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Does 1 Cor. 15 Teach a Physical or a Spiritual Resurrection?

David Friedman

1 Corinthians 15 is a crucial chapter for understanding the meaning of the resurrection. While literalists claim that it supports a physical resurrection, I believe that evidence shows the exact opposite to be true. The main focus of this article is on what the chapter means in speaking of the natural body and the spiritual body, which is the immortal body people are raised in. I will also consider other verses in the chapter, in order. Gospel resurrection accounts will not be considered. Let’s examine 1 Corinthians 15 to see what type of resurrection is spoken of.

In the first three verses Paul speaks of the gospel message which he had received, and which had been received by others whom he had preached to. In verse 3 Paul says that he delivered first to the people that Christ died for their sins according to the Scriptures, and follows this by saying that Christ was buried and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures in verse 4. These verses indicate that the main teaching of the early followers was of Christ dying for the sins of mankind, and then being raised, or resurrected, on the third day. Verses 3-4 do not provide independent confirmation of a physical resurrection. As Richard Carrier states, the phrase "died...was buried...was raised" (apeqanen...etafh...eghgertai) can just as easily be a metaphor as an indication of a physical raising; the "concept of the resurrection itself" does not entail any more a physical than a spiritual idea (and since Christianity changed many Jewish beliefs--it was, after all, new and different--we cannot appeal to Jewish tradition in favor of the physical)." {1} In addition, Colossians 2:12 speaks of people who were raised (resurrected) with Jesus. Those spoken of were not physically resurrected. Ephesians 2:1, 5-6 speaks of people who were resurrected from the dead, and the death was only spiritual. My belief is that these passages and others suggest that the resurrection is non-physical. More on this later.

It is often claimed that 1 Corinthians 15:4 confirms that Paul was familiar with the empty tomb tradition. However, this assumes that Paul was familiar with the empty tomb stories in the gospels. The words in 1 Corinthians 15:4 are too vague to confirm or refute the belief that Paul knew of the empty tomb. Personally I believe that the empty tomb story is allegorical, and that Paul did not refer to it here, giving a more literal account of what happened (I think that it’s possible that he had heard of the tradition, though I don’t believe he took it literally if he had). While it can’t be proven, there is reasonable evidence that the empty tomb story is not referred to, as it is not mentioned in this chapter or in anything else written by Paul, nor are any of the surrounding details mentioned, like the involvement of Joseph of Arimathea.

Verses 5-8 move on to speaking about the resurrection appearances. Paul begins by saying that Jesus was seen by Peter, then by the twelve. After this he says that Jesus was seen by over five hundred people at once, then by James, then by all the apostles. As my article is not an Apologetic aiming to prove inerrancy or the historicity of the resurrection, I will not address the problems presented by the list of appearances Paul gives. What is interesting about the resurrection appearances is that immediately after speaking of the above listed appearances, Paul says that last of all Jesus appeared to him ("He was seen by me"). This logically means that it was the same Jesus that appeared to him, either physical or non-physical, as with the other appearances mentioned. The same Greek word is used for "seen" to speak of the appearance to Paul as is used for the appearances to Peter and the rest. The word is often used to speak of supernatural appearances, such as for the transfiguration. It is rendered as "appeared" a few times in the Markan appendix, a word indicating something non-physical. As the appearance of Jesus to Paul was not physical, the appearances mentioned prior to his were also not physical. Literalists would probably claim I am begging the issue, saying that we should look at the resurrection accounts of Paul and the others, and if we do so it becomes clear that the appearances to the others were physical, but not with Paul. But it’s hardly begging the issue, because of the way the appearances are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, which doesn’t suggest any distinction between the type of appearance, just the timing. The report of the resurrection appearance to Paul may be written more literally than the appearances in the gospels, just being a different way of reporting the resurrection appearance. One might note that while the gospels seem to depict physical appearances, the appearances sound very much like those of angels of the Lord in the Old Testament. They also took part in human activities like eating (Genesis chapter 19), and Judges chapter 6 and 13 both speak of an angel vanishing, as did Jesus in Luke 24:31. The two chapters from Judges both say that the angel "appeared" to people, and those who the angel appeared to did not realize immediately that it was an angel, thinking that it was a man. The chapters are clearly not intended to be read as literal history, and we know that angels are not physical.

In 1 Corinthians 15:12 Paul says, "Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead." This refers to people who believe that Christ has risen, but deny the general resurrection that had just begun. The two are interchangeable. This is confirmed by verse 13, which says that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. Verse 14 says that if Christ is not risen, then the preaching done is empty, as is the faith of the people. The next verse says that they would be found false witnesses of God, for testifying of Him that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise. It attaches to this, "if in fact the dead do not rise." Verse 16 again shows that the general resurrection from the dead is interchangeable with that of Christ, saying that if the dead don’t rise, then Christ is not risen. So what Paul is trying to show is that one cannot believe that Christ is risen, yet deny the general resurrection, as this is a contradiction of terms. Verses 12-16 supports the non-physical interpretation of the resurrection, which claims that the resurrection of Jesus was a time when His followers rose from their despondence to come to the realization that Christ was eternal in being, and that He was still present with them. Colossians 2:12-13 speaks of believers who were raised from the dead with Jesus. If a believer could be raised with Christ, then obviously the raising of Christ was not physical, and is synonymous with the general resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:17 says, "And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!" This is correct, as the resurrection allowed Christ to dwell in the believers and guide them. If He hadn’t been resurrected, they would not receive guidance, and would go astray. Verse 20 speaks of Christ having risen from the dead, becoming the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. This shows that the resurrection had begun with Jesus.

Verses 21-22 say, "For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive." It is important to establish what death and life mean in this context. The death caused by Adam must be the same death that people are resurrected from by Christ. Adam was the cause of the physical life of mankind. Through his physical nature comes spiritual death. The Adam and Eve story itself indicates that Adam was the cause of spiritual death, which results from physical life. God promises that the day Adam eats from the tree of knowledge, he will die. Certainly Adam did not physically die the day he ate from the tree of knowledge, in fact he is said to have lived for a few hundred more years. Prior to eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam had no knowledge of good and evil, which means that he couldn’t have sinned in eating from the tree. Once Adam had knowledge of good and evil, man had this knowledge, and it is the knowledge of good and evil that leads people to sin. The chapter makes it quite clear that Adam did "die" the day he ate from the tree of knowledge, him and Eve being cast out of the garden of Eden. So clearly the death caused by Adam has nothing to do with the physical body. In Matthew 8:22, Jesus associated the physical life with spiritual death, where, in speaking of living people, He said, "Let the dead bury their own dead." As 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 is clear that the death mentioned is what will be eliminated by Christ, it is clear that Christ is the cause not of physical life, but of spiritual life. Christ gives life to those who were dead, and these people were spiritually dead. So one cannot claim that Christ will be the cause of a physical resurrection of the dead. As mentioned before, Colossians 2:12 speaks of people living two thousand years ago being resurrected with Jesus, and this was entirely spiritual. Romans chapter 6 shows the same thing. Romans 8:10-11 shows that those who have Christ and the Holy Spirit dwelling in them receive life, obviously eternal life, to their mortal bodies, through the Holy Spirit. In other words, the mortal puts on immortality. Romans 6:4-12 is very clear that the mortal putting on immortality is something happening within the vehicle of the human body. The "old man," is the first body, the mortal body, "the body of sin," and the "new man" is the one that is in the image of God (Colossians 3:10). Colossians 3:3 says, "For you died," and verse 5 says to "put to death your members," and then it explains that those things are related to the body of sin, the mortal body, which is done away with, according to Romans 6:6. This is the body that is dead, mentioned in Romans 8:10, and said to be the mortal body in the next verse. The things related of the people prior to their being raised from the dead in Colossians 2:13 are certainly speaking of the corruptible man, and those after are not. Romans chapter 6 shows that the resurrected body of the believer is an immortal body. The immortal body is the new man, and contrary to suggestions of many Christians, it is not a physical body. This is shown clearly by the above verses. Those resurrected need to have the Spirit in them. Jude 19 speaks of the worldly people, not having the Spirit. If they don’t have the Spirit then they cannot be "raised with Christ," and put on the spiritual body, which can only be a body with the Spirit dwelling in it. A bit later I will see if the rest of 1 Corinthians 15 confirms what I have just said on the issue of the meaning of the spiritual body.

Verse 23 says, "But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming." This indicates that there will be a future resurrection when Christ returns. Verse 26 says that when Christ returns, the last enemy that will be destroyed is death. Verses 22-23 indicate that all hadn’t been made alive at the time Paul was writing, but would be once Christ returns. If all are made alive, and none are dead, then it can be said that death has been destroyed. As I have shown, the death referred to is spiritual, not physical. This appears then to say that the world will be completely without sin. However, Isaiah 25:8 gives the same promise for the overturning of the Babylonian captivity. Sin remained at that time, though conditions were much better. 2 Timothy 1:10 says that the coming of Jesus has "abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." It is unclear why 1 Corinthians 15:26 should be interpreted literally in light of this verse. The coming of Christ did make humans immortal according to 2 Timothy 1:10, and this immortality was only spiritual. There is no reason to believe that the Bible contains two different teachings on the subject of the mortal putting on immortality; the first spiritual, the second physical. The Bible does not contain such a distinction, so the resurrection is obviously not physical.

1 Corinthians 15:29 asks what those who are baptized for (on behalf of) the dead will do if the dead do not rise at all. Clearly those who have died to the world and thus came alive are those who are baptized on behalf of the dead. The baptism is for the benefit of the spiritually dead. So what is meant is that if there is no resurrection, then this baptism won’t aid others. Romans 6:3-4 speaks of people who were baptized into Christ’s death, and the purpose of the baptism, as Romans 6:4 states, is to be resurrected from the dead. While Romans 6:4-5 compares the death and resurrection of the individual believer to that of Christ, the death and resurrection of Jesus was somewhat different to that of the ordinary believer, as Jesus was without sin. He lived "in the flesh," but this meant only a life in the physical, material body, not that He lived according to the lusts of the world. His life in the flesh was a mortal life, which ended on the cross. On the other hand, His resurrected body was immortal, unable to die (in another sense Jesus was immortal during His lifetime, as I will later show). This is similar to the resurrection of the believers. With Jesus, His physical life on earth can be compared to the old man, who is mortal, and His resurrected body was immortal, like the new man. Romans 6:5 speaks of the people being united together in the likeness of His death, and the likeness of His resurrection. The believers experienced these things within their same physical body, but Jesus had to physically die. In 1 Corinthians 15:31, Paul says, "I die daily." The death that he is speaking of is dying to the physical world, which is what verse 29 is speaking about. Verse 32 shows that if there has not been a resurrection from the dead there is no purpose to life.

In verse 35 we finally reach the question, "How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?" Paul then provides the explanation, the understanding of which is crucial when determining the meaning of the resurrection. Paul says that what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. He says that what is sown is not that body that will be, but God gives what is sown a body. He tells us that all flesh is not the same flesh, there being one kind of flesh of men, and another of animals. Verse 42 then says, "So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption." It is clear from what I have already shown that the resurrection is spiritual, and these passages fit in with that interpretation. But if we just look at the verses from verse 35, it is easy to see how some are misled. They interpret the body sown in corruption to mean the fleshy physical body, and "raised in incorruption" is then interpreted to mean a different physical body, which is spiritual. This, however, ignores 1 Corinthians 15:36-38. These verses say that what is sown is not made alive, or resurrected, until it dies, and when it dies, God gives it a body. It is not speaking of an afterlife here, but what I have already mentioned. If we are to interpret verse 42 to mean what literalists have claimed, then we would have to interpret verses 36-38 to mean that one must physically die in order to come back to life and be made alive forever. Aren’t those who are alive when Christ returns supposed to receive everlasting physical life as well? As noted before, in verse 31, Paul says, "I die daily." Clearly this is metaphorical, and when seen in light of verse 36, it shows that this dying is being made alive. This is the putting off the old man, or the doing away with the body of sin. Romans 6:7-8 shows clearly what is meant by needing to die in order to come alive. These verses show that as soon as one has "died" they will be made alive. Paul says that we are sown in corruption. This means that we are naturally worldly beings. The raising without corruption takes place in the same physical body, and it is a new body, the change taking place within the person with a mortal physical body. The change is independent of the physical body. Paul makes it clear that there is only one kind of flesh of men, which shows that there could not be a physical spiritual body, which differs from the normal body.

The verses that follow need little explanation in light of what I have already said. In verse 43, it says that the body is sown in weakness and raised in power. Romans 6:8-11 and Colossians 3:1 speak of people being resurrected spiritually at the time. Colossians 3:3, speaking of those who have been raised with Christ, says, "For you died." So they have fulfilled 1 Corinthians 15:36, and clearly they can’t still have a mortal body, one which is sown in corruption. But they have exactly the same physical body. The wording of verses 42-43 suggests that the corruptible and incorruptible body are found within a person keeping the same physical body. Verse 44 says, "It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body." As I have just shown, this is all while having the same physical body. Since the word "body" has been used twice, this serves as a stumbling block. Based on the overwhelming support for this chapter and others teaching a spiritual resurrection, it is clear that people have been blinded from seeing the many verses which show that the resurrection is spiritual.

Verse 45 speaks of the first Adam being a living being, the last Adam being a life-giving spirit. The next verse says that the natural (body) is first, and afterward the spiritual, implying that Adam’s body was a natural body, and Christ’s was a spiritual body. But both Adam and Christ had the same physical body. There is no evidence that Christ’s flesh differed at all from that of Adam. If a spiritual body is one that cannot physically die, how can one explain the death of Christ? Verse 47 says that the first man was made of dust, the second is the Lord from heaven. Both were made from dust. The gospel makes it clear that Jesus gave life and was from heaven before His resurrection, thus implying that Jesus was always eternal in being, and that this was only realized, and His grace towards man was able to continue, at the time of the resurrection. It is only Christ’s spirit that is immortal, and Jesus could not have become immortal in a physical way at the time of His resurrection, as He already had the spiritual body, which is immortal. This fact suggests that the resurrection was not directly associated with Jesus, but that it was a time where the grieving disciples realized that Christ had not really been killed, and that His presence was still with them. They realized that while the physical body of Jesus, which I previously compared to the old man, had died, His spiritual body was still alive. His spiritual body was the only thing that continued to exist after His death, showing that while Jesus had a spiritual body during His lifetime, His physical body was unrelated to it. Jesus, being sinless, always reflects the Father in His actions, which is why He is said to have came from heaven with a spiritual body. With others, they will put on the spiritual body when reaching the level of perfection required. The assurance of the believers allowed them to be resurrected, and receive guidance from the risen Christ. Ephesians 1:23, in speaking of the resurrection, connects the body of Jesus with the church. Ephesians 2:6 says that people were made alive together with Christ. This appears strange, as Christ is supposed to be the first to rise from the dead. Having established that the resurrection of Jesus is connected to that of His followers, this is no contradiction. It only says that Jesus was resurrected, as in the eyes of others He was seen as dead, but then seen to be alive. Once they saw that He was alive Jesus in a sense arose from the dead, and the religion started. But they had to rise from the dead in order for Jesus to be resurrected, which happened at the same time. The resurrection of Jesus is compared to the putting on of the spiritual body, as the believers came to realize that Jesus was immortal in being. He always was, but after His death they were troubled, and saw Jesus as having been killed and triumphed over. This changed at the time of the resurrection. Since Jesus already had the spiritual body there was nothing else He could put on. A spiritual body is immortal, so it can’t be dead for three days. So clearly the resurrection is related to Jesus in only an indirect sense.

Philippians 3:21 says that when Christ returns, He will transform the lowly body of the believers into a glorious body like His. As the spiritual body is intangible, found within the physical body, this verse is no promise of a physical resurrection for the individual believer. It is now clear that verses 48-49 simply speak of spiritual conditions within humans, not a change of physical body. The latter verse speaks of bearing the image of the heavenly man, and as Jesus is the image of the Father (John 14:9), Colossians 3:10 thus shows that verse 49 means only putting on the new man, a spiritual condition. This verse is speaking of the time of the Second Coming, as is quite evident. This is not to say that no one living at the time this letter was written bore the image of Jesus. Verses 51-53 says that at the time of the Second Coming, the people will be changed, from being dead to raised incorruptible. Verses 52-53 equate "dead" with "corruptible." We know that the corruptible body is contained in our physical body. It is a mortal body, and to put on incorruption or immortality, it must die, as verse 36 says. Romans 6:7 shows that the death is from sin. So these verses are saying that at the time of the Second Coming, those who have died from sin will be raised. 1 Corinthians 15:50 is a verse that that indicates the same thing, but is commonly misunderstood. It says, "Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption." This means that those who sow to the flesh, as spoken of in Galatians 6:8, will not inherit the kingdom of God, but those mentioned in the same verse who sow to the Spirit will inherit the kingdom. Romans 6:4-8 speaks of those who are carnally minded, or live according to the flesh. Verse 8 says, "those who are in the flesh (referring to these people) cannot please God," and verse 9 then speaks of those who are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, as they have the Spirit of God dwelling in them. These verses, and the verse that precedes 1 Corinthians 15:50, show that the "flesh and blood" mentioned in that verse does not refer to man’s physical body, but a condition within it.

It seems strange that the verses just mentioned should say that at the time of the Second Coming people will be raised from the dead, as other verses say that if you die then you are raised, not that you have to wait. But as I said before, these passages in 1 Corinthians are speaking of the Second Coming, which is, like the resurrection, a time when you can be with the Messenger of God. While the living with Christ and being raised up can happen at any time, the time of the Second Coming is somewhat different. It is a different resurrection, caused by the appearance of a Messenger of God on earth. As opposed to what happened with believers because of Jesus’ resurrection, the believers can at this time literally attain the presence of the Messenger of God. His presence will cause people to rise up from the dead, and perhaps Paul is intending to also show this. Prior to this time mankind will be in the time of tribulation, when many are "dead," so the coming of a Redeemer is obviously going to bring the people to life. Job 14:7-14 makes it clear that man cannot rise from physical death and come back to life. Isaiah 26:19 prophesies that the dead in Israel will rise from the dead. Context clearly shows that the overturning of the Babylonian captivity is spoken of, meaning that the resurrection spoken of is merely a symbol. At that time all flesh came to worship before God (Isaiah 66:23), and God was with the people (Ezekiel 48:35), and since the effects of the Babylonian captivity made the people "dead" (Jeremiah 30:12), it is appropriate that this time should be symbolized by speaking of the people rising from the dead. The death is only spiritual. Ezekiel chapter 37 also speaks of this time, saying that Israel will be raised up from their graves then (verses 12-13). The way these two verses are written shows that living people at the time are spoken of. Or are we to believe that the "O my people" who God says "I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves" in regards to are dead at the time? If so, why are these words addressed to them like they are alive? It is also important to note verse 11, which speaks of the house of Israel saying that their bones are dried up and their hope is lost. Clearly these people are alive at the time. In verse 5 God prophesies that the dry bones will live. As verse 12 speaks of those with dried bones, who are spoken of in verse 11, and said to be the whole house of Israel (meaning that living people are addressed), it is clear that the mention of graves is symbolic. In verse 14, like in verse 5, God says that He will put His Spirit within the people, and they will live. As I have shown, this constitutes a resurrection from the dead.

Because many Christians interpret this chapter literally, it causes them to think that the time of the Second Coming is spoken of. But they must be reminded that nowhere does the chapter explicitly or implicitly state that the time of a Messiah is spoken of, and in fact many verses, such as verse 14 itself, say that at the time of the resurrection the people will return to their own land, which is associated with the end of the Babylonian captivity. Since they can’t understand how the prophecies are symbolic, and could have already been fulfilled, they somehow manage to find justification for them referring to the time of the Second Coming. The chapter says that this resurrection concerns only the house of Israel, which would exclude Christians, so this suggestion could not be true.

For further evidence that Isaiah 26:19 uses the word "dead" to mean spiritually dead, we note that this verse, after saying that the dead will be raised, says that those who dwell in the dust will awake (Hebrew - koots). This same Hebrew word is used in Job 14:12, to say that man cannot rise, or awake (koots) from physical death. I think I have given good reason to believe that the other chapters do not speak of the physical dead, and thus shown that these verses do not contradict, as they would with a literal interpretation of Isaiah 26:19. My evidence, if correct, also shows that Daniel 12:2, which is similar to Isaiah 26:19, is speaking of the spiritually dead. This verse says that many sleeping the dust of the earth will awake (koots), some to everlasting life, some to everlasting contempt. Acts 24:15 says that the resurrection of the dead is for both the just and the unjust. Daniel 12:2 is speaking of the time of the Second Coming, so no resurrection of a physical nature is promised.

1 Corinthians 15:54 speaks of death being swallowed up at the time when the mortal has put on immortality. This echoes verse 26, which I showed to have a spiritual meaning. Verse 56, which says that the sting of death is sin, is explained by verses such as Romans 6:7 and Romans 6:14.

This article does not intend to convince skeptics that there was a resurrection of any sort. It’s only aim is to offer an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 different from the usual one, and let the readers decide what is correct. As I said before, my article was not meant to give evidence from the gospels that the resurrection was non-physical. Because of this it should be evaluated solely by what it covers.

References

[1]Richard Carrier, Review of In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History (Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas, eds., Inter Varsity Press, 1997), accessed Jun. 26, 2000).

Published:
  2000-09-10

Categories:
  Bible: New Testament, Jesus, Resurrection

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