Movies, cartoons, TV shows, comic strips, and other media all tend to depict heaven as a purely spiritual existence, a place where we receive wings and play harps while floating around on clouds. Even many people in the church likely share such a conception, not recognizing that the Bible proclaims a future resurrection of the body (Dan. 12:1–2).
The Apostolic witness of the New Testament testifies strongly to the reality of resurrection. As we have seen, Paul links the truth of our resurrection to the fact of Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1–28). Moreover, as we see in today’ s passage, the Apostle sees no point in following Jesus if there is no future resurrection.
First Corinthians 15:29–34 consists of a series of statements in which Paul shows the futility of denying the resurrection. He starts by saying there is no point to people’s being baptized “on behalf of the dead” if they deny their future bodily resurrection (v. 29). This is one of the most difficult verses in all of Scripture, as it is impossible to be certain about the practice to which Paul refers. One commentator says there are at least forty different views among scholars as to what baptism for the dead was in Corinth. All we can be certain of is that Paul is not endorsing the practice of being baptized vicariously in the place of other people for the sake of their salvation, as that would contradict his teachings on grace and the need for personal faith (e.g., Eph. 2:8–10). Whatever the practice was, Paul saw it as pointless if there is no bodily resurrection of the dead.
Next, Paul says that if there is no resurrection, all his sufferings as an Apostle are pointless (1 Cor. 15:30–32). Why put one’s life at risk (“fought with beasts” in v. 30 refers to facing danger from people who oppose the gospel) if one’s body will not be raised? In fact, if the dead are not raised, we have no future hope, and we might as well enjoy the present to the fullest (v. 32). Paul affirms the existence of an intermediate state wherein the souls of believers enjoy God’s presence before our bodies are resurrected at Jesus’ return (Phil. 1:23–24), but not an everlasting, purely spiritual existence for human beings. The resurrection of the body must occur, or there is no afterlife at all.
In light of this, Paul counsels the church to reject those who would deny the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:33–34). The resurrection of the dead is a nonnegotiable Christian doctrine.