+27 (11) 867 3505 church@bbcmail.co.za

The Theology of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:29–34)

by Doug Van Meter | 1 Corinthians Exposition

The Christian life is useless and hopeless if there is no resurrection. As Garland has observed, “Resurrection means endless hope, but no resurrection means a hopeless end – and hopelessness breeds dissipation.” This well summarises the teaching of 1 Corinthians 15:29–34.

Having argued historically and logically for the resurrection of Christians because of the resurrection of Christ, Paul now argues theologically for the resurrection. That is, the resurrection is not only a gospel issue (that on which the gospel rises or falls); it is also a theological issue in that it has everything to do with what we believe about God.

In these verses, Paul’s primary purpose is to show that resurrection is a “God thing,” and so to deny the resurrection of the believer (and therefore to deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ [vv. 12–19]) is a serious theological error, with tragic results.

The Corinthian church had gone south in its theology of the resurrection through ungodly influences. The culture did not believe in the resurrection of the body, and some with this pagan viewpoint had apparently infiltrated the Corinthian church, both to its detriment and its shame (v. 34). Paul aims to put an end to these doubts and their deleterious consequences.

Since “Christ has been raised from the dead” (v. 20), Christians will conduct themselves as though he is risen. This takes on many forms, but Paul here mentions three: baptism (confession) (v. 29); conduct in the face of risky living for Christ (vv. 30–32); and protecting the theology of the resurrection (vv. 33–34). We can say that Christians confess their belief in the resurrection (by baptism), conduct their lives influenced by the resurrection, and seriously contend for theology of the resurrection. What is clear is that the resurrection matters. May God help us to take this matter seriously, for our conviction of the resurrection (our lack thereof) affects not only how we die, but also how we live.

Resurrection Theology Pictured

The theology of the resurrection is inseparable from the theology of baptism. That is, baptism pictures and portrays belief in resurrection—both of Jesus Christ and of those who place their trust in him as Saviour and Lord. This is the point of one of the most notoriously difficult verses in the New Testament: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptised on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (v. 29).

According to Fee, there are an estimated forty different interpretations of this verse. Nevertheless, what is clear is that Paul sees baptism as, in some way, testifying to the truth of the resurrection. But first, briefly consider some popular interpretations.

Some think that Paul is referring to the practice of baptism by proxy. That is, since baptism is associated with salvation (Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 2:38; etc.), Christians were being baptised in the place of those who had died without having confessed Christ, or without having been baptised upon their confession. Mormons practice this. Of course, since the only one who can represent another for salvation is Jesus Christ, we can dismiss this interpretation. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Even if Paul was using a heretical act to demonstrate a truth, there is no historical evidence of this practice in the first century in which Paul wrote this. Only in the third century did this heretical practice commence.

Others suggest that Paul is referring to people being baptised because of the way they have witnessed believers who died well. G. W. Bromley writes, “People were often baptized as a result of seeing Christians ‘die well’ or live consistently Christlike lives before their death. Baptism is with a view to the dead, that is, to their resurrection.” A good argument for this is that the Greek term translated “on behalf of” can be translated “because of.” It is worth noting that those who live as if they truly believe that Christ is risen, and therefore that they too will rise, live (and die) in a manner that is appealing to others. Our lives should look different than that which is fallen and fading.

Still others think that Paul is referring to Christians baptised because they looked forward to what the gospel promises to those who believe and are now dead. That is, motivated by the desire to be reunited with those who have believed and are now dead, some were moved to believe in Jesus Christ, trusting him for their resurrection. “They have heard about these dead being raised up (to new life and glory) and that they want to be part of that group…. Baptized so as to be able to participate in eternal life with Christians who have already died” (Ciampa and Rosner). This has merit. Such a desire has been used of the Lord to save the lost. There are various motives for people coming to Christ—some better than others—but, at the end of the day, God uses various motives to move people to see their need for the Saviour. MacArthur summarises, “If there is no resurrection, no hope of a future life, Paul asked, why are people coming to Christ because of the testimony of believers who have died?” That is, “If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they [many present Christians] baptized for [become believers because of the testimony of] them [deceased faithful believers]?”

Another interpretation is that Paul is referring to the doctrine of baptism as articulated, for example, in Romans 6. That is, Christians are baptised because they see themselves as dead in their sin, then dying with Christ, needing his resurrection life. It is helpful to note that “unless there are clear indications to the contrary the reader should expect that a reference to ‘the dead’ would be a reference to the dead that will be raised in the resurrection, the dead to which the resurrection is expected to apply” (Ciampa and Rosner). That is, though the reading is odd, clearly Paul is speaking about Christian baptism.

Paul is arguing that baptism had such a large place in the life of Christians and in the life of the church precisely because it points to the resurrection. As Thiselton summarizes, “Common to all explanations remains the fundamental axiom that the act of baptism is above all identification with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3–11). Baptism as such without the dimension of the resurrection would mean nothing.

Consider the baptismal formula we use grounded in Romans 6: “Buried with him in the likeness of his death, raised to walk in newness of life.” The ordinance of baptism is important because it is a pictorial demonstration of the gospel: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (vv. 1–4). When someone is converted, they become a new creation in Christ and enter the new creation. They have died to sin and have been raised to sit with Christ in heavenly places (Colossians 3:1–4). They have hope not only in this life but also in the life to come. They are baptised with a view to those who have preceded them, those who have also believed, who have died and who await the promised resurrection. Christians are baptised, giving testimony that we believe that being dead does not have the last word. Christians are baptised knowing they are not only members of the church militant but also members of the church triumphant.

Regardless of your interpretation, Paul’s point is that the ordinance of baptism, biblically appreciated and practised, is a meaningless ritual apart from the truth of the resurrection. Without the resurrection, all you have is a useless and nonsensical ritual proclaiming a lie.

What is true of baptism, of course, is equally true of the other ordinance: the Lord’s Supper. We are told to observe it until the Lord returns. How could a dead Saviour return if he is not resurrected?  As we observe the ordinances we must do so attentive to the reality of a risen Saviour and with a corresponding view to our own eventual bodily resurrection. The ordinances proclaim doctrine which we must continually relish.

Resurrection Theology Practiced

In vv. 30–32, Paul argues experientially concerning the truth of the resurrection. He teaches us that his orthopraxy—his theology of the cross—is inseparable from his theology of the resurrection. His orthopraxy arises from his orthodoxy. His belief in the resurrection is not mere lip-service. He really believes and thus he sacrificially serves and, suffers.

Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

1 Corinthians 15:30–32

Paul was no fool. He faced grievous, ravenous, beastly opposition in his ministry (see 2 Corinthians 1:8–11; 11:23–29) because of his conviction that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and therefore so would he. Because he really believed the gospel, “by God’s grace he knew and acted in a way consistent with the fact that, thanks to Christ, life has the last word on death” (Ciampa and Rosner). Let’s look at this more closely.

Paul speaks with some exaggerated speech, and yet, given his history, it is not overly exaggerated when he says, “We are in danger every hour.” The “why” is a rhetorical vehicle by which he makes the point that he would be a fool to face the dangers of gospel ministry if, in reality, there is no gospel to minister! That is, without the resurrection the dangers Paul experiences, his sufferings are merely self-inflicted delusions.

In 2 Corinthians 11:23–29, Paul mentions some of these and a reading through Acts reveals the frequent dangerous calamities he experienced as he went from city to city proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. He was beaten, imprisoned, and slandered. He went hungry and was threatened all because he preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Jesus was not alive, why would he unnecessarily suffer? Paul adds emphasis to his testimony when he claims, “I die every day.” He means what he says later in 2 Corinthians 1:8–11: For the sake of his risen Lord, he was regularly exposed to death for his orthodoxy.

Lest anyone doubt, Paul points to the Corinthians themselves as witnesses of this. He “protests.” That is, “As sure as I rejoice in what Jesus Christ has done in Corinth through his gospel (of resurrection!) you can take my word on this.” In fact, in Corinth, he faced serious danger, so much so that the Lord Jesus gave him a vision lest he should flee (Acts 18:9–11).

This is actually an amazing statement in the light of his many rebukes thus far in this epistle. How could he say such a thing? Partly because he believed in the resurrection! Knowing that Jesus is Lord gave him reason to think the best, to hope for the best for this beleaguered church. Let us learn from this!

In v. 32, Paul asks the rhetorical question, “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus?” He speaks metaphorically of the ravenous nature of the opposition he encountered in Ephesus. (As a Roman citizen he would have not been exposed to wild animals in the amphitheatre.) Acts 19 does not reveal details of what he suffered, but we know that his gospel ministry led to a riot. And, in Ephesians 6, he gives a long exhortation about standing for Christ amid strong spiritual opposition. Quite possibly, he refused to revisit Ephesus (Acts 20) because of the likelihood that intense opposition there would delay him getting to Jerusalem. Regardless, if the resurrection is not true, there was no human advantage to his sufferings there. Instead, like those who reject the resurrection, he would have been better off embracing the well-known ancient adage and outlook, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” with no expectation and without hope.

This saying is found in Isaiah 22:13 in the context of rebellious Israelites who chose idolatry and gratification of the flesh over faithfulness to God. The same principle applies here. As MacArthur comments, “without eternal hope through the resurrection, men have nothing to turn to but gratification of their appetites.” But of course Paul’s point is that he does have eternal hope because he does believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and thus in his own bodily resurrection. Eternal life rather than eternal death will have the lost word and therefore daily danger and daily threat of death will not deter him from faithful ministry.

Brothers and sisters, in this world we will have tribulation but because Jesus has overcome death we can be of good comfort as we take risks for the gospel. Remember that as you go to work or school and seek to stand for Jesus Christ. You can stand because after death you will stand with Christ.

Resurrection Theology Protected

In vv. 33–34, Paul, with much pathos, rebukes and exhorts his readers that theology proper (that is, one’s devoted disposition towards God) is inseparable from an orthodox belief in the resurrection. Resurrection orthodoxy, resurrection orthopraxy, and resurrection orthopathy must be guarded and protected. “Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”  Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:33–34).

The words “bad company” bring to mind a song by that name performed by a rock group by that name. The song is a self-defence of outlaws, rebel souls, deserters, thieves who kill in cold blood. They boast that they will be “bad company until the day they die.” No wonder my parents weren’t too thrilled when, as a teenager, I bought the album. Well, as bad as Bad Company was, the bad company Paul writes about were even worse, for they denied the promise and power of God. They were spiritual thieves robbing people of the hope of the resurrection. Paul writes with strong words to exhort the Corinthian church to stay away from such bad company until the day they die. Failure to do so will injure their pathos for God.

Apparently, some in the Corinthian church were behaving like “bad company,” likened to being intoxicated and half-awake when it came to resurrection deniers. “Bad company”—resurrection deniers—were having a poisonous effect upon the congregation. False doctrine was diluting not only their praxis but also their pathos. It was time for them to sober up, to wake up from their drunken stupor, and separate themselves from the bad company of fools. Chrysostom (in Ciampa and Rosner) puts it bluntly, “Paul addresses them ‘as if he were speaking to drunkards and madmen.’”

A fool is someone who either does not believe in God or who behaves as though they do not believe in him—like those who deny the resurrection. As Thiselton points out, “Resurrection depends not on human imagination, nor on belief in the capacities of the human self to survive death, but on the infinite power and infinite resourcefulness of God.” Therefore, to deny the resurrection is both senseless and sinful. It is folly and evil, for it denies what God has promised and denies God’s power to do what he has promised.

At the root of our doubts about the resurrection, and hence a pathos that is less than active nor attractive, is theological ignorance; that is, “no knowledge of God.” As Paul concludes his argument for the reality of the resurrection, he points to the fact that, ultimately, as we have been arguing, belief in the resurrection is a theological issue.

These individuals are said to be ignorant of God. It is not that they were atheists but rather, though professing faith in God, they were clueless about the person and hence of the power (and purpose) of the triune God. Their doubt of God’s power logically led to denial of the resurrection because overcoming death is the greatest display of power (and of God’s covenantal promise and purpose). The Corinthian church should be ashamed of themselves for endorsing, embracing, accepting such as Christians. They should be ashamed of allowing such godless people to influence them away from the gospel.

Choose Companions Wisely

If I have a life verse, it is Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with wise men will be wise but a companion of fools will be destroyed.” Jill and I emphasised this truth to our children, stressing the need to surround themselves with those who are godly. We were concerned that their influencers be those who were orthodox, whose lives were marked by orthopraxy, and whose lifestyles were fuelled by a God-centred orthopathy. You see, we were and remain convinced that belief determines behaviour. Put another way, right behaviour and right dispositions arise from right belief. As Leon Morris writes, “Doctrine leads to conduct, and [therefore] unsound doctrine in the end must lead to sinful behaviour. ‘For’ shows that Paul is linking this failure to live rightly with failure to think rightly.” The church at Corinth needed this essential counsel, as does Brackenhurst Baptist Church.

Paul is not encouraging a ghetto, Christian subculture of isolation from the world (see 5:9–10). Instead, he is apostolically expecting the church to behave like the church, including using discernment to expel those who attack the gospel by denying the gospel truth of resurrection. Quoting a pagan poet, he reminds them that “bad company corrupts [defiles/shrivels] good [virtuous] morals [character].” In this case, the injurious/depraved companions were those clinging to pagan views of the immortality of the soul thus rejecting the virtuous truth of the resurrection. They were to be ashamed of allowing such insipient influence.

Rotten Root and Rotten Fruit

Throughout this epistle, Paul has highlighted a lot of sinful behaviour. And perhaps here, in chapter 15, we find the source of all of it: unworthy views of the gospel, particularly the doubting if not outright denial of the resurrection. The character of the congregation was being corrupted, like a cancer, by neglecting to live in the light of the resurrection. The disposition of the congregation was worldly rather than godly because they had lost sight that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that his people will also rise again. Yes, what we believes matters.

By affirming resurrection deniers, the church was left powerless, in many ways, including evangelistically. Theological compromise will not strengthen but rather it will weaken our witness. Further, if we lose our grip on the resurrection, we will be impoverished as disciples of the living Christ. Whenever we lose our vision of the triune God, shame is just around the corner.

We must do all we can to increase the theological acumen of one another. That is, we need to disciple one another toward a more biblical vision of God (see Malachi 3:16–18). Remind one another that Jesus Christ is risen and that we will experience a new creation. Hold your leaders accountable for gospel-saturated teaching including resurrection promise and hope. As we gather each Lord’s Day, let us do a better job of reminding each other by word and by song and by fellowship that Jesus Christ is risen! Speak to and of the Lord Jesus Christ as risen Lord who is ruling and reigning. Honestly face a difficult existence fuelled by the hope of the resurrection.

In summary, the church needed a strong rebuke to sober up, to wake up, and if I can be so bold, they are to tell resurrection-deniers to shut up. As Prior comments, “Paul was not beyond shocking Christians into a sense of shame about the way they were behaving (v. 34): They had allowed themselves to be led astray and to absorb error.” May we be sobered to reality as well.


As Paul will say at the end of the chapter, whether one believes in the resurrection matters when it comes to how we live. If we wobble on this doctrine, we will not prove steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. The content of what we believe influences our conduct precisely because it influences our character.

Christian, grow in your knowledge of God. Choose companions who know and trust God. Be consumed with the resurrection and thus empowered to live a life of risks for the risen Lord. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel and you will have no shame before God,

Non-Christian, stop being one by repenting and trusting the risen Lord for forgiveness of your rebellion against God, trust him to reconcile you to God because of his death on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins, proving it by rising from the dead. Choose to be shamed before the Lord rather than being ashamed in the presence of God.