Q: When St Paul writes that “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17,) does he mean that without Christ’s Resurrection we would not be redeemed? I thought that we were redeemed with Christ’s death on Good Friday. Can you help me?
A: I am sure you are not the first person to ask this question. I have wondered about it myself.
A simple answer is that Christ’s resurrection, along with his death, is an essential part of our redemption. It completes our redemption. But let me explain.
Redemption from original sin involves both a death to sin and a rising to new life.
This rising to new life is likened in the Scriptures to a “new birth”.
St Peter writes that it comes to us through the resurrection: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable…” (1 Pet 1:3-4)
By his death Christ destroyed sin, and by his resurrection he gave us new life. We express this truth in one of the acclamations after the consecration in Mass: “Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life.”
This is the meaning of the words of St Paul you quoted in your question: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).
St Augustine speaks in a similar vein: “The dead Christ would be of no benefit to us unless he had risen from the dead.” (Sermo 246: 2 PL 38, 1154) St Augustine is saying that not only does the resurrection of Christ confirm the truth of his divinity, but through it we receive salvation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it like this: “The Paschal mystery has two aspects; by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life. This new life is above all justification that reinstates us in God’s grace, ‘so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.’ Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace.” (Rom 6:4; cf. 4:25; CCC 654)
On a personal level it is through baptism that we come to share in the new life Christ won for us. In baptism we symbolically enter into the tomb with Christ in order to rise with him to the new life of grace. St Paul expresses it graphically: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4)
Another aspect of redemption is that it involves not only the justification or sanctification of our souls, that is, liberation from sin, but also the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23) through their resurrection on the last day.
Christ’s solidarity with us, as head of mankind, is important in understanding this truth. He made himself one with us when he took our human nature. He is the new Adam and, just as through Adam we all sinned, so through the resurrection of Christ we are all raised up.
In this sense St Paul writes: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Cor 15:20-22) In the words of the Catechism: “Christ, ‘the first-born from the dead’ (Col 1:18), is the principle of our own resurrection, even now by the justification of our souls (cf. Rom 6:4), and one day by the new life he will impart to our bodies (cf. Rom 8:11).” (CCC 658)
In summary, “the resurrection is at the very centre of the redemption: it and Jesus’ death constitute one, unique, saving mystery.” ( F. Ocariz et al, The Mystery of Jesus Christ, Four Courts Press 1994, p. 242)