Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus,
nothing else in Christianity makes sense --
Not even the Cross.
Paul is addressing yet another problem and misunderstanding within the Christian believers of Corinth. Partly based on their disdain for the physical body (body-spirit dualism from Greek philosophy) they accepted the idea of a resurrection, but rejected a resurrection into a physical body. And possibly based on their overrealized eschatology, they may have believed that they were already “spiritually resurrected” with their baptism.
This is a passage that modern English readers can misinterpret due to our assumption that “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (15:12b) means that there is no resurrection at all. But that is not what the Corinthians meant and not what Paul would have heard. What they meant was that “there is no bodily, physical resurrection of the dead.” The Corinthians still believed in at least the concept of a resurrection and some kind of existence after death. It is the nature of the resurrection and existence that was in question.
Paul’s first defense of the bodily resurrection is that all the apostles teach it. He reminds the Corinthians that when he first came to them, this is the gospel that he taught them and that one that they accepted and believed.
His second defense of the bodily resurrection is that if it is not true, then nothing about Christianity is true, because it all rises or falls on the veracity of the hundreds of witness accounts of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Here is another mistake modern Christians make with this passage. It is used as an apologetics for the resurrection against unbelievers. That is not the point of this passage. Paul writes with the assumption that there is a resurrection. He does not try to prove it. His argument is with the nature of the resurrection.
… Paul will next turn to a direct confrontation with the Corinthians over their denial of the resurrection of the dead. The nature of that argument makes it plain that the purpose of this opening paragraph is not to prove Christ’s resurrection but to reestablish that fundamental premise as the common denominator from which to argue with them… The reason for the catalogue of witnesses is therefore not to prove that Jesus rose but to emphasize that the resurrection of Christ, which they believed, had objective reality…
On the other hand, there are those who use this passage to try to prove the Resurrection to unbelievers. What they fail to recognize is that such “proofs” are valid only to those who believe.
Paul explains the “essential” of the gospel in 15:3b-5a. It is the death, burial, resurrection of Jesus and the many witnesses to the events. The focus of the gospel is the resurrection, not the death. The focus of the gospel is not payment for sins, punishment for sins, or satisfying the “wrath of God,” but in the power of God to overcome and destroy the power of Sin, i.e., Death.
(See my previous post on why Paul does not teach the penal-substitution theory of the atonement.)
Kenneth Bailey writes:
This is another case where the third-party substitutionary theory of the atonement, with its focus on penalty, can lead astray. Imagine a scenario in which God takes Jesus to heaven seconds after the great cry, “It is finished.” Had that happened, would there be any salvation for believers? If the focus is on penalty, then of course there is salvation because “Jesus paid it all…” Does that not mean that the great work of salvation is completed? Not for Paul. For him, without the resurrection all faith is futile and believers are still in their sins. As noted, the central focus is rescue, not penalty. Without the resurrection the death of Jesus is like the death of John the Baptist. If there is no resurrection, Jesus is one more rabbi who tried to renew Israel and failed…
The resurrection affirms that sin and death do not have the last word. At the cross the finest religion of the ancient world (Judaism), and the finest system of justice of the ancient world (Rome), joined to torture this good man to death. These were not evil forces. They were the best institutions the ancient world had to offer, and yet together they produced the cross. But that was not the end. After the cross came the victory of resurrection…
The core of the Christian faith is the proclamation that, Christ has risen. It is way different when Jesus does it. Jesus defeats death—death no longer has power. Jesus ushers in the fullness of life for all. Jesus returns from the dead not to punish his murderers, but to redeem them. Jesus’ resurrection brings a new life. This is the gospel. [Emphasis mine.]
I’ve often felt that too much of modern Christianity is obsessed with the death of Christ, with sins, with the so-called payment for sins, with satisfying some kind of demand placed by the wrath of God, with hell and punishment. First Corinthians 15 and Paul’s writings should be seen in their proper light. The gospel is not about the cross, but about the resurrection. It is not about death, but victory over death. Humankind, fallen under the power of Sin and Death, killed Jesus, and tried to kill God. But the good news – the gospel – is that the power of God is greater than the power of Sin. The resurrection is proof of that power.
 New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 15:11.
 Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, location 5203-5212.