Men mighten dreden wel and skillfully/This lif to lese, min owene deere brother,/If this were living oonly, and noon other. (Men might dread well and skillfully/This life to lose, my own dear brother,/If this were living only, and none other.) (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales)
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a variety of stories in The Canterbury Tales. Some were bawdy. Most, however, were of a religious bent. Some poked fun at characters based on types from the Catholic Church. Even then, however, he often quoted scripture or presented scriptural ideas. That is true of the above quotation from The Second Nun’s Tale. Her point has been expressed by others in various ways. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (Isa 22:13) “If I’m wrong about the afterlife, I lose nothing. If I’m right, I gain everything.”
Paul put it more succinctly. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor 15:19)
Peggy Lee once sang a song, Is That All There Is, that went to number one on the Billboard Easy Listening chart in 1969. It tells of the singer’s disillusionment about various things. If that’s all there is, then why not just get drunk? The final verse says the singer would never commit suicide because they are afraid to be disillusioned again if this life is all there is. That the song hit number one shows the cynicism of many in the later 60s. In another sense, it shows that people agreed with Paul, that there must be something better.
Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s treatise on the resurrection. Paul did not believe that this life is all there is. He was, after all, a Pharisee. He believed in the resurrection, even before his conversion. He believed in it more strongly afterward.
Wherever the gospel was preached, the usual sticking point was the resurrection. Acts 4:2 says the Sadducees were “grieved” that Peter and John taught the resurrection. When Paul preached on the Areopagus in Athens, he got as far as proclaiming Jesus raised from the dead. “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. (Acts 17:32) When Paul was called before the Sanhedrin, he used the resurrection to his advantage.
But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. (Acts 23:6)
He later tells the Roman governor, Felix, that his only crime before the Jews, the crime for which he was in chains, was that “Touching the resurrection of the dead I am called in question by you this day.” (Acts 24:21) He implied that this should not be a crime and he should be set free.
The doctrine of resurrection was controversial in the first century. It continues to be controversial today. Even people who say they believe that Jesus was raised from the dead live like they believe there is no resurrection or judgement.
If there is no resurrection, if this is all there is, then self-interest is the only moral restraint. The only reason that people do not commit more crimes is they “dreden this lif to lese.” The threat of capital punishment or its virtual equivalent, life in prison, is all that keeps some people from killing each other. Even honest people would not scruple to commit crimes.
But there is a resurrection. There is a judgement. We who believe in Christ, of all men, are truly the least miserable. We know a better life is coming. It is not pie in the sky. It is the hope of mankind.