St Paul and Premillennialism

Theology / Biblical Studies

If Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is all true, then premillennialism is false.

My non-religious readers may have no idea what I’m talking about. I can sympathise. I think (but I could be wrong) that this might be the first time I have ever written about this subject at the blog. I stopped thinking about arguments over things like the “millennium,” the “rapture,” the “great tribulation” and the like some time ago. It’s interesting in a way, don’t get me wrong, but after thinking about theology for some years now those things just feel like they belong in the toybox of Christian theology. That’s not to say there are no truths associated with them, it’s just that they remind me so much of sensational books and relatively pointless squabbles between seminary men in tweed jackets with patches on the elbows in journals like Bibliotheca Sacra in the 70s and 80s (not that I was around when these things happened – I was born in 1975). And yet, it’s a serious subject within Evangelical theology and deserves to be taken seriously when coming to terms with Evangelical theology.

The subject of premillennialism was raised in a recent discussion, and I made the comment that I think St Paul’s view expressed in the first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15), if true, would rule premillennialism out altogether. Somebody asked me why I thought this, and here you are, reading my answer. I’ll unpack the terminology as we go.

The purpose of St Paul’s discussion here is to exhort the Corinthian believers to believe in the resurrection of the dead and then to offer a brief explanation of what it means and will achieve. Some of the Corinthians, perhaps influenced by a Hellenistic disdain for the body, had denied the resurrection of the dead (so Paul asks in verse 12, “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”). As I have explained elsewhere, St Paul drives home the point that without the resurrection of the dead there is literally no hope of life beyond the grave, so we may as well give up the faith now.

What I want to look at here is the way St Paul places the resurrection of God’s people in history, but first, for the sake of the uninitiated here’s a very simple breakdown of how the various “millennial” views differ from one another. The term “millennium” is taken from the reference to the period of one thousand years in the book of Revelation, chapter 20. In millennialist eschatology,1 there is a future period of time in human history where Christ will reign on earth while evil is suppressed and peace and justice dominate.

Amillennialism

It is possible to exist in a thoroughly Christian environment and never discuss the millennium, since the dominant view in most traditional forms of Christianity is amillennial (literally meaning “no-millennial”), meaning that there is no future millennium. Instead, the thousand years alluded to in Revelation, like the vision in which it appears, is highly figurative and refers to a spiritual state of blessedness, namely salvation (and thus, as St John wrote in Revelation 20:6, “the second death has no power over” those who take part in the first resurrection, which is described as the way in which believers enter the thousand year reign). The amillennialist would find confirmation of this view in Paul’s remarks to the Ephesians, saying that we were dead in sin but God has raised us to new life in Christ, seating is in heaven with him (Ephesians 2:1-7). For the record, this is the view I hold.

Postmillennialism

In a postmillennial view (or at any rate the version of postmillennialism most prominent in history), this thousand year period of time (whether it is literally one thousand years or simply a long period of time) is the culmination of the growth of God’s kingdom in the world in fulfilment of the great commission (that is, Jesus’ command to his followers to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations). Because of the influence of God through the church in the world, human society will become more godly and just, to the point where the whole world expresses the reign of God through the church, and then following this extended period of time, Jesus will return and the resurrection of the dead will occur. It is worth pointing out that in more recent times (in the twentieth century), a number of authors have used the term “postmillennialism” to describe their view even though they do not hold the view of historical postmillennialists that the millennium is a specific period of time in history immediately prior to Christ’s return (so Christ returns “post” or after the millennium). Instead they use the term simply because they maintain the belief in the improvement of the state of the world prior to the last day. Strictly speaking, this new variety of “postmillennialism” is compatible with amillennialism, differing from the view of many amillennialists only because of its “kingdom theology,” namely its optimistic view of the future of God’s Kingdom in this world.

Premillennialism

Lastly, the premillennial view interprets the “first resurrection” and its context in Revelation as a fairly literal description of future temporal history on earth. In this view, Jesus will return before (i.e. “pre”) the millennium and reign on earth with his followers for a thousand years. When he returns, his people will be raised from the dead. Whereas the postmillennial view sees the reign of Christianity in the world through the church by the power of the Holy Spirit occurring before Jesus returns, in the premillennial view this reign begins when Jesus returns to personally reign as king. At the end of this period, those who have died during the millennium will be raised from the dead along with all of the remaining dead (namely those who died before Jesus returned but were not his people), and then the day of judgement will occur.

The argument

There are finer details and distinctions to make, but these do not matter for my purposes here. My claim is not that a variation of premillennialism has some difficulty addressing some aspects of what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, requiring me to explain all the varieties of the view that might exist. Instead, I say that like a sledgehammer, St Paul’s point of view expressed in this passage – if we take it to be correct – utterly smashes all possible varieties of premillennialism to dust, so that no matter which particular flavour you might choose, it is hopelessly doomed.

… like a sledgehammer, St Paul’s point of view expressed in this passage – if we take it to be correct – utterly smashes all possible varieties of premillennialism to dust …

Faithful to his Jewish background (as Jesus was to his), St Paul believed in the resurrection of the just and the unjust. But here in 1 Corinthians 15 he says nothing about the unjust. In fact he is explicit that he is talking only about those who are “in Christ” (verse 22), a group that he equates with “those who belong to Christ” (verse 23), and in the resurrection he describes, Paul says that immortality, incorruptibility and glory will come to those who take part in it (verses 50-54). The premillennial view is that St Paul is here describing the resurrection of the saints just prior to the millennium, and then later, at the end of the millennium, after the final rebellion of evil and its final defeat by God, those who died during the millennium as well as all non-believers will rise from the dead and be judged.

But look at how St Paul locates the resurrection of believers and the final victory of God. There are two parts of this passage in particular that appear to address matters of timing: Verses 21-26 and then verses 51-55. I will quote both of these sections here:

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

(And now the second section)

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The first section paints with a broader brush, referring to Christ’s resurrection and then the resurrection of believers and the “end.” The second section zooms up closely on the resurrection of believers. Reading both of these sections together, here is Paul’s way of viewing history: First, Christ was raised from the dead as the “first fruits,” an agricultural term referring to the first of a harvest, with the rest to follow. Then, Christ will come at some point and those who belong to Christ will be raised.

They will be raised immortal and imperishable, and when that happens, the victory over death will be complete.

They will be raised immortal and imperishable, and when that happens, the victory over death will be complete. Christ reigns until all his enemies have been defeated, but death is the last enemy to be defeated. The victory over death is “the end.” Christ hands over the kingdom as a finished work after he has defeated and destroyed every ruler, authority and power that opposes him. But death is the last one. When that happens, it’s the end. The end of what, Paul does not say here, although since the people of God are said here to be raised immortal, it is not the end of their lives. The eternal state is here ushered in.

Once we step back and see the series of events that Paul envisages here and compare it to a premillennial view of the future, it is at once clear that they are incompatible. In the premillennial view, remember, Christ was raised from the dead, and then at some point in the future Christ will return and believers will be raised, and then there will be an extended period of time on earth during which evil is suppressed and Christ reigns (the millennium), and then the end will come, the rest of the dead will be raised and the eternal state will be ushered in.

But there simply is no space for a millennium here in 1 Corinthians 15. When the saints are raised immortal, that is the time when death has been defeated, and death, Paul has said, is the last of all God’s enemies to be shown the door.

But there simply is no space for a millennium here in 1 Corinthians 15. When the saints are raised immortal, that is the time when death has been defeated, and death, Paul has said, is the last of all God’s enemies to be shown the door. This is the end. Any thought of Christ returning, the saints being raised, and then a kingdom on earth being set up for a millennium, followed by the defeat of all evil and then another resurrection is an intruder into Paul’s eschatology – and an intruder with nowhere to hide. There just isn’t space in Paul’s thought for that – it is ruled out. Premillennialism is flatly contrary to Paul’s view, which is significant if one takes Paul’s view to be correct (as Evangelicals do).

It is courteous, if not mandatory, to let the accused in such disputes offer a defence. In light of what looks like a clear expression from St Paul of the conviction that, at some point in the future, God’s people will be raised from the dead in glory and immortality, bringing about a time when death has been finally and forever defeated as the last of God’s enemies and the culmination of Christ’s reign, what do premillennialists have to say about the passage before us? What do they say it means? I will let premillennial theologian George Eldon Ladd answer for them. After very frankly acknowledging the apparent absence of the idea of a future millennium from most of the New Testament and no indication at all in the Gospels in particular, he says:

There is, however, one passage in Paul which may refer to an interim kingdom if not a millennium. In 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 Paul pictures the triumph of Christ’s kingdom as being accomplished in several stages. The resurrection of Christ is the first stage (tagma). The second stage will occur at the parousia when those who are Christ’s will share his resurrection. “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The adverbs translated “then” are epeita, eita, which denote a sequence: “after that.” There are three distinct stages: Jesus’ resurrection; after that (epeita) the resurrection of believers at the resurrection; after that (eita) the end (telos). An unidentified interval falls between Christ’s resurrection and his parousia, and a second undefined interval falls between the parousia and the telos, when Christ completes the subjugation of his enemies.2

Here is the passage on which Ladd was commenting, 1 Corinthians 15:22-26.

For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then [epeita] at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then [eita] comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

If I am reading Ladd’s explanation of this passage correctly, his claim is that epeita and eita, often translated “then,” do not necessarily mean “immediately” or even “soon after,” but can indicated a later point in time, perhaps many years later (as in the case of the delay between Christ’s resurrection and then the resurrection of God’s people, still in the future). And therefore, this passage in 1 Corinthians 15, says Ladd, actually indicates that there will be substantial but unspecified period of time between the time when the saints are raised and the “end,” and that period of time is the millennium. And therefore this passage supports a premillennial view, because it depicts the resurrection of the saints, followed by a long period of time, followed by the end.

With all due respect, this is a surprisingly bad argument. It is true that eita (εἶτα) does not specify a particular length of time and only means “then” in the sense of “afterwards.” But quite obviously this does not show that the word suggests a long period of time. Indeed there are times in the New Testament where it is used in a context where there is immediacy. For example:

Mark 8:23-26, when Jesus healed a blind man:
“He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

John 19:26-27, as Jesus is on the cross:
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother”.”

It is mistaken, then, to infer that because eita can be used in cases where there is a delay, it somehow means that there is a delay. In fact the word is no more or less specific than our English word “then.” Ladd appears to have argued from the mere possibility that there is a delay when this word is used to the claim that in fact there is a delay here. Whether there is a delay or not (and how long the delay is) must be determined by context if it can be determined at all.

And that leads to the more serious problem with Ladd’s appeal to 1 Corinthians 15. The context, as we have already seen, indicates that there is not a delay here – and certainly not a whole millennium – between the resurrection of the saints and “the end.” As Ladd sees, “the end” here in verse 24 is the time when all of Christ’s enemies have been defeated, the last of which being death. But St Paul located the final victory over death at the time when God’s people are raised immortal. Here it is again in verses 52-55.

For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

To reiterate: The resurrection of the saints that Paul describes here, according to his view at least, is the time when death is finally defeated, or to use his phrase, “death is swallowed up in victory.” This is “the end.”

In fact, although Ladd made reference to the fact that eita, translated “then,” can refer to a space of some time, there’s another word at play here. When Paul says “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled,” it is evident, even in English, that “then” refers to something immediate. When the saints are raised, that will fulfil the saying about death (which is the final enemy) being swallowed up in victory. But as if to nail the lid on premillennialism’s coffin very firmly shut, the word translated “then” here is tote (τότε). I would not see the need to drill down into the Greek here were it not for Ladd’s effort to do so. This word, unlike eita, always refers to an event that happens at that specified time, as opposed to expressing the fact that something happens later in time. Eita generally expresses a thought like “this happened, then this happened,” where the point is that there was a sequence of events. Tote however is not generally used this way. Here are a few examples, all of which indicate that something occurs at a specified point in time:

1 Corinthians 4:5
“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.”

Colossians 3:4
“When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

2 Thessalonians 2:8
“For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming.”

We have a similar usage here in 1 Corinthians 15:54 – “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory”.” When will death be swallowed up in victory? Then. And when is “then”? When this perishable body puts on imperishability. There is no thousand years following this, after which death, the last enemy is defeated. Consequently, a premillennial view of the future is false if St Paul is right.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Eschatology is a word commonly used in theology to refer to a view of history and how things will end in this age and transition into eternity. []
  2. G.E. Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.), The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1977), 38-39. The year of publication, 1977, is indicative of the era in which such discussions were interesting to a wider Evangelical audience A book like this would not warrant publication now. []

{ 24 comments… add one }

  • Tom July 25, 2014, 1:56 am

    So when is resurection of the unjust?

  • Aaron July 25, 2014, 9:38 am

    Hi Glenn! Paul seems to suggest that the defeat of death is progressive. 1 Cor 15:27 literally reads, “The last enemy is being abolished: death.” The abolishment of death began with the resurrection of Christ (whom Paul calls “the Firstfruit”), it will continue with “those who are Christ’s at his coming,” and it will be completed at what Paul calls the “end” or “consummation,” at which time Christ delivers the kingdom to his God and Father. In vv. 54-55, the prophecy Paul quotes from Isaiah 25:8 is, I believe, fulfilled for each individual whenever they are made immortal/incorruptible. Paul says, “Now, whenever this corruptible should be putting on incorruption and this mortal should be putting on immortality, then shall come to pass the word which is written: “Swallowed up was Death by Victory” (CLNT). This prophecy was fulfilled in Christ’s own case three days after his death, it will be fulfilled for believers at Christ’s coming, and it will be fulfilled for the remainder of humanity (i.e., the rest of those who die in Adam) at the “consummation,” after all other enemies have been nullified by Christ during his reign. For we are told that Christ must reign “until (notice the word “until”) he should be placing all his enemies under his feet” (with the last enemy being death). We know the final abolishment of death is not going to be at Christ’s second coming (when believers are raised), because that’s when Christ’s reign begins (i.e., when he *begins* to reign from “the throne of his glory” – Mt. 25:31; cf. 19:28). But the final abolishment of death takes place when Christ’s reign ends (i.e., when he delivers the kingdom to God/subjects himself to God – vv. 24, 28). So I think premillennialism is perfectly consistent with everything Paul says in 1 Cor. 15 (for a solid defense of Premillennialism, I recommend “The Coming Millennial Kingdom,” edited by Donald Campbell and Jeffrey Townsend).

  • Douglas Wilkinson July 25, 2014, 12:04 pm

    Though I think that your analysis of premillennialism as commonly understood is generally solid, I’d like to challenge you on two points. First, it seems to me that it’s necessary to zoom back to see that Paul is only expanding on common Jewish themes that expected a kingdom of God at some climactic time in the future. We see that in 1st Corinthians 15 through his references to Isaiah 25, Hosea 13 and Daniel 12. In those passages, but most clearly through his reference to Daniel 12 and thus Daniel 7, we see that the time of the resurrection is the time of the establishment of the kingdom that would last forever. This is the “forever” kingdom of the Constantiople version (381AD) of the Nicene creed which was edited specifically to make premillennialism (where the 1,000 year reign would end at some point) heretical. In other words, Paul is applying his language of the initiation of the kingdom and resurrection to the initiation of the millennium. This is very clear when we take both of the saints’ portions of Revelation 20 (4-6, 11-15) and compare them to the conditions of Daniel 7 (thrones, judgment, saints ruling, etc.). So, I think that there is no doubt that Paul expected the millennium to start at the time of the first resurrection still in his future (and, I’d suggest that the textual variant in Rev. 20:5a should be taken out so that, like the rest of scripture, there is only one moment of resurrection being proposed). This means that he is explicitly arguing for a premillennial second coming and resurrection (though I agree with you that the common approach to the millennium in premillennialism is so badly mangled that it is essentially never seen this way). This leads me to my second point. Amillennialism, which has essentially been the position of the church since the beginning, proposes that the saints are ruling in heaven for the entire church age. They’d say that the saints’ millennial reign of Rev. 20 and the kingdom handed to the saints in Dan. 7 are ongoing, though invisible. What Amillennialists don’t usually realize is that this means that the resurrection promised in Daniel 12, and therefore in 1st Cor. 15, has to have happened (or at least begun). And, this resurrection can’t have happened unless the beast had already required people to take his mark, believers have already been martyred in order to avoid it, and then they’ve been resurrected to rule in the kingdom. Being an Amillennialist, I’m curious about whether or not you’ve considered this.

    Doug Wilkinson

  • Glenn July 25, 2014, 3:02 pm

    Hi Aaron – The interpretation you outlined is essentially the same as that of G E Ladd, to which this article responds: The “end” is when Christ has final victory over all of his enemies, and the final one is death. But death is defeated, says Paul, when the saints are raised immortal.

    Your way of getting around this is to say that the first time Paul talks about death being defeated, he means completely, but the second time he refers to the victory over death coming to pass, he means something different – death is defeated for an individual person. But this, with respect, makes Paul guilty of doublespeak or equivocation: he says twice that death will be defeated, but he doesn’t tell us that he’s talking about something quite different each time – even though it’s in the same passage, and we wouldn’t know that there was a difference between the two unless the premillennialists told us so. But to what end should we create such a distinction in Paul? Only, it seems, to prop up a theological scheme which on the face of it seems to be excluded by what St Paul said.

  • Glenn July 25, 2014, 3:15 pm

    Doug: “So, I think that there is no doubt that Paul expected the millennium to start at the time of the first resurrection still in his future”

    Well there’s certainly no doubt that Paul expected something to start at the time of the resurrection still in his future (although he reflects no awareness of “first” or “second” resurrections in the future). But why call it the millennium? If he is reflecting a Jewish hope first expressed in the Hebrew Scripture, where do we find, in the Hebrew Scripture, a kingdom of God that has an end? Look in Daniel 7, to which you referred. The only kingdom there is an eternal one. So I don’t think there’s ground to see Paul hoping for a future but temporary reign initiated by the resurrection of the dead.

    I don’t take the view that the saints are now reigning in heaven. I take the view that the saints are dead in the grave, but that even though the saints may be martyred, they do ultimately have the victory nonetheless, because of what Christ has done for them and will do in the future.

    “the resurrection promised in Daniel 12, and therefore in 1st Cor. 15, has to have happened (or at least begun)” – You didn’t explain how the Amillennialist must be committed to this. But even if you could establish this, the resurrection has indeed begun. That is precisely the significance of calling Christ the “first fruits,” a sample of what is to come. In Christ the resurrection of the dead has begun.

    “this resurrection can’t have happened unless the beast had already required people to take his mark, believers have already been martyred in order to avoid it, and then they’ve been resurrected to rule in the kingdom.”

    The Amillennialist takes the first resurrection spiritually. Some take it to be the ascent of the soul to heaven – I do not. Others take it to refer to a spiritual resurrection in the way that Paul spoke of God making us alive even when we were dead in sin, and as I said, this is my view. And this has already happened – or at least, is happening now. As far as the beast is concerned, I take the view that the beast represents earthly kingdoms, and imperial Rome in particular, to St John’s audience in the book of Revelation. So I do believe that this has already played out in history – although (as amillennialists note) it continues to play out in history as human empires stand opposed to God’s kingdom.

  • Glenn July 25, 2014, 7:18 pm

    Sorry Tom, I neglected your question. As far as I can tell, St Paul doesn’t anywhere directly say whether the resurrection of the lost occurs at the same time as the resurrection of the saved. But certainly elsewhere in the New Testament they are depicted as occurring at the same time. John 5 certainly indicates this. Daniel 12 does as well (if it refers to the end). This was not an area where Paul or the other early Christians raised any objections to the Jewish belief in the general resurrection.

  • Doug Wilkinson July 25, 2014, 10:21 pm

    The term millennium is simply the one we assign to the version of the kingdom we find in John. A parallel passage according to a number of theologians (all partial preterists that I’m aware of) is the initiation of the kingdom that will never end in Daniel 7:18. On the other hand, all of the Amillennialists that I’m aware of say that it’s not that they think there’s no millennium, it’s that it’s ongoing right now. In other words, their definition of the millennium is the current age. If that is true, then the definition of the millenniumm found in scripture is extremely important:

    Rev 20:4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
    Rev 20:5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.
    Rev 20:6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

    In this passage the millennial reign only comes after those who were martyred by the beast are raised to participate in it. That means that 1) the beast has already killed people for not taking the mark, and 2) this resurrection has happened (or begun). I agree that Amillennialists take this resurrection spiritually, but they are flatly wrong to do so. There are no grounds for this. The only option is to define the term according to how the only passage that uses it does so.

  • Aaron July 26, 2014, 8:05 am

    Hi Glenn. I’m not sure how my view makes Paul guilty of doublespeak or equivocation. From vv. 22-23, we learn that the vivification of humanity is progressive and takes place in distinct stages or “orders” (beginning with Christ, the “Firstfruit”). We then learn that Christ will continue to reign (i.e., he will not deliver the kingdom to God) until all of his enemies are put under his feet. And in v. 26 we learn that death (which is being progressively abolished by Christ) is the last enemy. Now, when we come to v. 54, I think one would have to read much more into what Paul is saying here in order to conclude that this prophecy must have a single fulfillment at a single point in time. Why can’t the prophecy apply to people on an individual basis, and find its fulfillment as death is progressively vanquished from the universe and replaced by life? Whenever a person dies, their life is “swallowed up by death.” And whenever a person is made immortal, mortality is “swallowed up by life” (see 2 Cor. 5:4). Was death, in Christ’s own case, not swallowed up in victory when he was raised in incorruption and immortality? I don’t see how this can be denied; it was with Christ’s own resurrection that death began to be abolished (2 Tim 1:10-11). Similarly, when believers are made alive in Christ, then we, too, will share in Christ’s victory over death and be able to say (with regards to ourselves), “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

    And the same would be true if there is to be another class of people that is to be “made alive in Christ,” whether this takes place a thousand years later or a million years later. But really, there is no “if,” here. For Paul had previously said, “For as in Adam ALL are dying, so in Christ shall ALL be made alive.” And Paul says nothing about unbelievers being made alive at his coming – only believers have this special promise. So what about the rest of humanity that Paul says will be made alive in Christ? Since Paul says nothing about unbelievers being made alive at the Parousia, a reasonable conclusion would be that they are to be raised at a later time, and that this class of humanity constitutes a third “order” or stage in Christ’s conquest of death. So again, I see nothing in what Paul says in this chapter that is in any way inconsistent with the premillennialism position.

    Moreover, in order to believe that the telos Paul has in view in v. 24 takes place when believers are vivified, one would have to believe that all other enemies will have already been put under Christ’s feet by this time. But is this in fact the case? Are all hostile forces to be put under Christ’s feet *before* believers are vivified, as described by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:13-18? I’m not sure how it can be said that any hostile forces have been put under Christ’s feet until they have actually been judged by Christ. But isn’t the judgment of the world by Christ (both of human and angelic beings) to take place after…

  • Glenn July 26, 2014, 10:44 am

    Doug, “The term millennium is simply the one we assign to the version of the kingdom we find in John.”

    That depends on who “we” is. :) But my point is that we can quite comfortably say that the resurrection has begun, because Christ has been raised as the first fruits. And we can quite comfortably say that the actions attributed to the beast have already been carried out. And we can also quite comfortable say that the eternal reign of Christ has begun already. It is common to describe the time in which we live as the “overlap” of the present age and the age to come.

  • Glenn July 26, 2014, 10:49 am

    Aaron: “Why can’t the prophecy apply to people on an individual basis, and find its fulfillment as death is progressively vanquished from the universe and replaced by life?”

    Precisely because this makes Paul guilty of equivocation. Paul has already referred to the defeat of death in this passage, and there you understand it as a cosmic event – a universal defeat of death in the world. But now when Paul refers again to death being defeated (“swallowed up in victory”) you would have it mean something about an individual person. And that is how the equivocation enters the picture. Equivocation just is when a person uses terms that appear to say the same thing, but (without telling the reader) they mean something quite different.

    “Was death, in Christ’s own case, not swallowed up in victory when he was raised in incorruption and immortality?”

    No. “Swallowed up” would suggest something’s being completely gone. And death was not completely gone when Jesus was raised from the dead. That was – to mix our metaphors – merely the first fruits, as Paul put it. It was the first bite, so to speak. But when the resurrection of believers takes place, the victory will be complete, and death will be completely “swallowed up” in victory. It will be gone forever. Paul isn’t talking at an individual level in 1 Corinthians 15.

  • Doug Wilkinson July 26, 2014, 1:53 pm

    While I agree with you that resurrection has begun generically due to Christ’s experience, this is not the “first resurrection” of Revelation 20. That resurrection is specifically the resurrection of those killed in the great tribulation by the beast for not taking his mark. That resurrection happens immediately after the Second Coming.

    I think the rest of your comment gets to the point of what I think is the basic error in your approach. If the actions of the beast have been carried out, and the eternal reign has already begun (both of which you stipulate), then we cannot be in the overlap or transitional age. Among the key elements of the definition of “the age to come” is that those things have already occurred. It includes, per Daniel 7, that the beast is defeated, judged, and destroyed (which you just stipulated) at the time of the Second Coming.

    This is the basic problem with Amillennialism as it has always been defined. You can’t get to the millennium without the Second Coming being in the past because the Second Coming starts the millennium. But, the church has always accepted that it is living in the millennium, and has made it heretical to declare that this period would end (though, oddly, it does so vaguely at the end of the Amillennial program). In addition, Amillennialism has no capacity to explain the urgency of the language of the NT, something Premillennialism handles quite easily. From the point of view of Premillennialism in the NT, there is about to be a judgment of the righteous and unrighteous (per Paul), and it is already time for judgement to come on the people of God (Peter). They fully expect the cataclysm to happen in their lifetimes. They are clear that the age to come is about to start. But, Premillennialism in 2014 is incapable of explaining the role of the history of the church. Amillennialism does that quite well. It assumes (but won’t admit it) that the cataclysm happened just like Paul and Peter said, and then moves forward to explain our role in history.

    I my opinion, both systems are generally correct if you place them in the right order and historical context. The only thing really wrong with Premillennialism is that most of its adherents expect a literal, physical kingdom with a 1,500 mile cube floating over the Middle East. The only thing really wrong with Amillennialism is that they are forced to propose some sort of end to the Christian age, though even their own creed declares that it won’t end.

    Doug

  • Glenn July 26, 2014, 2:26 pm

    I think the rest of your comment gets to the point of what I think is the basic error in your approach. If the actions of the beast have been carried out, and the eternal reign has already begun (both of which you stipulate), then we cannot be in the overlap or transitional age. Among the key elements of the definition of “the age to come” is that those things have already occurred. It includes, per Daniel 7, that the beast is defeated, judged, and destroyed (which you just stipulated) at the time of the Second Coming.

    I’m finding it hard to get a handle on exactly what the objection is here. If we’re in the overlap, then there’s no issue – as far as I can see – with the beast as Rome having been defeated, but also the beast generically being finally overcome in the future – and also with the kingdoms of this world, judicially speaking, having already been decisively defeated at the cross.

    I’m just not seeing any problem.

  • Doug Wilkinson July 26, 2014, 2:54 pm

    I don’t think there are any grounds for making the fourth beast anything other than the Rome (nation, leadership, and to some extent the supernatural evil behind the throne) of scripture. Trying to make the final iteration of it some sort of “rebuilt Roman Empire” is foreign to Daniel. The fourth beast in Daniel 2 and 7 was the Rome that shattered the power of the holy people in Daniel 12. It was the beast who killed the whore in Revelation. The only reason for it to transport thousands of years into the future is the challenge presented to most eschatology when you realize that the destruction of the beast is a thing of the past.

  • Glenn July 26, 2014, 3:32 pm

    “The only reason for it to transport thousands of years into the future is the challenge presented to most eschatology when you realize that the destruction of the beast is a thing of the past.”

    Agreed :)

  • Aaron July 29, 2014, 2:28 am

    Glenn, you said, “Paul isn’t talking at an individual level in 1 Corinthians 15.”

    Actually, in the very verses under consideration, Paul is, in fact, “talking at an individual level.” Notice Paul’s use of τοῦτο (“this”) in verse 53 and 54: “For THIS corruptible must be put incorruption, and THIS mortal must put on immortality. So when THIS corruptible has put on incorruption, and THIS mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written…” See what Paul is doing here? He’s taking a subject of universal application and applying it to himself, on a personal and individual level. Paul’s use of τοῦτο makes this clear. You can almost see Paul pointing at his own corruptible, mortal self as he writes (or rather dictates) these verses. And it is only after Paul has shifted his focus away from humanity in general and begun to focus on himself and his own condition that he THEN quotes Isaiah’s promise that death would be swallowed up in victory. For Paul, it seems, this prophecy will find fulfillment on an individual basis just as much as it will on a universal basis. So what Paul says is perfectly consistent with the abolishing of death taking place in different stages (with the last stage taking place after a thousand year – or more – period of time).

    You said, “No. “Swallowed up” would suggest something’s being completely gone. And death was not completely gone when Jesus was raised from the dead.”

    Glenn, when Christ was made immortal, the mortality that characterized his pre-resurrection condition was, in fact, “swallowed up by life.” It was (as you say) “completely gone.” Surely you don’t think Christ was part mortal and part immortal after his resurrection!

  • Glenn July 29, 2014, 6:47 am

    Aaron, so to be clear – are you saying that because he said “this” mortal, that means Paul’s talking about “my own personal mortal body”? That doesn’t strike me as a particularly compelling argument. And I don’t really think you’d find it compelling either. Do you think that if we go hunting for cases of “this” in Paul we’ll find a list of things that Paul considered to be only related to him personally?

    And you’re right, Christ was not part mortal after the resurrection. But death certainly still existed. Paul’s language throughout here is universal language, not private, individual language.

  • Brian August 1, 2014, 9:50 am

    Glenn, just a few thoughts:

    The Bible clearly shows that there will be two resurrections; the first resurrection – the resurrection of believers – 1 Thes. 14v16, 1 Cor. 15v54, and the second resurrection – the resurrection of the wicked – Rev. 20v5.

    If death is swallowed up (destroyed) at the point when believers are resurrected, i.e. the first resurrection, 1 Cor. 15v54, then surely that would mean that at the second resurrection the wicked can not be destroyed after judgement since death was “swallowed up” at the first resurrection.
    This is a problem if you believe as you and I do in annihilation, since how can the wicked be destroyed if there is no longer any death?

    I think Aaron’s view of death being swallowed up for the individual is the only one that makes any sense to me in this context. Death was defeated at the cross, and when believers are clothed with immortality at The Rapture, death will have absolutely no hold or power over them at all, and as such for them, death has truly been swallowed up.

  • Glenn August 1, 2014, 10:22 am

    Hi Brian

    You cite 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, using the term “first resurrection.” For clarity, then, I wanted to point out that neither of those books use that term. It is never used by Paul. And yes, I know that John uses the term “first resurrection,” but we probably disagree about what he means by that term. I share the amillennial view that I briefly described in this blog post. Indeed, I have argued that Paul believed that the resurrection of believers occurs at the end, when all of God’s enemies are defeated.

    You suggest here that this creates a problem for me, since I believe that the lost will die at some later point, so that death is not really defeated at the resurrection. But in fact I do not believe this. As St Paul indicates, death is the last enemy to be defeated. I don’t think I have said anything that commits me to the view that the end of the lost will occur at some later point. Remember that I don’t think there’s a millennial gap between the resurrection of the saved and the last judgement. That’s the premillennial view, which, I have said, was not held by St Paul.

  • James Gray December 13, 2014, 5:21 pm

    To Aaron’s point, considering the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 gives credence to the view that the “Death is swallowed up in victory” language might not be simply a rephrased iteration of what Paul already stated earlier in 1 Corinthians 15:23-26.

    Paul’s discussion contains:

    – A refutation of those who say there is no resurrection (1 Cor 15:12-19)
    – A positive presentation and summary of resurrection, and an exhortation (1 Cor 15:20-34)
    – A description of the properties of the resurrection bodies (1 Cor 15:35-49)
    – An encouraging revelation of a secret about how those in Christ will defeat death, by being made immortal, at Christ’s second coming (1 Cor 15:50-58)

    Following this progression in Paul’s discussion, I don’t think that Paul (in v.54-55) is necessarily circling back to state the same thing he already said (in v.23-26). It seems that in v.54-55 Paul is using a summary of the resurrection scenario (similar to v.23-26) to make a point about how those in Christ will victoriously receive immortality, and not that this will be the final event in the resurrection scenario.

    This point could be established further by considering v.56-57, and how Paul weaves in the fact that God gives us victory over the sting of death (sin empowered by the law) through Christ.

    Even if Paul, in v.54-55, is reiterating the fact that Christ destroys the final enemy (death) – Paul could be simply utilizing proleptic language in this instance which would not violate an interpretation that allows for Premillennialism.

  • Glenn December 13, 2014, 5:45 pm

    James, victory over the “sting” of death is unmistakably said to occur at the resurrection. “then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written death is swallowed up in victory… where, O death, is your sting?”

    It’s not that Paul is simply repeating himself. He states his position, and then unpacks it and explains those aspects that invite questions. So, verse 12 motivates this section. Some have denied the resurrection. In replying to them, he states his own view in verses 20-28. What he says he believes is that in fact Christ has been raised, the first fruits, the dead will be raised, and this is because he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet, the last one being death. So actually the whole point is made in verses 20-28. We will rise, why? Because he will reign until all his enemies have been destroyed. Death is one of those enemies, and it will be the past to be destroyed, namely at the resurrection.

    The reason Paul goes on with the rest of his discussion is not just to repeat himself. It’s because natural curious questions arise in response to what he has just said: How will we rise? What will it be like? (v 35) That’s what drives Paul to, using the overall framework that he has already set down in verses 20-28, fill in some details. Of course, in filling in the details, he doesn’t deny the overall framework, so while he is filling in the details of what he has just outlined, he still arrives at the same end point: Death, as he has already said, will be swallowed up in victory (v. 54).

    At the absolute least, everyone should see right away that this is the easiest way to understand what Paul is saying.

  • James Gray December 15, 2014, 4:51 pm

    Glenn, thanks for your response.

    I concede that my point about Paul repeating himself was really not a good point. I don’t dispute that the victory over the sting of death takes places upon resurrection. What I was trying to articulate was that I don’t think that the victory spoken of in v.54 is necessarily a further exposition of the (presumably) temporal event spoken of in v.26. Obviously the two verses are closely connected and touch on the same concept of the triumph over death, but I guess I just view v.26 as foretelling Christ’s doing away with death once and for all as a temporal event, whereas v.54, may just be describing how the faithful will have triumphed over death through their reception of immortality at the resurrection.

    I guess a better and more simple defense for a Premillennial view of this passage (that holds that that v.26 and v.54 are more or less describing the same event) would be to advocate for an interpretation of v.54-55 that has Paul using prolepsis when describing what the faithful experience at the resurrection. According to this view, Christ will have destroyed death proleptically when the faithful receive immortality upon resurrection. This fits with a more literal view of the unfolding of events in Revelation. Also, I think this is a reasonable view (though maybe not the easiest) since we may have similar proleptic language in 2 Timothy 1:9-10, which indicates that Christ ‘abolished death’ and brought life and immortality to light through the good news.

  • Glenn December 15, 2014, 9:23 pm

    James, I definitely agree that prolepsis is not the easiest way of reading this passage. It’s true that in some passages, the surface or easiest meaning is not the intended one. But I would have assumed that this isn’t the case in Paul’s epistles. Rather, he’s tying to be as direct and clear as possible.

    It’s true that Paul said to Timothy that Christ has abolished death, and we’ve got to think of that in terms of Jesus judicially abolishing death in a fulfilment that is yet to be seen. But that’s not what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 15, because both times he speaks about the defeat of death there, he is speaking about a future event. For him to do it twice in such a short space with two quite different events in mind would make this passage a lot more opaque, and unnecessarily so.

    Indeed, to do that to 1 Corinthians 15 in order to help a very literal interpretation of Revelation 20 seems wrong-headed. If anything, Revelation 20 is the passage that we should think of as prima facie much less clear and figurative, so we should interpret that passage in light of clearer passages – just like 1 Corinthians 15.

    Getting off the topic of 1 Corinthians 15, there’s another text in Paul’s writing that can help us to understand Revelation 20 and the “first resurrection,” and that’s in Ephesians 2.

    “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

    But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

    So there’s a Pauline theology of being raised to life the first time (the second time is of course the bodily resurrection, as in 1 Corinthians 15). Through the power of Christ’s resurrection, believed Paul, believers in Christ right now, although they were dead in sin, have been raised to life with Christ, guaranteeing their future state. John in the Revelation and Paul here in Ephesians may both be waxing figurative to varying degrees, but this sounds a lot like John’s statement “blessed and holy are those who take part in the first resurrection. Over them the second death has no power.”

  • James Gray December 16, 2014, 2:13 am

    Glenn, just a brief response:

    That’s an interesting interpretation, and I see how one could draw a connection between what Paul speaks about in the Ephesians passage with the first resurrection in Revelation 20. However, if Paul is talking about the first resurrection in Ephesians, then why in Revelation 20:5 does John indicate that ‘the rest of the dead’ were not raised until the thousand years were over? Shouldn’t he have said, if you’re interpretation is correct, that the righteous were raised again along with the others after the thousand years were over? Where after Revelation 20 does John indicate that the righteous are raised again, but bodily, along with the unjust? Also, do you see Paul talking about a figurative ‘first’ resurrection in 1 Cor. 15, or do you see him discussing an actual bodily general resurrection there?

    I guess I would see the Ephesians passage as proleptic as well. I would think though, as one who holds to conditionalism, that viewing these types of passages as proleptic would be reasonable since language like ‘being dead in sin’ is argued by those who hold to traditionalism to be more in line with their view.

    Anyway, thanks for your discussion.

  • James Gray December 16, 2014, 5:50 am

    Glenn, please forgive me for my question in my last post: “Also, do you see Paul talking about a figurative ‘first’ resurrection in 1 Cor. 15, or do you see him discussing an actual bodily general resurrection there?” I just now realized that you already affirmed in your last post that you view 1 Cor. 15 as talking about the bodily resurrection, my mistake.

    However, now that I’ve realized you affirm that 1 Cor 15 is speaking about a bodily resurrection, it seems to me that Christ’s coming in Revelation 19 might directly parallel what Paul lays out in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. In the two passages:

    Jesus arrives and destroys the beast-empowered man who works signs – Rev 19:11-21, and 2 Thess. 2:8-10

    If Revelation 19 and 2 Thess. 2 are describing the same event (the coming of Christ and the destruction of the man of lawlessness/false prophet), then it seems reasonable to interpret the events in Revelation 20 as temporally following the coming of Christ described in Revelation 19, correct? If so, it seems reasonable then that 1 Cor. 15 is describing (though not exhaustively) the resurrection (focusing on the resurrection of the faithful) which occurs after the coming of Christ described in Revelation 19.

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