According to the New Testament, it’s the resurrection or nothing. There is no other way to have any existence after death. This means, among other things, that there is no conscious soul able to survive without a body.
Every Christian who takes a stance on the mind-body issue is going to have to live with the fact that there will be certain “problem texts” in the Bible that appear to conflict with the position they take. As a materialist,1 I think there is a very small number of such texts for a materialist view, and I think there are plausible explanations for all of them (for example Jesus’ words to the criminal on the cross Luke 23:43, or Paul’s expressed hope to depart and be with Christ). What one hopes to do is to settle on a view that has fewer problems than all others, and a view with problems that have an explanation in sight. 1 Corinthians 15 presents a problem for a dualistic view of human beings, and it is a problem that appears to have no solution.
Christians have always believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Jesus rose from the grave, conquering death and acting as the “firstfruits from among the dead,” and one day we will rise too when he returns. But conditional immortality parts ways with many Christians about the necessity of the resurrection. According to a traditional and widely held view within the Christian faith – call it dualism2 – when the body “gives up the ghost” (quite literally), we go – as immaterial souls – to heaven or hell (or to paradise, or to hades, there is not unanimity here) and await the resurrection. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes a fairly typical Protestant view in chapter 32:
The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect of holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
The point of this statement in the confession was to deny both soul sleep and the existence of purgatory, insisting that heaven and hell are the only places where souls go after death. But in spite of that, there is something important in common between mainstream Protestant and Catholic views, namely that death is only the death of the body. The person, that conscious entity, is still alive. Of course they believe in the resurrection, as the Westminster Confession says next:
At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever.
That most memorable of preachers, Charles Spurgeon, shared and expressed this view. When preaching on the resurrection of the dead, he expressed his dismay that not enough people were preaching on the resurrection. He said:
The light of nature is sufficient to tell us that the soul is immortal, so that the infidel who doubts it is a worse fool even than a heathen, for he, before Revelation was given, had discovered it—there are some faint glimmerings in men of reason which teach that the soul is something so wonderful that it must endure forever. But the resurrection of the dead is quite another doctrine, dealing not with the soul, but with the body. The doctrine is that this actual body in which I now exist is to live with my soul; that not only is the “vital spark of heavenly flame” to burn in heaven, but the very censer in which the incense of my life doth smoke is holy unto the Lord, and is to be preserved for ever. The spirit, every one confesses, is eternal; but how many there are who deny that the bodies of men will actually start up from their graves at the great day?
Later in the same sermon Spurgeon says that while we are already comforted by the fact that our loved ones have survived and are in heaven, the best is yet to come. He refers by way of example to the funeral of a member of his congregation; a man who had been buried the week prior:
Now, there were tears shed there: do you know what they were about? There was not a solitary tear shed about his soul. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul was not required to give us comfort, for we knew it well, we were perfectly assured that he had ascended to heaven. The burial service used in the Church of England most wisely offers us no comfort concerning the soul of the departed believer, since that is in bliss, but it cheers us by reminding us of the promised resurrection for the body; and when I speak concerning the dead, it is not to give comfort as to the soul, but as to the body. And this doctrine of the resurrection has comfort for the mourners in regard to the buried mortality. You do not weep because your father, brother, wife, husband, has ascended to heaven—you would be cruel to weep about that. None of you weep because your dear mother is before the throne; but you weep because her body is in the grave, because those eyes can no more smile on you, because those hands cannot caress you, because those sweet lips cannot speak melodious notes of affection. You weep because the body is cold, and dead, and clay-like; for the soul you do not weep. But I have comfort for you. That very body will rise again; that eye will flash with genius again; that hand will be held out in affection once more. Believe me, I am speaking no fiction.3
We do not weep, says Spurgeon, for the soul of the dead believer. That has ascended into heaven already (so it would be “cruel” to weep over such a wonderful thing). We mourn because we have lost their physical presence, but that presence will be with us once more because of the resurrection.
The resurrection, in this view, adds to our future life after death, making it even better (or perhaps worse, if you go to hell). The resurrection does not make life after death possible, because there is already life after death prior to the resurrection. As Spurgeon said, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul gives comfort, because (says he), we know it well. While the resurrection may be good and glorious, if we are simply talking about the ability to live after the death of the body, the resurrection is not necessary.
Contrast this with a conditionalist outlook: We don’t come with a built-in death survival mechanism. On our understanding of death – one that we take to be biblical – if you survive then it’s not death! We are mortal creatures with nothing in us that just goes on living. We are like grass that is here today and gone tomorrow. We die and return to the earth, and there we would stay unless God intervened, raising us back to life again. The resurrection is not just the icing on the cake – it is the cake! The resurrection is necessary if we’re going to have eternal life.
Traditional Cartesian/Platonic dualism as a viable Christian outlook has a real problem, therefore, when it comes to 1 Corinthians 15. This passage poses a problem for dualism with no real solution that I can see. The chapter is a decent size, so I won’t reproduce it here, but go ahead and read it first. The subject is the resurrection of the dead, and it arises because some of those in the church in Corinth had said that there will be no resurrection. The Apostle Paul makes a number of comments on this, one of which concerns my point here. Here’s a summary of those comments:
vv 12ff: If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the consequences for salvation are disastrous. “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” The claim moves from the general to the particular: If the dead do not rise at all – nobody ever rises – then Jesus didn’t rise, because Jesus is somebody. But no Christian can afford to say this, reasons Paul. The upshot of this claim would be that “you are still in your sins,” and there is no salvation. If this is true, said Paul, then we are the “most miserable” of people.
vv 20ff: Having established this, Paul goes on to say that when we acknowledge that Christ has risen, we can then be sure that the dead will rise in the resurrection of the dead that is yet to come. As part of Christ’s reign and his victory (obtained through his own resurrection), he will one day defeat death altogether. “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (vv 25-26). There is a sense in which we can say that Christ has won the victory, but the results of that victory have not yet played out in history. People still die, but one day that will come to an end, when death not only halts but is undone, and those who have already died will be brought back and given eternal life with us.
vv 29ff: But there is still a further argument up Paul’s sleeve. If this is not going to happen – if there is no future resurrection for us, then some of our own behaviour just doesn’t make sense. Why do we act as though there is a future life after death?
Firstly, why do some people get baptised for the dead? What is Paul talking about here? Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) maintain that this is evidence that Paul approve of vicarious baptism, that is, baptism on behalf of other people – dead people. But as commentators have pointed out, there simply was no such practice in the first century.4 The earliest occurrences of vicarious baptism that we know of come from the late second century among the Marcionites, a heretical group, and it appears that they adopted the practice because of their interpretation of Paul. Ironically, although Paul may not have been describing the practice of being baptised on behalf of the dead, he may have become responsible for it!5 Whatever Paul’s intended meaning, all of the major options involve people being baptised because of some hope of something after death. Their behaviour shows that they really do believe in the resurrection, for why else would they look for anything after death?
If there’s no resurrection, says Paul, then this life is all there is. If there’s no future resurrection, we have no future hope at all. Why risk anything for the sake of the Gospel? Why invest in the future when there isn’t one? Arriving at the main point that I want to make in this article, here’s the way Paul put it (vv 30-32):
Why am I in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Here is what I want you to notice: If dualism, as held by many Christians and as held by many people in Paul’s day, is true, then there is life after death with or without the resurrection.
Christian dualists will tell you that when the body dies, the soul of the believer goes to be with the Lord in heaven (or paradise, depending on who you’re asking, or perhaps purgatory, if the soul isn’t yet fit for heaven). This is a wonderful place, even though there will still be a resurrection of the dead in the future when the soul will again become embodied. But the point is, even if there were not a resurrection, there would still be some hope of a future life. Even if Jesus had not been bodily raised, there could still be some future life, it just would not be bodily life. Christian dualists certainly believe that such life is possible.
Now look again at Paul’s point, quoted above. He is asking why he would risk his life for the Gospel if there’s no bodily resurrection. The dualist’s answer would be: Because you would still have heaven to hope for, which in itself is wonderful. But Paul supposes no such thing. He goes a step further: If there’s no bodily resurrection, then we may as well just live it up now. Eat, drink, and be merry, because if there’s no resurrection, then when you die that’s the end. His argument works if and only if we do not survive death in any way until or without the resurrection of the dead. If we do – if there is even a whiff of dualism and a heavenly intermediate state in Paul’s theology, then a switched on Corinthian Christian could have immediately deflated Paul’s argument, as follows:
Paul: If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we have nothing to gain. We shouldn’t risk our lives, because this life is all there is. If there’s no resurrection, we may as well eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die and that’s it.
Corinthian: Wait, really? Paul, I though you believed that when you die you’ll be absent from the body but present with the Lord!
Paul: Well that’s true. When my body dies, my soul will live on.
Corinthian: And your soul won’t get old and die, will it?
Paul: No, it won’t.
Corinthian: So even if your body dies tomorrow, you soul will live on, and you’ll go to be present with the Lord in heaven?
Paul: Yes, isn’t it wonderful?
Corinthian: That sounds wonderful alright. It even sounds like it’s worth risking your earthly life for. It even sounds like death isn’t the end, and because our soul will live on in heaven – or go to hell if we miss out – we should be careful how we live here on earth. So what were you saying about the resurrection of the body?
Paul: I was just saying that if there’s not going to be a resurrection of the dead, then there’s no reason to… er… risk our lives, and we may as well eat, drink and… um…. be merry, because tomorrow our bodies die…. oh. Yes I see your point.
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown notice Paul’s attitude to what the meaning of life would amount to if there is no resurrection. In their commentary on this saying about eating, drinking and being merry, they say: “If men but persuade themselves that they shall die like the beasts, they soon will live like beasts too.”6 Well said. If people see that we die like animals with no future consequences, then let us live like animals with no restrictions. What these authors could have added – and what I add – is the point that without the resurrection, we would die like animals. Perhaps very nice animals, beloved animals, endearing animals, animals to whom we are committed and so on, but like all other animals, our lot would be the dust and that is that. If Paul thought that dualism were true, then telling people that there is no resurrection would not amount to telling people that they would die like animals. And yet as Jamieson, Fausset and Brown observe, that is exactly what he is doing. Our commentators sometimes come so very close to grasping the point, don’t they?
Of course the fact that the return of Christ is when we will be with the Lord is not unique to Paul. The disciples who knew Jesus in the flesh were aware of this as well because it was one of the things he told them leading up to his crucifixion. John’s Gospel records him telling them (in chapter 14), “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Similarly, Jesus told his followers that the eternal life he gives will be received in the future at the resurrection, so that “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). That is the positive teaching, telling us what will happen. There are other times where Scripture makes positive statements about human nature and human death as well, describing us as mortal, made from dust, being like the grass that is here today and gone tomorrow, and sleeping in death, to awake in the resurrection. Here in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does plenty of positive teaching as well, telling his readers that Jesus is risen, that we will rise and at that time we will receive immortality so that death will be swallowed up in victory. But in the middle of all this there is a negative teaching as well: If there’s no bodily resurrection, then there is no future. It’s the resurrection or nothing.
Martin Luther (who held to the doctrine of “soul sleep,” as I say Paul did as well) went one step further than Paul, saying that “it would take a foolish soul to desire its body again when it was already in heaven.” But in fairness, Christian dualists do not talk about the soul’s incarnation (or rather, reincarnation) in a new body as a bad thing. Unlike Plato, Christian dualists are happy to affirm the goodness of the material world. They tell us that having a body is not like being in a prison, as Plato said, and I take them at their word. But still, Luther had a point that would have been better made in gentler terms: A soul that is already in heaven could desire its body again and perhaps it would be better off with its body again, but if a soul is already in heaven and perfectly capable of living forever without a body, then it certainly does not need its body again. Going without the resurrection would not be the end of the world.
This way of thinking about the necessity of the resurrection is irreconcilable with Paul’s line of thought here in 1 Corinthians.
If you’re a Christian and you advocate dualism, and you say that your soul goes to be with the Lord at death, then you’re robbing Paul of his stance on the resurrection. Paul said that unless we will rise, then we are the most miserable of people for risking so much, and really we should be living it up while we can. But you don’t think that. You think that we still go to heaven, there’s still a future, and our life here has eternal consequences anyway. As I type this, I’m reminded of the fact that William Tyndale made this exact same observation. For those who don’t know, William Tyndale was a martyr who made the first translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English. He got into a written dispute with Thomas More over the question of the soul’s immortality. More claimed that when the body dies, the soul of the believer goes to be with Christ. Tyndale immediately saw how this gutted Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 of any force, and replied sarcastically, as though rebuking the Apostle on behalf of Thomas More:
Nay, Paul, thou art unlearned; go to Master More, and learn a new way. We be not most miserable, though we rise not again; for our souls go to heaven as soon as we be dead, and are there in as great joy as Christ that is risen again.7
While it is true that pretty much every view in Christian theology is going to have some “problem texts,” passages of Scripture that require some explanation, this passage in 1 Corinthians really does seem to be the death-blow for a dualistic view of human beings.
- “Materialism” is just the view that human beings are physical, instead of being an immaterial soul that somehow inhabits a body.
- Strictly speaking dualism does not require that the soul survives the body. A dualist could, in theory, think that there’s a separate substance called the soul, but it dies with the body. However, in reality you would be hard pressed to find a Christian dualist who does not believe that their soul will survive death.
- Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Resurrection of the Dead,” a sermon preached February 17, 1856 at new park Street Chapel, Southwark. Online at <https://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0066.htm>
- Gordon D. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 764. Note that Fee grants this while still thinking that Paul was likely describing vicarious baptism.
- See John D. Reaume, “Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, ‘Baptized for the Dead’ ” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (1995), 458-459. The article is available online here: <https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/ntesources/ntarticles/bsac-nt/reaume-baptdead1cor-bs.pdf>
- Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, first published in 1871, online at <https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/jamieson-fausset-brown/1-corinthians/1-corinthians-15.html>
- William Tyndale, Answer to Thomas More’s Dialogue (Cambridge University Press, 1850), 118. (download this book HERE)