1 Corinthians 15:29-34
The Resurrection and Our Morals
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
I begin with this verse from John’s First Letter to buttress what Paul is saying in this place. Paul continues explaining THE foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, without which there would be no Christian faith—the resurrection of the dead, meaning our bodies. He has argued to these Corinthians that our Lord’s resurrection (which they did not deny) is the guarantee for our resurrection (which they did deny). The fact that our Lord rose proves that there is a resurrection coming; it only awaits the last day at our Lord’s return. He is clear that eternal life of any sort is completely dependent on this doctrine. Simply put, there is no understanding in Scripture of an eternal state in heaven without the resurrection of body, Christ’s or ours. Granted, the souls of those who have died in Christ are with the Lord and those who died apart from Christ are not with him, but such a state is temporary; it was never meant to be an eternal state.
But what is so moving about this passage is that Paul goes in a direction we weren’t expecting. After asking rhetorical questions about why he has endured so much hardship if there is no resurrection (explicitly stating again that there is no afterlife apart from the resurrection of our bodies), he moves to the spiritual axiom that unbelief in the resurrection leads to immoral lives. Indeed, considering those causing the problems at Corinth, whose lives involved sexual immorality or some form of misunderstanding concerning human sexuality, Paul warns those in the church who are seeking to live holy lives, “Bad company ruins good morals.” But what has believing in the resurrection of my body have to do with my morals? Plenty. Just as the passage from 1 John above indicates, knowing that my Lord shall return in the body and that I shall see him in my body compels me to sanctify myself before his return. I don’t want to be ashamed at his coming, my body bearing the marks of my sin, however those might manifest themselves. I want to be pure, even as he is pure. Thus, belief in the doctrine of the resurrection encourages us to mortify the sin which so easily besets us in preparation for his coming, while rejecting this doctrine leads to a life in which the body does not matter, abusing sex, food, and one another—all the sins that plagued Corinth—and still plague the church today.
Yes, another addendum. I would like to address Paul’s reference to the Corinthian Church baptizing people “on behalf of the dead.” Granted, it catches us off guard. Were they really doing that? Did Paul approve of this? Should we be doing this?
No, Paul does not approve of this, that is, whatever they were doing. He simply uses it for his argument concerning the necessity of belief in the resurrection. In other words, Paul is saying (to paraphrase): “If the doctrine of the resurrection is a matter of indifference, then why are you, Corinthians, baptizing people on behalf of the dead? What does it accomplish if the dead are not raised?” So he does not approve of what they are doing; he simply uses it against those in the church who deny the resurrection showing how contradictory and untenable their position is.
As to the other matters, obviously the Corinthians were doing something strange, and we may assume that Paul spoke to them about it on another occasion in order to correct them. Apparently, it was something that only they were doing (we read of this no place else), and it did not pass into the tradition or teaching of the Church. So, the practice, being localized in Corinth and plainly at odds with the teachings and practices of the rest of the churches, died a quick death in Corinth.
We must remember as a matter of interpretation to distinguish between what the Scripture teaches (which is authoritative for us) and what the Scripture reports (which may or may not be). In this case, Scripture reports what was happening at Corinth; it makes no recommendation, though such a practice is extremely problematic given the Bible’s teaching on a host of other doctrines, not the least of which being that those who are saved are regenerated by the Holy Spirit themselves, not on behalf of others, and certainly not on behalf of dead people. So, yes, it is there in black and white, but the Scriptures leave it there—in Corinth, and in the first century. We have enough to consider with what the Bible plainly teaches us; let us place our energies there.