The key to answering this question is to first consider what it means to be a Christian. There are two very distinct ways of defining what it means to be a “Christian.” One definition does not require belief in the resurrection and the other definition demands it.
ADMIRER OF CHRIST’S IDEAS AND PHILOSOPHIES
If by “Christian” one means a fan of the teachings of Christ, then the answer is YES. In this case you can be a “Christian” and not believe in the resurrection. It is no different than people consider themselves “Thomist” (followers of Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy) and we all know he did not rise from the dead. Likewise, others call themselves “Buddhists,” “Platonists,” “Marxists,” etc., and by this they mean to say they admire, agree with, follow, or adhere to the philosophies and ideas espoused by these men. Since all of these men are dead, it is their ideas that live on. Most importantly, this type of “following” does not demand that one adhere to everything these men said, nor does it require they be resurrected. One may simply be a fan of some of their ideas.
BENEFICIARY OF CHRIST’S REDEMPTIVE SACRIFICE
HOWEVER, if by “Christian” we mean a born again person redeemed by the blood of Christ, adopted by God, who will enjoy eternal life in heaven, then the answer is NO. A Christian in this sense is someone who is a fan of Christ and not just his ideas. Because he is no longer dead, Christ lives on and not just his ideas. A Christian in this sense is someone who reaps all the benefits of Jesus’ life, death, and most importantly his resurrection. Christ himself made this abundantly clear,
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25 (NKJV).
In this passage, Jesus explains what sets him apart from all the other teachers, philosophers, and religious leaders. Belief in him is belief in his resurrection and thus ours as well. One must believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or else this passage is meaningless. Many in fact doubt the resurrection, but they do so in spite of the strong and overwhelming historical evidence for the resurrection.
Paul’s teachings, throughout his letters, are emphatic about the centrality of the resurrection. To the romans he explains the reason why we must believe in the resurrection in order to be saved,
9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. Rom. 10:9-10 (NKJV).
Why is the resurrection so important? If Christ did not rise from the dead, then he was not God. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then there is no resurrection for us. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then he was just another charlatan who promised what he could not deliver. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then we are wasting our time. Consider Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15,
12 Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. 1 Cor. 15:12-19 (NKJV).
Paul describes Christianity without a risen Jesus as faith that is “empty” and “futile,” and it makes you among men “the most pitiable.” Even more important, if Jesus did not rise from the dead than you cannot reap the benefits. Paul says you are “still in your sins.” Without the resurrection we are still lost in our trespasses and alienated from God because of our sins. Without the resurrection of Christ there is no eternal life and when we die we “have perished.”
You can be an admirer of Christ and his teachings without believing in his resurrection. In that case, your relationship is primarily with the ideas, not with the person because he is dead. However, that type of relationship is no different than the one you may share with Plato’s ideas or Buddha’s ideas. It is the type of relationship that has no transcending consequences. It may affect your life here on earth in varying degrees, but it all ends when you die. What’s worse, you are still lost in your sins and alienated from God. On the other hand, a relationship with the living Christ is altogether different. That type of relationship is accompanied by the benefits that follow Christ’s redemptive work of the cross and his resurrection. Not only are you saved by Christ’s death, but you have hope of eternal life through his resurrection and you are reconciled with God for all eternity. Unlike the admirer, the greatest benefits of this type of relationship is not found in this life, it begins when the mortal body dies. In the words of Jesus, “though he may die, he shall live.”
Dr. Juan Valdes is a bi-lingual speaker for Reasons for Hope (English and Spanish) and the senior pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation in Miami, Florida. He has taught Theology, Bible and Apologetics at the seminary level in both English and Spanish and speaks regularly across the country and internationally at Pastor’s Conferences, Youth Conferences, Apologetics Conferences and local church events. Juan, his wife Daisy and their children, Juan Elias and Jessica serve in multiple areas of ministry in Miami, Florida.