Why I am a Universalist, Interlude: A Reading of I Corinthians 15

Another post to illustrate St. Paul's universalism. Again, the goal here is to note that a universalist reading of Scripture is both plausible and reasonable. As before, my notes are in [brackets]. The text is the NIV.

Set up of 1 Corinthians 15:12-28
Apparently, some of the believers in Corinth are doubting the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul gives the most extended theological account of resurrection in the entire bible.

1 Corinthians 15:12-28
12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

[The issue is clear. Some of the Corinthian Christians have questioned the resurrection of the dead. Paul notes that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, as would be the case if there were no resurrection of the dead, the gospel message is "futile."]

20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.

[Paul now moves into some theological considerations regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Specifically, he sees in the resurrection--life--an undoing of the sin of Adam--death.]

22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

[..all will be made alive. Clearly, a universalist reading reads that verse in its most obvious sense, ALL will be made alive. True, there is some controversy in the interpretation of the word "all." Does "all" really mean all? My own reading, no surprise here, is that the logic and symmetry of the comparison with Adam strongly supports a universal reading of "all." The "all" for Adam is all inclusive and the "all" for Christ is intended by Paul to be read in the same way. To read "all" as "some" doesn't make sense.]

23a But each in his own turn:

[I want to point out this idea of "each in his own turn" as it bears on an interpretive issue downstream...]

23b Christ, the firstfruits;

[Okay, first in "each in his own turn" to raise from the dead is Christ, the firstfruits.]

23c then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

[Next to experience the resurrection life are those who are Christ's at the time of death.]

24a Then the end will come,

[Okay, the Greek here does mean, literally, "in the end." But the Greek construction here is commonly used to mean "And the remainder." In my NRSV this reading is clearly footnoted as an alternative reading. And, given the setup of "each in his own turn," this seems to be the most reasonable reading of the text. That is, Paul alludes to some post-mortum salvific work.]

24b when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

[Again, what does this mean "he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet"? It appears that Paul envisions some post-resurrection work that Christ must attend to. Recall, the "each in his own turn" formulation. On the Day some will be clearly aligned with Christ. What about the rest? The remainder? Those still "enemies" of God? Christ must subjugate them as well. This isn't about a Judgment and Punishment on the Day of Judgment. The idea here is longer in duration, it is called a reign and involves a season of continued effort on Christ's part, a time of continued subjugation.]

26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

[What is the goal of Jesus' victory? Clearly, to put all his enemies under his feet. Toward what purpose? Paul states this clearly: "So that God may be all in all." Now, some may conclude that God's keeping a vast amount of human souls burning in hell for all eternity to be consistent with "God being all in all." I disagree, however. I think the vision here is one of universal submission to God. Only with universal submission will Christ's reign be victorious. Think here, along with Paul, what God is wanting at The End. He wants, it seems to me, to restore his reign over ALL of creation. To bring it all back under his hand. It's a really beautiful vision Paul has here. "God all in all." But "God all in all" just isn't compatible with the notion that there is a hell, whose numbers vastly outnumber those worshiping around God's throne, full of rebels. Full of an unrepentant host questioning God's goodness and authority. Is that the vision of the end of time? A God who can punish willful subordinates but who cannot assert his reign over them? Is that the impoverished vision of "God all in all"?

I think Paul envisions a time, "each in his own turn," when ALL will come to life in Christ just like ALL came to death in Adam. Only with the all-inclusive "all" will God "be all in all." But how can this happen when God is surrounded by enemies and rebels on every side? Well, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul envisions "stages" where Christ's work continues until all is brought under subjugation. Paul is clear about this elsewhere:

Philippians 2: 5-11
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Paul clearly envisions a time when everyone will confess Jesus as Lord. The issue is this: Will the confession be forced? Or will it be a willing submission to the Reign of God? Look at Philippians 2. What do you think the answer is? How will Christ establish his rule? With the threat of hellfire? Or with the sufferings of a servant? Will God in Jesus force a confession and then condemn most to hell? Or will the love of God in Christ finally win ALL, and bring life to ALL, and remove the Sting of Death, and reverse the curse of Adam?

In short, I believe Paul is making this claim: Adam brought death to ALL. Thus, for God to, finally, be all in all, Christ must bring life to ALL. Only then is the history of sin and salvation brought full circle. Paul will NOT have:

Adam > Christ

For Paul it MUST be:

Christ > Adam

That is the vision of God all in all. Only then will death no longer have a sting. Thus, Paul concludes his argument in 1 Corinthians with this song:

"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

I sing along with Paul. God will be victorious. Death, through the sin of Adam, will be defeated in Jesus.

Christ will bring life to all.

And God will be all in all.]

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3 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Interlude: A Reading of I Corinthians 15”

  1. dr.beck,
    i'm not sure if you are aware of this reading of some of the scriptures you wrote about, but edward fudge (the theologian who supports the annihilationst(sp?) view of hell) reads the scriptures about God being "all in all" and that "every knee will bow and every tongue confess" as saying that God, after having destroyed the unrepentant, will be all in all becuase the unrepentant will no longer be. just a thought.


  2. A potential problem with the construction here in 1 Cornthians is the "in Adam" and "in Christ" aspect. It could be argued that all "in Christ" will be saved, but that not every person who has ever lived will be "in Christ" (as in Ephesians 1). A potentially stronger case for "all" being saved could come from Romans 5, I think.

    One thing I certainly find 1 Corinthians is the concept of the return of Christ only coming at the close of the church age, when all living have been brought to Christ. In this I am most definitely in the minority. In this scenario, any "post-mortem" salvific work would have to take place between the general resurrection and the handing over of the kingdom to God the Father.

    Perhaps it's possible to explain this with the difference between the baptism in water and the baptism in fire.

  3. Since all of us are created in God's image, he doesn't want to lose any of us. He's more like a loving father pleading with his children to come to him. He has two types of kids(Matthew 18;12-14, Luke 15:11-24) and we're like little children in God's eyes:
    Prodigal son-Rebellious ones
    Loyal son-Obedient ones
    He's a consuming fire(Hebrews 12:29) and he's gonna burn off the flesh(Malachi 3:2-3,1 Corinthians 3:9-16) that's been givin us trouble and we will be given spirit bodies. God cannot renew the creation if Satan and his hosts are still around. They will be burned to death by the brightness of Christ(Matthew 25:41,2 Thessalonians 2:8). Heaven is the new earth and our new home(Matthew 6;20, John 14:1-3, Philippians 3;20) but others believe it's the earth, but Jesus said it will pass away(Mark 13:31) even Peter said so too(2 Peter 3:10). It's more likely the new heavens and earth will be in the 2nd heaven(Outer space) since it's a pretty big universe. On Revelation chapter 21 says that the first heaven(Sky) and earth passed away and the new Jerusalem coming down from God from the third heaven which is his throne.

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