Is the resurrection of Jesus an “essential doctrine” of the Christian faith? Or stated differently, must one believe Jesus rose physically from the dead to have one’s sins pardoned? This question came up, as it does each year, around Easter. Social media was ablaze with opinions on this, and among them was the suggestion that “We are not saved by believing a certain set of propositions, but by allegiance to Jesus.” I may paraphrase slightly there, but I don’t think this is misrepresenting my interlocutor. Such a statement is, ironically, a proposition, and where would one turn to demonstrate it, if not to the Scriptures? When we speak of allegiance to Jesus, one has to ask, “Who is he? Who to the Scriptures proclaim him to be?” On the point of the resurrection, there is no honest reading of the New Testament that can omit the resurrection of Jesus as an integral part of his identity and essential to the gospel message. Every single instance of gospel preaching in the book of Acts is accompanied by an affirmation that Jesus rose from the dead. This is so much a part of apostolic preaching that it is not at a stretch to say that if one is not proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it is no gospel whatsoever. When Paul comes to his summation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, he says that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
It was amazing to read the NY Times interview of Union Seminary President Serene Jones, and find Nicholas Kristof having a better grasp of the truth than she did. Kristof asked, in response to Jones’ apparent doubts about the resurrection,
“Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.”
Jones’ answer is not atypical of an exceedingly expansive view of “love:”
“For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith.”
Alas, poor Paul. It seems the apostle had a pretty wobbly faith, for he told the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (15:14) And, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (15:17)
What’s at work in these views of the resurrection of Jesus as something other than a physical raising, is a redefinition of the boundaries of faith to something that is personal and subjective. A “spiritual” resurrection is a category of resurrection that Scripture knows nothing of. To claim as some have that this is the kind of resurrection they believe in, and that they do believe Jesus rose from the dead, is to define Jesus in a completely different way than the New Testament does. What good, then, is allegiance to such a one? Paul says it’s no good at all—futile, vain, and pitiful.
There are areas of doctrine that are secondary, and Scripture signals these by not focusing on them in the way it does on the primary ones. I know of no one who would say a boundary marker for whether one is or is not a member of the body of Christ is correct eschatology, or the polity of the local church. But when it comes to the person and work of Christ, the New Testament gives us no such latitude. The incarnation of God the Son, God taking humanity to himself, is a truth we encounter at the very start of the gospels and all through the remaining New Testament writings. Jesus was not just a moral teacher, an example we should follow. He is God manifest in the flesh. Similarly, at the end of the gospel story, we have the resurrection and the triumph of Jesus over death and Satan. Paul did not write what he did to the Corinthians to suggest some additional things they might consider. He wrote them because these things are essential to knowing who Jesus is, and thus believing in him.
Nicky Cruz, former gang leader, says of his conversion, “When I first became a Christian, I knew nothing about anything. So far as the things of God were concerned, I was a totally ignorant man.” Some want to put the question as “How little does one need to know in order to become a Christian?” But that isn’t really the question Cruz was addressing, and it isn’t a claim that Dr. Jones was making. Rather, Cruz was speaking of a growth in understanding of God’s truth, and importantly, how he received it. Fred Sanders, who relates the story, goes on to note how Cruz came to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, which at first he had a very faint grasp of.
“He had moved from accepting it on the authority of Scripture and his trusted elders to understanding it from within. ‘I didn’t understand it. I believed it was true, though at first only because I had such great confidence in those who taught it to me. Then later I believed it was true because I saw it to be true in the Bible.’”
Cruz’s experience shows what allegiance to Jesus actually looks like. As we come to understand more of what Scripture says about who he is and what he has done, we accept that as God’s testimony concerning his Son. If we deny the record of Scripture, (and the physical resurrection of Jesus) we are in fact showing a posture toward God that the New Testament does not recognize as faithful discipleship.
Being a faithful follower of Jesus is more than this, more than just assenting to the truths of Scripture. But it is surely not less than this.
 Cited in Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010), 31.
 Sanders, 32.