I lectured at First Baptist Church of Santa Ana (my home church), and this my lecture. I went largely off-script, but this might be of help to some of you.
Because of the recent terror attacks in San Bernardino, we are reminded of many facets of what it means to be human. Excluding the contentious nature of political discourse, I’m going to focus on two very specific theological points that have direct relevance for our modern Christian context. Because time is limited, I will be primarily focusing upon 1 Corinthians 15, with several additional comments concerning Romans 8 and Psalm 110, as well as other Second Temple Jewish texts.
Before we begin, we need to determine what “death” actually is. Many modern theologians (and not a few ancient ones!) seem keen on defining death as separation of body from soul (or spirit), and the whole matter of death becomes spiritualized almost to the point of being gnostic. Since Christians are not Gnostics (!) we need to look over how Death is viewed in Scripture.
In the Psalms, death is utilized in poetic form, and is most often simply intended to communicate the loss of life. For instance, Psalm 34:21 says, “Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.” Paul writes in Romans 5:10, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Notice the pattern: “death” means death. While “death” can be used in a stylized or metaphorical sense, it largely refers to the loss or extinction of life that makes a human person animated. The heart stops, the brain ceases, and all that kept us moving ceases.
A happy concept, to be certain!
The first theological point has to do with kingship and literary personification or typology. This is a wider point, but it is a major factor in Pauline theology. To put it in perspective, we often think about Paul working from problem (human sin, justification) to solution (Christ’s death as an atoning sacrifice). However, it is necessary to reconsider this configuration.
Putting it succinctly—which is hard to do for New Testament students—Paul operates not with a problem to solution formula, but rather the opposite: Christ is the solution, but to what problem? Why was Christ raised from the dead? In the Old Testament, it was the death of the animal that was necessary for atonement. The animal was not then resurrected to eternal life! It simply stayed dead, having made its own sacrifice.
Christ’s resurrection, then, is a disruption of something. But what? To put a finer point on it, we do not have a New Testament without the resurrection of Jesus. I’m going to offer two considerations for this, and I’d love pushback, or complements, or both! So here we go.
When Paul writes in Romans 5:14, “Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses…” he is likely talking about physical death. Death here is the Greek noun θάνατος (thanatos), and it is articular—that is, it has a definite article that specifies or intensifies the noun (ὁ θάνατος: ha thanatos). Thus, death here is “Death” with a capital D. This Death is said to have “reigned” (ἐβασίλευσεν: aorist active verb) or “exercised kingship.” Death, from Adam, was the one who ran the show, so to speak. We know this from the Old Testament, specifically Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve are addressed as “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Mortality is imposed upon our ancestral father and mother as a consequence of sin, and thus, as Scripture and the Christian tradition affirm, we now die.
A point of consideration is that, to be immortal and able to sin with impunity, is a horrific thought. It would affirm that Death cannot be destroyed, and that Sin will eternally exist in God’s good creation. The very presence of human Death demands a response, but we do not know what this response is, or even if this problem is even a problem. Death, for us, is often just a sad reality.
We are subjected by this Death, brought about by Adam and Eve. The verb ἐβασίλευσεν occurs five times within Romans 5 (v.14, 17, 21) and each time it is connected with death and contrasted with life.
V.14: … ἐβασίλευσεν ὁ θάνατος… (“Death reigned…”)
V.17: … ὁ θάνατος ἐβασίλευσεν διὰ τοῦ ἑνός… (“Death reigned through the one…”)
V.17: … ἐν ζωῇ βασιλεύσουσιν διὰ τοῦ ἑνὸς Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (“…will reign in life through the one Jesus Christ”)
The second use is a future indicative verb, namely, we “will reign” through or because of Christ Jesus and he resurrection. The Greek word ζωῇ refers to life in all it’s fullness, and here it refers to physical life—namely eternal life—because of the contrast with Death.
V.21: … ἵνα ὥσπερ ἐβασίλευσεν ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐν τῷ θανάτῳ (“so that, just as Sin reigned in Death…”)
Death and Sin here are articular, and the use of the preposition “in” (ἐν) illustrates a contrast between the evocative idiom, “In Christ” that dominates Paul’s thinking. To be “in Christ” to be included in the people of God, to be regarded as a firstborn Son or Daughter, a full member who participates in the Kingdom of God.
V.21: … χάρις βασιλεύσῃ διὰ δικαιοσύνης εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν (“so grace might reign through righteousness into life eternal through Jesus Christ our Lord”).
The second use is an aorist subjunctive, indicating the hope of the future. In every instance, Death in Romans 5:12-21 is articular, intended to communicate the destructive kingship of Death. Death is King. Death controls our lives, and exercises dominion over our mortal bodies by claiming them for itself. We see this every time we turn on the television, get on the Internet, or open a newspaper.
We know no other reality other than death. As Paul says in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death [θάνατος], but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The contrast between physical death and physical life is intentional; there is nothing abstract about it.
As is evident throughout 1 Corinthians, division and strife lie at the heart of the conflict in Corinth (to borrow a phrase from Ben Witherington), and 1 Corinthians is meant to assert a solution. Paul already knows what the problem is, but outlines their problems in order to pry their grip loose.
For Paul, then, Death is an enemy—the last or final enemy. In 1 Corinthians 15, we see into the very heart of Paul’s solution:
Then comes the end,[g] when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
The use of ἐχθρός (“enemy”) is fairly common throughout the New Testament, being used a little over 30 times. In Paul, it seems to refer to a hostile person or concept, an antagonism that suggests that which is negative and opposite of God or the truth. In the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 5, Jesus says, ““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ (ἐχθρόν) But I say to you, Love your enemies (ἐχθροὺς) and pray for those who persecute you…”
An enemy is that which counters you, betrays you, and seeks your destruction for their own personal gain. Death, for Paul, is the final enemy. The ἔσχατος enemy: final, end, concluding. After Christ, fulfilling for Paul the role of YHWH in Psalm 110:5-6, has “put his enemies under his feet” (see Psalm 110:1), Christ then moves onto the final enemy.
Here, in v.26, Christ “annihilates” (καταργεῖται: present active middle/passive) Death. Mostly likely, the use of the verb indicates a both/and scenario. By Christ’s resurrection, we see the first fruits of the defeat of the final enemy. But since we await Christ’s glorious return, we do not see the final defeat of this evil entity. We know this because we still die. We do not have actualized eternal life.
But because Christ is described as the “first fruit” (ἀπαρχὴ) of the resurrection, those who die before Christ’s return will be resurrected to eternal life, to witness the final death of Death—the enemy that took their mortal body and killed it. Our resurrection, then, is our vindication, and thus we stand and watch as all of God’s enemies are destroyed and utterly removed from all creation.
There is no room for Death in God’s kingdom. God cannot have any enemies when God is “all in all” (v.28).
So where does this leave us?
Without the resurrection of Jesus, we don’t have a new testament. Without the resurrection of Christ, we will all die and turn into nothingness, never to be found again. Without the resurrection of Christ, we might as well live our lives as heathens, unbound by Law or Covenant, because there is nothing for us.
But, brothers and sisters, Christ IS risen. So how do we live?
We are “waiting for the redemption/reconciliation/liberation of our bodies” in Romans 8:23 (ἀπεκδεχόμενοι τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν τοῦ σώματος ἡμῶν), and we can now live as brothers and sisters, destined for eternal life, knowing that all the terrorism, sexism, racism, violence, and oppression in the world will ultimately be expunged from God’s creation, and that our bodies are precious to God. We hope for the future, based on this little baby, born of a virgin. We confess that great ancient creed:
We believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.Live into the hope of your resurrection, be a witness to those who desperately need the good news of Christ’s ultimate triumph over death, and never forget what the Angel Gabriel said to the blessed Mary in Luke 1:
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins (they were good Baptists!)
We look for the resurrection of the death and the life of the world to come.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”Advent, then, is about hope and confidence and the solution. The solution to the problem of Sin and Death is the resurrection of the Son of God. Thus, we can see the problem all along, and our hope can thus be reoriented towards the resurrected Christ, in whom we live.
Christ’s kingdom will have no end, and our hope, as the community of God, is to remember, to cherish, and to act accordingly with our future resurrection into eternal life. We do not live in fear, but rather we empower others to live into Christ. The evening news is not the last word. May we bless God and one another with these words.