On November 10th 2010 John MacArthur presented a sermon entitled “What If There Is No Resurrection?” This may be one of the best questions that we can ask as followers of Christ, and it is one that is not being asked enough by pastors these days. MacArthur’s sermon was based out of the Biblical text found in 1 Corinthians 15. In MacArthur’s sermon, he walks through Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and explains a portion of Paul’s most detailed work on the topic of the resurrection. MacArthur shows how for Paul and the apostles, the gospel message centred around the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. In regards to this point, I couldn’t agree more. MacArthur’s emphasis on the importance of the physical bodily resurrection is rightly placed. I am happy to say that on that point, we can stand together as brothers in Christ. After listening to the sermon, however, I was greatly disappointed at how MacArthur presented his sermon. At the same time, it is a great example because he is honest in presenting what Paul communicates in his letter. MacArthur’s sermon demonstrates how someone can read and even teach the Biblical text clearly and then shift its meaning to fit within their pre-existing paradigm of thought. What we will see, is that MacArthur presents what Paul has to say to the church in Corinth and then subtly tweaks the message to make it say the opposite in a few places.
The purpose of this review is to show how ultimately, MacArthur’s dualist anthropology betrays his own teaching and the text itself. Instead of defining death as the end of life, he defines death as the continuation of life in another form. This he explains, is the death of the body and the continued existence of the soul/spirit. This proposed continued existence results in denying that death is an enemy that needs to be overcome at the resurrection, which is what Paul explicitly states at the end of the chapter. MacArthur proposes that we live as disembodied spirit/soul’s in an intermediate state in either in Heaven or Hell after bodily death. In doing so, he also confuses the Biblical language of the spirit and soul. Finally, MacArthur changes the main question from one concerning life and death, to the quality of life for eternity. MacArthur does this because in his theological paradigm everyone lives forever.
As an additional introductory note, the reader should know that MacArthur seems to hold to a Penal Substitutionary Model of atonement. First, we might clarify that atonement theories are just that, theories. There are multiple atonement theories that have been proposed over the course of church history and the Bible uses language that could lead to the justification and support of several of such theories. A specific atonement theory is not necessarily tied to one’s view of Biblical anthropology and the choice of physicalism, dualism or trichotomism. However, theological views intersect with one another and in MacArthur’s case, his view of atonement and his understanding of the resurrection interact with one another in this sermon. What becomes interesting about applying the Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory to Jesus death, as MacArthur does, is that it could potentially do away with the need for the resurrection altogether. If the goal is forgiveness from sin and that is attained by Jesus sacrifice, all that is needed is Jesus death, not necessarily his resurrection. Salvation then becomes about sin and sacrifice and not about the need for the resurrection which saves us from death. This then gets into the topic of soteriology. Here it may be helpful for the reader to pause and ask themselves, what is humanity saved from? Are we saved from our sins, or are we being saved from the enemy of death? We might also pause and ask, how did Jesus model forgiveness on earth? Did Jesus require a sacrifice or did he offer mercy through repentance?
MacArthur’s sermon can be broken into five different sections to be examined. In the first section, MacArthur sets the stage for his sermon by examining a text in the book of Acts which shows how Paul engaged with the Greek philosophical views of his day. The second section them compares and contrasts how the idea of a resurrected person might conflict with Greek philosophy and the polytheistic culture of Paul’s time. In the third section MacArthur sets out to show how Paul hinges the gospel message on the resurrection of Christ, and without it there is no hope. The fourth section is where MacArthur spends the majority of his time. In this section, he walks through the Biblical text and shows how Paul builds a progressive argument on the resurrection and then reveals how everything falls apart without this argument. The final section is a short prayer that MacArthur closes the sermon with, which helps reveal his views on Biblical anthropology and how they differ from Paul. Let’s begin by examining the first section of the sermon.
SECTION 1 (0:00-7:00)
MacArthur opens his sermon by exploring the writings of the apostle Luke in the book of Acts. The first seven minutes of his sermon acts as a precursor to his main text, and the main points he is seeking to communicate. MacArthur invites his listeners to go with him to the book of Acts chapter seventeen where he explorers Paul’s missionary endeavours in Athens. In the text, we are told that Paul is in Athens sharing the gospel. Luke explains to his readers that the city of Athens was full of idols. In Athens, Paul is teaching and preaching in the synagogues to the Jews and Christian Greeks as well as in the town marketplace. It is here that Paul encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and is accused of teaching the people about foreign gods. Specifically, we are told that the content of what Paul is teaching is the gospel of Jesus and the resurrection. Paul then travels to Areopagus where he encounters many objects of worship and an altar to an “unknown god”.
Paul takes the opportunity to engage in dialogue with these Greek philosophers proclaiming that he worships the God who is the maker of heaven and earth. Paul teaches them that his God is different for a number of reasons. To start, Paul’s God does not live in man-made temples like the ones that are worshipped in Athens. This God also does not need the service of human beings. Paul’s God gives the breath of life to all creation and hopes that his creation will seek him out and find him. Paul says that his God is not a distant God, and human beings are actually God’s offspring. Paul’s God is not a created object made of gold, silver or stone-like some of the ones the Athenians worship, Paul’s God is a living God. Paul teaches them that this God commands repentance in light of the knowledge of being his creation and the proof of all that he has declared can be found in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
McArthur says that what Paul was teaching regarding the resurrection of the dead would have been a new teaching to the Greek philosophers. This teaching would have also been detestable and offensive because the Greek ideal was to escape the prison of the body at death and travel to a disembodied afterlife. This comment is debatable and would probably depend on the philosopher’s individual encounters or interactions with the Jews and specifically the Pharisees. We know at this time that the Pharisees believed in and were teaching the resurrection of the body, so it was not an entirely new concept. This new teaching, says MacArthur invoked a mixed response from his hearers. Some of the philosophers rejected Paul’s teaching outright, while others desired to hear more from Paul. After this, Paul left to do ministry in the town of Corinth. MacArthur uses this text as a springboard to establish the cultural context in which Paul was teaching and preaching and then moves to his main text which is found in 1 Corinthians chapter 15.
SECTION 2 (7:00-13:30)
In the second part of his sermon, MacArthur begins to explore the concept of the physical bodily resurrection as discussed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. MacArthur is careful to reiterate that Christians believe in a physical material resurrection. This is important because many streams of Christianity have taught an escape of the physical, which coincided with Greek substance dualism. MacArthur explains that the Greek Philosophers wanted to escape their bodies because they viewed them as tombs. In fact, some of the philosophers believed that upon death people dissolved back into God himself. MacArthur states that as Christians, we must deny the philosophical dualism that teaches that everything spiritual is good, and that everything physical is bad. The main point of this six-minute introduction to the text is to remind the audience that we are physical material beings and that God resurrected Jesus as a physical material human. Our hope then is in the resurrection of that body and its transformation and perfection.
As a whole, MacArthur did a good job of presenting various material within this short section of his sermon and driving the point home that Christians believe in the resurrection of a physical body that will be transformed and glorified. Too often, pastors and teachers preach sermons that promote the idea that when you die you go to Heaven or Hell and leave it at that, instead of going on to point toward the Christian hope of the resurrection. MacArthur will comment later that when you die you go to Heaven or Hell as a disembodied spirit or soul, but at least here he places emphasis where it should be, on the resurrection of the body.
SECTION 3 (13:30-19:00)
In section three, MacArthur begins with reading 1 Corinthians 15:12 and declares that the bodily resurrection is at the heart of the gospel message. He goes further to state that anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus must believe in the bodily resurrection. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he poses the question, “why are you denying the resurrection of corpses?” He then goes on to ask the question, what are the ramifications for the Christian, if there is no bodily resurrection? MacArthur says that Paul’s answer to this question is that the Christian faith is destroyed. He continues by stating that there is no gospel without the resurrection of the body. With this point established he then moves deeper into the text to explore Paul’s argument for the bodily resurrection. This is a very interesting point that MacArthur makes. This point is foundational to his sermon but will eventually come back to haunt him because for him, salvation is not about death but the forgiveness of sins. For MacArthur, death only affects the body and not the soul so it doesn’t have to be overcome, it is just convenient that it eventually is. For Paul however, the gospel message is a matter of life and death. Paul told the Roman church that “the wages of sin is death”. (Rom 6:23) Later in his letter to the Corinthian church he will state that the last enemy to be overcome is death. So, for Paul in the end death is something God is victorious over. This then becomes problematic for MacArthur if death is defined as eternal conscious torment and not the end of life. If death is the end of life, it can be overcome by the resurrection and the final death of the ungodly as the book of Revelation describes. However, if the second death is described as eternal conscious torment, death is never overcome and God is never completely victorious because death as torment, will exist forever.
SECTION 4 (19:00-52:50)
Section four is the largest section of the sermon as to be expected. It is here that MacArthur provides the support for his main claim that the resurrection is essential to the Christian faith. MacArthur says that Paul provides us with seven disastrous results of denying the bodily resurrection. He introduces this idea by explaining that Paul sets up a ‘contrary to fact statement’. The following seven points are set up as conditional clauses. These are if/then statements which serve to make Paul’s main point. If there is no resurrection then it follows that these seven statements are true.
- If there is no resurrection, Christ himself has not risen from the dead.
MacArthur begins by explaining that it is essential to declare that Christ was fully human. He spends several minutes expanding on a list of scriptures that support this claim, that Jesus was fully human and experienced life as a human. Christ’s resurrection is crucial to the Christian faith because our hope is that we will be raised from death just like Christ. For MacArthur, everything stands or falls on this one point. This is the heart of the gospel. However, as we will see later in his sermon, his anthropology will not allow him to fully accept his own claim. He will ultimately betray this point and concede a form of substance dualism.
- If there is no resurrection, our preaching is useless and in vain.
Each of the following points progresses from the initial one. MacArthur states that the single message of the apostles was Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. In fact, Paul states this outright at the beginning of the chapter. In becoming an apostle, Paul says that he was handed down the teaching which he is now giving the church in Corinth. This teaching is not original to him but follows from the line of succession of direct eye-witnesses. MacArthur declares that without the resurrection of the dead, there is no good news to share. It is here that we might pause and ask if there is a disembodied intermediate-state where the soul or spirit exists between death and resurrection, wouldn’t that still be good news? It seems to follow that a dualist anthropology would still be able to preach good news regardless of the bodily resurrection. If when we die, we go to Heaven, as MacArthur will later propose, then bodily resurrection is just an additional step in the process. A dualist anthropology without the resurrection would seem to streamline the process and cut out an unnecessary step in the progression. While preaching concerning the resurrection may be in vain, preaching concerning the afterlife and following God would still be fruitful.
Here we might consider an analogy that will help us understand Biblical anthropology. Consider for a moment that your body is a cup that is full of water which is God’s breathe of life he has poured into you. When your glass is full of water, you are a living person. When your glass is empty you are a dead person, an empty shell. If I were to hold a class cup filled with water in my hand and drop it, the glass cup would break and the water would be absorbed by the ground. If this happened, you could not scoop the water up from the ground and save it, the water would be lost without its container. In this case, the container or the cup is essential. The water cannot be held without a container. Suppose after doing this, I told you that the only way for this cup to be restored to a useful state would be for its maker to melt down the broken pieces of glass and recreate the glass cup allowing its creator to once again fill it with water. This is how the Bible describes humanity. This is also why Paul can say that the resurrection is essential for the Christian faith.
What MacArthur ends up saying later in the sermon is that the cup or your body is not necessary for life. The cup is useful, but it is not necessary because life can persist beyond the destruction of the cup. The problem with this statement is that a person is not the water, a person is the cup. This analogy helps reveal the categorical error that MacArthur’s makes in his approach to anthropology. For Paul, the cup is absolutely necessary to hold the water because we are the cup. For MacArthur, the cup will be rebuilt to later hold water, but in the interim, the water can hold itself together and exist without the cup. The problem, however, is that we are not the water. The water is what gives the cup life but they are not the same thing. Again, for MacArthur, the cup is helpful and useful in holding the water but it is not essential or necessary for life. If this is true, the following statements that Paul makes are void. Paul’s entire argument is built around conditional clauses that nullify something if the primary statement is found to be false. Paul’s argument necessitates a body for human life while MacArthur argues that a body is not necessary for life, although it is useful for life. It is here that MacArthur deviates from what Paul is trying to communicate and completely undercuts Paul’s entire argument he is presenting to the Corinthian church.
- If there is no resurrection, our faith is empty or worthless.
Next, MacArthur moves on to Paul’s third point which is that as Christians our belief is in a risen Savior. What MacArthur does not realize is that his error in the previous point has also undercut this point as well.
- If there is no resurrection, the apostles were false witnesses.
The gospel message of the apostles was the preaching of the resurrection. Luke says in Acts 1:22, that it was important that there be eyewitnesses to testify of the resurrection of Christ.
The repetitive witness of the book of Acts itself is the theme that humans killed Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. MacArthur also adds to Paul’s message stating that if Jesus was not resurrected from the dead he is proven to be a liar because he foretold on multiple occasions that he would be raised from the dead. Ultimately, resurrection validates Jesus message and identity as the Son of God.
- If there is no resurrection, our sin still leads to death.
For MacArthur, Christ’s death is the mechanism that allows God to forgive sin. This is because he holds to what is known as the Penal Substitutionary Atonement model. In this model, sins are not forgiven unless there is a sacrifice that takes the punishment that is required by God. Here he shifts the focus from being saved from death, to being saved from sin. The question is, soteriological speaking, are we being saved from our sins, or are we being saved from death? When Jesus and the apostles speak about salvation, it seems that they place the emphasis on the juxtaposition of life and death, salvation or destruction.
- If there is no resurrection, the dead in Christ have perished.
In this section, MacArthur presents Paul’s message and then strangely pivots and turns Paul’s words of perishing into the concept of “going to Hell”. MacArthur replaces Paul’s words concerning death with an explanation of eternal conscious torment. Macarthur says that if Christ didn’t rise then everyone is in Hell. But Paul said, that if Jesus did not rise from the dead everyone has perished or been destroyed. Here we can see how MacArthur’s theology demands that he change Paul’s argument to fit his own preconceived notions of Hell and the afterlife.
- If there is no resurrection, Christians are most of all to be pitied.
Paul says that without the resurrection, as Christians we have waisted our entire lives living an illusion. His point is that we have no future hope, our hope would only be in finding satisfaction and joy in this life and then we die. Here it seems Paul and Macarthur can agree.
MacArthur closes his sermon affirming that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead as Paul has stated at the beginning of the chapter and again in the middle of the chapter. He points out that Paul says in verse twenty “but now Christ has been resurrected from the dead” and he goes on to preach the good news as a result of that truth. MacArthur says that we can acknowledge this truth because Scripture predicted Christ’s resurrection and the eye-witnesses attest to the risen Christ. The result then is that; the gospel is true, our faith is valid, and the apostles are in fact preachers of the truth. He continues by stating that believers will be rescued from death and be given eternal life. As a result of all of this then, we have a hope to look forward to.
In reality, for MacArthur, if there is no bodily resurrection his answers would be different than Paul’s. Let’s take a look at how they differ as a result of what MacArthur preached.
A Re-examination of the seven points of MacArthur’s sermon:
- Christ’s Resurrection- Agree
Both Paul and Macarthur would agree that if there is no bodily resurrection, then Christ was not raised from the dead. This initial point seems simple enough.
- Resurrection is essential to the Gospel message- Disagree
For MacArthur’s anthropology, it is possible to believe that people die and go to either Heaven or Hell and resurrection is not essential for life to continue. While Macarthur can affirm that the resurrection is important to the gospel message, he cannot affirm with Paul that it is essential. If MacArthur’s anthropology is correct, there is in fact still good news to proclaim, even if the bodily resurrection did not occur. That’s is, without the bodily resurrection, Christians could still “go to heaven” when they die. In MacArthur’s theological framework it is the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice that allows God to forgive humanity of sin which leads to death. In this case, the problem of sin can be overcome by Jesus death and he does not need to be resurrected to fix our relationship with God. While resurrection confirms the identity of Christ as the Son of God, because life continues even after bodily death, the resurrected body is not essential to life. In this case, good news could still be preached. This would obviously alter the gospel message as some have in fact done, but there is still good news available. This shift then is what we see when Christians teach that when we die we “go to heaven or hell” and there is no bodily resurrection. The good news becomes the teaching that death is a gateway to eternal life, either heaven or hell. Taken this way, the bodily resurrection is simply jettisoned as an essential doctrine for the church.
- Resurrection is essential to our faith- Disagree
For MacArthur’s anthropology, it is possible to believe that people die and go to Heaven or Hell thus making resurrection no longer an essential element for life to continue. As in the previous conditional clause, we can state that believer’s faith is still valid in that they believe in and follow Jesus as their Savior. What saves a person is the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. They are saved from their sins and do not have to be saved from death because they continue to exists in another form after their body dies. This results in a shift in the content and eschatology of the gospel message which drops the teaching of the resurrection of the body for continued life.
- Resurrection is what the Apostles taught- Agree
MacArthur can agree with Paul in that if there is no bodily resurrection the apostles teaching is false because the testimony of the both Paul and Peter in Acts is that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. In fact, Luke narrates that Paul was on trial for the belief and proclamation of the resurrection of the dead.
- Sin leads to death- Disagree
In MacArthur’s view of the atonement, sin leads to Hell which is understood as eternal conscious torment and not to death. As a result, Macarthur cannot fully agree with Paul on the fifth point he makes to the Corinthian church. For MacArthur death is not the end of life but a continuation of life in another form minus the body. Death then is not something we need to be rescued from, it is the disembodied life that becomes the problem and is solved by resurrection.
- Resurrection is essential for life- Disagree
For MacArthur’s anthropology life continues regardless of the truth of the resurrection. MacArthur deviates from Paul in regards to his sixth point as well. Paul says that if there is no resurrection of the dead then those that have died have perished or have been destroyed. For MacArthur to perish does not mean to be destroyed at all. He takes this to mean that people would still exist as disembodied souls in Hell. MacArthur must change the basic common understanding of the definition of death to mean something other than the cessation of biological life. This is common for anyone holding to the belief in a disembodied afterlife. The definition of death must be changed to only affect the body, or part of the person. In this sense death affects humanity in a partitive fashion and it is not holistic.
- Resurrection is essential for the Christian to have a Hope- Disagree
In MacArthur’s anthropology, life continues regardless of the truth of the resurrection. Macarthur cannot follow Paul in his final point because Christians could still have a future hope without the bodily resurrection. He also states that without this hope all people would still live as disembodied souls and go to Hell. Again, for MacArthur it is the sacrificial death of Jesus that saves us from sin. So, the resurrection of the body is not necessary for life after death.
Death as Sleep
In MacArthur’s closing remarks of his sermon, he mentions verse twenty and says that when Paul refers to those that are asleep, what he means is the body is dead but the soul continues to live. The biggest problem with this passing statement is that there is no scriptural support for this claim. The reason MacArthur makes this statement is because of his preconceived notions concerning anthropology. Scripture repeatedly uses the metaphor of sleep to refer to death. This metaphor is used in the Old Testament and then affirmed and used by Jesus and other New Testament authors. In the dozens of times that the metaphor is used Biblically, no author ever clarifies that the sleep of death actually means the separation of the body and soul. Sleep is never used to refer to just a part of a person or their body only.
MacArthur then closes his sermon referencing back to the multiple responses to Paul’s preaching of the resurrection in Acts chapter seventeen. He asks his audience; what group are you in? Are you a person that sneers at the teaching of the resurrection? Are you someone who hears and delays? Or are you someone who hears and believes?
SECTION 5 (52:50-end)
The final section that I would like to highlight is MacArthur’s closing prayer. In the last minute or so of his sermon MacArthur closes in a prayer that ends up revealing his underlining anthropology. This prayer ultimately undermines much of what he has just preached about and the underlining message Paul has communicated to the Corinthian church. There are two things that he mentions within the prayer that are of concern. First is the intermingling of the word’s soul and spirit. Second is the statement that the ungodly will also receive eternal life.
The Spirit/Soul in the Intermediate-state
First, biblically speaking, the spirit and the soul are not the same thing. A soul as defined in the Bible is a living creature. This word is applied to both animals and people. Second, the word spirit is used in the Bible to describe something that God gives man in order to live. Humans are not spirit beings like angels. Next, the Bible never speaks of the soul or spirit as being immortal. In fact, the opposite is true. Man is repeatedly spoken of as being mortal in contrast to God who alone is immortal. Finally, if there is an intermediate state, everything Paul has just said to the church in Corinth seems to fall apart.
MacArthur says in his prayer that when we die we can expect to leave this world. He says that upon death, our spirits will ascend to God. In the previous section regarding death as sleep, he has also already stated that death means the separation of the body and the soul. Either MacArthur is a trichotomist, or he is using the words spirit and soul synonymously as many dualists do. The idea of “leaving this world” is problematic for many reasons. First, the Biblical narrative tells a story that is concerned with God coming down to be with his creation, not a story where the goal is to escape God’s creation. Second, this idea then falls in line with the Greek philosophy that he has mentioned in the opening sermon and admonished that we avoid. This idea also then proves the Greek philosophy correct that human beings do in fact have an immortal soul. Finally, the Biblical language does not confuse the words spirit and soul. A soul, biblically speaking is a living creature, a person or an animal. This soul is said to be the container of the spirit or breath, they are not the same thing, just as a glass is not the same thing as the water that it holds. MacArthur then adds that in the future there will be a rapture where believers will be reunited with their bodies and they will be glorified and transformed. This then changes the gospel from the belief in the bodily resurrection to the belief in a reunion of body and spirit/soul.
Eternal Life and Eternal Punishment
The second thing that MacArthur says in his prayer is that the ungodly will spend eternity in Hell. MacArthur is correct in stating that scripture speaks of a resurrection unto judgement. However, he then goes on to say that the ungodly will be given a resurrected body fit for eternal punishment. If this is true, everyone will receive eternal life and the question is what quality of life will people experience for eternity. Here MacArthur shifts the focus from the question of eternal life and death as Jesus states in John 3:16, which is concerned with quantity, of life, to the question of what type of eternal life, which is a question of quality. The problem with this statement is that the Bible only ever attributes eternal life as a gift that is given to the saved. The ungodly on the other hand die a second death. Words used to describe this fate include death, consumed, and destruction. This is a far cry from receiving a new body that will live forever.
In conclusion, MacArthur presents Paul’s gospel message correctly as he walks through the letter to the church in Corinth. MacArthur’s own theology however requires that he betray Paul’s message in order to fit his preconceived ideas of atonement, soteriology and anthropology. While it seems on the surface that MacArthur is preaching a message that agrees with Paul, he in fact differs from the very message he is presenting in drastic and important ways. This sermon serves as a good example as to how we need to constantly be careful of the practice of eisegesis and reading our own theology into a text.