The Abolition of Death: An Exegesis of 1 Cor 15:20-28

The Abolition of Death: An Exegesis of 1 Cor 15:20-28
October 1999

The Corinthian doubters were saying “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). “But”, says Paul “This must mean Christ is dead and not resurrected.” God might ‘be there,’ but Christ lay dead, un-resurrected and decaying somewhere. But this could not be further from the truth, says Paul in the passage following. Rather, the risen and exalted Christ is ruling history as King defeating his enemies until his return when he ‘hands over’ his rule to God, his Father.

Many aircraft display a screen for passengers tracing the origin, progress and destination of the flight. Verses 20-28 display where history has come from, where it is going and who is in control. Paul’s history, however, is not about the rise and fall of the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, British and other empires. Rather, it is a short history of Death.

(a) Adam and the Christ (verses 20-22)

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

21 For since death came through a man,
the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.

22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

In verses 20-22 Paul contrasts Christ with Adam. Through the first man Adam Death entered history. The ‘seed’ of every man and woman in history was present in Adam, so that all people owe their life and their physical descent to that man. But because of his sin Adam’s ‘seed’ was infected with the fatal virus called ‘Death’ so that all his descendants must die. The man Christ, however, has been raised from the dead, making possible the resurrection of the dead for others.

For just as in Adam all die so also in the Christ all will be made alive verse 22.

Paul refers to the extremities of the history of Death, its beginning and its end. Adam introduced Death, but the Christ will abolish Death.

And the reason ? It is because Christ has been raised from the dead on Easter day that all will be raised alive on the Last Day. Here Paul uses the language of the ‘firstfruits’ reaped early in anticipation of the whole harvest. Christ as raised from the dead was the historic ‘firstfruits’ of a ‘harvest’ of the dead that will be raised on the Last Day. With the resurrection of Christ the harvest was begun, but it has been temporarily ‘put on hold’ to allow opportunity for more and more people to be ‘reaped’ for the Kingdom. The resurrection of the dead has begun, but has been interrupted in the mercy of God.

In this passage, and indeed, in this whole chapter, Paul is not addressing the question of the judgement of all people at the General Resurrection (see, e.g., 2 Cor. 4:14; 5:10). Rather, Paul is ignoring the future of the unbeliever and concentrating onthe abolition of Death for those who are ‘in Christ.’ For those who are ‘in Christ’ his resurrection has already defeated Death, at least in principle. Those who have died ‘in Christ’ are said to be ‘asleep,’ ready and waiting to be roused from sleep by the Lord at his Coming (verse 23).

(b) Each in his Own Order (verses 23-24)

23 But each in his own turn:
Christ, the firstfruits;
then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

24 Then the end will come,
when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father
after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

Paul sets out the sequence of events that will culminate in the abolition of Death.

But, each ‘in its own order’ (verse 23-24):

Christ, the resurrected ‘firstfruits.’
Then, at his coming,
the resurrection of those who belong to the Christ.
Then, the End when
he hands over the kingdom to God his Father, and
he abolishes every dominion.

There is a divine ‘order’ here, as seen in ‘Christ raised from the dead…then… then…’ Christ, the ‘firstfruits’ has already been raised, at the First Easter, as Paul reminded them (see on verse 4). This is an accomplished fact of history. But still in the future is another historical event, Christ’s ‘Coming’ (parousia). This word, which is regularly used of Christ’s return (See e.g., Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Thess. 2:19; Jas. 5:7; 2 Pet. 3:4; 1 Jn 2:28), was often employed for the grand appearing of an emperor or other high dignitary. At his ‘Coming’ those who ‘belong to the Christ,’ that is, those who are ‘asleep in him’ will, like him, be raised from the dead (see verse 20). Then follows ‘the End’ (telos), a word for ‘goal,’ or ‘end-point,’ but which has the idea of ‘perfection’ (see on 13:10; cf. 1 Pet. 4:7). In the verses following Paul explains what will happen then.

(c) The Kingdom of Christ (verses 25-26)

25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

When he was raised from the dead and exalted Christ assumed his kingly rule. This kingship is expressed in the language of Psalm 110:1, the OT text most quoted in the NT:

Yahweh said to my Lord [= the Christ],
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’

Paul identified the ‘enemies’ of the Christ as various malevolent spiritual forces, whom he calls ‘all rule,’ ‘all authority,’ ‘power’ and ‘death’ itself. These are the ‘enemies’ over whom Christ must reign as king until they are all finally ‘abolished.’ Christ exercises his kingly rule and abolishes these ‘powers’ through the preaching of the Gospel of himself crucified and risen. Through this Gospel sins are forgiven and those formerly in bondage are set free from the powers of darkness and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, brought under the dominion of Christ (Col. 1:13-14).

According to a tacky advertisement for a funeral company, ‘Death is just a natural part of life.’ This is not the way death is viewed by ordinary people. Death brings the one precious life we have to its end. Death takes loved ones and friends from us. Nor is this the view of Paul the apostle. For Paul death was unnatural, a malevolent spiritual’ enemy,’ a blight caused by sin, the ‘last’ and most formidable ‘enemy’ of God.

The last enemy being abolished is Death.

The verb tense is important. Katargeitai, ‘is being abolished,’ is present passive which means that Death is being abolished by God. Thus Death ‘is being abolished (present tense) because the risen Christ is reigning as king (present tense) as men and women hear the Gospel of his death and resurrection and begin to ‘belong to’ him. But Death will be finally and visibly removed at the Coming of Christ.

(d) The End of Kingly Rule (verses 27-28)

27 For he “has put everything under his feet.”
Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him,
it is clear that this does not include God himself,
who put everything under Christ.

28 When he has done this,
then the Son himself will be made subject to him
who put everything under him,
so that God may be all in all.

The risen Christ rules throughout this age until his Coming (parousia – verse 23c), the arrival of the End (telos – verse 24a), when all his ‘enemies’ will have been ‘abolished,’ Death in particular. At that time Christ will ‘hand over’ his kingly rule to God his Father (verse 24 b).

Indeed, it was God who placed all things under Christ’s feet (verse 27). It was only ever a delegated rule, not an autonomous one. Here Paul appeals to Psalm 8:6:

Thou [God] hast set him [the Son of Man]
over the works of thy hands.

Paul does not quote, but rather echoes, this text in his own words, ‘All things are put in subjection to him,’ that is, by God. God is not among the ‘all things’ that are subject to Christ. Rather, God placed Christ over the works of God’s hands.

Hence it is appropriate that once the ‘enemies’ of God including Death are finally vanquished by the Son that he himself should ‘hand over’ his kingship to the Father and be subject to him (verse 28). The humility and obedience of Christ shown in his incarnation and dreadful death (Phil. 2:5-8; cf. 2 Cor. 10:1) is shown also in his voluntary subjection to the Father once his work of ruling is completed. From that moment God will be ‘all in all,’ which is Paul idiomatic way of saying that God will reign supreme over all that is evil and that has been opposed to him. Then we will ‘see God face to face’ and we will ‘know him as we have been known’ (13:12).

No human commentary on Paul’s words can equal the inspired text of John in his book of Revelation.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Now the dwelling of God is with men,
and he will live with them.
They will be his people,
and God himself will be with them and be their God.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away.”

Revelation 21:3-4