimed . . . nor that Original Sin made us incapable of being moral, nor that the commandments were issued only to reveal our inability to obey them. If the very things that Paul is claiming are the core of the Christ event, were not even mentioned by Jesus, it would appear that Christians have an anomaly of mammoth proportions to resolve. That the two primary sources of the Christian vision of things ― Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus ― should display such a profound inconsistency with one another, suggests an elaboration of such originality on the part of Paul as to amount to a new and separate religion entirely. Jesus’ motivation for obeying the Torah was the simple imitation of our loving, generous, forgiving father. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to Paul’s obsession with (his) addiction to gross gratifications and the motivational impact that coming back to life after death would have on the addict.
So I would say, along with the people to whom Jesus message was originally directed, “what we have heard, what our eyes have seen and we have looked on and our hands have touched” has opened our eyes to what we really are ― what we now realize we have known all along ― that we are the offspring of that “in which we live and move and have our being.” It is precisely with this life in view that we have come to embrace the message of Jesus also called the Christ.