A Question About Death
September 21, 2023, 12:26 PM

Question: In 1 Corinthians 15:26, we read, “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” Was death destroyed at the resurrection, or will it be destroyed at the final judgment in Revelation 20?

Answer: The short answer to this question is “yes.” Your question gets to the heart of something we see in the NT, particularly in the writings of the Apostle Paul, called inaugurated eschatology. “Eschatology” is the branch of Christian theology that is typically referred to as the study of “last things” (eschatos is the Greek word for “last”). “Inaugurated” simply means “to begin, to introduce.” So, when we say, “inaugurated eschatology,” we mean that the last things have begun, or been introduced. We capture this in the phrase you may have heard, “the already and the not yet.”

One of the things the Apostle Paul wants to get across in his writings is that the age to come (the “last things,” the eschaton) has broken into our current/present (evil) age. Where do we see this? One of the clearest passages that speaks of this “already/not yet” is 2 Corinthians 5:17 where Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV). What Paul is saying here is a Christian is already a new creation, he is already part of that age to come which we see described in Revelation 21-22.

But obviously we can look around us and see that the world is still full of sin. We still struggle with sin. We still decay and die. The world still goes through disasters. How is this a new creation? That’s where the “already/not yet” comes in. Christians are recipients of the new birth (John 3:3). We have, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:5, been made alive in Christ. While the new creation has been inaugurated, it has not been fully consummated. That’s the “not yet.” Paul, in Romans 8:18-30, shows us the reality of the Christian life is one from suffering to glory. In Romans 8:23, Paul says, “Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23 NKJV). Note carefully what Paul is saying. Christians have “the firstfruits of the Spirit.” That’s the new birth we mentioned earlier. Then note what he says we wait for, “the redemption of our bodies.” That’s the “not yet.” We are not yet in our glorified bodies. Our natural, fleshly bodies will decay and die. Our glorified, spiritual bodies will be those that are fit for the new creation.

Bringing this back full circle to 1 Corinthians 15, we know that Paul is dealing with some issues the Corinthians had regarding the resurrection. From the context, it seems they believed that Christ was raised from the dead, but they didn’t believe that we would be raised from the dead. They disconnected Christ’s resurrection from the resurrection of believers at the end of the age. Paul’s whole argument is meant to dismantle that way of thinking. In vv. 12-19, Paul shows the absurdity of disconnecting Christ’s resurrection from our resurrection. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is futile, and we are stuck in our sin. In vv. 20-28, Paul pivots to show how the resurrection of Christ necessarily entails the resurrection of Christians. He calls Christ the “firstfruits” (that word again) of the future resurrection harvest to come. Christ having been raised from dead means that He has defeated death decisively.

That’s why Paul taunts death in vv. 55-57 and says that God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (victory over death). Yet we still die, right? Paul addresses that earlier in the chapter. It is necessary that we die so that our mortal bodies can become immortal. Paul looks at this in vv. 35-49 and uses an agricultural metaphor to describe it:

[42] So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. [43] It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. [44] It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44 NKJV)

So, to put this all together. Christ defeats death at His resurrection. As Peter says in his Pentecost Day sermon, “[speaking of Jesus] whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it” (Acts 2:24 NKJV). The resurrection of Christ guarantees the resurrection of believers. At the new birth, we are already experiencing the reality of the age to come. Our bodies must die, they must be sown, to be raised incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual. This happens on the last day, the end, as Paul says:

[24] Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. [25] For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. [26] The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:24-26 NKJV)

When the end comes, then death, the “last enemy,” will be fully and finally destroyed. This is pictured in apocalyptic language in Revelation 20:14 when Death and Hades are cast into the Lake of Fire. The power of death was broken at the cross and empty tomb. The presence of death will be eradicated at the final judgment. We know this because in the New Heavens and New Earth, there is no more death (Revelation 21:4).

I hope this helps.

~ Pastor Carl

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