A Primer on Death and Resurrection

I Corinthians 15:20-28

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
May 2012

I Corinthians 15 is the greatest chapter ever written on resurrection. Today, I want to look at some basic things that we learn about death and resurrection in this section. We also learn some things about death in this passage.

Last time, we looked at what would have happened if Jesus never rose from the dead. It seems like an inappropriate question (a little blasphemous): What if what the Bible says is NOT true? It sounds like a question that a skeptic would ask but we asked it because the Apostle Paul asked it.

We looked at what some of the implications would have been had Jesus in fact not raised from the dead. Today, we get to look at the other side of the coin. Last week was all hypothetical. Paul says “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead”. The reality is that Jesus DID rise from the dead. Paul already explained how we know this in 15:4-8.

Implications of the Resurrection

Christ rose from the dead. So what? Why does that matter? What are the logical implications of the Resurrection? How does that affect us? Let me quickly mention four implications of that.

1) The resurrection is proof that JESUS is who he said he was.

It is proof that he is God (Romans 1:4) and that he is one day going to judge the world (Acts 17:31).

2) The resurrection is proof that Christianity is TRUE

The whole Christian religion stands or falls on the resurrection. If there is no resurrection, then the whole religion is a lie (15:15, 17). If it did take place, the Christian religion is true. The resurrection makes Christianity unique. No other religion on the planet believes their founder rose from the dead. Without the resurrection, Christianity is no different from any other religion.

3) The resurrection is proof that we are SAVED.

It is the proof that our sins are forgiven. It is proof that God accepted the sacrifice of Christ (Romans 4:25; I Peter 1:3).

4) The resurrection is also proof that WE will be raised.

Last week, we saw that some of the Corinthians did NOT believe that the bodies of Christians would one day be raised from the dead. They believed that Jesus rose from the dead but did not believe that they would be raised from the dead. We saw last week that Paul used logic to answer them.

You can’t affirm the resurrection of Christ on the on hand and deny your own resurrection on the other hand. Belief in the first necessitates belief in the second. He is saying that you can’t believe in one without believing in the other.

How would the Corinthians have responded to what Paul said? They would agree with Paul that Jesus rose from the dead but they believed that that was an exception. Paul says that the resurrection is not an exception but a GUARANTEE. His resurrection is a guarantee of our resurrection (15:20; 6:14; II Corinthians 4:14; Romans 8:11).

If you are a Christian, you WILL one day leave the grave. Nothing can stop that from happening. Every believer MUST have his Easter, just as Jesus had his Easter. No one could stop Jesus from rising from the dead. He rose, even though there was a big rock in front of the tomb and it was guarded by Roman soldiers.

In the same way, there is NOTHING that can stop US from rising from the dead. His resurrection demands our resurrection and the resurrection of every believer who has died. How do we know this? Jesus is called “the firstfruits” (15:20, 23).

Notice the twofold declaration in 15:20 – Christ has risen (one of the best attested facts in history) AND is the first fruits of those who slept. That is a beautiful picture of the death of believers. Paul says “of those who slept” and not “of those who died”. It is a picture of rest. That is what you do when you sleep and, interestingly, that word is never used of the death of unbelievers.

Notice that Jesus did not just rise from the dead. He rose from the dead as the FIRST FRUITS. A first fruit implies later fruits. Others must follow.

First means that others are coming. The first crop of corn or potatoes means that more is coming. Every Jew knew this, because it comes right out of the OT. In the OT, Jews were to bring their first fruits to the priest as a sacrifice and it was a sign of the harvest that was to come.

Paul takes this OT principle and applies it to the resurrection. Jesus could not be the only one to leave the tomb, because he is the first fruits. In fact, there is a sense in which our bodied are like seeds.

They are pretty big seeds. They weigh a few hundred pounds. If you bury a Christian, you are planting a seed and one day the body will come out of the ground and there will be a harvest of bodies, not of produce.

Now this first fruit analogy actually raises some questions.

Questions about the First Fruits

Question 1: Was Jesus even the first to be raised from the dead?

Resurrections Before 33 AD

1. The son of the widow Zarephath was raised from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-22).

2. The son of the Shunammite woman was raised from the dead (2 Kings 4:32-35).

3. A man was raised from the dead when his body touched Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:20, 21).

4. The son of the widow of Nain from the dead was raised from the dead (Luke 7:11-15).

5. The daughter of Jairus was raised from the dead (Luke 8:41, 42, 49-55).

6. Lazarus was raised from the dead (John 11:1-44).

Six people were raised from the dead before Jesus was raised from the dead. In fact, three of those people were raised by Jesus himself. There were others in the Bible who were raised from the dead. Peter raised Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9:36-41) and Paul raised Eutychus after he fell three stories to his death (Acts 20:9-10) but these came after Jesus.

Question 2 – How could Jesus be the first fruits, when he was not the first person to be raised?

There were actually six people who were raised from the dead BEFORE Jesus. The first person ever to be raised from the dead was the son of the widow Zarephath in I Kings 17 and there were five other people after him before Jesus raised from the dead, so how can he be the first? Skeptics argue that this is a contradiction. The Bible contradicts itself. Are the skeptics right?

Jesus was not the first to come back from the dead but he was the first to be resurrected from the dead never to die again. The other people were not resurrected in the same sense that Jesus was. They experienced resuscitation, but not a resurrection with a glorified body.

Everyone else who was raised from the dead eventually died again. Jesus was the first to totally and completely conquer death. He was the first to be raised with a glorified body that would never die.

Question 3 – How do we know that Jesus is the first fruits?

Paul answers that in 15:21-22. Notice the word “for” in verse 21. Christ is the first fruits of those who sleep and then Paul says for or because and gives a reason he is the first fruits. Let’s read verses 21. Man messed everything up and it was a man that came to fix things.

As one commentator put it, “It is for man to repair the evil done by man” . That is why Jesus had to come to earth and become incarnate. Verse 22 says, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”.

When I first read those two verses I thought they said exactly the same thing but they don’t. What’s the difference? Verse 21 says that death and resurrection came by a man. Verse 22 says which man brought death and which brought resurrection.

I want to look a little closer at these verses. They tell us a little about death. When we think of death, there are several words that may come to our minds. Death can be tragic, as we see life cut short. Death can be cruel, as we see it takes even young children. Death can be painful. Many have died horrific, violent deaths. There are five more things we learn about death in this section.

Lessons on Death


Death is not normal. According to some, death is just part of the cycle of life. They believe that death is completely normal and natural and that life has a cycle. Every living thing is born, lives and then dies. In Hinduism, death is not some great calamity but a natural process but, according to Scripture, death is unnatural.

It is the result of sin (cf. Romans 5:12; 6:23). Death is a result of sin. That means that there was no death before sin. That refutes evolutionists who say that animals died millions of years before man even was on the earth.


I Corinthians 15:22 says, “As in Adam ALL DIE”. Romans 5:12 says “death came to ALL PEOPLE”. It is universal. It is inevitable and unavoidable. Ben Franklin said that the only two things that are certain in this world are death and taxes. You might be able to avoid paying your taxes but there is not way to escape death.

No matter what we eat or how much we exercise or how well we take care of ourselves or how many vitamins we take, we are all going to die one day. We die in different ways (cancer or stroke, heart attack, AIDS, car accident, plane crash or murder victim) and at different times (as babies, teenagers or senior citizens) but we all die.

Hebrews 9:27 says that “it is APPOINTED unto men to die” (KJV, RSV, ESV). Every day, every month, every year we get closer to that appointment. When will that be? No one knows but if you want to have a little fun, go to deathclock.com. It calculates your personal day of death based on statistics but it is not really scientific. According to that website, I will die in the year 2036. That is if I live to be 73. My dad dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 66.


Paul says “IN ADAM all die” (15:22). What does it mean that we all die in Adam It means we die because of Adam or by Adam. Die in what sense? ? Is this talking about physical death or spiritual death? Both spiritual death and physical death are the consequences of Adam’s fall but Paul is talking about physical death in the context. Everyone on the planet who dies does so because of Adam’s sin.

Why? Adam is the federal head of the race. He represented all of humanity in the Garden of Eden and his sin did not just affect him, it affected us as well. When Adam sinned, he sinned for all of us. His fall was our fall. Not only did Adam have to make his living by the sweat of his brow, but we do as well. Not only did Eve now have to have pain in childbirth, but that has been true for women.

Is this fair? Why should we die because Adam bit into an apple? Why do we get punished because of what Adam did? Why would God hold us accountable for what Adam did in the garden? We weren’t there.

We didn’t do anything. Why would we be punished for Adam’s sin? Is this valid criticism? No. We sin as well. We sin everyday (Romans 3:23) and the Bible says, “The soul that sins shall die”. So we can’t really blame Adam. We deserve to die for our own sins as well.


We saw last week the resurrection of the dead is a biblical doctrine. Everyone who dies without exception will one day be raised from the dead (saved and unsaved), though not all at the same time.


One day death will be gone and no one will die (15:28; Revelation 22:4).

 Paul and Universalism

The argument is that the word “all” must mean the same thing in both parts of the verse. If all means every human being in the first part of the verse, why doesn’t all mean every human being in the second part of the verse?

1)  Even if you take the verse absolutely literally, it does NOT teach universalism

Even if you take the word all to mean “all people” in both clauses, all the verse would say is that Jesus will raise everyone on the planet, not that everyone will be saved. Paul said, “In Christ all will be made alive”. What does made alive mean? It means resurrected. Made alive does not necessarily mean saved.

How do we know made alive means resurrected. I Corinthians 15:22 is parallel to I Corinthians 15:21. Everyone will be raised but everyone will not be saved. Some will be raised to death and some will be raised to life (John 5:28-29). The most the passage would teach is universal resurrection, not universal salvation.

2)  The word “all is limited by the prepositional phrase

“IN ADAM all die, even so IN CHRIST all shall be made alive”. Who died? Everyone in Adam. Who is made alive? Everyone in Christ. The people made alive are in Christ. Not everyone on the planet is in Christ. Paul speaks of the dead in Christ rising in I Thessalonians 4:16.

He is not talking about the resurrection of unbelievers but of Christians. Paul is not talking about everyone being raised here (although that will happen). Jesus is not the first fruits of the unsaved but of the saved.

3)  Paul does not teach universalism in the rest of his writings

He speaks repeatedly of people who are perishing (1:18; 3:17) or will not enter the kingdom (6:9). That interpretation is inconsistent with what Paul says elsewhere.

Lessons on the Resurrection

What are some of the lessons we have learned about the resurrection in this section?

1. Everyone on the planet will one day be resurrected from the dead.

2. Jesus will be the one to raise everyone from the dead (John 5:28-29; 6:39-40).

3. Everyone will be resurrected at different times. There will not be one general resurrection of all the dead, as some teach. It will come in stages (15:23).

4. Jesus was the first person ever to be raised with a glorified body never to die again, the first fruit of those who sleep (15:20, 23).

5. Christians who have died will be the first group of people to be raised from the dead (I Thessalonians 4:16). This will take place at the rapture. We will learn some more things about resurrection as we read the rest of the chapter.

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