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.
Though 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.
Typical understandings 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.
The Corinthian 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.
Paul begins 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 key ideas.
First, Paul’s 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 God’s Spirit.
And finally, 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.