In 1 Corinthians 15, we
find Paul’s “Things of First Importance,” one of my favorite passages. It is
not uncommon for me to reference this passage in an appeal for some sort of
ecumenism, yet I often forget that the “Things of First Importance” are
surrounded by the most extensive biblical discussion of resurrection—the real
thing of most importance. In reading 1 Corinthians 15, it is clear that the
most important element of this chapter, the letter as a whole, and indeed the faith are, for Paul, wrapped up in the
topic of resurrection.
historically neglected by Catholics, Protestantism has refound the necessity
and even glory of resurrection, and moreover the Eastern Orthodox never forgot
it. For the Orthodox, resurrection is the central event of the liturgical year,
the only way by which human beings can partake in immortality, and the
preeminent promise held out by God in the New Testament.
The priority of
this topic demands our attention and right understanding. How we conceive of
the resurrection is crucial not only for doctrinal correctness but for our
lives here and now in our pre-resurrected forms.
of resurrection are as scattered as they are wrong. Many see the afterlife as
some sort of translucent, half-existent spiritual reality, possibly with a harp
and matching halo. Others think of a raised corpse continuing where it left
off. And probably, most of us know that these perceptions are lacking, but
we’re not sure what to believe.
church was in a similar predicament. Paul concluded his first letter to the
church by addressing their questions and doubts concerning the resurrection.
While it is impossible to be completely sure what the Corinthians thought, it
seems likely that they couldn’t fathom how a bodily resurrection was possible—they
knew that the body was a bad thing, to be escaped at death, not reinvigorated. And
because they couldn’t comprehend a bodily resurrection, they believed
resurrection impossible all together.
directly addressing the question “How are the dead raised?” in verse 35, though
if you read through his response, you may be turned off by how convoluted and
dense his answer is. Parts of his discussion really seem like Paul is opting
for the translucent, platonic, “spiritual” existence (see v. 44 and 50). He
talks about seeds and agriculture; he talks about heavenly bodies, sometimes
referring to our own post-resurrection bodies and sometimes referring to big
astral balls in space. Probably the strangest is his use of the word ψυχή, which is translated as “natural”
in most English translations, but is most commonly translated as soul.
According to Paul, we replace our “soul” body with a “spirit” body.
Not one element
of Paul’s argument can be lightly dismissed—and I could write many more
paragraphs on the debate over Paul’s understanding of the resurrection—but when
you’ve parsed through it all, I think we can condense his arguments to three
use of antecedents implies a continuation
of the body contrasted by a discontinuation
of our own corruptibility. That is, we will keep our present bodies, not forsaking
them for something foreign or ethereal, but our bodies—these bodies—will be transformed, no longer deteriorating, decaying,
or submitting to death. This is because God will not scrap his creation; rather
than giving up on it, he will redeem this material world.
Second, if Paul’s
other writings are any indication, natural/soulful bodies and spiritual bodies should
be interpreted as bodies animated by the soul or by the Spirit. This means that
Paul’s argument here is not about the substance of our eschatological existence
but the driving force. We will no longer lean on self, but be sustained by
what is clearest is that our resurrected bodies will be modeled after the
firstborn of the dead, after the resurrection body of Christ. This point is the
crux of the entire chapter. We don’t have to speculate about what life will be
like on the other side of the grave. It’s already been shown to us.
Labels: 1 Corinthians 15, Christ, corpse, creation, harp, Paul, raised from the dead, Resurrection, soul, spirit