Tony Moore, following the roads walked by the apostle Paul and the Scripture he penned, stumbled upon his view of death in a Corinthian cemetery.
While tracing the footsteps of Paul, I came to the antique city of Corinth, which grew up at the foot of a 2,000-foot fortresslike mountain. Originally, the city was located on its summit, but this was not practical, so the city moved to the base of the mountain, allowing the citizens to retreat to the refuge of the mountaintop in times of peril.
When Paul visited the city, it was the largest metropolis in what we know today as Greece, with a population of more than 500,000 making it at least 25 times more populated than Athens.
Through the centuries the city has been destroyed many times by earthquakes, and in the nineteenth century it migrated from the base of the mountain to the sea. Exploring Corinth, you are constantly amazed by the fabulous ruins that bear witness to the metropolis. The remnants of the Temple of Octavia have fabulous columns decorated with exquisite Corinthian capitals, and 7 of the original 28 massive Doric columns still stand in the Temple of Apollo, dating from the sixth century B.C.
The pan-Hellenic Games were held in a four-year rotation that included Olympia—the year before and the year after Olympia the games were held at Corinth. Corinth was a fabulous city when Rome destroyed it in 146 B.C. A century later Julius Caesar rebuilt it in magnificent style. The forum in Corinth was larger than that in Rome.
Corinth’s wealth was due to its strategic location at the four-mile-wide isthmus separating the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. Ships could avoid the dangerous passage around Cape Matapan at the southern tip of Greece and save 200 miles on the journey to and from Rome by crossing the isthmus. When attempts at digging a canal across the isthmus failed, Corinth developed ports on each side. This allowed it control of the east-west trade, transporting small vessels on the diolkos, or paved slipway. Larger vessels would be unloaded and the goods transported to the opposite port, where they would be loaded onto waiting vessels.
Corinth also became a byword for immorality. The Acropolis towering over Corinth in earlier times provided a place of refuge from invaders. Now the mountain was dominated by the Temple of Aphrodite that had more than a thousand priestesses or temple prostitutes.
In spite of the rampant immorality in this pagan city, Paul planted a thriving Christian church there, later sending two letters to it. As I walked among the graves in a quaint cemetery outside Corinth, I saw evidence of Paul’s ministry in this city. It was touching to see modern Corinthians expressing love for their dead by the tender care evidenced in the graves. Corinthian cemeteries are different from the manicured grass lawns I’m used to. Since the ground is rocky, you cannot easily dig a six-foot-deep grave, so the graves are elevated and carefully painted and decorated.
My heart was touched as I watched a young man bring water into the cemetery and pour it on the flowers he had so carefully planted. After he left I went to the grave and read the headstone and looked at the picture. I realized he was a widower, and this was his young bride’s grave. I quietly observed parents dusting the picture that decorated the grave of their child who had been snatched by death.
It was moving to see the loving care the Corinthians gave their dead—the flowers, the pictures, the memorabilia. The Corinthians were seeking to bridge the divide between life and death, between the present and the past.
As I saw the living remembering their dead, I thought about the words concerning life and death that Paul sent to the Christians in this city nearly two thousand years earlier. Paul taught them the powerful message of the resurrection of the dead—that death was not final, that one day the dead would rise and live again!
But somehow in this sophisticated city, members of the church had their faith in the Resurrection undermined, and some taught there was none! Paul wrote a letter to expose this heresy, and forever linked the hope of the resurrection of the dead to the gospel of Jesus Christ. “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?” he asks (1 Corinthians 15:12). He explains his view about life, death, and the future life more comprehensively in this letter than any other.
When Paul visited, he was confronted by two major attitudes to death. One was a sense of hopelessness, that there was nothing beyond the grave, which is reflected in the pagan epithets discovered in the catacombs at Rome: “Goodbye, my mother. I’ll never see you again”; “Farewell, my darling, I’ll never see you again.” There was a sense of hopelessness and despair.
But he also encountered Platonic philosophy, Egyptian mysticism, and Persian dualism, with their belief that the soul was released from the body at death.
The idea of a bodily resurrection was so foreign to Greek minds that it wasn’t in their vocabulary. So Paul wrote to the church of Corinth his most complete and extensive teachings on the subject of death. “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3–5).
The resurrection of Jesus was the basis of Paul’s gospel! Jesus wasn’t raised as a disembodied spirit; His soul wasn’t released from the body at death. Paul taught the He was bodily resurrected: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . . But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:12–14, 20).
Christians in Corinth were teaching there was no resurrection from the dead. Paul said if that is true, there is no power in the gospel! And if this were true, there is nothing unique about Jesus coming back to life after His death. But Jesus was resurrected, the firstfruit of all who believe, and that if we die before Jesus returns, we, too, will be raised upon His return.