“Do you believe that after you die your physical body will be resurrected someday?”
This was the question a polling group asked a thousand American adults in 2006. Only 36 percent answered yes to this question. Now compare that survey with an earlier poll by the same group that asked, “Are you absolutely certain that Jesus died and physically rose from the dead?” Sixty-three percent answered yes.
These statistics seem to indicate that the average American is unable to draw any personal implications from the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. Surprisingly, only 59 percent of evangelical Protestants who profess a “born again” faith believe in a personal resurrection.1 Has the average Christian missed Paul’s basic point in 1 Corinthians 15 that there is a connection between the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the Christian? In Paul’s words, “Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20). Albert Mohler, commenting on these polls, says they are “evidence of the doctrinal evasiveness of today’s churches.” As a result, “the vast majority of Americans simply have no idea that the Bible clearly teaches a doctrine of personal resurrection and that the claim is central to the Gospel itself.”2 In an effort to buck the trend of doctrinal evasiveness, this article examines the key New Testament passage on the resurrection and answers three critical questions that it broaches.
Are the Dead Raised? (1 Cor 15:1–34)
The answer to this question is fundamental to the celebration of what is commonly called Easter or resurrection Sunday. If our goal is to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, then we need to be firmly convinced that it happened. But, more importantly, Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential to the gospel (v. 1). To be saved you must believe that Christ has been raised, not just in some spiritual sense but physically, in real history. Let’s examine three types of resurrection evidence offered in this chapter.
Historical Evidence (vv. 1–11)
The main point of historical evidence is that there were eyewitnesses. The Corinthian Christians were quite removed from the events of Passion Week. Like most of us, they were Gentiles who had probably never been to Jerusalem or met Christ in the flesh. But Paul doesn’t just tell them (or us) to believe that Christ arose because “I told you so.” He says there were eyewitnesses to this fact, many of whom were still living! If the Corinthians cared do the research, they could find over 250 people who could personally confirm his report (v. 6). Colossians 2:15 refers to Christ’s death and resurrection as a “public spectacle,” witnessed by many. What did the eyewitnesses see? They saw Jesus—a man confirmed by the Roman government to be dead—walking, talking, eating, and teaching.
Theological Evidence (vv. 12–28)
In addition to the historical evidence, Paul gives two theological arguments. First, if there was no resurrection from the dead, our religion would be worthless (vv. 12–19). Without the resurrection, the golden chain of salvation mentioned in Romans 8 is broken short of glorification. If salvation is real, then the resurrection happened.
Second, there must be a resurrection from the dead because all things must be put under Christ’s feet, death included (vv. 20–28). Christ came to establish a kingdom in which God’s righteousness wins over all. Part of Christ’s kingdom work is to destroy those things that are out of order in God’s world (v. 25), one of which is death. Death, as an enemy of God’s created order, must be subdued. In some ways Christ has already put death under his feet in his own resurrection. At the cross he disarmed death and has turned death into the servant of believers by which they enter heaven. Although death still functions, it will be finally defeated by the general resurrection.
Practical Evidence (vv. 29–34)
Finally, Paul offers practical evidence for the resurrection. Here he looks at how the resurrection changed his own life. He essentially asks three questions. First, Paul was transformed from being a persecutor of God’s church (v. 9) to being the foremost apostle (v. 10). Apart from the resurrection, how can this change be accounted for? Second, apart from the resurrection, why would Paul put his life at risk every day (v. 30)? Third, apart from the resurrection, why does Paul live for Christ and not for his own pleasures (vv. 31–34)?
The answer to each of these questions is the same: the power of the resurrected Christ. Paul is saying, “You want evidence of the resurrection? Just look at my life!” Recall also the lives of the other apostles who, prior to the resurrection, were filled with fear but afterwards boldly risked (and gave) their lives for the sake of Christ. Paul’s point? Faith in the resurrection is not a blind leap but, considering the historical, theological, and practical evidence, is very reasonable.
How will the dead be raised? (vv. 35–54)
Paul gives three answers to this second question, the first being a simple analogy.
As the Planting of a Seed (vv. 35–38)
The idea of a bodily resurrection seems to be foreign. Yet, says Paul, we see the resurrection illustrated all around us. When a seed is put into the ground it must die; or more specifically in this case it must decay. If it is to become a new plant, it must not remain as a seed. In the same way, if a human body is to become something new, it must not remain as it is. In the ordinary case, the body must die. It must be planted in the ground and decay. This analogy of the seed leads to two additional points.
According to their Kind (vv. 39–41)
We do wonder what our resurrected bodies will be like. Paul teaches in verse 38 that there will be continuity between our present bodies and our glorified bodies. He says, “To each seed its own body” (v. 38). A corn seed is not planted in the ground to yield an oak tree. Nor does a deceased human yield a cow or a monkey (as in Hinduism). While we do not know exactly what our glorified bodies will be like, we do know that they will have some relation to our present bodies. Interestingly, he goes on to explain how the resurrected bodies of the saints will be different from their present bodies.
By a Change in Attributes (vv. 42–54)
When men and women are resurrected in Christ, they will be changed. The seed planted in the ground doesn’t decay to be reformed again as the same seed. There are several particular aspects of this change: From corruption to incorruption (v. 42), from dishonor to glory (v. 43), from weakness to power (v. 43), from flesh and blood to non-flesh-and-blood (v. 50), from mortal to immortality (v. 50), and from natural to spiritual (v. 44–49).
The last change helps to illustrate in general how Christian bodies will be changed. We need to be changed from being earthly to being heavenly. The contrast is not between being physical and not physical; we will have a physical body in the life to come. In this life believers are governed by a transformed spiritual life, but they do not have a transformed physical body to match. Currently, believers live renewed spiritual lives in heavy, corrupted, dishonorable bodies. In the age to come, our bodies, while being physical, will be better suited to the spiritual life that we have in Christ. Heaven has no imperfection, and our physical bodies not excepted. That’s good news.
What Difference Does This Make? (vv. 55–58)
Having given several answers to this question, Paul concludes with three more.
The Sting of Death Is Taken Away for Believers
If you have experienced the death of both a believer and an unbeliever, then you know firsthand what Paul is talking about. There is a marked difference. Death leaves a permanent sting when it strikes an unbeliever, not only to the deceased but also to the survivors. The sting of death is canceled for those united by faith to the One who is defeating death.
The Victory of Hell and the Grave is Canceled
There is nothing more sobering than to observe an unbeliever being placed in the ground. I’ve dropped shovelfuls of dirt on the casket of an unbelieving friend. I can’t remember ever hearing a more hollow sound. The clear impression felt is that the underworld wins.
Unbelievers will rise from the ground at the great resurrection but not to real life. They will continue to exist in a state of perpetual dying. On the other hand, believers are raised to eternal life.
Believers Have Motivation to Persevere
Paul concludes this chapter by reminding believers that because of the resurrection, their work in the Lord matters. Their labors in the Lord are not in vain but will be rewarded. (v. 58). Because of the work of God in Christ, Christians have something incredible to look forward to, not only in heaven some glad day but also at 8:00 a.m. Monday when our shift starts. Christians are building a lasting legacy.
There will be a resurrection of the dead (v. 36). This fact has been demonstrated irrefutably in the resurrection of Christ. We haven’t yet experienced the resurrection. But we do have the good news of the gospel. Christ died for our sins (v. 3), was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures (v. 4). When we receive the gospel by trusting in the resurrected Christ, God raises our affections up to heaven and gives us a glimpse into what resurrection life will be like. Meanwhile, Paul charges us to stand firm and abound in the work of the Lord.
1. Accessed on March 17, 2008. http://www.shns.com/shns/g_index2.cfm?action=detail&pk=RESURRECTION-04–05–06
2. From Al Mohler’s personal blog, accessed March 17, 2008. http://www.albertmohler.com/blog_read.php?id=600
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).