Paul's Big Mystery

Roman Street, Jerash, Jordan

Paul had already lived and worked in the Greek city of Corinth, before he wrote the letter to them that we know today as 1 Corinthians.  This is where Paul lived with Aquila and Priscilla for a year and a half, working with them as a tentmaker, preaching and reasoning with the local people as much as he could.  Corinth was culturally diverse.  Even though it was in Greece, it was a Roman colony and there were many people from Rome living there.  As a busy trading center there were many business people from all over the world, including a bustling Jewish community, complete with their own synagogue. It was to the Jews that Paul ministered to first, but then also worked for the Gentiles.  The church that he leaves behind contained a mix of people.  Acts 18:1-18 tells the story.

1 Corinthians was written about 5 years later, primarily in response to some questions that the church had written to him about, asking for help and clarification.  As Paul answers their questions, it helps us gain insight to his thinking, his theology, and the beliefs that he held, as a result of his theological training and the visions that he had received from God.

The question most interesting to our discussion here is the one that the Corinthians had about death, the afterlife, and the resurrection.  Apparently some in the church at Corinth were questioning whether there even would be a resurrection.  We can only speculate why they were just now asking Paul questions about this.  It could be that the return of Christ had been presented as being so imminent, that Paul had not spent a lot of time preaching about death and the resurrection, while he was there.

Since so much time has passed since Paul’s day, we sometimes forget that they fully expected Jesus to return in their time!  Jesus had promised that their generation, “would not pass until all was fulfilled”!  Jesus had said that those who were alive and accepted Him, “would never die”.  When Paul talked about the second coming, he always pictured himself among those who were still alive when he came.  As a result, the topic of the resurrection may not have been high on the list of sermons that Paul gave while he lived among them. Perhaps now, as the church members began to bury some of their loved ones who had died before Jesus returned, they may have had genuine concerns about what would happen to their loved ones who had not lived long enough for Jesus to return.  Had they missed out?

It may also be that some of the Jews who had become Christians in Corinth had been influenced by the doctrines of the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection.  They may have accepted Paul’s preaching of the hope that we have of eternal life through Jesus, because it contained the promise of a soon return of the Messiah, that could receive people into the Kingdom, before they died.  Now that people were dying, their background in the theology of the Sadducees may have been rising to the surface and spreading doubt throughout the congregation.  They may have been telling the people, “If your loved ones die before Jesus returns, they will probably miss out on the Kingdom, because in all reality, the idea of a resurrection from the dead is, rather "absurd.”

Whatever the reason may have been, there were some in the church at Corinth that were saying that there is no such thing as a resurrection, and Paul is asked to give his thoughts on the matter.

An interesting side note here may be that, even though the group is living in the seat of Greek Philosophy, there does not seem to be any questions about the “souls of their loved ones”, or where their souls may have migrated to after death.  They don’t ask if this is something that Paul believes, and in his response to their questions about death, he does not even bring this Greek philosophy up as a viable solution to what happens to people who die.  They must have known at least that much about Paul’s position on the Greek idea of souls. They don’t even ask! 

Sometimes modern-day Christians can wonder how New Testament scholars can do an in-depth study of the New Testament and come away with the conclusion that the New Testament Church did not believe in or teach dualism or the immortality of the soul.  This is one of those places that show the big picture of the worldview and teachings of the early Church.  Greek dualism just is not an option for either the church members Corinth or for Paul in his response to very specific questions about how people will inherit the Kingdom, if they should die before Jesus comes back.

Paul begins his answer on the question, in the very first section of Corinthians 15 by introducing the subject of the resurrection.  He builds a strong case that the resurrection of Jesus was very real.  Even though Jesus died on the cross and was buried, he was raised on the third day.  He was seen, not only by Peter and the disciples, but also by about 500 other people, most of who “are alive today”.  “He even appeared to me!” Paul says.  While it was in vision, Paul still counts this as evidence that Jesus, though He died and was buried, is now alive because of a resurrection!  (Just another quick aside if I may… If Paul believed in Platonic dualism, Paul would not have needed a resurrection, for the spirit of Jesus to appear to Him in vision.  He could not have used Christ’s appearing to him as an argument for the validity of the resurrection.)

This then becomes Paul’s greatest proof that resurrection from death is real, it is possible, for we have been witness of it.  If Christ did not really rise from the dead then everything that we have done since, all of our preaching has all been in vein, and we are still in our sins.  We might as well give up on everything, go out, “and eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”  In other words, if we are not able to accept the teaching of the resurrection, then all is lost. there is no other solution.  There is no second option offered, such as going to heaven in a spirit state.  We might as well just get drunk and give it all up!

Then Paul begins to go into the mechanics of the resurrection. Some of the things that he says in verse 35 and following, are what makes me think that he was dealing with the doctrine of the Sadducees.  These are the kinds of questions that they might ask, as they try and point out the “absurdity” of the resurrection.  If there is such a thing as a resurrection, with “what kind of body will they come up with?”

The answer that Paul gives seems to draw back a little on some of the discussions that he must had had with his Professors and fellow students when he attended the “University of Jerusalem”.  With the Greek philosophy that was so popular on the street, and the beliefs of the Sadducees everywhere, it must have been an big issue of discussion as Paul went to school.  Some of those ideas may be reflected in the verses that follow here. Then there are some big concepts that seem to stand out as the ideas that more likely came from the discussions that he has had with Christ, in vision.  Ideas like how the body that goes into the grave is weak and subject to decay.  The body that is raised is powerful, glorious and no longer subject to aging or decay.  The body that goes into the grave is a natural body but is raised a "spiritual" body.

Scholars debate what this means, but I like the suggestion by some that Paul probably did not mean that the new body is only a spirit.  The whole point of a resurrection, is to get a physical body back!  To the Jewish mind, and as a carryover, the early Christians, bodies are important!  We might point out that he does not say, "it is raised a spirit", rather it is raised a spiritual body. It is more likely that the body that is raised is a real, physical, material body, but is “spiritual in nature".  It is animated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God, and is thus far better, in many ways, than the old one.1

It may also be spiritual in the sense that it has “spiritual capabilities”.  Christ’s resurrected body was physical enough that his friends could recognize the wounds of his crucifixion, and Thomas could actually touch them, and yet his body was also capable of slipping in and out of dimensions that are unseen to us.  He could walk through doors and disappear into the clouds!

Angels, as far as we understand, are ministering "spirits", but can take on physical form and walk among us.  So it may be that our new, glorified bodies, while primarily physical may have the capability to take on a spiritual form to facilitate travel to other dimensions, including heaven.  I am hoping that I will be able to explore the universe with it!  There are some galaxies out there that look so beautiful, from the NASA images that we have today, that I want to go take a closer look! This will not be the fleeting "out of body" experience that the New Agers talk about having; this will be the real deal!

But then, suddenly Paul switches gears and begins to tell the people at Corinth a mystery! Some translators call it a "secret", or something that, I am going to tell you in confidence but should probably not be repeated.  He says,

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”  Vs 51, 52

Most all readers of this text, over the centuries, have taken this passage to mean that Paul was telling the people at Corinth that not all of us will sleep, that some will be alive when Jesus comes again and that those who are will get their new bodies on the spot, they will be transformed!  And this is probably the easiest, safest way to read this passage. 

However, if we do take this safe approach to this passage, I would like to ask the question, “Where is the mystery in that?”  There certainly wouldn’t have been anything mysterious about that reading of the text by the believers in Corinth!  They all expected Jesus to return at any time!  Even if they didn’t, it still would only be a very rational, obvious statement of Paul to say that “some will be alive when Jesus comes”.  Whether it is Paul’s friends in Corinth,  or some generation to come, it would only be of the very most bland, obvious of statements to say, “We will not all sleep, some will be changed”.  There is no mystery to that!  The second coming of Jesus is going to happen sooner or later, and when it does, some will be alive, and simply have their bodies transformed, rather than have new ones made inside the graves.

In fact that is not what the text says, exactly.  It says,

“We will not all sleep, all will be changed”.   Not that “some” will be changed.  ALL will be changed!

What if, in the setup of the big "mystery", in the first half of Paul’s construct, his emphasis is not on the word “all”, but instead on the word “not”?  This actually makes his full statement much more logical, and suddenly a whole lot more mysterious!

In essence what he would then be saying is,

“Behold I show you a mystery, none of us will sleep,  all of us will be changed.”

Now we have a real mystery!  What if Paul was boldly saying, “Listen, I know, I know.....  you guys are having funerals over there in Corinth, but I need to share with you something important, something very profound, something you should probably even keep a secret after I tell you, not make it part of you common discussion... In some sense, that I don’t really understand fully myself, “we shall NOT sleep, we shall ALL be changed.”

Translators have been hesitant to render it this way, because it just does not make a lot of sense to read it that way.  How on earth could Paul say that none of us would sleep?  Impossible!  People are "dropping like flies" all around us!  Everyone dies!  Paul could not possibly have meant that!  And so it is almost always rendered in the safest way, even if the mystery is gone!

The translators of the American Standard Version offer this rendering that comes a little closer to the idea;

“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We all shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed,”

As illogical as this may cause Paul to look, it is the most rational rendering of the sentence.  If it is understood that, “not all of us will sleep”, then it would only makes sense to follow that up with something like, “only some", or "the rest of us who didn’t sleep, shall be changed.”  But the original Greek is clear in the last half of the thought, "All" of us will be changed”.  However, if we are willing to step out on a limb, like the translators of the American Standard, and let the mystery stand for what it is, then perhaps we can see Paul saying the impossible, “all of us shall not sleep”, Then, the last part makes all the sense in the world, when he says, “all of us will be changed”.

Well, what does this have to do with souls, death, the afterlife and the resurrection?  If you are reading this as a standalone essay, I would encourage you to also consider “What Did Jesus Say about the Human Soul”, as a companion article to this presentation.  The proposal that I make there, may help bring more understanding to Paul’s great mystery here. According to Jesus, "All are Alive, unto Him" Luke 20:38  From our perspective, people die.  From God's perspective none of us sleep.

Paul’s mystery here, that in a certain sense, “none of us will sleep, but we shall all be changed”, helps bring some support and understanding to some of the same kinds of things that Jesus said when he spoke about the “illusion” of death, and how those who believe in Him shall not perish, but have already passed from death unto life!

However we might understand that day to unfold, we can all rejoice that, “at the last trump”, death will be swallowed up!  We will shout triumphantly together,
“O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?”

1. Surprised by Hope - N.T. Wright  Page 155