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When Paul stopped talking about the resurrection of the dead

The resurrection of Jesus is related in detail in the Gospels, but details of the resurrection of other people are much more vague. The Gospels often speak of the Kingdom of God and of eternal life, but the general resurrection of the dead is handled episodically and without detail – we hear of Lazarus and of Jairus’ daughter being raised from the dead; but they subsequently die again like everyone else and their stories do not really cast much light on the resurrection of the dead. Belief in the resurrection of the dead is not central to the teaching of Jesus.

This lack of attention in the Gospels to the resurrection of the dead does not apply to Paul’s letters, at least not to those he wrote first. Indeed, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul speaks of it with firm assurance (1 Thess 5. 15-18), announcing a resurrection with the sound of God’s trumpet, with Christ descending from heaven and coming to meet the living and the dead, in the style of contemporary Greek kings who visited their cities with fine pomp.

But just three or four years later, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is less precise about the detail of the events surrounding the resurrection of the dead; he develops instead the meaning of the events: he underlines (1 Cor 15. 12-19) that Christ cannot be risen without a general resurrection of the dead. This was far from self-evident for his readership in Corinth. Later on in the same chapter (1 Cor 15. 35-56), he explains what he means by resurrection, “As the plant which grows is completely different from the seed from which it sprouts, so it is with our body: sown as animal, it will rise spiritual; sown as corruptible, it will rise incorruptible, sown weak, it will rise with power.” This passage is one of the richest and most enduring in the New Testament concerning the resurrection.

Another three or four years later, Paul writes his letter to the Romans, a fine synthesis of his thought, a letter written to a theological plan, a masterpiece close to every Protestant heart. But curiously, Paul speaks hardly at all about the resurrection of the dead: throughout the entire letter, it is now Jesus alone who is risen. Of course, human beings retain the possibility of being saved, “You have been saved, but in hope” (Rom 8. 24). In addition, Paul speaks often of a sort of true life, a new life; he evokes the “justification which gives life.”

But what exactly do this salvation and this new life consist of? The beginning of chapter 6 enlightens us. We can summarise it as follows, “Through baptism, we are dead and buried with Christ. But since he is risen, we lead a new life with him. Having been absorbed into his death, so we are absorbed into his resurrection. We should therefore see ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God. We are living beings returned from among the dead, so that we can offer ourselves to God’s service.”

We therefore have to pass through death during our own lifetime, as it were, in order to live to God ever after – we might even say (albeit that Paul does not employ the term) in order to be raised to God ever after. This idea was already current with Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians when he wrote, “What you sow only comes to life if it dies.”

We can now begin to understand Paul’s position: new life and salvation are a personal offering on our part, an acceptance of our death, just as Jesus accepted his death. This offering allows us to bounce back for the rest of our lives and to consecrate ourselves to God’s work – nothing else has any purchase on us, since we are already dead and already risen.

This is a profound interpretation of resurrection. It shows a real and reasonable evolution in Paul’s thought: new life begins when we finally consider ourselves dead and buried. With Christ.

Here Paul is pure genius!


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