The Resurrection of the Dead — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology
Eschatology moves to the foreground in 1 Corinthians 15. Here Paul turns his full attention to the doctrine of the resurrection. The question to which Paul is responding is not stated explicitly until verse 12. Paul informs us there that some of the Corinthians were saying that “there is no resurrection of the dead.” As we examine the text it will become clear that what they were denying was the future bodily resurrection of believers. Paul makes very clear in this chapter how central the doctrine of the resurrection is to the Christian faith. His argument proceeds in two stages. In verses 1–34, he demonstrates the reality of the resurrection of the dead. In verses 35–58, he explains how it is that the bodily resurrection of believers is possible.
Paul opens the discussion by reminding the Corinthians of the Gospel that he had preached to them and that they had believed (15:1). In other words, Paul begins his argument by stating a belief on which they agree, and from there he moves to the necessary consequences of that belief. Paul states the content of his Gospel in verses 3–5, saying, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
The death and resurrection of Jesus are the center of Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel. It is by means of Christ’s death and resurrection that the two evils introduced into the world at the time of the Fall are overcome. Christ’s death on the cross is God’s solution to the problem of sin, and Christ’s resurrection from the grave is God’s solution to the problem of death. When Paul says that “Christ died for our sins,” he is alluding to Isaiah 53:5–6 and its language of substitutionary atonement. But when Paul says that Christ died and was raised “in accordance with the Scriptures,” he has more in mind than the fulfillment of specific individual texts. Rather, the death and resurrection of Christ are the climactic fulfillment of the entire Old Testament narrative.i This is the Gospel that the Corinthians believed. They professed belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Granted their faith in the resurrection of Christ, Paul asks, “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (15:12). The remainder of the chapter makes it clear that what the Corinthians were denying was the idea of a future bodily resurrection.ii In this, they were simply expressing the beliefs of ancient paganism, which denied the very possibility of such a thing.iii In verses 12–19, Paul explains the consequences of such a denial. Paul explains, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (v. 13). Here Paul is showing the contradictory nature of their beliefs. They profess belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ while at the same time denying the possibility of bodily resurrection, but their denial of the resurrection of the dead necessitates the conclusion that Christ was not raised. Their denial of the resurrection of the dead is a denial of the very heart of Christianity.iv
In verses 13–19, Paul expands on the consequences of their denial of the resurrection of the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not raised, and if Christ is not raised Paul’s preaching is in vain, and the Corinthians’ faith is in vain (v. 14). If there is no resurrection of the dead, Christians are bearing false witness against God by claiming that he raised Jesus from the dead (v. 15). If Christ has not been raised, the Corinthians are still in their sins (vv. 16–17) and those who have died are without hope (v. 18). If there is no resurrection of the dead, Christians are the most pitiful of people for believing in a delusion (v. 19). In short, what Paul is telling the Corinthians is that if their denial of the resurrection of the dead is true, then Christianity is worthless nonsense.v
Paul changes course slightly in verses 20–28 by moving back to the point of agreement between himself and the Corinthians. He writes, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20). The word “firstfruits” (aparche) refers to the first and representative portion of an agricultural harvest.vi It implies more “fruit” to come, and it implies a relationship between the firstfruits and the remaining harvest. As Holleman explains, “The designation of the risen Jesus as the ‘first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (v. 20) means that Jesus has been raised as the first and the representative of those who will be raised.”vii In other words, Christ’s resurrection and the future bodily resurrection of Christ’s people form “an unbreakable unity.”viii
Paul continues, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 21–22). Holleman helpfully explains the significance of Paul’s words, “In verses 21–22 he [Paul] establishes that, just as death came into the world through Adam, resulting in the death of all people who are represented by Adam, so resurrection came into the world through Christ, resulting in the resurrection of all people who are represented by Christ.”ix
Paul elaborates on the sequence of resurrection, saying, “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then (epeita) at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then (eita) comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (15:23–24). Paul pictures Christ’s resurrection as the inauguration of the eschatological resurrection; it is all one harvest. Jesus’ resurrection is the first stage in the eschatological resurrection, and the resurrection of Christians is the second stage.x The resurrection of believers occurs “at his coming,” which means that it is a future event.
Some exegetes believe that Paul’s words in verse 24 indicate the existence of an interval between Christ’s coming and “the end” or final consummation.xi The argument is that Paul envisions three stages in the unfolding of these eschatological events: the resurrection of Christ, then the parousia at which believers are raised, and then the end when Christ hands over the kingdom to his Father. Some exegetes argue that since there is an indefinite interval between stage one and two, it is likely that there is also an interval between stage two and three.xii While the grammar alone may allow for such an interpretation, there are at several reasons why it is highly unlikely. First, these same adverbs (epeita and eita) are used in the immediate context and elsewhere to indicate nothing more than a simple sequence of events (cf. 15:5–7). They do not, by themselves, imply anything about intervals of time. Second, in the immediate context, the completion of the eschatological resurrection, which occurs at Christ’s Second Coming, is tied to the defeat of death, which occurs at “the end” (15:24–26; cf. vv. 54–55). This indicates that Christ’s Second Coming occurs at “the end,” something that Paul indicates in other epistles as well (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13–18). Third, the beginning of Christ’s kingdom does not await his Second Coming. Christ’s kingdom was inaugurated at his First Advent (e.g., Matt. 28:18; Acts 2:29–36; Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:5).
Paul concludes this section by building on Psalm 110:1. He writes, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (vv. 25–26). Paul then quotes Psalm 8:6 as he envisions the subjection of all things to God (vv. 27–28). The full manifestation of the kingdom of God is Christ’s ultimate goal. Through Christ, God defeats every enemy in order that his reign might be established over all.xiii The eschatological importance of the resurrection could not be made any clearer than it is in this section of Paul’s epistle.
Paul concludes his argument for the reality of the resurrection of the dead in 15:29–34. He asks several rhetorical questions to add weight to his argument. The first question he asks has been the source of much discussion. “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (v. 29). Numerous interpretations of the meaning of this verse have been suggested.xiv While not without its difficulties, Thiselton’s suggestion is perhaps the most plausible. He argues that baptism on behalf of the dead “refers to the decision of a person or persons to ask for, and to receive baptism as a result of the desire to be united with their believing relatives who have died.”xv In other words, dying believers would urge their unbelieving family members to become Christians in order that they might be together again. Paul, then, is referring to those unbelievers who converted to Christ for this reason as those who were “baptized on behalf of the dead.” If there is no resurrection of the dead, their conversion/baptism was for naught. Paul’s second question concerns the dangers he places himself in (vv. 30–34). If there is no resurrection, then what he is doing is foolish in the extreme.
The reason behind the Corinthians’ denial of the resurrection of the dead was a worldview that abhorred the idea of bodily resurrection. They may have thought that “resurrection” meant nothing more than the mere reanimation of a corpse. Paul turns his attention to this issue in 15:35–49. He writes, “But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”” (v. 35). The word translated “body” is the Greek word soma. Paul uses the word in relation to human beings to speak of the physical body.xvi As Gundry explains, Paul uses this word “precisely because the physicality of the resurrection is central to his soteriology.”xvii
Paul rebukes his hypothetical questioner (15:36a) and then uses an agricultural analogy to illustrate continuity and discontinuity between the present body and the resurrected body (v. 37). As Hays explains, “The analogy of the seed enables Paul to walk a fine line, asserting both the radical transformation of the body in its resurrected state and yet its organic continuity with the mortal body that precedes it.”xviii Paul then describes the many different kinds of bodies that God has created: for humans, animals, birds, fish, heavenly bodies, earthly bodies, sun, moon, and stars (vv. 38–41). Reading Paul’s list here reminds one of the creation account of Genesis.xix The whole creation was affected by the Fall (cf. Rom. 8:20–21). By mentioning all aspects of God’s creation in the context of a discussion of resurrection, Paul may be hinting at the idea of the new creation, when everything will be set free from the effects of the curse.xx Paul continues, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (15:42–44). Paul’s words indicate both continuity and transformation.xxi The continuity is seen in the fact that the same “it” that is sown is also raised. The transformation is seen in the contrasts that Paul describes: perishable vs. imperishable; dishonor vs. glory; weakness vs. power; natural vs. spiritual.
Paul’s use of the words “spiritual body” to describe the resurrection body has led some to deny the corporeal nature of the resurrection of the dead, but the words themselves lend no weight to such an argument. In verse 44, Paul says “It is sown a natural body (soma psychikon); it is raised a spiritual body (soma pneumatikon).” To say that the resurrection body is a soma pneumatikon does not mean that it is composed of a pneumatic substance.xxii The contrast Paul is making is between a “natural body” (i.e., a body animated by the breath of life given to Adam) and a “spiritual body” (i.e., a body animated by the Holy Spirit).xxiii Richard Hays suggests that the Jerusalem Bible is perhaps the best translation of this phrase: “When it is sown it embodies the soul, when it is raised it embodies the spirit. If the soul has its own embodiment, so does the spirit have its own embodiment.”xxiv
Paul writes, “Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (15:45–49). Paul’s point is here is that just as our present body is like Adam’s physical body, so our future body will be like Jesus’ resurrection body.xxv In short, Paul is portraying Jesus as the one who inaugurates the new creation and the new humanity.xxvi
The conclusion to Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 ties the resurrection of the dead to God’s triumphant victory over death, the last enemy (vv. 50–58). Paul reiterates what he has already said, when he states that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (v. 50). These two clauses are in synonymous parallelism and indicate the same truth, namely, that our present bodies must be transformed in order to participate in the consummation of the kingdom. Paul then writes, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (vv. 51–53). What Paul describes here is the same event he described in his first epistle to the Thessalonians (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13–18). It is the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of those still living at the time of Christ’s Second Coming.
Paul concludes, by quoting the eschatological vision found in Isaiah 25:8. He writes, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 54–57). Death has wielded its reign of terror over man since the Fall. The resurrection of Jesus sets into motion the eschatological events that will culminate in the resurrection of his people, an event which will mark the final defeat of death itself.
i Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1195; cf. also C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 338.
ii See Joost Holleman, Resurrection and Parousia: A Traditio-Historical Study of Paul’s Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 40; Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox, 1997), 253; David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 699; I Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 264.
iii For a discussion of ancient pagan views of the afterlife, see N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 32–84.
iv Barrett, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 346.
v Hays, First Corinthians, 260; cf. Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1218.
vi Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), 547–48; cf. Holleman, Resurrection and Parousia, 50.
vii Ibid, 51.
viii Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 538.
ix Holleman, Resurrection and Parousia, 55. He explains further, “The parallelism between the two clauses of verse 22 does not lie in the fact that both groups are identical, but in the fact that for both groups the representative determines the fate of the group. The unity with Adam leads to death, the unity with Christ leads to resurrection. Since only Christians are united with Christ, only Christians will be made alive through Christ” (p. 53).
x Holleman, Resurrection and Parousia, 1; cf. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 746; N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 27.
xi This interpretation is affirmed by premillennialists such as Hiebert in Donald K. Campbell and Jeffrey L. Townsend, eds. The Coming Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 229–34.
xii Ibid, 230.
xiii Collins, First Corinthians, 555; Holleman, Resurrection and Parousia, 60.
xiv See the various commentaries for full discussions.
xv Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1248.
xvi See Robert H. Gundry, Soma in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 80; cf. also James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 61.
xvii Gundry, Soma, 169.
xviii Hays, First Corinthians, 270; cf. also Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1264; Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 341.
xix Paul’s later mention of Adam adds weight to the comparison.
xx Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 313.
xxi Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 777.
xxii See Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1991), 166–67; Ridderbos, Paul, 544; Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 786.
xxiii Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 354; cf. Ridderbos, Paul, 541–42.
xxiv Hays, First Corinthians, 272.
xxv Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, 32.
xxvi Ridderbos, Paul, 56.