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1 Corinthians 7 - Denial of Bodily Resurrection (15:1-58)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

Introduction City of Corinth
1: Wisdom and Philosophy (1:1 - 4:21) 2: Issues of Immorality (5:1 - 6:20)
3: Questions About Marriage (7:1-40) 4: Food Offered to Idols (8:1 - 11:1)
5: Headcoverings and Lord's Supper (11:2-34) 6: Spiritual Gifts (12:1 - 14:40)
7: The Resurrection (15:1-58)
Collection for the Saints Photos of Corinth

The great resurrection chapter was written in response to reports that Paul had received from the church, that some were saying that there is no resurrection of the dead (15:12). Before studying the chapter in depth, we need to understand why some believers in the Corinthian church were claiming this. The basis for their claim was the prevalent Greek belief in the immortality of the soul.

Belief in the immortality of the soul

The dualistic thought characteristic of the Greeks was that the physical realm was less important than the spiritual realm, that the physical world was evil and only the spiritual world was good. This belief also had effects on their views of the future. The standard Greek belief was of the immortality of the soul. At death, the soul leaves the body, the body decays, but the soul lives forever in the spiritual realm. Death was seen as the great liberator that released the soul from the prison of the body into immortality. After death there was no purpose for the body. This belief made the concept of a physical resurrection impossible or ridiculous. When he preached in Athens, the Greek philosophers scoffed at the idea of a resurrection (Acts 17:32). As noted before, belief in the immortality of the soul was the basis for hedonism, to enjoy the bodily senses while people have the opportunity.

The biblical view of the body is far more positive. God created the physical world, and created man from the dust of the earth. The physical body is part of God’s creation and is therefore good. God breathed life into the body, showing the unity of the body and soul. Death was a result of the fall, and was therefore an intrusion into the world as a result of sin. The Jews had a well- developed understanding of a future resurrection. The Pharisees were known for their belief in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 26:6-8). The resurrection is at the centre of Christian belief, starting with the resurrection of Jesus, and the general resurrection at the end of the age (Jn 5:28-29). Jesus was born with a real body, he died, was raised and ascended to heaven in a human body. Therefore the body is important, as we also will raised at the end of the age and will receive a renewed spiritual body.

Many scholars have suggested that the Corinthians had an over-realised or over-spiritualised eschatology, that they believed that they were already living in and enjoying the age to come. They probably thought that speaking in tongues, which they evidently called the language of angels (13:1) was proof that they were already living in their heavenly angelic existence. They said they were ruling and reigning in glory now, enjoying all the eschatological blessings (freedom, fullness and consummation of salvation). They understood that the future would be the same as now, but without bodies. Paul had taught that the benefits of final salvation could already be enjoyed in anticipation, but the Corinthians thought they had the full thing already. They believed in the physical resurrection of Christ, but denied that there will be a future bodily resurrection of believers (15:12). They had the new life in the Spirit, and become truly spiritual, so they thought that the body will not be important in the age to come.

Paul’s answer is to show that the resurrection of the dead is central to the Gospel message. There will be a future fulfilment that has not happened yet. His argument is that if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and our faith is futile, and we are without hope. The Christian faith depends on the resurrection of the dead, and is nothing without it.

Hold firm to the Gospel that Paul preached (15:1-2)

He first reminds them of the Gospel he preached to them when he first came to Corinth (Acts 18). This is the message he had received from Jesus and the apostles and had passed on to them. They had believed this Gospel, and through this Gospel they are being saved. We should notice that salvation is a continuing process which is not completed yet. This salvation depends on them holding firmly on to the message that Paul preached. They are not to change it by denying the resurrection. If they do change it, then their faith is in vain.

Scripture predicted the resurrection (15:3-4)

The resurrection of Christ was an objective fact of history, which was predicted in the scriptures. Jesus himself showed the disciples the places his death and resurrection was predicted in the all three sections of the Hebrew Scriptures, the law, the prophets and the writings (Lk 24:44). Jesus died, and was buried, and his dead corpse was resurrected. These verses may well be a quotation of an early confession of faith in the early church. The main points were that he died, was buried, was raised and appeared after his resurrection. He died for our sins, as predicted by Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant (Is 53), meaning that he died in our place, taking the penalty of death that we deserved. This is the concept of substitutionary atonement. His bodily death was real, as was his physical resurrection, which was witnessed by many people.

It is sometimes been suggested in recent years in an attempt to deny the resurrection that Jesus did not really die, but merely lost consciousness and revived in the cool of the tomb. This would be strongly denied by the statements here, that he died and was buried. Also it implies that the Roman soldiers did not do a good job at the crucifixion. They were experienced executioners, and would certainly know when a victim had genuinely died. There are also many other problems with such a suggestion. It does not explain how he, as a severely wounded man, managed to get out of the grave clothes, or to move the heavy stone away from the entrance of the tomb.

Witnesses to the resurrection (15:5-11)

Jesus appeared alive to many people following his resurrection: He first appeared to Cephas, who has visited the Corinthian church and had some followers there (1:12). He secondly appeared to the twelve (or the eleven disciples who were left after the death of Judas). These two appearances are described in the Gospels. Thirdly, he appeared to more than five hundred people at once, most of whom were still alive and can testify to the truth of this. This letter was written only about twenty years after the resurrection of Jesus. Notice that Paul adds that some have died, perhaps mentioning this because some of the Corinthians believed that they would not die. This mass-appearance is not described elsewhere in the NT. Fourthly, he appeared to James the Lord’s brother. The brothers of Jesus rejected him during his public ministry (Mk 3:21, Jn 7:5). This appearance to James evidently led to his conversion. He later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and the author of the book of James. He was not one of the original twelve disciples. Fifthly, he appeared to all the apostles. Finally he appeared to Paul himself, in a vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). He described himself as one 'untimely born' because Jesus appeared to him even after his ascension. Paul’s call to be an apostle was a wonderful work of grace because he previously persecuted the church.

No resurrection means no faith (15:12-19)

In response to their denial of a future resurrection, Paul shows that there is a tight connection between the resurrection of Jesus and their own bodily resurrection. He is showing the Corinthian believers that it is inconsistent to believe in Christ’s resurrection, but to deny their own future resurrection. If there is no future resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and if Christ was not raised, then the Gospel is useless and our faith is mere wishful thinking (15:13-14). Also we are telling lies and misrepresenting God if the resurrection did not happen. If there is no resurrection, then there is no forgiveness of sins, and no hope for the future. The resurrection is our only hope. The future resurrection of believers is an essential part of the Christian faith, and cannot be omitted without destroying the whole Gospel. Today it is fashionable in the secular world, and among liberal theologians to deny the truth of the resurrection as a historical fact. Paul makes it clear here that the resurrection did happen in history, that there were plenty of witnesses to it, and that to deny the resurrection is to destroy the Christian faith. For Paul, it is impossible to deny the truth of the resurrection and still claim to be a Christian.

The order of the resurrections (15:20-28)

Christ is the first-fruit of those who have died, and of those who will be raised. Death came in through human being (Adam), so the resurrection also came through a human being (Christ). The sin of Adam led to death for himself, and for all who were born as his descendants, the whole human population. This is the doctrine known as original sin, that all human beings are born in a state of sin, and therefore need a saviour. Paul also describes this in Rom 5:12-21. The resurrection of Jesus reverses the curse of death caused by the sin of Adam. We should note here that for Paul, Adam was a historical man, just as much as Jesus was a historical figure. Neither Jesus nor Adam were myths with spiritual truth in them, as claimed by many liberal theologians. Instead, passages like 1 Cor 15 make a strong statement of the historical truth of the early chapters of Genesis.

As we look at this chapter we should note that the points Paul makes here, as well as in Romans chapter five, have profound implications to our theories of origins, and show that the evolutionary view of origins is completely incompatible with the Bible. According to evolutionary theory, death has always been here. Evolution is based on millions of years of death and survival of the fittest. According to the evolutionary timescale, mankind evolved after millions of years of death and suffering, as recorded in the fossil record. We should remember that fossils are the remains of dead animals and plants. So, according to evolution, death was present in the world for millions of years before mankind came into existence. In other words, physical death was not the penalty for sin. If this is true, it has a very disturbing implication for the Christian faith. If death is not the penalty for sin, then we must then ask why did Jesus need to die to save us from sin.

By contrast, Paul makes it clear that death was the penalty for sin (15:21-22, Rom 5:12), just as God originally warned Adam (Gen 2:17). So sin entered the world before death. Jesus was the 'second Adam', or 'Last Adam' who reversed the work of the first Adam. Death came through a human being (Adam), and the resurrection has also come through a human being (Christ) (15:21). Without the original sin of Adam with its consequence of death, then the cross has no value, and the whole Gospel message is undermined. It is unfortunate that so many Christians attempt to bring evolution and the Bible together, without realising that the whole point of evolution theory is to explain origins without God, and that belief in millions of years of evolution completely contradicts the Gospel message. Ironically, it is often the atheistic evolutionists who see this contradiction more clearly than Christian theologians. This is a quotation from an atheist called G. Richard Bozarth, written in an article called 'The Meaning of Evolution', in a magazine called 'American Atheist' (Feb 1978, p 30)
"Christianity has fought, still fights, and will continue to fight science to the desperate end over evolution, for evolution destroys utterly and finally the very reason Jesus' earthly life was made necessary. Destroy Adam and Eve and the original sin, and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the son of God. If Jesus was not the redeemer who died for our sins, and this is what evolution means, then Christianity is nothing."

We do not have the liberty to say that the different views on the early chapters of Genesis are of secondary importance to the message of the Gospel. Instead, the Gospel itself is rooted in these chapters, and without a real fall, involving the historical figures of Adam and Eve, the Gospel is meaningless. We need to recognise that there are two totally contradictory views of the history of death. Either one is correct, or the other, there is no possible compromise between the two.

God created a perfect world without sin and death. At the fall, sin came into the world, and death is the penalty for that sin. Jesus is the 'last Adam', who reversed the work of the 'first Adam' (Rom 5:14, 1 Cor 15:22,45). After the second coming of Jesus, death will be no more.

Paul gives a list of two resurrections (15:23). Christ was the first-fruits, the first person to be raised from the dead, never to die again. People like Lazarus were restored to life, but they later died, so they too still wait the future resurrection. Because Jesus was raised, all the believers will be raised when he comes. During the present age, Jesus reigns until all his enemies are subdued. At the end, he will hand over the kingdom to his Father, after all enemies have been destroyed, and the last enemy to be destroyed will be death. Death and Hades are the last enemy to be thrown into the lake of fire at the end of the Book of Revelation (20:14). After this Jesus will continue to rule forever in submission to his Father.

Three arguments for the resurrection (15:29-34)

Paul now gives three different practical arguments to support the resurrection and to challenge their expectation that bodily desires should be indulged.

1. Baptism on behalf of the dead.
This verse is one of the mysteries of 1 Corinthians. This was probably a practice known to Paul and the Corinthians, perhaps where a believer were baptised in the place of other believers who had died before they were baptised. The argument is, that it is pointless the Corinthians practising this strange ritual if they do not believe in a future resurrection. Paul makes no comment, either positively or negatively, about this practice. It appears that he mentions it to show the logical inconsistency of their actions. If they denied the future resurrection, why did they practice proxy- baptisms for dead people? The Mormons have made a big emphasis on this practice, performing proxy-baptisms on behalf of dead people, particularly dead non-Mormons. They construct extensive genealogical records of the dead, so no-one is missed.

2. Paul’s hardships
If there is no hope of a future resurrection then it is pointless for Paul to suffer in the way he does. There is no point him risking his life if there is no resurrection. In 2 Cor, written to the same church, he lists some of the hardships he has suffered (2 Cor 11).

3. Paul fighting wild beasts
We have no record in the NT of him fighting wild beasts at Ephesus. He was in Ephesus as he wrote this letter, so it may have recently happened. Taken literally, fighting wild beasts could mean that he had been thrown to the lions in a Roman amphitheatre. However Roman law protected Roman citizens against being thrown to wild beasts. Otherwise it may be figurative, either referring to the struggle against human passions, sickness, or more likely conflicts with false teachers. In his warning to the Ephesian elders he refers to false teachers as savage wolves (Acts 20:29). It could otherwise refer to opponents to his ministry, as he does refer to many adversaries in Ephesus when he wrote this letter (15:9). If there is no resurrection, then it is pointless living the Christian life and enduring its struggles and suffering, we might as well eat, drink and be merry like the pagans, and enjoy this life as much as we can.

Because the body will be raised, it is important how we use it now. For the Corinthians to gorge themselves and get drunk at banquets, then to enjoy the services of 'Corinthian girls' after the meal, is to sin against their body, which one day will be resurrected forever. His ethical application is for them to remain sober, and avoid bad company. To claim the right to attend these meals does not demonstrate their superior spirituality, but demonstrates their ignorance of God.

What will the resurrection body be like? (15:25-41)

Paul now answers some questions about the resurrection, and the resurrection body the believers will receive. These responses probably came in response to ridicule and scoffing from the Corinthians. The Greeks believed that after death the soul departed, leaving the body to decay, so would find it difficult to believe in a future resurrection of the body. For Paul these responses are stupid, and says so bluntly. The principle from nature is that each different living thing has a body suited to it. Therefore just as earthly bodies are designed for life here on earth, so heavenly bodies are suitable for life in glory. The resurrection of the body is not a resuscitation of the dead, but a rebirth, like a plant growing from a seed planted in the ground. The resurrection has both continuity and discontinuity with the present life.

Contrast between man of dust and man of heaven (15:42-49)

Paul now makes a contrast between the physical earthly body and the resurrection body. The earthly body wears out and dies because it is perishable, but the resurrection or spiritual body is imperishable, it lasts forever. The earthly body is weak, limited and lacking in glory, but the resurrection body will be glorious, powerful, and supernatural, and no longer limited. The resurrection will be a transformation, not a resuscitation.

Again he goes back to Adam, contrasting the first and last Adam. Currently we have the image of the man of dust (Adam). We have the same sort of body that Adam had, a perishable physical body. But we will have the image of the man of heaven (Jesus). We will have the same sort of body that Jesus has now, and had after his resurrection, an imperishable spiritual body. Following his resurrection, Jesus was similar, but different in many ways. His body was no longer limited to some of the physical rules of the universe. He could appear and disappear at will, even appearing in a room when the doors were locked (Jn 20:19-20). However, his body was still real, people could see, feel and touch him, just as Thomas did (Jn 20:27). He was not immediately recognised even by those who knew him. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus only recognised him when he broke bread (Lk 24:31).

What will happen at the resurrection? (15:50-56)

At the climax of this chapters, Paul now describes what will happen at the end of the age, at the resurrection, when death is destroyed. At the last trumpet, we will all be changed, whether we are alive or dead at his coming. The dead will be raised imperishable. The mortal will put on immortality, and we will become as Jesus was following his resurrection. Our bodies will no longer be subject to death and decay. Death will be no more because of the victory of Jesus on the cross.

Also available:

Introduction City of Corinth
1: Wisdom and Philosophy (1:1 - 4:21) 2: Issues of Immorality (5:1 - 6:20)
3: Questions About Marriage (7:1-40) 4: Food Offered to Idols (8:1 - 11:1)
5: Headcoverings and Lord's Supper (11:2-34) 6: Spiritual Gifts (12:1 - 14:40)
7: The Resurrection (15:1-58)
Collection for the Saints Photos of Corinth