Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
The Corinthians received the gospel (euanggelion, “good news”) from Paul, who in turn had received it from others.
This tradition includes a series of the events — Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and appearance (1 Corinthians 15:3-11), but for Paul it is also the manifestation of power in proclaiming the gospel (euaggelizo 15:1, 2; kerysso, 15:11, 12). While Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are not separate, Paul focuses on the resurrection: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (verse 12).
Up to 1 Corinthians 15, Paul has not mentioned the resurrection of Christ in either noun (anastasis) or verb (egeiro) form, except in 6:14. Instead, he declared only the cross of Christ, which looks foolish but actually is the power of God, saying he knew nothing “except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” among the Corinthians (1:17; 2:2). Why does Paul turn to the resurrection only later in his letter?
Paul states, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings [reigned]!” (4:8; see also 15:25) The Corinthians might have understood the resurrection only as a spiritual reality and thus despised the earthly body, which they thought would be excluded in the resurrection (see 15:42, 52-54). Ironically, then, what one can hope for and take pleasure from is only “this life” (4:8; see 15:25, 32). Early in the letter, Paul needed to redirect them toward the crucified Christ for without crucifixion there is no resurrection.
At the same time, without the resurrection it cannot be the good news. Christ has been raised from “the dead” (15:20). “The dead” points to the human mortality in a collective form. Death is part of the creation: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Paul knows the creation story, but also is imbued with Jewish apocalyptic thought, which understands the present age as controlled by forces of evil. Jewish apocalyptic literature, produced in the context of the Jewish people’s suffering under empire after empire, depicts the destruction of oppressive rulers at the end of time when God restores God’s people. Those martyred for God’s justice would be vindicated. 1
Similarly, Paul believes that God intervenes in history through the death and resurrection of Christ. Roman crucifixion demonstrates the power of the “rulers of this age” (1 Corinthians 2:6, 8). It signifies that Rome’s subject people are those perishable bodies. Yet, God’s power manifests in the cross by raising Christ from the mortal body. The resurrection of Christ is God’s vindication, indeed. For Paul, this is not just a future event; God has already commenced definitive intervention in the death and resurrection of Christ who will destroy “every rule and every authority and power” and reign until God’s final victory (15:24-28).
Therefore, Christ’s resurrection is not the end. As the first fruit of those who died (verse 20), his resurrection assures the resurrection of the dead. To illuminate this collective resurrection, Paul uses the typology of Adam-Christ. As Adam appears as the origin and archetype of human race, Paul’s understanding of Adam stretches beyond the creation story. Since sin and death came through Adam, “all die” in Adam (verse 22). The “all-die” reality is not neutral (Romans 5:12-14). Death is destructive. Crucifixion exhibits the power of death to crush the bodies of subjects, control their minds through fear, and threatening human dignity. It is not only imperial power but also spiritual powers of this age.
God intervenes in history through the Christ event. If all die in Adam, all will be made alive in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22). The meaning of “make alive” (zoopoieo) is clearer in 15:45: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’ (eis psychen zosan); the last Adam became a life-giving spirit (eis pneuma zoopoioun)” (cf. 15:36; Romans 4:17; 8:11). While Adam died, Christ is not only given life through the resurrection, but also becomes a “life-giving” spirit. Whereas God created Adam as the first human being, God’s creation continues through Christ despite the persistent power of Death. Paul depicts this new reality that has begun in Christ will bring the resurrection of all in Christ at his coming (parousia). And finally, Christ will bring an end to oppressive human and superhuman powers by destroying “the last enemy” — Death (15:26).
Rather than inviting us to fantasize about catastrophic events of the end times as in popular culture, Paul urges us to discern dominating powers of sin and death in the world, which shape human experience and social practice. We still witness physical and spiritual deaths of many people under sway of unjust human powers. Many people live in cultures deeply embedded in the power of death.
Resurrection belief is not just assuring individual salvation, but collective resurrection; a vision of history and a hope for the ultimate renewal of God’s people and liberation of all creation. Paul does not just teach Christ’s death and resurrection but demonstrates God’s life-giving power in his proclamation of the gospel. How can Christians witness the power of life here and now, so that they may hope for, and bear witness to, the future resurrection as living on earth? This witness includes discerning, resisting, and overcoming the power of sin and death in all forms.
Using the imagery of destruction and triumphalism on the day of the Lord should be undertaken with care, particularly in churches and cultures of power and privilege. Paul’s language is that of the powerless: God intervenes to judge the oppressive powers, deliver God’s people, and vindicate the crucified Christ. On Resurrection Sunday we boldly preach, and humbly embody, God’s saving action and power through Christ in and for the world to those most desperate for resurrection today.
 Richard A. Horsley, “Rhetoric and Empire — And 1 Corinthians,” in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 72-102.