In 1 Corinthians 15, doesn't Paul teach that our bodies will be transformed when Jesus returns? If so, how could the mass judgment and resurrection of the dead have already occurred?
These are questions I had when I was studying through these things for myself a few years ago.
In previous posts, we studied afresh Paul's teachings regarding Jesus' second coming in 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians.
In those posts, I highlighted a number of Paul's statements (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) that show how he expected Jesus' second coming to occur shortly after writing.
Last post, we took a fresh look at Peter's statements in 2 Peter 3 regarding Jesus' second coming and made similar observations.
I've shown how, upon reexamination, each of these texts is fully consistent with the perspective I've presented throughout this series.
But what about 1 Corinthians 15?
How can it be consistent with the assertion that Jesus has already returned and the mass judgment and resurrection have already occurred?
Welcome to the 36th post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.
Let's take a fresh look at 1 Corinthians 15...
Setting the context
I recommend you pause here and re-read 1 Cor. 15 afresh before continuing here so that you have the full context in mind.
In the first 11 verses, Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians of the gospel he taught them and how that gospel is directly connected to (and dependent upon) Jesus' resurrection.
And apparently some of the Corinthian Christians were denying the resurrection of the dead.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
(1 Cor. 15:12-17 NIV)
From verse 12 through the end of the chapter, Paul elaborated on the resurrection of the dead.
Paul's Teaching on the Resurrection
Here are some observations regarding Paul's teaching on the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15.
Observation #1: You can't resurrect what hasn't died
In the past, I thought that the Scriptures taught that, when Jesus returns on a future last day of life on earth, by necessity the living would be instantly transformed as Paul described in 1 Cor. 15:51-52. After all, if planet earth burned up and dissolved, the living had to be transported off the planet at that time, too.
My understanding was influenced by misunderstanding 1 Thess. 4-5, as we studied in the earlier post.
But what is interesting in 1 Cor. 15 (and all the Scriptures, for that matter, but especially here) is that the language Paul used was always about the resurrection of the dead.
Logically this makes sense, if we pause to think about it.
You can't raise up what hasn't first died.
Paul even addressed this fairly directly, but we tend to gloss over it, blinded by our preconceived perspective:
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
(1 Cor. 15:35-36 NIV)
As you read 1 Cor. 15, observe how all language about those resurrected applies to those who were then dead (or "asleep").
51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
(1 Cor. 15:51-52 NIV)
Also, notice that no exception is given. All will die.
22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
(1 Cor. 15:22 NIV)
This is consistent with other Scripture which offers no exemption from death:
27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,
(Heb. 9:27 NIV)
Observation #2: What would occur at Jesus' second coming
In vv.22-28, Paul explained events that would transpire at Jesus' coming:
22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
(1 Cor. 15:22-28 NIV)
Placing these statements in chronological order, we have:
- Christ reigns until He defeats all enemies.
- The end comes.
- Christ defeats death.
- Christ returns for those who belong to Him.
- Christ surrenders the kingdom to the Father.
- Christ subjects Himself underneath the Father.
This is precisely the order of events we read about in Rev. 18-20.
Observation #3: What 'end' was Paul referring to in v.24?
Paul didn't define what "end" he was referring to in 1 Cor. 15:24. Instead, he assumed that the reader already knew.
Throughout this series, I have repeatedly emphasized that the New Testament writings never defined what "the end," "the last days" or "the end of the age" meant. In order to figure that out, we have to study what the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied about those phrases.
I showed that, when we study what the Old Testament Scriptures said about these phrases, the prophecies always referred to the timeframe of the end of the old covenant and of physical Israel as GOD's chosen people.
Earlier in this very letter, Paul used one of these phrases and applied it to the first century timeframe:
11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
(1 Cor. 10:11 NASB)
All Scripture has to harmonize.
And the collective weight of Old Testament prophecy as well as the New Testament writings, as I have shown through this series, points to "the end" being a first century event.
Paul himself said these events would accompany Jesus' return (see 1 Cor. 15:23-24), and Jesus plainly stated His coming would be in the lifetime of those living in the early first century (see Matt. 10:22-23; Matt. 16:27-28).
Observation #4: Baptism for the dead
It seems impossible to study 1 Cor. 15 without addressing what Paul meant when he referred to the baptism for the dead.
I'll only devote a moment to it because it isn't our primary focus.
I believe that Paul was addressing what had become a custom among certain groups, perhaps even there in Corinth.
I do not see any evidence that Paul was endorsing the practice or ascribing spiritual effectiveness to being baptized for a deceased loved one. Instead, it appears to me just to be an allusion to the practice with which the Corinthians were at least passingly familar.
Two takeaways from the baptism for the dead relative to our series here, though:
- Those practicing baptism for the dead apparently had a better appreciation for baptism's biblical meaning than the majority of believers today.
If those being baptized for their dead loved ones thought that baptism was merely a sign of what GOD had already done (in saving the one being immersed), for the purpose of joining the local assembly of Christians or publicly professing their faith in Jesus ... if they thought it anything other than for the purpose of connecting their faith with the cleansing blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, then they never would have undergone baptism for their dead loved ones because they would have believed it would be utterly powerless.
- The fact that Paul connected baptism of the dead with the proof of the resurrection furthers my earlier point that resurrection only happens after death has occurred.
Observation #5: Nature of the resurrected body
A big question people often have is: If the mass judgment and resurrection has already occurred, what then is the nature of the resurrected body?
It's a great question, one I wonder myself.
I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers.
But let's consider the clues Paul gave us here in 1 Corinthians 15:
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.
50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
(1 Cor. 15:35-54 NIV)
What is the resurrected body like?
- It is unlike the fleshly body. Flesh and blood cannot inherit GOD's kingdom.
- It is like Jesus' resurrected body. It is a heavenly body. It is incorruptible.
If we learn anything from man's interactions with angels, heavenly creatures and even Jesus' post-resurrection body, it is that human eyes can only see these heavenly-bodied beings when GOD wills it. By "default," heavenly beings are invisible to fleshly eyes.
Thus, it is no surprise that when Jesus returned to Jerusalem in judgment with command over the Roman army, the trumpet that sounded wasn't a literal spiritual trumpet heard by physical human ears, but rather the call to battle as a sign of GOD's judgment, as we've seen from the Old Testament prophecies.
Likewise, the resurrected bodies at the time of Jesus' return were physically invisible. Like Paul said, they were transformed into a heavenly body.
Though it often goes overlooked, Jesus taught this also:
20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
Note: Pay close attention to Jesus' words. Keep in mind: GOD had a kingdom at this time, physical Israel. He'd long had a kingdom. The Pharisees just misunderstood the nature of GOD's kingdom—that citizenship in GOD's kingdom wasn't granted by physical lineage alone.
But how did Jesus answer them?
The kingdom of GOD is—not was, not will eventually be...is—in your midst. Some translations (e.g., NKJV; YLT) render this as, "the kingdom of God is within you."
Now watch what Jesus said next. He didn't describe the Holy Spirit's coming on Pentecost, the so-called "start of the church," etc. Jesus described His second coming, because that's what the "coming of the kingdom" meant. We've missed this and it is super important. Check it out...
22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.
30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” 
37 “Where, Lord?” they asked.
He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”
(Luke 17:20-37 NIV)
See, Jesus foretold that the coming of the kingdom (i.e., His second coming, and, by implication, the subsequent resurrection and judgment) would be things that could not be observed by living humans.
How can Death be destroyed if people still die?
My understanding from the Scriptures is that:
- Jesus returned in the first century A.D. (see, for example, Matt. 10:22-23; 16:27-28).
- At Jesus' return in the first century, the resurrection of the dead occurred along with the mass judgment of those resurrected (see Matt. 25:31-46; Dan. 11:40-12:13).
According to multiple passages, including 1 Cor. 15:23-28, death was destroyed at the time of Jesus' second coming.
How, then, can death be destroyed if humans still die today?
It's a great question, one that I ponder too. I'm not firmly convinced this is fully accurate, but this is my current understanding as I continue to study these things:
- Prior to Jesus' return, when a person died, their soul went to Sheol/Hades, the realm of the dead.
- Sheol is mentioned 66 times in the Old Testament Scriptures.
- Based on Jesus' account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, Sheol was divided in two parts. Righteous souls were comforted in Abraham's bosom; wicked souls were tormented.
- At His death, Jesus descended into Hades (see Psalm 16:10). Just prior to His death, Jesus described His destination as "paradise" to the thief on the cross (see Luke 23:43). (Interestingly, this Greek word translated "paradise" is only found 3 times in the New Testament, with the other 2 being 2 Cor. 12:4 [Paul caught up to paradise] and Rev. 2:7 [the tree of life is in the paradise of GOD].)
- Death's power was the law of sin and death (see 1 Cor. 15:56; Rom. 7:1-8:30). That law said if you sin, you die.
- Prior to Jesus' resurrection, the law of sin and death ruled over the bodies of humans. Because all sinned, all died.
- By His own death, because of His righteousness, Jesus (praise GOD!!!)—though He became sin for us upon the cross (see Isa. 53:4-10)—defeated the law of sin and death by His resurrection.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
(Rev. 1:17-18 NIV)
- At the Lord's return, He would loudly command, along with the trumpet call, (see 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:31) the angels to go gather the dead saved ones from all corners of the earth. In so doing, Jesus' command overruled the law of sin and death.
Jumping ahead momentarily, this is what is described toward the end of Revelation:
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
(Rev. 20:11-15 NIV)
- At Jesus' second coming, the dead were resurrected and judged at the great judgment Jesus foretold in Matt. 25:31-46.
- Having fulfilled their purpose and now having been defeated, Jesus cast death and the realm of the dead, Hades, into hell.
- From the time of Jesus' return forward, when one dies, they no longer go to Hades, but instead straight to the judgment seat of Christ. The Scriptures seem clear that every person will have their experience before the throne:
27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,
(Heb. 9:27 NIV)
10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
(2 Cor. 5:10 NIV)
- This is why the voice from heaven said in Revelation:
13 Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
(Rev. 14:13a NIV)
- Those who died in the Lord from that point forward would not have to wait long for their reward. Now that the judgment has happened, the dead in the Lord do not wait at all before receiving their reward.
It is because of this promised reward that the Hebrew writer concluded the famous "hall of faith" chapter with these words:
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
(Heb. 11:32-40 NIV)
What was it that GOD had planned for those of the first century generation?
It was the elimination of the old covenant and the punishment of the wicked Jews who so violently persecuted GOD's true children.
For those who died without receiving the promised land and blessings, it was the resurrection, judgment and subsequent rewards Jesus promised in Matt. 25:31-46.
It was the consummation of Jesus' perfect relationship with His bride, the church, the New Jerusalem.
Thus, the dead received their reward of unity with GOD by inheriting the kingdom of heaven and the living received their perfect unity with Jesus as citizens of the kingdom while yet alive on earth.
That is how death and Hades can be destroyed while yet people still physically die.
Though we die physically, death becomes nothing more than an instantaneous transformation point from the physical world to the spiritual, from a fleshly body to a heavenly body.
And that, friends, is a beautiful and comforting thought, indeed.
Continue to the next post where we look at when the book of Revelation was written.
Got questions or comments? Leave them below. (I'm truly happy to help. But please, carefully read the entire series first.)