Let us at this point take a look at what is understood by the “Roman Imperial Eschatology.” It is of importance to observe that the major practice of such eschatology was the force to unification of the empire which “involved both a political agenda and a religious agenda” which were oftentimes not separable in Greco-Roman culture (Ben Witherington, Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 295). This Roman realized eschatology was inaugurated by the pax Romana. Through such the status quo of society was enforced and the elite was promised special blessing especially if the societal norm was enforced and strengthened by the well-to-do in society.
Again we need to realize that Roman Corinth was not necessarily concerned with life after death, but with “present blessings of safety, health, and wealth” (Witherington, 297). For Greeks and Romans death ended bodily existence. They believed in the eternal existence of the soul (this needs to be further defined though, since some are coming back in bodily form in Greek mythology, e.g. Achilles). Some believed that death is the end of all existence. Epicurus for example in his mission to free humans from fears stated: “death is nothing to us since, while we exist, death is not present, and when death arrives, we do not exist” (Diogenes Laertius Vit. 10.125). He could state such since he reasoned that all things (including gods and souls) were material and would vanish into non-existence after death (N.C. Croy, “Epicureanism,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans (electronic ed.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000). Stoics on the other hand believed in the continuity of the soul after death in non-bodily existence. Some held agnostic views of life after death seen in some inscriptions stating: non fui, fui, non sum, non caro (“I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care”).
In Jewish settings Sadducees denied the resurrection (maybe because of Greco-Roman influence); yet the Pharisees firmly believed in such. Ossuaries – boxes were bones of the deceased were laid in – for example can be an indicator to the belief in the bodily resurrection of the deceased.
In 15:12-34 Paul speaks about the consequences of the resurrection of Jesus in regards to his followers. Or stated differently, he reasons with the Corinthians about the consequences of their (only some; Gr.: tines) denial of the resurrection of the dead (especially vv. 12-19). In his argument Paul assumes the resurrection of Jesus Christ; this fact is presupposed. This argument also merely confirms what believers already hold to.
The problem is stated in v. 12. Some of the Corinthian believers say that there is no (bodily) resurrection (see historic-cultural background above). Paul then moves on with the implications of such a believe (vv. 13-15). The first implication is that if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised from the dead; the apostolic preaching is useless (implication two); the faith of the Corinthian believers is in vain (implication three); and the fourth implication is that the apostles misrepresent God and are false witnesses about Him.
In 1 Corinthians 15:16-19 some of the implications of such a denial are repeated and intensified. Again implication one is that Christ has not been raised from the dead followed by the second assumption that the faith of the Corinthian believers is useless. This is intensified by the phrase “and you are still in your sins”; i.e., without the resurrection there is no base for the forgiveness of sins. The third implication is that those believers who have died are utterly lost. Verse 19 then states the final absurdity of the denial of the resurrection of the dead, namely that Christians are to be more pitied than anyone else.
Yet (v. 20) Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the firstfruits of the general resurrection (firstfruits in agricultural settings are the guarantee of the harvest). Paul moves to a comparison and contrast of Adam and Christ in vv. 21-22. As death came through a human being, so also the resurrection from the dead comes through a human being. Death came through Adam; but eternal life comes through Christ.
Now (vv. 23-28) Paul lets the readers know about the events of the eschaton (the end of history). Christ was raised from the dead first and his followers will be raised from the dead when Christ at the parousia (i.e., His Second Coming), then the end of this world will be ushered in. When all his enemies are subjected Christ himself will be subjected to God’s rule (Ps 110:1). Death will be defeated because it belongs to the powers whom God will subject and destroy (Ps 8:7). Thus Christ’s victory will result in God’s victory.
In vv. 29-34 Paul then speaks of the significance of the resurrection for the present time. In v. 29 he refers to a common practice without further specifying its meaning: the baptism for the dead. This baptism is meaningless if there is no resurrection. We cannot go into detail about the meaning of this verse here. Let it suffice to mention Garland who writes about a view which “the dead” (hoi nekroi) “as a metaphor for the condition of believers who receive baptism” (David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians. BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 717).
Further, the willingness of Paul to risk his life is meaningless if there is actually no resurrection (vv. 30-32a). Also, if there is no resurrection of the dead why not live by the motto “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isa 22:13; Horace, Carmina 1.11.8: carpe diem)? Paul thinks that it is a fallacious understanding to think that present behavior has no effect on the future. Thus he warns them not to keep bad company which ruins good morals (v. 33). The Corinthian believers are to return to orthodox and sound theological and ethical understanding of their Christian lives (v. 34).
The bodily resurrection of Christ Jesus is a necessary belief so that there can be forgiveness of sins. But we also need to stress that present behavior has impact on the future. Being saved by God’s grace has ethical implications!
We are awaiting our Lord, the firstfruits of the resurrection. When he comes back one day, God will be all in all! AMEN!