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Resurrection Image-ination (1 Corinthians 15:35–49)

by Doug Van Meter | 1 Corinthians Exposition

Our church recently hosted a holiday Bible club, and the vision of the member who headed the decorating team astounded me. Where I saw an empty two-litre Coke bottle, Michelle saw an underwater plant. Where I saw a paper plate, she saw a jellyfish. Where I saw an egg carton, she saw underwater coral. Where I saw pool noodles, she saw the legs of an octopus. Where I saw things and she saw something. I saw the common; she saw the uncommon. Her imagination enabled her to see what would otherwise be discarded as something to be recreated, to be renewed. Her creative imagination brought things to life. This is very much what Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:35–49.

When it comes to the resurrection, Christians need a biblically instructed imagination—not in the sense of make-believe but rather the biblically realistic ability to look at what is decaying and normally to be discarded with the eyes of faith seeing a new creation. As we look at one another, those in the likeness of Adam, we need a biblically informed mind to imagine what we will look like when the Last Adam returns to bring to fulfilment his new creation. We need to look at the world around us, including cemeteries and crematoriums, and see a whole new world filled with wholly new people. This sums up what Paul is getting at in the text before us.

In one of his early editorials, Don Carson wrote, “Thinking differently from the ‘world’ has been a part of the Christian’s responsibility and agenda from the beginning.” The gospel makes us different. The word of God sets us apart from the world (John 17:14–17). That is, it makes us different concerning ultimate belief and subsequent behaviour. And when it comes to matters of the afterlife, Christians think differently, which makes us live differently in this life. So it is with the matter of the resurrection of the dead—particularly, the resurrection of the dead believer.

We will approach this study under four main headings.


Paul begins by interrogating his readers: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” (v. 35).

He turns the tables on the agnostic influencers of the Corinthian church by taking their own sceptical questions and hammering home their folly, while ably defending the resurrection of Christians. In a real sense, he interrogates those who vociferously interrogate believers. He leaves them speechless.

Previously, we saw that the believers in Corinth were being influenced—poisoned, actually—by those who were agnostic concerning God’s person, purpose, and power. This is revealed in their doubting, if not their outright denial, of the resurrection of the believer. Though, no doubt, they affirmed Jesus’ resurrection (without which, as Paul had proved, there could be no gospel), they were nevertheless dubious about their own resurrection. Having been influenced by the surrounding pagan, and therefore unbelieving, Greek culture, they thought of the resurrection of the body as something that was either impossible, or if possible, disgusting (Schreiner).

Having rebuked them for entertaining the influence of the ungodly (vv. 33–34), Paul now answers the objections of the ungodly in the passage before us. He addresses two questions.

First, how is it possible for life to come out of death? That is, how is it possible for decomposed elements of the body to be gathered together and come to life? Since dead humanity returns to dust (Genesis 3:19), how can dead dust return to living life? The question assumes absurdity. Paul will prove them wrong.

Second, what is to be the nature of the body after the resurrection? That is, if there is a bodily resurrection, what would such a body be like? The assumption is that it must be radically different.

In both these questions, the assumption is that, since resurrection cannot be imagined, it must be impossible. As Jackman observes, “Like the sceptics of our own time, they were using the difficulty of understanding how it could happen, to ridicule the idea that it ever could happen.”

These questions, in the mouths of those who do not know God (v. 34), are to be expected. If you do not know God, you will know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (Matthew 22:29). This Sadducean perspective remains. But with a proper interrogation of the biblical evidence, it can be converted.

In this remarkable passage, the sceptics meet their match as Paul unfolds what we might call the philosophy of the resurrection. He systematically answers doubters and deniers with illustrations (vv. 35–41) and implications (vv. 42–44) as he strengthens the imagination of believers (vv. 45–49).


Next, Paul provides an illustration of the truth he will present:

You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

1 Corinthians 15:36–41

It has been suggested by some that the questions in v. 35 are understandable and therefore excusable. I’m not so sure by the way Paul responds: “You foolish person!” That is a fairly strong rebuke. The word means “mindless,” “without reason,” even “stupid.” Morris observes that while “fool” might not be the most tactful form of address, its bluntness makes clear Paul’s view of the worthlessness of such arguments.

Considering the context of v. 34 I think Paul has the same people in mind. Those who do not know God are defined by Scripture as fools (Psalms 14:1; 53:1; Luke 12:20).

Such individuals interpret life without God. They are blind to the world around them, which points them to the person and power of God. Paul makes this very point by pointing them to illustrations from natural creation. He begins with an agricultural illustration, which was, in fact used by Jesus himself (John 12:20–25).

Plants provide evidence of resurrection. When a seed is planted, it decomposes before it brings forth something that is both new and yet in continuity with what was planted. This answers the first question (v. 35a). Though the plant looks very different from the seed, there is an unbreakable and undeniable continuity between the two. The plant from the seed is both different and yet very much the same, yet more glorious. So it is, Paul will argue, with the resurrection. This answers the second question (v. 35b).

Paul is simply illustrating from nature (which God created, and which even pagans acknowledged) the reality of de-creation (seed dying) and re-creation (the “body” coming forth).

The truth of continuity and discontinuity is essential to a correct theology of resurrection. Death will bring an end to decay and resurrection will bring continuation of who we are.

As a general rule, women appreciate flowers. Technically, you could surprise your mother or your wife with a packet of rose bulbs or daisy seeds but she probably won’t appreciate it as much as if you gave her a bunch of actual flowers. Praise God for his gift of seeds, but praise him even more for what he produces from those seeds. There is so much more to a seed than meets the eye—because of God. Verse 38 makes this clear. The phrasing is significant: “But God gives it a body.” Did you notice that? “But God.” This is a wonderful phrase in Scripture, which boasts in what God can do despite man’s fallenness (cf. Ephesians 2:4). God once and for all planned what shall be (Morris). No wonder Paul called those questioning God’s ability “foolish.”

With this, Paul expands the illustration by alluding to Genesis 1.

The word “kind” is used and/or implied nine times in vv. 38–41. This is creation language, lifted from Genesis 1, where we read that God created vegetation, plants, and fruit trees, “each according to its kind” (Genesis 1:11). Likewise, God created animals “according to their kinds” (Genesis 1:21, 24–25). Plants and animals were made to reproduce according to its own image. Bear this in mind as we move through the text.

What is his point? Simply that God is able to create unique “bodies” (with variation). He is able to bring to life something from a decaying, decomposing, dying seed. Therefore, since creation is no problem for God, neither is re-creation after de-creation. Resurrection of the dead is no challenge for God.  Let’s consider Paul’s illustration.

First, consider plant life and the principle of continuity (v. 38). The acorn and the oak tree are different and yet the same. So it will be with the resurrection. God has chosen a particular body for those he will raise to eternal life. But it is not discontinuous with what was buried. Positively, what rises from the grave is in continuity with who was buried—but much better!

Second, animal life, by God’s choice, is different (v. 39). The same breath of life from God (Psalm 104:29–30) sustains a diversity of animal life. Different bodies but the same principle of life. God can easily give a different body to the dead by the power of his breath. Again, since creation is no problem for God, neither is re-creation after his judicial de-creation.

Third, celestial life also has diversity of “bodies” (vv. 40–41). God, who created those bodies, can easily re-create human bodies. But Paul adds another element here: that of “glory.” We could paraphrase “radiance” or “significance.” This “glory” varies from earthly bodies to heavenly bodies. Paul’s point seems to be that God creates different kinds of “bodies” to suit their environment: earthly bodies for earthly existence and heavenly bodies for heavenly existence. The terrestrial and the celestial require different kinds of bodies.

God knows what kind of body is needed to “fit” where it is placed. So it will be with the resurrection of the Christian (v. 42). For us to functionally fit in the new creation, God will give us bodies suitable for such an existence. But I get ahead of myself!

Before examining the implications of this illustration, we should pause to understand what Paul is doing. As I have emphasised, Paul is alluding to creation, the old order in which we presently live. This order is tainted by sin. It is groaning for deliverance from the bondage in which God himself has placed it (Romans 8:18–22). This order will be “buried” and, from its grave, a whole new creation will arise by the supernatural power of God.

Christians need to look around and see more than is on the surface. Like Michelle, we must see what God will make of that which is otherwise useless. The resurrection is a promise of transformation.

Note that the promised resurrection is not about annihilation. There will be continuity. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, that which was dark and foreboding and evil is transformed to life and light and gleams with an invitation to wholeness. So it will be with the new creation when all things are made new.

But we don’t have to wait for that ultimate day to see glimpse of this now. When our believing loved one is buried, we need to open our eyes of faith and see something far more beautiful arising one day. Steven Curtis Chapman sings about the death and burial of his five-year-old daughter:

We planted the seed while the tears of our grief soaked the ground.
The sky lost its sun, and the world lost its green to lifeless brown.
Now the chilling wind has turned the earth hard as stone
and silently seed rise beneath ice and snow.

And my heart’s heavy now
but I’m not letting go of this hope I have that tells me
Spring is coming….

Watch the ground: there’s something moving.
Something is breaking through,
new life is breaking through.

Spring is coming, spring is coming,
And all we’ve been hoping and longing for soon will appear.

When we hear of climate change, rather than being unnecessarily alarmed, we should believe that one day the climate will be perfect. When our hearts are burdened by the hardships of living in a fallen world, when we are tempted to turn from the Lord because of what seems constant failure, we must trust in the promise of God to make all things new. That is his purpose. That is his plan. That is his promise. May it be our perspective.


Paul now draws some implications from his previous illustration. These verses implicitly answer the questions of the sceptic (v. 35).

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

1 Corinthians 15:42–44

Verses 42–43 are answer the first question: How are the dead raised? “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (vv. 42–43).

Yes, the Christian’s body is perishable and it will decay and decompose but, by God’s power, it will be raised to a life that will never know decay. Yes, the Christian’s dead body testifies to the dishonour of sin, which brings death, but God will raise the same body to live forever honourably, to the glory of God. The dead Christian’s body was weak due to sin but God will raise it with all it needs to live for the glory of God.

Again, Paul points to decay—de–creation—that, because of God’s grace in the gospel, will be re-composed, renewed, and re-created. A transformation will take place by the gracious power of God—an even greater miracle than the worm turning into the butterfly.

We know that God created Adam and Eve in perfection. But because of sin, humanity, despite wonderful achievements, is marked by perishing and dishonourable attitudes and actions. Even Christians groan because of the weakness of our sinful flesh (Romans 8:26; Hebrews 5:2). But at the resurrection of the righteous, that all be replaced, re-created to never perish, to live honourably by the power of God. As we will see, Christians are headed for a new creation, for a new Eden that is even better than our parents in the original Garden.

Verse 44 answers the second question: With what kind of body do they come? “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” It also introduces us to the larger theme taken up from v. 45.

We must tread carefully here with the language. Unfortunately, wrong ideas are placed upon the text that have given rise to the idea that Christians will live as disembodied spirits, floating around heaven for eternity. This is not what the text teaches. Instead, “natural body” refers to a body fit for its environment and “spiritual body” refers to a body fit for its environment.

The natural body is the physical body that each of us has in our earthly existence, which enables us to function in an earthy environment. Adam was given a natural body, which he passed on to us. This natural body will be buried in the ground and, at the resurrection, another physical body, which is spiritually fit for the new heavens and new earth, will rise. In this sense, it is a “spiritual body.”

We need to pause to refute Gnostic ideas that too often creep into churches. Specifically, we need to refute the idea that the physical is bad and the spiritual is good.

I will remind you that, when Jesus rose from the dead, he rose in a physical body, including scars and an appetite. Mary clung to him (John 20:17). The disciples walked with him (Luke 24:13–43), touched him (John 20:24–27), and shared a meal with him (John 21:12–14). When John writes of hearing, seeing, observing, and touching the word of life, he probably means both pre- and post-resurrection. And yet Christ’s very physical body was also a spiritual body, fit for heaven (see for example John 20:19; Acts 1:9–11).

This is precisely what Paul means. Christians will forever exist in physical bodies that are so changed as to be able to exist in the presence of the fullness of the glory of God. David Prior observes, “These physical bodies of ours simply are incapable of coping with the glory of God…. Only Christlike people will be suitable for such a quality of life.” Therefore “Paul here is contrasting the body which expresses this natural human life (soma) with the body which will eventually express the supernatural life of God’s Spirit in the fullness of the kingdom (soma pneumatikon).”

I recently commented during preaching that I look forward to a glorified body without surgical scars. One of my daughters told me afterwards that she disagrees. If Jesus had his scars, she reasoned, people will have theirs. These scars will serve as eternal reminders of God’s grace to us in this life.

She may very well be right. Regardless, we need to embrace the biblical truth that the body of the Christian will either be transformed at the resurrection or changed if we are still alive at Jesus’ return. We will be given bodies fit for a glorious new creation. I suppose this means that there will be continuity in our appearance, personality, sense of humour, and interests. But these will all be heightened and will be honourable because all the dross of sin will have been removed. Just imagine.


Finally, Paul closes with a call to sanctified imagination of what our glorified bodies, as God’s image, will be like.

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”;  the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.  The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:45–49

He fleshes out what he said in v. 44 by referring again to the two “Adams” (see v. 22). The principle of federal headship is the point, but with a different emphasis. Here, Paul is concerned with the “image” that Christians will bear throughout eternity because of the person and work of “the last Adam,” “the second man … from heaven,” the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of him, Christians will be given a spiritual body whereas, in “the first Adam,” we were confined to living in a natural body. Verse 45 drives home the point that Adam received life from God whereas Jesus Christ, “the last Adam” gives “life” (John 5:21–29). “Chalk and cheese” to use a common expression.

Paul makes the simple point that the natural body (i.e. Adamic body), of course, comes first, with all of its limitations. The spiritual body comes after for those who are in the last Adam. Just as those in the first Adam reflect him, so those in the second man from heaven reflect—image—him. Imagine that.

Among other truths, Paul is highlighting the impossibility of obtaining spiritual life through a fallen man, like Adam. Our only hope is found in Jesus Christ who is a “life-giving spirit.” By the ministry of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus Christ and the Father sent upon his resurrection and ascension, the progeny of the first Adam are born again, regenerated, and brought into union with the last Adam, Jesus Christ. This is the gospel with which Paul commenced this chapter. This is the good news that through the perfect life, the sacrificial-substitutionary death, and the vindicating resurrection of Jesus Christ, those of “the dust” can be raised to newness of life, spiritually fit for eternity with God.

Paul’s mention of “dust” is significant in the broader context. His point, as he indicated previously, is that the first creation, including humanity, decays. It is, in a sense, de-created at death. Humans return to dust, as we read in Genesis 3:19 and elsewhere. But Jesus Christ, the last Adam, was not created and therefore, when he died, his body did not decay. Further, because he lived as sinless man, Peter, on the day of Pentecost could make the passionate point, quoting Psalm 16:8–11, “You will not … let your Holy One see corruption” (Acts 2:27).

When the Spirit of God gives spiritual life to those Christ saves, their destiny forever changes, including the destiny of their bodies. They are given immortality, like that of their representative. We receive the same kind of body, though distinctively so.

There is no biblical evidence that we will all look (physically) like Christ. The fact that God is saving a diverse people from every tribe, tongue, and nation indicates that there will be a huge diversity of glorified people. Paul makes this clear when he concludes, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (v. 49). Can you imagine? Can you imagine being conformed to the image of our Saviour? We should imagine this, because it is the gospel truth.

We should live each day thinking about what we once were, what we are now, and what one day we will become. We should look at the world the way Michelle looks at that which most people discard: that is, with the hope of transformation.

How we look at the broken world around us. Do we see what might be trophies of God’s saving grace? Do we look at a groaning creation with hope of eventual transformation? Or do we merely discard it. Though this is not the main point of the passage, there is a fair ecological application that we should be good stewards of the planet. Not because we worship the creature but because we worship the Creator who is going to restore the earth one day.

In sum, our bodies matter now, and they will matter later. Therefore, knowing that we will all stand at the judgement seat of Christ to answer for all that we have done in our bodies (2 Corinthians 5:10), let us live a life driven by resurrection image-ination.