When to Stop Being a Christian

I was about 12 years old. I woke up on a Sunday morning, trying to process a dream from the night before. In my dream the sky broke open (in the biblical sense) and everyone on Earth saw the silhouette of a person coming down out of the sky. For a few hours, the silhouette hovered, descending very slowly.

The world panicked. But I was pretty sure I knew what was going on. It was Jesus! He was coming back to Earth just like he’d said in the Bible.

After a few hours, the silhouette landed. But immediately I could tell something was wrong. It wasn’t Jesus!

And he was very clear about that. He wanted our allegiance, he wanted our praise, but he didn’t want to be called Jesus. It even seemed to offend him that some of us assumed that’s who he was. He wasn’t the God of the Bible, he said. He was the true god.

I woke up from this dream and didn’t know what to think.

For the first time ever it occurred to me that my faith, my Lord, the religion of my family, might not be true.

It was a cruel epiphany.

From where I stood, Christianity couldn’t have been more authentic. It was as real as an apple in my hand. I’d never had a reason to doubt the validity of Christianity because nothing in my world had exposed me to the possibility that my belief might be misplaced. My mail carrier was a Christian. My teachers were Christians. The mayor of my town was a Christian. Our newspaper, the Sioux Center News, had Bible verses on the front page.

Everything in my life reinforced the unquestioned reality that God is the one true God, the Bible is his Word, and Jesus is coming again. This was the first time I faced the intellectual possibility that Jesus was a farce.

After throwing on my church clothes and scanning my memory verse one more time, I ran upstairs to tell my parents about my dream. I looked them in their eyes and asked, “What if that really happened? What if God showed up and he wasn’t our God? What would we do?”


“Is there ever a good reason to stop being a Christian?” I asked my parents.

The apostle Paul says, “Yes.” There is at least one perfectly good reason not to become or to stop being a Christian.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes to the Christians in the city of Corinth: “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” (vv. 13-14).

During Paul’s time in history, a popular philosophical argument centered on whether it was possible for someone to be raised from the dead. (Socrates and his colleagues, in fact, fought this battle long before Jesus was born, let alone resurrected.) The debate remained at the heart of what made a Pharisee different from a Sadducee. And the Corinthians, too, clearly had questions about it.

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” Paul tells them. In other words, “This conversation you so casually debate is the foundation of your entire belief system!”

If not for the resurrection, our faith, according to Paul, is “useless.” Later in the chapter he uses the word “futile.”

If the resurrection did not actually, physically, literally happen, then Christianity is worthless.

If the resurrection did not actually, physically, literally happen, you and I should stop following Christ right now because we’re wasting our lives.

If the resurrection did not actually, physically, literally happen, we Christians should be pitied more than anyone else because we’ve been duped (v. 19).

Paul makes a very aggressive claim—that without the resurrection, everything Christians have ever done in the name of Christ is useless.

Is that true? Think about all the good things Christianity has given to the world. I’m not suggesting that everything Christians have given to the world has been good—that’s not the case—but there have been many good things.

Think about the millions of hungry people who’ve been fed by people who believe in Jesus.  

Think about all the good art that came from the church—from Beethoven, Bach, Michelangelo. Though I’ve never seen it, I’m told Michelangelo’s statue of David is one of the most beautiful manmade objects on earth, carved out of stone by a Christian person for the Church—but useless, Paul says, without the resurrection.

Think of all the Christians who’ve contributed so much to the world—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr.—don’t their efforts and successes mean anything without the resurrection?

If you’re like me, you want to argue with Paul and say, “But Michelangelo’s statue is still beautiful and Mother Teresa was still loving and Augustine was still a genius, even if there were no resurrection. Why would their work be pointless?”  

Yet I think Paul would say, “If Michelangelo’s Savior is dead, the life and passion of his art is based on a lie. And if Mother Teresa’s Savior is dead, she only gave suffering people bread to live another day. If Augustine’s Savior is dead, he wasted his genius wrestling with a God who doesn’t exist.”

Christians are the most pitiful people on earth if the resurrection isn’t true. Why? Because we’ve got all our spiritual eggs in one basket, and if that basket tips over we’re left with nothing.

It seems strange, but the validity of Christianity hinges on the authenticity of one weekend of events.

Dumb Investment?

It’s not like us to invest everything we’ve got into something we can’t know for sure—something we can’t prove. We’re smarter than that. We diversify our financial portfolios. We don’t put all our money, if we have any, in the same place. We buy insurance policies so that if things take an unexpected turn we’ve got a Plan B. We value stability. We plan for the worst-case scenario.

So why would we put our faith in one thing?

That would be so unlike us. But even more so, it would be so unlike Paul.

Let me explain what I mean. There’s a great story in Acts 25-26 where Paul is standing trial in front of Festus and Agrippa for preaching the gospel. Paul is making his case, talking about the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus, when Festus interrupts him: “Paul, you’re out of your mind . . . all of your great learning is driving you insane.”

From the perspective of Festus, someone as brilliant and reputable as Paul was the last person who should believe all that resurrection nonsense. Paul was a scholar. He was a poet; he was a philosopher; he was a Roman citizen.

Even though Festus knew Paul was a Pharisee, and therefore believed in resurrection, he was aghast to think that such a person would stake his life on something so unbelievable.

So are there legitimate reasons to believe in an actual, physical, literal resurrection?

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives us three brilliant ones (with thanks to the exegetical work of N.T. Wright and Tim Keller):

  1. Verse 4 says, “Jesus was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” There is a certain amount of information about Jesus that is believed by almost everyone to be historical fact. Nearly everyone agrees that Jesus was crucified on a cross, placed in a tomb, and three days later was no longer in that tomb. Something happened to him—something. After three days, his body was gone.
  2. Think about verses 5 and 6: “Jesus appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. And after that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.” This is Paul’s second argument: many people saw Jesus—and not only his followers, who might be tempted to fabricate a story together.
    Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians only 16 to 18 years after the resurrection of Jesus, so many of the people who saw Jesus and touched Jesus and ate with Jesus after his resurrection were still alive. Paul tells the Corinthians that if you would find these people and ask them about the resurrection, they would grab you by the shoulders, look you in your eyes, and say, “It’s true!”
  3. In verses 9-10, and really throughout the rest of the chapter, Paul writes, in effect, “There are hundreds of people who say they interacted with the resurrected Christ, and all of them to this day, myself included, are willing to die for what we saw. How can that be unless the resurrection is true?”
    Those who said they saw the resurrected Jesus were willing to endure torture and death. They certainly had no earthly motivation to make up a story about Jesus and then get killed for it.
The Greatest Evidence

In summing up his arguments, Paul writes, “And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord” (15:30, NRSV).

Again, my interpretation of what Paul is saying: “Look closely at my life, and you’ll find two things that are objectively true of me. The first thing you’ll see is that my life is worthless—I die every day. Nobody wants to be me. The second thing you’ll notice is that my joy is off the charts.”

The greatest evidence of the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus is Paul or you or me saying “It is well with my soul” when something goes wrong.

The greatest evidence of the resurrection is you when your seemingly monotonous 9-5 existence becomes your canvas for a brilliantly grateful life.

The greatest evidence of the resurrection is when a Christ-follower prioritizes her life by putting worship, sacrifice, and love over security, power, and appetite.

Why? Because if Christ is resurrected, the physical world and our monotonous lives have divine significance. If Christ is resurrected, the cosmos has already seen a glimpse of the glory to come, and we can prioritize accordingly. The reality of the resurrection changes everything.

Look again at Michelangelo’s David and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry. Look again at Martin Luther King’s fight for justice. Apart from the Scriptures, these people and their lives are the greatest evidence of the resurrection we will ever find. And that same opportunity to live the resurrection is ours every day. 

  1. Do you agree that the validity of Christianity hinges on the resurrection of Jesus? Why or why not?
  2. Rev. De Wit says that “the greatest evidence of the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus is Paul or you or me saying “It is well with my soul” when something goes wrong.” When do you say, “It is well with my soul”?
  3. What part does gratitude play in your spiritual life?
  4. What do you fear the most? How does the longing for power or security weaken your faith?
  5. What helps you stay grounded in the reality of the gospel?

About the Author

Rev. Stephen De Wit is co-pastor of Alger Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.