Commentary on 1 Cor 15:35-37, 42-49
Paul has been affirming the centrality of rising from the dead as part of our Christian faith. But then he puts the question: “But someone may say, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come back?’” It is a question any Christian – or non-Christian for that matter – could very well ask today.
In today’s final reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tries to explain, by the use of images, what the resurrection of the body means.
Paul at first says this is really a silly question in the sense that it cannot be a question of a corpse suddenly coming back to life and somehow being transported into a heavenly world. (Any more than the resurrection of Christ is to be understood as the simple resuscitation of his dead body.)
He gives an example from plant life. You plant a seed in the ground and something totally different emerges. The original seed “dies”, so to speak, and gives birth to something altogether new. There is an extraordinary transformation and yet both share the same identity. Another dramatic example is the caterpillar which goes into a cocoon and emerges as something that looks entirely different – yet it is the same individual.
It is somewhat similar with resurrection from the dead, says Paul. A perishable, contemptible, and weak body dies and becomes transformed into something imperishable, glorious and powerful. “It is sown dishonourable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; it is raised powerful”. Like the tiny vulnerable acorn that is transformed into a mighty oak.
The person born, says Paul, is originally an “embodied soul”. ‘Soul’ here refers to the source of life that animates the physical body. But the person who is raised after death is an “embodied spirit”, in the sense that now the person is filled with a new animating force, the very Spirit of God. It is the same person but radically changed.
The Jerusalem Bible explains Paul’s thinking in this way:
As it only gives natural life, psyche [yuch, soul] is less important than pneuma [pneuma, spirit] by which a human life is divinised by a process that begins through the gift of the Spirit and is completed after death. Greek philosophers thought of the higher soul (the nous, nous) escaping from ‘the body’ (soma, swma) to survive immortally. Christians thought of immortality more in terms of the restoration of the whole person, involving a resurrection of the body effected by the Spirit or divine principle which God withdrew from human beings because of sins, but restored to all who are united to the risen Christ, who is the ‘heavenly’ man and life-giving Spirit. The ‘body’ is no longer psychikon (yucikon) but pneumaticon (pneumatikon) incorruptible, immortal, glorious, no longer subject to the laws of matter; it does not even answer the description of matter. Psyche can be used in a wider sense as the opposite of the body to indicate what it is in a human being that behaves and feels, or even to indicate the spiritual and immortal soul.
[So it is important to be aware in this passage that Paul is using the word ‘soul' here as the source of life in the earthly human body. It is not what we commonly understand as a God-inserted immortal soul but rather something common to all living things, plants, animals and humans.]
Paul continues his explanation of his distinction between the “natural” and the “spiritual” body by pointing to their two archetypes: the first Adam and Jesus, the second Adam.
The first human person, Adam, had a natural body of the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7) and through him a natural body is given to his descendants. Through the creative power of the Creator he became a “living soul”. That is, the dust of the earth became animated by a life-giving principle which he passed on to his descendants. But the “first man, being from the earth, is earthly by nature”.
The first Adam, who came from the dust of the earth, was given life. The second Adam is one who gives life. His is a “life-giving spirit” (cf. John 5:26). When he comes at the end of time, he will, through the power of his own death and resurrection, give his people a “spiritual”, that is, Spirit-filled body. This body is, as we said, imperishable, without corruption and capable of existing face to face with God. We are the same person but we exist in an altogether different way.
In life we are modelled on the “earthly” man, destined to death and to return to the dust of the earth. After death, we are modelled on the “heavenly” or “spiritual” man, sharing in the very life of Jesus, the Second Adam.
The resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection after death are central to our Christian faith. Without them, life loses all its meaning.
However, it is probably better for us not to speculate too much on the very nature of life after death. It is an area which naturally arouses a great deal of curiosity and we have reports of people who have had “near-death” experiences. These accounts are very encouraging but they say very little of the experience of being face to face with God in all his glory. “Eye has not seen nor ear heard,” says St Paul, what God has prepared for those who love him.
Let us leave it at that and look forward to that wonderful day by concentrating on spending each day on earth in the love and service of Jesus, who has gone before us and has all things ready for us in his Father’s house of “many mansions”.