Ancient Examples of Interpreting 1 Corinthians 15:50
The belief in being raised to heavenly life (devoid of flesh) is not uniquely part of any particular Christian religious group per se. Origen of Alexandria believed that the EIDOS of the body would be raised. He drew on Platonic thought to formulate this idea. Some orthodox commentators today also insist that an exaltation to spirit life is what the Bible teaches. Nevertheless, the most common view today is that resurrection is and will be a bodily event. These eschatological notions are based partly on the literary contents of Paul's first century correspondences with congregations in the ancient Greco-Roman world.
Numerous attempts to exegete the Pauline letters can be found within treatises produced by the early patristic writers. But examining 1 Cor. 15:50ff leads me to conclude that Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian of Carthage were probably wrong in their explanations of how faithful Christians would be raised by God. Firstly, it seems that Greco-Roman philosophy banefully infilitrated their views about God and the resurrection.
Irenaeus writes: "Among the other [truths] proclaimed by the apostle, there is also this one, 'That flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.' This is [the passage] which is adduced by all the heretics in support of their folly, with an attempt to annoy us, and to point out that the handiwork of God is not saved. They do not take this fact into consideration, that there are three things out of which, as I have shown, the complete man is composed — flesh, soul, and spirit. One of these does indeed preserve and fashion [the man]— this is the spirit; while as to another it is united and formed—that is the flesh; then [comes] that which is between these two— that is the soul, which sometimes indeed, when it follows the spirit, is raised up by it, but sometimes it sympathizes with the flesh, and falls into carnal lusts. Those then, as many as they be, who have not that which saves and forms [us] into life [eternal], shall be, and shall be called, [mere] flesh and blood; for these are they who have not the Spirit of God in themselves. Wherefore men of this stamp are spoken of by the Lord as 'dead;' for, says He, 'Let the dead bury their dead,' because they have not the Spirit which quickens man" (Against Heresies V.9.1).
Correspondingly, in Tertullian, we find these claims: "For it is not the resurrection that is directly denied to flesh and blood, but the kingdom of God, which is incidental to the resurrection (for there is a resurrection of judgment also); and there is even a confirmation of the general resurrection of the flesh, whenever a special one is excepted. Now, when it is clearly stated what the condition is to which the resurrection does not lead, it is understood what that is to which it does lead; and, therefore, while it is in consideration of men's merits that a difference is made in their resurrection by their conduct in the flesh, and not by the substance thereof, it is evident even from this, that flesh and blood are excluded from the kingdom of God in respect of their sin, not of their substance; and although in respect of their natural condition they will rise again for the judgment, because they rise not for the kingdom. Again, I will say, 'Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God;' and justly (does the apostle declare this of them, considered) alone and in themselves, in order to show that the Spirit is still needed (to qualify them) for the kingdom. For it is 'the Spirit that quickens' us for the kingdom of God; 'the flesh profits nothing.' There is, however, something else which can be profitable thereunto, that is, the Spirit; and through the Spirit, the works also of the Spirit. Flesh and blood, therefore, must in every case rise again, equally, in their proper quality. But they to whom it is granted to enter the kingdom of God, will have to put on the power of an incorruptible and immortal life; for without this, or before they are able to obtain it, they cannot enter into the kingdom of God. With good reason, then, flesh and blood, as we have already said, by themselves fail to obtain the kingdom of God. But inasmuch as 'this corruptible (that is, the flesh) must put on incorruption, and this mortal (that is, the blood) must put on immortality,' by the change which is to follow the resurrection, it will, for the best of reasons, happen that flesh and blood, after that change and investiture, will become able to inherit the kingdom of God— but not without the resurrection. Some will have it, that by the phrase 'flesh and blood,' because of its rite of circumcision, Judaism is meant, which is itself too alienated from the kingdom of God, as being accounted 'the old or former conversation,' and as being designated by this title in another passage of the apostle also, who, 'when it pleased God to reveal to him His Son, to preach Him among the heathen, immediately conferred not with flesh and blood,' as he writes to the Galatians, (meaning by the phrase) the circumcision, that is to say, Judaism" (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 50).
With the help of modern exegesis, however, the viewpoints expressed by Irenaeus and Tertullian can now be proved false. For instance, concerning 1 Cor. 15:35-41, we read:
"Having contended vigorously for the Resurrection as the form of life after death, Paul now makes important concessions concerning the nature of the resurrection body. Some Palestinian believers in the Resurrection taught the restoration of exactly the same body that was laid away. 'For the earth will then assuredly restore the dead . . . making no change in their form, but as it has received, so will it restore them' (II Baruch 50:2). Paul must have been compelled many times to distinguish his belief from this crude hope. He resorts to an analogy from human experience to show how totally different the resurrection body will be. Jesus had appealed to the power of God to create entirely new conditions in life" (Mark 12:24-25).
The Interpreter's Bible quoted above (Vol. X:243) notes that the idea of a fleshly resurrection was taught in ancient Palestine. Reading the apocalyptic books written around this period (first century BCE-CE) also helps us to grasp the prevalence of variant beliefs in the fleshly resurrection. This teaching of a fleshly ANASTASIS was admittedly different from the ante-Nicenes' theological understanding. Yet knowing about the Patristic resurrection teaching does help us to comprehend how some have understood the Pauline words at 1 Cor. 15:50ff.
In 1 Cor. 15:37, 38--we encounter the analogy of a seed which depicts how the heavenly resurrection works: "And what thou sowest, thou sowest not the body that shall be, but a bare grain: it may be of wheat, or some one of the rest: and God gives to it a body as he has pleased, and to each of the seeds its own body."
Commenting on these verses, The Interpreter's Bibleproclaims that "both a body and a seed are put into the ground and something entirely different comes out of it" (Vol. X:243).
What is this reference work saying? Is it stating that a totally different body will be raised from the dead (i.e. a spirit body)?
Remarking further on 1 Cor. 15:35ff:
"the translation bare kernel [RSV] is not meant to suggest a connection between this discussion and that on being found 'naked' (2 Cor. 5:2-3) after death . . . But the clothing about which Paul is concerned [in 2 Cor. 5:2ff]is the 'building from God' (2 Cor. 5:1), his resurrection body. Until he is clothed with this he is in a state of nakedness. The problem of an intermediate state is not faced in the letter before us because the apostle expected to survive until the Parousia" (Vol. X:244).
Thus we now approach the answer to our question--what does Paul mean in 1 Cor. 15:50? Will the body of flesh be raised to heaven? Is the regenerated body of flesh, the "building from God" mentioned in 2 Cor. 5:2ff?
The Interpreter's Bible (Vol X:246) makes it clear that a spiritual body is not a disembodied spirit. It is a body of "glory or splendor." This spiritual corpus appears to be an immaterial, massless body (one that is devoid of all flesh).
Louw and Nida's Greek-English Lexicon says the following about the term PNEUMATIKOS in 1 Cor 15:44:
"pertaining to not being physical-'not physical, not material, spiritual.'" This resource adds the following observation: "In some languages the concept of 'spiritual body' can only be expressed negatively as 'the body will not have flesh and bones' or 'the body will not be a regular body'" (semantic domain 79.3).
Elsewhere, the IB calls the spiritual body, an "ethereal body" which is akin to light. But just what does all this discourse mean? How should we understand the language "ethereal body"?
As with many subjects, the same terminology may signify different things from one writer to another. What it means in the IB is not all that clear to me. At any rate, the nomenclature "ethereal body" allows one to understand the resurrection as an event in which a non-physical body is raised. The corpus delineated by this wording suggests that we're talking about an aerial, fiery and possibly non-material entity. But I would reject all theosophic associations one might read into such language.
Exegeting 1 Corinthians 15:50ff Today
The Apostle wrote: "Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption" (1 Cor. 15:50 KJV).
We now come to the locus classicus of our discussion. It is fitting to ask just what do Paul's words indicate about the future? Initially, we note the phrase BASILEIAN THEOU. Without going into a lot of needless detail, let me just briefly say that regardless of how we view the Kingdom of God, the Bible evidently shows that heaven is the reward held out for God's anointed ones (2 Cor. 1:21, 22; 5:1-8). People disagree about the terminology or have varying ideas about the referents of the expression "anointed ones," but that issue does not have to be settled now. I'd rather examine whether "flesh" will enter the kingdom or not.
When answering the first query, it is tempting to split up SARX and hAIMA, which has led some readers to insist that SARX may enter the Kingdom of God, but not hAIMA. Others like Irenaeus may say that a fleshly body can enter the kingdom, so long as it is regenerated and fully guided by God's Spirit. Tertullian understands the passage in a similar way. Does this view, however, do justice to Paul's words at 1 Cor. 15:50?
According to BAGD, the expression SARX KAI hAIMA denotes: "a man of flesh and blood . . . a human being in contrast to God and other supernatural beings Mt. 16:17; Gal. 1:16; Eph. 6:12 . . . because they are the opposites of the divine nature SARX KAI HAIMA BASILEIAN THEOU KLERONOMESAI OU DUNATAI 1 Cor. 15:50" (JoachJeremias, NTS 2, '56, 151-159 [See BAGD, p. 743]).
Based on what we read in BAGD, we could paraphrase 1 Cor. 15:50 thus: "Humans are not fit for the kingdom of God. Their flesh and blood--their entire being (humanity)--cannot enter into the kingdom of the heavens." To the contrary, humans must undergo a radical change--a "refashioning"--before God allows them entry into his heavenly BASILEIAN (Philippians 3:20-21).
What are we therefore to conclude from this discussion? For one, I think it is
important to realize that although there is much we can learn from the ante-Nicene Fathers, their word is not the final authority. Modern-day exegesis has provided us with marvelous insights on God's word. These insights show us that Irenaeus and Tertullian were likely wrong in their interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:50. See John Paul Heil, The Rhetorical Role of Scripture in 1 Corinthians, page 254.