If you type this question into Google, the first hit—“gotquestions.org”—says that the answer is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” In the hundreds of results that follow, Jesus and a particular set of beliefs about him recur as the core beliefs of Christianity.
Of course, to believe that Jesus existed does not make a person a Christian—almost everyone accepts this historical fact. To believe that Jesus was an excellent moral teacher does not make a person a Christian—just ask the many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and secular humanists who admire his teachings of love and forgiveness. To believe that Jesus died and was buried does not make a person a Christian—again, many people who would not call themselves Christians have no trouble believing that the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, died and was buried. To believe that Jesus rose from the dead….that, on the other hand, is a strong contender for the foundational belief of Christianity.
The belief that Jesus rose from the dead is not a philosophical claim or even a theological claim. It is a historical claim. For almost two-thousand years Christianity has consistently insisted that Jesus’ full, bodily resurrection is a historical fact. And this resurrection is not merely the resuscitation of a dead body that would eventually die again, or a zombie-like eternal body, eternally decaying and void of a soul. It is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth’s real body was resurrected and transformed into a new, eternally-flourishing body.
Insisting that belief in the bodily resurrection is the foundational claim of Christianity may seem exclusionary or extreme. After all, it rejects any moralistic or spiritualized understandings of the resurrection, where the “spirit of Jesus” was resurrected through the lives of the early church and later Christians. And, it requires people to believe a miraculous story is actually a historical event. Be that as it may, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15,
“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith….If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
That’s right, if the bodily resurrection isn’t for real—a real event in history—then Jesus death accomplished nothing and his life and teachings remain unvalidated. He is not a prophet or a messiah or God but merely a deluded apocalyptic preacher with some radical ideas about love and forgiveness. If you don’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, then don’t turn to a more spiritualized or moralistic Christianity. If you don’t believe in the resurrection as a historical event, the answer is to abandon Christianity entirely. Return to Judaism, explore Islam, adopt Buddhism, become a secular humanist…but don’t hold onto Jesus.
But, as St. Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 15, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” and, because he rose from the dead, then “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” The logic of Christianity is this: since Jesus rose from the dead, he rules as God. All the rest of Christian doctrine and theology follow from this basic claim: the Incarnation, the Trinity, God’s final triumph over evil and the redemption of Heaven and Earth. More importantly, if the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is true, then the only sensible thing a person can do is follow Jesus.