Chapter fifteen concludes the teaching portion of Paul’s letter. The final topic he needed to address was the resurrection. His opening statement, that he wanted “to make clear…the gospel,” reminds us that some of these believers were still “infants in Christ” (3:1) and that they were uncertain on the basic doctrines of the faith. It was also a good time to remind them of the gospel that they needed to preach in their meetings, so unbelievers could be convicted and believe (1 Corinthians 14:23-25). The basic message of the gospel is simple: Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day. Both of these events were prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they were confirmed by his public burial and post-resurrection eyewitnesses, respectively (1 Corinthians 15:3-11). Not only did he appear to individual apostles and small groups, including Paul himself, Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time.” For anyone who thought that could not possibly be true, Paul challenged them to visit these eyewitnesses, “most of whom [were] still alive” at the time of his writing, twenty years after the fact. Circling back to his theme from chapter one, this is the only message Paul had, and this is what the Corinthians had originally believed.
This simple, verifiable message did not stop people from trying to lead the believers astray, though. Even though Paul said they could talk to eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, those people were almost 1,000 miles away, and some of the Corinthians were beginning to believe that the concept of a resurrection was a hoax (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Paul countered that, if that were true, three other truths would be certain as well. First, no resurrection at all means that Christ was not raised. Second, a dead Christ means that our faith is empty, we are false witnesses, and we are still in our sins. Third, no resurrection means no hope for those who have already died.
Against this false teaching, Paul pointed them back to the Old Testament Scriptures, noting that death has been common since Adam and that their belief in Christ was a belief that he undid what Adam did; thus, a resurrection from the dead is both theologically and logically sound and necessary (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). He also pointed to the prophecies of what Christ is supposed to do: rule in his kingdom until all his enemies are eliminated, including death itself. None of this is possible if Christ is still dead.
Paul’s comment about people being “baptized for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29-34) has found its way into Mormon theology, where living people can be baptized in the place of their dead relatives to create a retroactive salvation for them. This has caused a great debate in Christianity as well. It is possible that these Corinthians had been including the pagan practice of baptism for the dead because they had begun to disbelieve the basic gospel (which does not include baptism at all) and the truth of the resurrection. This view fits the context of Paul’s comments about their human thinking, bad company, and command to stop sinning. 1
Paul anticipated a further question asking for more detail about the resurrection: “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). His response indicates that this was not a line of honest questioning but one of defiance. His answer was simple: the resurrection body will be similar but different than our current bodies. Humans were meant to live in physical bodies, and we will live forever in physical bodies, except that they will be better. Some people believe there is a difference between “flesh and blood” and “flesh and bone” (1 Corinthians 15:50-58). 2 Regardless of the details, Paul was clear that our resurrected bodies will become imperishable and immortal. This will happen in an instant, at the Rapture, both for dead saints and those still alive. At that time, “death [will be] swallowed up in victory.” This truth should cause us all to live in victory, “knowing that [our] labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
- Another option is that some had come to believe because of Christians who had died, and their baptism was due to the others’ martyrdom. This is more palatable and has a lot of support from conservative scholars, but it does not seem to be the natural reading. ↩
- Paul here said that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Some compare this to Adam’s statement that Eve was from his “flesh and bone,” indicating that they did not have blood at that time. Since physical life is connected to blood (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11, 14), their conclusion is that spiritual life does not need blood. For an explanation of this position, see Henry Morris, “Flesh and Bones”, https://www.icr.org/article/5946 (accessed 10/23/2015). ↩