Last week, I was teaching a class on the resurrection and was reminded of the following convicting reflection by John Piper:
Does Life Go Better With Christ?Piper, Desiring God, 214-15
This is an utterly crucial question for the Christian Church, especially in prosperous, comfortable lands like America and Western Europe. How many times do we hear Christian testimonies to the effect that becoming a Christian has made life easier? I recently heard the quarterback of a professional football team say that after he prayed to receive Christ he felt good about the game again and was proud of their 8 and 8 record because he was able to go out every Sunday and give it his best.
It seems that most Christians in the prosperous West describe the benefits of Christianity in terms that would make it a good life, even if there were no God and no resurrection. Think of all the psychological benefits and relational benefits. And of course these are true and Biblical: the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy and peace. So if we get love, joy and peace from believing these things, then is it not a good life to live, even if it turns out to be based on a falsehood. Why should we be pitied?
What's wrong with Paul then? Was he not living the abundant life? Why would he say that, if there is no resurrection, we are of all men most to be pitied? It does not seem to be pitiable to live your three score and ten in a joyful and satisfying delusion, if that delusion makes no difference whatever for the future. If delusion can turn emptiness and meaninglessness into happiness, then why not be deluded?
The answer seems to be that the Christian life for Paul was not the so-called good life of prosperity and ease. Instead it was a life of freely chosen suffering beyond anything we ordinarily experience. Paul's belief in God, and his confidence in resurrection, and his hope in eternal fellowship with Christ did not produce a life of comfort and ease that would have been satisfying even without resurrection. No, what his hope produced was a life of chosen suffering. Yes, he knew joy unspeakable. But it was a "rejoicing in hope" (Romans 12:12). And that hope freed him to embrace sufferings that he never would have chosen apart from the hope of his own resurrection and the resurrection of those for whom he suffered. If there is no resurrection Paul's sacrificial choices, by his own testimony, were pitiable.
Yes, there was joy and a sense of great significance in his suffering. But the joy was there only because of the joyful hope beyond suffering. This is the point of Romans 5:3-4. "We exult in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces proven genuineness, and genuineness produces hope." So there is joy in affliction. But the joy comes because of the hope that affliction itself is helping to secure and increase. So if there is no hope, Paul is a fool to embrace this affliction, and even more foolish to rejoice in it. But there is hope. And so Paul chooses a way of life that would be foolish and pitiable without the hope of joy beyond the grave.