A Case for Universalism in 1 Cor. 15

It is often claimed that the holistic Biblical witness prevents key statements from being able to be read in support Universal Reconciliation (UR), where UR is the belief that ultimately, all individuals will be reconciled to a salvific relationship with God the Father. This belief is, in fact, compatible with a purgatorial doctrine of hell. Hell, though a painful and tragic reality, does not have to be understood as final according to the UR position.

I would like to offer a lay reading of 1 Corinthians 15 in support of UR. This passage has been seen by some as supportive of UR, especially in verses 22 and 28. (The Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa himself, appears to have drawn heavily from 1 Cor. 15:28 in his Eschatological musings that are famous in some circles for being suggestive of UR.) I quote 1 Cor. 15:22 and 28 below.

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22)

“When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28)

Due to the limits of my background (I am a chemist and not a Biblical exegete), I can only offer a lay reading of the text. For a more academic reading (that does not favor UR), please visit the site of Jeremy Bound. Although I disagree with Bound’s non-UR reading of 1 Corinthians 15:22, his reasoning (and citing!) in the link here is excellent.

As I understand it, the rejection of UR in 1 Cor. 15:22 is predicated on the ability of verses in the surrounding context of 1 Corinthians itself to limit the scope of the all who are in Christ. The verse, taken by itself, seems to be clear that all shall be made alive in Christ. Commentators appeal to other verses to demonstrate the invalidity of a UR reading.

One of the biggest problems that I have with this approach is that 1 Cor. 15:22 is itself a part of the context. Does that make sense? In other words, to ignore the effect of verse 22 upon the surrounding context is in a sense to ignore the surrounding context. Verse 22 is itself, after all, a part of the context! I think that discrediting the role of the independent meaning of 1 Cor. 15:22 upon the surrounding contexts is as wrong as ignoring the role of, say, 1 Cor. 15:18 upon 1 Cor. 15:22. The meaning of 1 Cor. 15:22 as an individual verse itself is also a part of the context that must be considered when interpreting the verse and the rest of 1 Cor. 15. Why insist that 1 Cor. 15:18 clarifies the context when it is possible that 1 Cor. 15:22 is meant to clarify the context, for example?

To begin with, the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians follows an internal logic that goes something like this:

  1. In verses 1-11, Paul introduces the idea that the Good News is centrally concerned with Jesus’ resurrection. Christ’s resurrection was real. Among his many Pastoral reminders, Paul mentions the Christian doctrine of the actual, historical resurrection of Christ from the dead.
  2. In verses 12-19, Paul points out that without Christ’s resurrection, those who have fallen asleep in Christ would not be raised. The Good News of New Creation and Biblical eschatology would therefore be false. Paul took the time to emphasize resurrection probably as a result of the teaching of some in the Corinthian church that there is no resurrection of the dead (v12). For Paul this was problematic for a host of reasons, including the effect that the absence of true resurrection would have upon ethics, eschatology, and soteriology. Additionally, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then those who “have fallen asleep in Christ” have perished (v13-19). Paul believes that exhortation regarding the doctrine of resurrection will help the Corinthian church overcome some of its Pastoral problems.
  3. By introducing his discussion about resurrection with 1) the Good News about the resurrection of Christ and 2) the importance of resurrection, Paul is set to write a beautiful description of the Christian eschatological hope in verses 20-28. Since Christ’s resurrection was real, the Good News, New Creation, and Biblical eschatology are all genuine realities.

Following the argument of 1 Cor. 15, I propose the following:

  1. The internal logic of 1 Corinthians 15 specifies that the purpose of 20-28 is to undermine the teaching that there is no resurrection of the dead and to reinforce the role of resurrection in the Good News.
  2. It would be a mistake to propose that emphasis of 20-28 is to reassure the Corinthian church that “those who have fallen asleep in Christ” have not perished. Certainly it is an outcome of 20-28 that the resurrection of all who have fallen asleep in Christ is guaranteed. But it is not, I believe, the purpose of these verses. The logic of chapter 15 seems to suggest that the purpose of verses 20-28 is the insistence on and the proclamation of the Christian resurrection hope.
  3. It is at least plausible that verse 22 teaches that all shall be made alive in Christ and that the surrounding contexts–of 1 Corinthians 15, the letter as a whole, the totality of the Pauline canon, and the complete Biblical witness–do not fundamentally contradict this teaching. Read in light of 23-28, a UR interpretation of 22 becomes even more likely.

Where does all of this leave a doctrine of UR? If UR is to be read in 1 Corinthians 15, it must be read in the periphery of the text as it itself does not seem quite central per se to Paul’s argument. Paul’s argument is only of immediate concern to the truth of the Good News that Christ was raised from the dead and that therefore the Corinthian church will be raised from the dead. Interestingly enough, this is exactly what we find in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul is dealing with a Pastoral concern of immediate importance: the Corinthian church is wishy-woshy about the resurrection of Christ. He deals with it by illustrating the centrality of resurrection in exactly what the Good News is all about: New Creation and an eschatology of hope.

Verse 20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The concerns that Paul mentions in 12-19 are nullified by the truth of the matter. “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” Not only that, but Christ is the firstfruits–the first of many sisters and brothers–who have died.

Verses 21-22:For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Reminiscent to Romans 5:18-19, Paul points out that now, in Christ, the resurrection of the dead is now a reality equal to death itself. A man, Adam, caused death for all. Now, another man, Christ, caused life for all. Now in the English translation that I have quoted here (the English Standard Version), I could see how one might easily say, “Now wait a minute. Only those who are in Christ shall be made alive. All who are in Christ shall be made alive, but not all are in Christ!” Fair enough. Theologically, there aren’t any immediate problems that come from looking at it like this. But the problem goes like this, as far as my lay self is capable of telling. These exegetes, including those who reject a UR reading of verse 22, don’t seem to take this line of argument. They seem to agree that by itself, 22 does literally say that all people will be made alive in Christ. Non-UR readings for verse 22 come from the surrounding context of chapter 15.

Verses 23-25:But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Paul just stated that in Christ all shall be made alive. “But wait a second,” one of the Corinthian intellectuals that Paul responded to in chapters 1-2 retorts. “We are not all alive! In fact, some of us have died (‘fallen asleep’). When shall all be made alive, Mr. St. Paul?” Paul replies happily, “…each in his own order.” Now, I am borrowing a suggestion Thomas Talbott here, but I would point out with him that for Paul, the order is a three-stage process. First, Christ the firstfruits; second, those who belong to Christ immediately at his coming; third, the end comes. I suggest that if UR is to be read into 1 Cor. 15, it should be read in the third stage in the progress.

Verses 26-28:The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” Wow. I love these verses. What does it mean for God to put his enemies under the Son’s feet? It means for his enemies to be put in subjection to him. This becomes astounding, when one reads in the next verse that the Son himself will also be subjected to God the Father. I did not notice this myself until Thomas Talbott pointed it out, but in the immediate context of this verses, it seems to be that the Son will reign until even his enemies come to be in the same subjective relationship to the Son that the Son himself will have with the Father. (This reminds me of John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all to myself.”)

In conclusion, then, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 appears to at the very least strongly suggest that at some point in the future, all shall be made alive in Christ. This apparently includes Christ’s enemies, who through the coming ages of his reign will themselves be brought into the same kind of subjection to the Son that the Son himself will be brought into beneath the Father. This will not (cannot) happen at the immediate return of Christ, because not all are in subjection to the Son yet, and that is why Paul only mentions those “who have fallen asleep in Christ” when he mentions those who will be made alive at the coming of Christ. this should not be surprising, and I do not think it should be understood to erase the possibility of UR.

I would further comment that Paul mentioned in a previous chapter of the same letter the importance of faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13). I believe that faith that all shall be made alive in Christ; hope that all shall be made alive in Christ; and love for all, who shall  be made alive in Christ fits best with a UR reading of 1 Cor. 15.

However, I insist that I read this as a layman. I therefore should not be understood as carrying any intrinsic authority. If my thoughts are helpful to you, reader, then well and good. Do remember, though, that your whole existential duty is not to me but to God, the lover of your life and the beauty of your being.

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