Answering a question today, submitted via email from Aaron in Alexandria. “My brother asked me the other day if the belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a mandatory essential for salvation. I wasn’t 100% on the answer so I told him I wasn’t sure but that it was definitely the quintessential proof that Jesus was the truth. I know Paul teaches you must believe in the resurrection, but the thief on the cross obviously was not aware of it.”
First, belief in the deity of Christ is required to affirm Christianity — in fact, it is arguably the defining belief of Christianity. Believing in the existence of Christ but denying his deity places you in the same camp as the Jews and Muslims. Similarly, believing in the deity of Christ but denying his resurrection presents at the very least a consistency problem. It seems to me that the step from existence to resurrection is a smaller step than from existence to deity, and the resurrection is the primary way in which Christ demonstrated/proved His deity.
Second, we have to understand what the resurrection accomplished. It gets back to the basic gospel message — we are sinners in need of salvation, and we are unable to save ourselves. We are completely reliant on someone (or something) else, and for the Christian it is complete reliance on Christ for our salvation. The effectual means of that salvation is the resurrection. The penalty for our sin is death, and to be reconciled with a perfectly just God, that penalty must be paid. Christ paid the penalty. He was crucified to pay the penalty for our sins, but it was his resurrection that provided the justification — that is, the resurrection is how we are seen good before God. If you don’t believe the resurrection occurred, then how are you justified before God? See Romans 4:24 – 25: “…God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” It was the resurrection that provided the justification.
The point is made even more strongly a few chapters later, in Romans 10. When discussing the disbelief of the Jews, in verse 9 Paul very clearly lays out what is necessary for salvation: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” However, Paul seals the deal, firmly and unequivocally, in his letter to the Corinthians. In the earliest known creed of Christendom, the Apostles’ Creed in 1 Cor 15, Paul passes on to us that which he received of “first importance” — that Christ died, was buried, was raised, and appeared. This all-important Creed is followed by almost an entire chapter on the resurrection, where we are told very specifically, “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.” A Christian faith devoid of the resurrection is simply not a Christian faith.
In short, denying the resurrection comes very close to denying the deity of Christ, it denies the means of our justification, it denies the earliest Creed of the church, and it likely denies our resurrection (and thereby salvation) as well. It doesn’t get any more essential than that.