Bodily Resurrection and 1 Corinthians 15: 42-54
By: Joe Scholar
One of the most significant issues concerning nearly all religions,
Christianity among them, concerns the fate of men following their death.
Believing in an inevitable resurrection of the body among the faithful, Paul, a
principle founder of Christianity, asserted his beliefs on the nature of bodily
resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: 42-54. As eternity tends to last a long time,
believing Christians (even agnostics such as myself) would likely be somewhat
eager to arrive at an accurate interpretation of Paul's message found in the
above verses, so as to glean insight as to what might await them following their
last heartbeat. The approach I will take in analyzing 1 Corinthians: 42-54 will
be to: 1) explain how the verses fit in with the overall structure of the book;
2) to explain and paraphrase the meaning behind the passage; 3) relate the
verses to similar passages expressed elsewhere by Paul; 4) and lastly to touch
upon some of the controversy associated with the verses.
1 Corinthians was written around 54 C.E. and was addressed to the
congregation which was made up primarily of gentiles and was located in Corinth.
At the time, Corinth was a highly urbanized and religiously diverse city which
made it very conducive to the early Christian movement. Paul's first letter to
the Corinthians was written as a response to a letter he had received (which did
not survive) from the Corinthians in which Paul was asked to settle various
disputes that were arising within the struggling congregation. Writing in
apostolic fashion to the congregation he had founded, Paul's letter while
pastoral, answered numerous questions and demanded numerous changes ranging
from: the rich eating with the poor at the church suppers (11:18-22); to curbing
the acceptance of sexual immorality (5:1-13); to abstaining from taking fellow
Christians to court (6:12-20); to answering the question on the acceptability of
eating meat begot from pagan sacrifice (8:1-13); to the role of women in the
church (11:2-16); to the importance of prophesying (14:1-40); and much, much
It was under these auspices that Paul answered the question of whether
man would be with or without a body following resurrection. Although all of
the 15th chapter deals with issues of resurrection, the place of the body is
curtly addressed in verses 42-54 and is prefaced with the 35th verse which asks,
"But someone will ask, ŒHow are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they
Paul believed that at the time of the resurrection the perishable body
would be transformed into an imperishable body, that would neither be a ghost-
like spirit nor a fleshly body, but rather some sort of combination of the two.
As Sanders phrases it, "...resurrection means transformed body, not walking
corpse or disembodied spirit." As William Wrede describes Paul's transformation
of the body, "He says that they Œare dead' or Œare risen again' Œwith Christ';
or more specifically Œthey are dead to sin, to the Law,' Œcrucified to the world'
; Œthe body of sin is destroyed'; Œthey are no longer in the flesh'; or else he
says simply that they are Œdead'" Paul, whether because he does not recognize
the need for further elaboration, or equally as likely, as he does not know how
to accurately elaborate further, does not offer any greater explanation as to
the nature of the new imperishable body.
Seemingly similar to changing one's clothes, Paul simply explains the
transformation, in the capacity of the mortal body Œputting on' immortality.
The nearly tautological backbone behind Paul's reasoning is that the since the
mortal, by definition isn't immortal, in order to gain an eternal life, the
mortal must necessarily become immortal. As Wrede interestingly interprets it, "
If the misery of man consists in his habitation in the flesh, his happiness must
depend on his liberation from the flesh, that is, on his death." Moreover, once
immortality is put on, death, the previously inevitable enemy of the mortal,
will be destroyed. As Paul crisply writes in verse 54, "When this perishable
body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the
saying that is written will be fulfilled: ŒDeath has been swallowed up in
The single implied description Paul does make sure to include regarding
the body, is the notion that the resurrected imperishable body will bear a
likeness and similarity to the fleshly body that preceded it. Having believed
he had seen Jesus's resurrected body (as he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:1) which
presumably outwardly appeared as Jesus's previously fleshly body, in order to
establish the continuity of personhood, in verses 37-38 Paul used the analogy of
man as a seed that although when planted is in one form (physical-earthly)
becomes something different when grown (spiritual-heavenly) yet throughout the
metamorphasis it is still the same plant. Maintaining the theme of continuity
in verse 44 Paul writes, "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual
body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body."(15:44).
In verses 45-49 Paul refers to both passages from the
Old Testament and also some of his other letters in order to explain the
different domains of the two Adams. Believing in an actually historic Adam, in
verse 45 Paul writes "Thus it is written, "The first Adam became a living being;
the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (15:45). Demonstrating his command
of the scriptures (at that time the bible only consisted of the Old Testament)
takes this from the verse in Geneis 2:7 which says, "then the Lord God formed
man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of
life; and the man [Adam] became a human being."(Genesis 2:7).
The last Adam refers to Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians
15 Paul writes, "For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of
the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all
will be made alive in Christ."(21-22). The idea that the presence of death can
be destroyed and that man can gain eternal life through the grace given by Jesus
Christ (who is considered the second Adam) is congruent with other letters
written by Paul. In Romans 5:21 Paul writes, "...so that, just as sin exercised
dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification
leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."(Romans 5:21).
Because he believed the Lord's return was very near, Paul thought
that not everyone living at the time of his writing would die. More
specifically, Barrett argues that Paul thought that not only was the coming of
the Christ very near, but that it was already actually taking place. Arguing
for what he believes Paul thought, Barrett writes, "The coming of Christ is not
an event that has somehow to be hurried along; it has already happenned. Yet it
has not finally happened; he has come, and he will come." In verses 51-52 Paul
writes, "Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will
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
will be changed."(51-52).
The above passage has well generated a good deal of controversy
for some modern day Christians. When we are all changed, will we all Œbe
zapped' up into heaven? If we aren't zapped into heaven, will we remain living
for eternity on this earth? Since in verse 52, Paul mentions the dead rising
before the transformation among the living, will the dead necessarily rise prior
to our transformation? When they do rise, will they, like Jesus, remain on this
earth for any period of time? Or rather will they go straight to heaven? If
they do go straight to heaven, will we see them? Perhaps more importantly, if
the dead will rise only after the trumpet has sounded, assuming the trumpet hasn'
t sounded, where or in what state are the dead now? Are they not currently in
heaven? Of particular interest (via necessity) to this author, what happens to
bad persons when they die? Do or will they be forced to put on an immortal body
that will allow them to suffer forever in an eternal torment? Is not an
immortal body only for the righteous? Does not the last trumpet have to play
for them to gain that immortal body? If so, when will that last trumpet sound?
As Paul thought, has the first trumpet really began yet?
As people have a natural curiosity of what awaits them following
death, issues related to resurrection and Paul's views concerning those
issues, will likely be sought for years to come. Although we know that Paul
thought the perishable body must be transformed into an imperishable body in
order to gain everlasting life, and that the spiritual body would be congruent
with the physical body; as we do not have much concensus regarding the answers
to the questions in the preceding paragraph, it is evident that there is much we
do not (and perhaps cannot) know concerning the truths of life after death,
according to Paul or any other biblical author for that matter. Perhaps, if and
when the Lord does return, we will be made aware. Hopefully, the experience of
gaining that awareness will be a pleasant one for us all.