Many readers of 1 Corinthians 15:44 have puzzled over the language with which Paul contrasts the Christian’s body as it presently exists, on the one hand, and as it will exist after being resurrected, on the other hand. In the preceding verses, Paul says the former is “perishable,” exhibits “dishonor,” and suffers from “weakness,” but the latter will be “imperishable,” display “glory,” and enjoy “power” (vv. 42–43). So far, so good. Paul goes on, however, to confuse readers for generations to come, calling the Christian’s present body “natural,” and her future resurrection body “spiritual.”
Some readers interpret Paul as meaning that believers’ resurrection bodies will be composed of a fundamentally different kind of substance (to use the philosophical jargon). For example, in the late nineteenth-century, hyper-preterist James Stuart Russell argued that Paul’s contrast is between material (i.e., physical) bodies and immaterial (i.e., non-physical) ones.1 In Hebrew-like parallelism, he writes, “We are not certain that the eye can see the spiritual, or the hand grasp the immaterial.”2 More recently, former Christian Bart Ehrman argues that Paul’s contrast is between bodies constituted by vulgar matter and those made of sublime matter.3 For Paul’s readers, Ehrman writes, “the body was made of coarse, gross stuff that had to be dispensed with so the more highly refined and immortal soul could live on,” but for Paul, resurrection bodies “will be made up of the most highly refined ‘stuff’ there is: pneuma, or spirit.”4 Whatever the specific interpretation, such readings as these assume that Paul means to say something about the composition or makeup of bodies.
In fact, all such interpretations are mistaken, for Paul’s contrast has nothing to do with bodily substance or composition. The same contrast is applied elsewhere to equally material entities, the one characteristic of mortal, earthly life, the other driven more by spiritual concerns. Paul’s point is that perishable human beings cannot inherit the imperishable kingdom of God. They must instead be transformed, glorified and made immortal by the Holy Spirit. And this the Holy Spirit will do for those united by faith to Christ, whom he likewise raised immortal and glorious, but whose resurrection body was nevertheless physical.
Natural vs. Spiritual
The Greek words translated “natural” and “spiritual” are ψυχικός and πνευματικός, respectively, and neither has much, if anything, to do with an object’s composition or makeup. Ψυχικός refers both to immaterial abstractions—like the envious, selfish mindset James calls “earthly, unspiritual [ψυχικός], demonic” (Jas 3:15)—and to concrete, physical entities—as in the unsaved embodied people Jude says are “worldly [ψυχικός] people, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19). Πνευματικός likewise describes both immaterial things—such as supernaturally endowed abilities called “spiritual [πνευματικός] gifts” (1 Cor 12:1)—and material things—like the sustenance God provided Israel in the wilderness, which Paul calls “spiritual [πνευματικός] food” and “spiritual [πνευματικός] drink” (1 Cor 10:3). This variety of things, all capable of being described with these two adjectives, demonstrates that they do not primarily, if ever, describe the composition of a substance.
The contrast itself, between ψυχικός and πνευματικός, is one Paul offers elsewhere, and it clearly has nothing to do with objects’ differing composition or makeup. The “natural [ψυχικός] person,” he writes, “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” but the “spiritual [πνευματικός] person” has “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:14–16). Of course, Paul is describing two equally physical entities—embodied human persons living in the here and now. What differentiates them is not constitution and opacity, but disposition and capacity: The one’s mind is set only on worldly things and cannot concern itself for spiritual matters, to which the other’s mind is oriented and enlightened by the indwelling Spirit himself. As N. T. Wright aptly puts it, “the basic difference [Paul] is describing is between people in whom God’s spirit has come to dwell, opening them up to new depths and dimensions of truth and experience, and people who are living as though the world, and human life, was rumbling along in the same old way.”5 It is a contrast between people exhibiting different qualities or characteristics, not people composed of different substances.
Consistent with Paul’s contrast in 1 Corinthians 2, the foundational meanings of ψυχικός and πνευματικός appear to be as simple as “having to do with earthly life [ψυχή]” and “having to do with spirit [πνεῦμα],” respectively. Bauer’s lexicon defines ψυχικός this way: “pertaining to the life of the natural world and whatever belongs to it, in contrast to the realm of experience whose central characteristic is πνεῦμα.”6 According to Louw and Nida, the πνευματικός person is so called because the word pertains “to a pattern of life controlled or directed by God’s Spirit.”7 Thus, the “natural,” “unspiritual” (Jas 3:15), or “worldly” (Jude 19) person is the one who is characterized by focused concern with earthly life or ψυχή. Jesus might admonish her, saying, “do not be anxious about your life [ψυχή] . . . seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:25, 33). To her, such spiritual concerns may seem foolish, just as all “the things of the Spirit [πνεῦμα] of God” (1 Cor 2:14) seem foolish to the natural person. The “spiritual” person, however, is the one who is characterized by those very spiritual concerns. She is the one who bears “the fruit of the Spirit [πνεῦμα]” (Gal 5:22). She is the one who serves “in the new way of the Spirit [πνεῦμα] and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom 7:6). She is the one who, by her “spirit [πνεῦμα] of faith,” is able to “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen,” including her future “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:13, 18, 17). Again, the words ψυχικός and πνευματικός contrast different characteristics, not different substances.
A ψυχικός body is therefore a body characterized by its orientation to transient, natural life (ψυχή), dependent upon the earthly needs it is so instinctually driven to acquire, while a πνευματικός body is one transformed and reoriented by the Holy Spirit (πνεῦμα). This involvement of the Spirit, in the resurrection and immortalization of resurrection bodies, is spoken of elsewhere in the New Testament. Christ, Peter says, was “put to death in the flesh but made alive by the spirit” (1 Pet 3:18; CSB). The latter clause is sometimes mistakenly taken as referring to the time between Christ’s death and resurrection, but Peter is talking about “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v. 21).8 Paul likewise writes of “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead,” adding that if this Spirit “dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). Therefore, God’s πνεῦμα indwells believers in the here and now as a “guarantee” (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13–14; 4:30) that he will one day resurrect and transform their bodies, rendering them πνευματικός (1 Cor 15:44) and thus, as Alan Johnson puts it, “suited for the full functioning of the Holy Spirit.”.9
Flesh and Blood
Paul goes on to say, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50), and some have misread this as support for the notion that only ψυχικός bodies are comprised of flesh and blood (and other viscera), but this would be out of keeping with what Paul and others elsewhere and consistently say disqualifies a person from this inheritance: unrighteousness. Earlier in the same letter, Paul writes, “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9–10). Likewise, writing to another congregation, Paul says those who do “the works of the flesh . . . will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19, 21). Jesus implies it is those who are not “poor in spirit,” “meek,” and willing to be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” who will therefore fail to receive “the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3–11). He indicates it is those who refuse food, water, and clothes to those in need who consequently will not “inherit the kingdom” (Matt 25:34–36; cf. Mark 10:17–21; Luke 18:18–22). He implies it is those who do not “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself,” who therefore will not “inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25–28). In John’s revelatory vision, the enthroned God promises “water free of charge from the spring of the water of life,” but those who will not “inherit these things” includes “cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie” (Rev 21:5–8; NET). Nowhere is bodily composition said to be what determines whether one will inherit the kingdom of God.
Besides, the phrase “flesh and blood” does not refer specifically to those respective parts of a natural human body to begin with, but to mortal humanity in the earthly realm, as distinct from undying entities in the heavenly realm. Thus, Paul says that when God commissioned him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, he “did not immediately consult with flesh and blood” (Gal 1:16; NASB). Elsewhere, he says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). When Peter identifies Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus replies, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:16–17). In the Septuagint, Ben Sira writes of “the generation of flesh and blood,” saying, “one cometh to an end, and another is born” (Sir 14:18). Craig Keener therefore rightly points out that the phrase “was a common figure of speech for mortals.”10 It is simply a merism referring to mortal human beings by enumerating their parts.
This is why, after saying “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” Paul goes on to say the same thing in a different way: “nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor 15:50). As Gordon Fee observes, “The two lines are most likely to be understood as synonymous parallelism, so that the second makes the same point as the first.”11 Consistent, then, with the phrase’s use elsewhere, “flesh and blood” is here synonymous with “the perishable”—that is, the mortal. Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner sum it up well: “Taken together, the two clauses imply that perishable humanity (flesh and blood) cannot inherit the imperishable kingdom of God.”12 Put simply, to inherit the kingdom, mortal human beings must be made immortal.
Resurrection Bodies Like Christ’s
First Corinthians 15:44 and 50 do not indicate that believers’ resurrection bodies will be immaterial or composed of something other than physical matter, and meanwhile, the rest of the chapter makes clear that they will be made up of such matter, by grounding assurance of resurrection in that of Jesus Christ. Paul explains, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (v. 13), whom God “did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised” (v. 15). Paul’s reductio concludes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (v. 17). Thankfully, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20; emphasis added). The word “firstfruits” translates ἀπαρχή, which means, “the first of a set.”13 Therefore, the body with which Christ was raised is the sort of body with which his people will be raised, the first of the larger set: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (vv. 47–48).
Importantly, Christ was raised with an unmistakably physical body. After he is raised from the dead, women “took hold of his feet and worshiped him” (Matt 28:9; emphasis added). His identity is questioned by his startled disciples, who think they must be seeing an immaterial angelic being (Luke 24:37). He reassures them, inviting them, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (v. 39; emphasis added). In the body with which he was raised, then, Jesus has tangible flesh and bones. He is particularly explicit with doubting Thomas, to whom he says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side” (John 20:27). Clearly, whatever transformation Jesus’s body had undergone in resurrection, it was nevertheless physical.
The physical resurrection of Jesus is also consistent with the agricultural analogy Paul uses for resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. “What you sow,” Paul writes, “does not come to life unless it dies” (v. 36), referring to the seed one plants in the ground (v. 37). The grammatical subject here is the relative clause ὃ σπείρεις, “that which you sow,” and it is that which will “come to life.” Paul goes on to say, σπείρεται σῶμα ψυχικόν—“it is sown a natural body” (v. 44). Therefore, it follows grammatically that what will “come to life” is the physical body that “is sown.” Indeed, the believer’s physical body is the subject throughout Paul’s series of contrasts in verses 42–44:
Thus, the physical body that goes into the ground when buried is the physical body that will be raised up out of the ground one day, albeit changed—just like a seed rises from the ground much more glorious than when it was planted.
Glorious, indeed, will be the transformed, yet physical bodies of resurrected believers. Their present, mortal bodies are fallen and frail, subject to pain, disease, aging, and death. Their transient nature drives mortal human beings to be excessively concerned with acquiring material sustenance and security, so as to prolong life as much as possible, to the exclusion of more weighty spiritual matters. Thankfully, things will not remain as such forever. “For the creation was subjected to futility,” Paul writes, “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God . . . who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” and “wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:20–23; emphasis added). Creation will not be abandoned; it will be redeemed, transformed and freed from all corruption. So, too, will the bodies of believers. Paul thus concludes his resurrection magnum opus, writing, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Cor 15:54). Amen.
- Hyper-preterism is the belief that all biblical prophecies—including the general resurrection—have been fulfilled in the past, most particularly in the years leading up to and including 70 C.E., when the second Jerusalem temple was destroyed.
- James Stuart Russell, The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry Into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (London, UK: Daldy, Isbister and Company, 1878), 210.
- Anthony C. Thiselton observes that this view was promoted in the late nineteenth century, too, by German liberals Otto Pfleiderer and Johannes Weiss. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK; Carlisle, UK: Eerdmans; Paternoster, 2000), 1276.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2020), 181–2; italics in original.
- Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London, UK: SPCK, 2003), 30.
- BDAG, s.v. “ψυχικός, ή, όν.”
- Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Based on Semantic Domains, vol. 1, Introduction and Domains, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1989), 508. However, they mistakenly define the same word in 1 Cor 15:44 as meaning “pertaining to not being physical” (693).
- See also Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 184.
- Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, IVP New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL; Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 2004), 305.
- Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 495.
- Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 798.
- Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK; Nottingham, UK: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2010), 828; italics in original.
- Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, 610.