It is notable that on only two recorded occasions did Paul go so far as to make the claim that the gospel itself was at stake in a given controversy. The first in his letter to the Galatians and the issue on the table is whether or not Gentile converts needed to keep the Jewish Torah and the males among them become Jewish proselytes by having themselves circumcised. A “Christianity” that would require that of its Gentile converts, says Paul, is simply a heteron euangelion, “another gospel”–one flatly contrary to that which he preached to them. As the rest of the letter makes clear, Paul believes that requiring strict Torah observance of Gentiles who have already manifestly received the promised, eschatological Spirit of God is nothing less than an evasion of the scandal of the cross.
The other issue on which Paul is willing to stake everything is Jesus’ bodily resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 he tells them, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (v. 14) and “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (v. 17) In other words, the gospel itself is at stake here. The resurrection of Christ is “a matter of first importance” (en protois–v. 3) and an article upon which all else hangs.
In this series I have been working my way through the earliest extant Christian creed which Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5:That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, And that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
Paul’s citation of this creed constitutes the opening statement in the case he makes against those who would deny that the Body of Christ, the Church, will one day be raised from the dead as Christ Himself was. Paul will essentially go on to argue that the bodily resurrection of Christ and the bodily resurrection of the Body of Christ are part and parcel of one another–to deny one is to deny both and to completely deracinate the Christian hope.
An important feature of this creed is the solid evidence it offers that the resurrection of Jesus was the central feature of the Church’s proclamation from the very beginning. In fact, Paul identifies this creed as being “the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved.” (vv. 1-2) The death and resurrection of the Messiah just is the gospel–not the ethical teachings of Jesus, nor even the grand sweep of the biblical narrative, nor the doctrine of justification sola fide. The gospel is the specific good news that the God of Israel has declared this man, Jesus of Nazareth, and none other to be King of kings by raising Him from the dead. Once you get that, everything else falls into place…
…and takes a backseat.
I am always amazed at how quick we often are to sound the “The Gospel is at Stake” alarm. We evangelicals sometimes act like a flock of Chicken Littles, running around like we’ve lost our heads squawking, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! The gospel’s at stake! The sky is falling!” at even the slightest rattling of our little hen-house of a subculture. We could save ourselves a lot of grief by remembering the centrality and priority of the resurrection and by putting everything else in (that) perspective.
I am reminded of George W. Ramsey’s question, “If Jericho Was Not Razed, Is Our Faith in Vain?” The fact that the archaeological evidence in Palestine does not match up well with the narrative of the conquest in the Book of Joshua (which itself does not match up well with the Book of Judges) has been an endless source of anxiety for evangelicals who have kept up with such issues. I think one of the most salubrious theological habits I have adopted over the last few years while engaging these sorts of issues has been that of always asking myself, “Whichever way this question shakes out, will it change the fact that Jesus is risen?” If not, then I can calm down, take a deep breath, and move forward with openness and honesty in the confidence that the gospel itself is just not at stake here. To my mind, there’s simply no reason to think that if Joshua’s narrative of the destruction of Jericho is somewhat unhistorical, then Jesus must therefore be moldering in His tomb. And if it is still the case that Jesus is risen, then our hope is intact, whatever the case may be with Jericho. So, to Ramsey’s question we may resolutely, confidently, and even lightheartedly answer “No!”
So ask yourself: If it turned out that Jesus is risen but Darwin was right about human origins after all, would you give up your faith? If it turned out that Jesus was risen but Protestantism was wrong and Catholicism or Orthodoxy was right (or the other way around), would you opt to become an atheist? If it turned out that Jesus is risen and that the New Perspective is more right than wrong about Paul, would that be grounds to abandon Christianity altogether? If it turned out that Jesus is risen but the doctrine of predestination is true (or false!), would you see no more point in following Christ? If it turned out that Jesus is risen but Genesis 1-11 is ancient Near Eastern mythology, would you apostasy? If it turned out that Jesus is risen but Mark and Luke made historical slips here and there and Jonah was actually a non-historical children’s story, would your faith be in vain?
Here’s the kicker: If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, not only are you needlessly worrying yourself over secondary matters, you may have adopted “another gospel.”