The Future Life in Paul’s Epistles
Central to any idea of the future life in the epistles is 1 Corinthians 15. It is unquestionably a pivotal chapter.
It begins by outlining the evidence for the resurrection of Christ (vv.1-8). This is then cited as proof that there is such a thing as the resurrection (v.12). Christ has risen and become ‘the firstfruits’ of those who ‘sleep’ (v.20). Our connection with Adam brought death. Union with Christ will bring resurrection life (v.22). Christ was made man so that, as our representative in the fullest sense, He might die for us and rise again, and make us participants in His resurrection, as we are also in His death (see also Romans 6.5).
Paul then outlines a sequence of resurrection events. “But everyone in his own order (or group). Christ the firstfruits, afterward they that are Christ’s at His coming (parousia), then the end, when He will have delivered up the kingdom (or rule) to God, even the Father, when He shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. And when all things are subdued to Him, then will the Son also Himself be subject to Him Who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.”
Resurrection thus begins with Christ’ resurrection. This would exclude the thought of Enoch and Elijah as being ‘in Heaven’ as resurrected people, and may suggest they were seen as ‘sleeping’, awaiting the coming of Christ. It does not necessarily mean that there could not have been a resurrection of ‘holy ones’ (‘saints’) following His resurrection, (which Paul ignores), for they too may have been firstfruits. But it does seem to prevent the idea of resurrections before and since. The resurrection of New Testament believers takes place at the Coming of Christ. ‘Then the end’, when all opposition has been subdued. At face value this agrees with the Gospels as seeing the final mopping up operations taking place at His Coming. Having come He subdues all things and commits all things to His Father.
Some, however, would see a ‘following reign’ occurring over a longer period. But the real point of the phrase ‘He must (continue to) reign’ is that until He, as the ultimate Man (the Son of Man), has brought all things into subjection, God’s purpose for man has not been fulfilled (Genesis 1.28; Psalm 8.4-8 compare Hebrews 2.9), and therefore the ‘reigning’ cannot be handed over to God. This is the final stage of His reign as glorified man, not its commencement. This does seem to rather suggest that Christ’s Coming and consequent triumph is all that is needed to accomplish ‘the end’.
Central to the whole passage is that ‘the Son’ has come into the world as ‘Man’, so that through His participation in manhood He may accomplish deliverance and fulfilment of God’s purposes for man. At that point He can, as man, submit all to the One Who sent Him, for man will have fulfilled his destiny. Then God, including the Son, will be all in all.
Paul then goes on to deal with the question of the resurrection body. He stresses first that there are all kinds of different bodies provided by God, for beasts, fish and birds, celestial bodies as well as terrestrial, all with different ‘glories’ (vv.39-41), because God gives bodies as it pleases Him.When the bare grain is sown, God gives it a body as it pleases Him.
So it is with the resurrection. The body is sown as corruptible and God provides an incorruptible body, the body is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory, it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power, it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body. The first Adam was made a living ‘self’, thus producing living ‘selves’, natural bodies, the last Adam a lifegiving spirit, thus producing spiritual bodies. As we have borne the image of the earthly, so will we bear the image of the heavenly. We were ‘in Adam’ (v.22). Now we are ‘in Christ’, and will share His experience and nature (partakers of the divine nature - 2 Peter 1.4).
This is further elaborated in Philippians 3.21. “we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our vile body that it may be fashioned like to His glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things to Himself”, and Who will also present us “holy, and unblameable and unreproveable in His sight” (Colossians 1.22).
Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (v.50). This is a clear statement that the coming Kingdom is not earthly. Only the incorruptible can inherit it. This means that to enter this Kingdom, all must be changed, either by resurrection or transformation. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last sounding of the trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we shall all be changed” (v.52). This would seem to establish that the resurrection takes place at the same time as the gathering and transformation of the living believers. “Corruption will put on incorruption, mortal will put on immortality”. This will deal with the last enemy (vv.54-56 compare v.26). As the last enemy has been dealt with it is ‘the end’. Paul could hardly have established more clearly that there is nothing to follow but eternal glory.
He puts it another way in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17. We are not to despair because some have died before the Kingdom has come. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring together with Him (the coming Christ) those who believe in Jesus. For this we say to you by a word of the Lord, (this probably means he has some specific teaching of Jesus in mind), that we who are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord will not precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from Heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And so shall we ever be with the Lord.” Thus the resurrection takes place at the same time as the taking up of God’s living people.
In contrast, for the unbeliever that day comes “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5.2). When they shall say ‘peace and safety’, then sudden destruction comes on them as sudden as the birth pangs to a woman bearing a child (v.3). For “ the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from Heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and who do not obey the the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 7-9).
So Paul speaks of death as ‘sleep’ and the hope of the Christian as the resurrection.This sleep is not to be feared. When we sink into sleep, time ‘stands still’. It would seem, however, that during this ‘sleep’ we enjoy the bliss of the presence of Christ (Philippians 2.23) . It is not totally unconscious. This would then help to explain the hints we have had in previous Scriptures of some sort of awareness after death (see The After-life in the Gospels).
At first sight 2 Corinthians 5.1-10 might appear to be supporting this view of ‘sleep’. Here Paul speaks of being ‘absent from the body and present with the Lord’. But we must remember that here he is speaking as one who expects Christ’s Coming while he is still alive. For him being ‘absent from the body’, because transformed, will be the result of Christ’s Coming, not of death. This is confirmed by the close connection with the judgment seat of Christ (v.10).
He begins by saying with confidence, “We know that if our earthly tent is dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”. Thus we do not have to be too concerned about the afflictions and ageing of the flesh (3.16). We may groan in our present bodies, but it is not with despair, but with the longing to put on our heavenly bodies, so that mortality might be swallowed up by life. And even should we die, the Lord’s Coming will result in our receiving our heavenly bodies through resurrection.
There are no real grounds for doubting that these bodies are the spiritual bodies with which we will be clothed at the Coming of Christ (parousia) or at the resurrection. This former is what Paul is still expecting. He still thinks of those taken up at the Coming as ‘we’. He is right to think it. Jesus had taught that they must always be ready, and he is ready. Later the certainty of death takes hold of him because the Lord makes him aware of what he is to face. But that time is not yet. So he is looking forward to leaving his earthly body when he is caught up with believers at the Coming of Christ, to be ‘absent from the body, and present with the Lord’. He does not deal with the question of what happens to Christians who die first. To him that is a short term problem, and as long as we know that we are safe in the hands of God that is surely all we need to know.
Paul goes on to tell us that God has given us a foretaste and guarantee of this new body, and that guarantee is ‘the Spirit’, Who is a foretaste of what is to come. (An ‘earnest’ is a foretaste of something, given as a guarantee that we will receive the whole). So having received the Spirit we can have full confidence that we will receive our spiritual bodies. Until the Lord comes, he says, we continue to live in our human bodies, absent from the Lord. But our longing is rather that He will come so that we might leave these bodies and be present with Him in our new glorified bodies. We do not long to be unclothed, he says. We are not longing for death. Rather we long for our reclothing. We long for eternal life, the perpetuation of what we received on believing. (This is spoken as one waiting for the Coming while he is alive). That is why we labour for Christ, so that whether we continue in life or whether we be taken and transformed at His Coming, we are ‘accepted of Him’. This is important because we have to face the ‘Judgment Seat’ (bema - the reward seat at the games) of Christ. There we will receive whatever prize we have deserved (v.10), whether good or bad.
It is possible that in line with Matthew 25 he is thinking of the ‘judgment seat’ as the place of judgment for all, both righteous and unrighteous, so that those who receive ‘bad’ are the rejected, and if so it is significant that he sees it as the reward seat as far as Christians are concerned. But the taking up of His people is the result of the judgment being carried through for them. So we might see this judgment seat rather as a special ‘occurrence’ where believers are rewarded once they have been vindicated.
This receives some support from Romans 14 where Paul reminds us that whatever we do we are to do it as living ‘unto the Lord’, and even if we have to die we ‘die unto the Lord’. For whether living or dying we are His (v.8). This is why Christ died and rose again so He could be Lord of both the dead and the living. Death does not rob us of Christ.
So we are not to judge one another on secondary matters, such as what we eat and what day we keep (vv. 1-6), rather we should recognise that we must all appear before the Judgment seat of Christ, where every knee will bow and every tongue confess to God, for everyone will give an account of himself to God (vv.10-12). We can thus safely leave the accounting to Him. This would appear to be a place of believers. For every knee bows, and every tongue confesses to God.
The quotation in v.11 is taken from Isaiah 45.23, where it probably refers to those who have responded to the call to deliverance (v.22), and thus say “in the Lord I have righteousness and strength” (v.24). On the other hand we could take it as referring back to the fact that all men will be made to know that no one compares with the Lord (Isaiah 45.6) and that it therefore refers to the submission of all men. If we take the former view we will see the Judgment Seat as for His people, if we take the latter view it must surely be the general Judgment that is in mind.
A further passage that might support a separate Reward Seat after the final Judgment is 1 Corinthians 3.10-15. Here Paul certainly has in view the assessing of Christians for reward (v15). There is one foundation, and that is Jesus Christ (v.11). Each will be assessed as to how they have built on that foundation, whether in rich materials or poor materials (v.12). Every man’s work will be revealed for what it really is (v.13). ‘The day’ will reveal it (this reference to ‘the day’ may point to the general judgment, but if so it is only the Christian’s part in it that is in mind. However ‘the day’ probably means nothing more than the important day when it happens). Every man’s work will be tested by fire, and only the worthwhile will survive. Those who have built in a worthwhile way will be rewarded. The remainder will still be saved, but they will have nothing worthwhile left as a reward.
This is confirmed further in 1Corinthians 4.5. We are to ‘judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will lay open the counsels of the heart, and then shall every man have praise of God”.
As all the language is undoubtedly pictorial, it is questionable whether it matters which view we take. God is not limited to the slow processes of ‘justice’ seen in earthly courts. He knows all the facts and the verdicts already. The picture is to bring home what can also take place in the twinkling of an eye. What matters is that we learn the lessons which the passages give, that in one way or another Christians will be called to account, and may gain or lose according to how they have laboured. They should therefore await the Lord’s Coming and live in readiness for it. The picture of awards as at the Olympic Games is for our benefit, to spur us on.
None of the passages tell us what happens to the Christian on death. All have in mind the Coming and the Judgment. But as suggested by his statements elsewhere, Paul would no doubt think of it as introducing a period of ‘sleep’ in the presence of Christ. It may well be that, in a secondary sense, when he speaks of being ‘present with the Lord’, those who die can be included, but that is not the main thought. However, as suggested earlier, the sleep is not totally unconsciousness. Like the Psalmists we may be sure that God will not leave us away from His presence. But it is not what is taught in these passages The primary reference in these is to the contrast between bodily life and the Christian’s position at the Lord’s Coming.
Philippians 1.21-23 can be cited in support of the idea that the ‘sleep’ after death is not a fully unconscious one, for there Paul hovers between the desire to remain on earth for the sake of his fellow Christians or to die and thus be ‘with Christ, which is far better’. So we can rest assured in the knowledge that Paul was not unhappy about his coming ‘sleep’.
In 2 Thessalonians we learn that Paul has been teaching (v.5) that certain things must happen before ‘the day of Christ’. “We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto Him, that you be not easily shaken in your mind, or be troubled, neither by Spirit nor word nor letter from us to say that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way, for that day will not come unless there come a falling away first and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sits in the Temple of God showing that he is God.”
This has in mind Jesus’ warning of ‘the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not’ (Mark 13.14) (i.e. in the Temple). Although the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, there is someone ‘hindering and restraining’ (vv.6-7) - “until he is taken out of the way. Then the wicked one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the Spirit of His mouth and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming, even he whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deceit for those who are perishing because they did not receive the love of the truth so that they might be saved.”
There is no need to suggest as some do that these people were fearful that they had missed the ‘taking away’ (the rapture). A (false) letter from Paul would not have convinced them of that, for they would know that he certainly would have been taken away. Their fear more probably lay in the natural fear that the terrible events forecast for the end days were about to come. Tribulation may be necessary, but it is still terrifying.
The ‘restrainer’ must be some heavenly power, for even the season of the man of sin is subject to God’s control (v.6), as is the restrainer (v.7).
2 Timothy 3.1-5 confirms that ‘in the last days perilous times shall come’ and goes on to point out the depths to which men will sink, a commentary on our own day. Paul then says, “I charge you therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, Who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and at His kingdom” (2 Timothy 4.1). This confirms that we are to see the ‘catching up’ of the believers into the air as an aspect of the judgment, and that appearance and kingdom appear to go together. This is the natural sense of the words if we have no particular theory to support.
Paul’s words to Titus are possibly a satisfactory ending to this study, for there he informs us that we should be “looking for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for us so that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to Himself a people set apart for His own possession, zealous of good works” (Titus 2.13-14). This reminds us that the purpose in all our study is to see the great God and to allow His promises to activate us to purity and good works.
1) While dogmatism must be ruled out, it appears to us that we have come across nothing, either in the Gospels or Paul’s teaching, that suggests that we are to look for anything but one climactic event, although with considerable complexity in its fulfilment. They would appear to teach one final resurrection in conjunction with the ‘catching up’ of the living believers, both being changed in ‘the twinkling of an eye’. At the same time the Lord appears to deal with the judgment and punishment of the unrighteous, in conjunction with His people, and this, of course, includes the resurrection of the unrighteous dead, which Paul does not even mention. Apart from the result of Christ’s appearing, the fate of the unbeliever as far as Paul is concerned can be summed up as ‘the wages of sin is death’. He never elaborates on that (except, perhaps, in Romans 2.8-9).
2) There is comfort for those who die in Christ in that they would appear in some way to enjoy the awareness of His presence, but their full enjoyment of the benefits of His death come at their resurrection at the end of the age.
3) Christians are, however, to remember that their lives will be tested before the judgment seat of Christ in order to assess their rewards for faithful service.