Jehovah's Witness, 1 Corinthians 15:50, and future resurrection

by Luke Wayne
5/26/17

Jehovah's Witnesses claim that the "Kingdom of God" consists only of 144,000 chosen individuals who comprise a special "anointed class" and who will become immortal spirit creatures and rule with Christ invisibly in heaven. Others will be raised as humans in physical bodies on a paradise earth, but cannot enter the Kingdom of God. In defense of this doctrine, they frequently appeal to Paul's words to the Corinthians:

"Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable," (1 Corinthians 15:50).

This passage, however, is not claiming that people cannot enter the kingdom in physical, human bodies. Indeed, the passage actually affirms physical resurrection and eternal life in human bodies! The mistake that Jehovah's Witnesses make here derives from their misunderstanding of how Paul is using the terms "flesh" and "spirit."

Flesh, Spirit, and Inheriting the Kingdom

Paul is not introducing the contrast between flesh and spirit in 1 Corinthians 15. Earlier in the same letter, Paul writes:

"And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?" (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).

Paul is not saying that the Corinthians problem is that they still consist of the wrong material. His rebuke is not related to their literal substance. He is talking about their sin-corrupted nature. "since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly?" Indeed, Paul uses this kind of language frequently. Note, for example, in Romans where he says:

"so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace," (Romans 8:4-6).

And again:

"for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live," (Romans 8:13).

Likewise, to the Galatians he gives a striking example:

"And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say? 'Cast out the bondwoman and her son, For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.'” (Galatians 4:28-30).

Ishmael and Isaac are not two different types of beings. Ishmael wasn't a human and Isaac an angel. They both had bodies of skin, muscle, blood, and bone. They were biological half-brothers. Paul's point here is not about their physical nature. Note how he expands on the concept of spirit and flesh in the next chapter:

"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another," (Galatians 5:16-26).

Note that Paul again uses the phrase "will not inherit the kingdom of God" regarding those who are in the flesh. But what does he mean? The issue is the sin-polluted existence of the old man and the Spirit-renewed existence of the new. Note a similar passage earlier in first Corinthians:

"Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God," (1 Corinthians 6:8-10).

Paul also wrote to the Galatians:

"Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary," (Galatians 6:7-9).

This is, indeed, precisely how Paul concludes his point in 1 Corinthians 15 as well:

"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord," (1 Corinthians 15:58).

While Paul certainly sometimes uses "flesh" to refer to physical human bodies, when he contrasts "flesh" with "spirit," his point is not a matter of material substance. And, as we noted, Paul already set up what he meant by this contrast earlier in the same letter.

It is also worth noting that the earliest Christian writers consistently interpreted 1 Corinthians 15:50 as referring to the removal of the corruption of sin from our bodies so as to grant our bodies eternal life.1 Over against the Gnostics, who saw flesh as evil and sought an ethereal, disembodied eternity in the heavens, the early biblical Christians saw in Paul's words a promise that our bodies would be made perfect and rise incorruptible, but remain physical and quite human. This also comports with the Old Testament hope we see expressed in men like Job:

"Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God," (Job 19:26).

Job's hope was that even after the destruction of his body he would rise in his flesh and see God! Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe that those who rise in bodies of flesh will see God, but Job believed it. The Early Christians believed it, and Paul taught it.

Walking through the Passage

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is defending the central Christian teaching that those who are in Christ await a future, bodily resurrection. Christians can face persecution, hardship, and loss now because this struggle is temporary and after death will ultimately come life eternal. Paul then raises a common objection of his day so as to answer it, saying:

"But someone will say, 'How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?' You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own," (1 Corinthians 15:35-38).

Paul's point is not that the seed that goes into the ground is an entirely different substance than the body that comes out. That wouldn't make any sense. A grain of wheat going into the ground will rise again as a complete wheat plant. It will not rise again as a whale or an eagle. An acorn buried in the earth will come forth as a whole oak tree. It will never come forth as an angel. Paul's analogy assumes that the body that rises is the completed and perfected form of the mere seed that dies. He is not saying that we die and become some other creature. That would be reincarnation, not resurrection. Paul is saying that our bodies will not rise with the frailties and corruptions with which they died. They will be restored, completed, and perfected. They will still be human bodies, but they will be more alive than ever before! After another brief example from the different kinds of bodies that exist in visible nature (1 Corinthians 15:39-41), Paul goes on to explain:

"So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body," (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

Jehovah's Witnesses tend to latch on to "natural body" and "spiritual body" without observing the other contrasts by which these ideas are explained. Paul defines the body that dies by words like perishable, dishonor, and weakness. He describes the resurrected body using the terms imperishable, glory, and power. The contrast here is between a body under the curse of sin that is fragile, mortal, corruptible, grows old, sick, dies, and decays. The resurrected body is the opposite of that. With the curse of sin removed, it is vibrant, alive, and no longer subject to age, sickness, death, or decay. This is the difference between the "natural" body (the body enslaved to sin and death in Adam) and the "spiritual" body (the body liberated in Christ.). Paul continues:

"So also it is written, 'The first man, Adam, became a living soul.' The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly," (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).

Paul does not say that the difference between Adam and Jesus is that Adam had a physical body and Jesus did not. When Jesus became a man, when Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit and bore the Messiah as a virgin, the child conceived was a physical human being. As to His substance, He consisted of flesh like any other man, and that flesh did not deprive Him of His glory:

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth," (John 1:14).

Likewise, Jesus rose from the dead still as a man. He explained to His followers:

"See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have," (Luke 24:39).

Indeed, Paul himself teaches earlier in the chapter that Jesus "was buried and then rose again," (1 Corinthians 15:4). What was buried is what rose. The body that went down into the grave is the body that came up out of it. Paul's point contrasting Adam and Jesus was not a matter of substance. Jesus was made of physical flesh. But there was a crucial difference. Adam was made from the earth. Jesus descended from heaven. This is the difference to which Paul draws our attention. We bear the image of the earthy man. In him is sin, death, and corruption. We must bear the image of the heavenly man. In Him is life and eternity. None of this means we cease to be humans and reincarnate as some angelic beings in ethereal heavenly realms beyond. Instead, it means freedom from the curse under Adam and new and better life in Christ for all ages to come! Paul goes on to explain:

"Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'" (1 Corinthians 15:50-55).

Note, we do not cast off the perishable and replace it with the imperishable. We don't leave behind the mortal body to rot and take up a new immortal body. The perishable must "put on" imperishable. The mortal must "put on" immortality. Something is added to the nature of our bodies, but they are still the same bodies. They are completed, perfected, but not traded out for something else. As Paul writes to the Corinthians again later:

"For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life," (2 Corinthians 5:4).

The kingdom of God is not an other-worldly realm strictly for angels, ghosts, or spirit creatures without bodies. All who are in Christ will see the kingdom of God with gladness, and we will do so as men and women in sinless and perfected human bodies. All that is truly good about this life will be a part of the next, and yet unpolluted by sin and (most glorious of all) in the very presence of Almighty God! We will have intimate fellowship with our LORD as never before. This is the amazing hope of the biblical gospel and a hope which our Jehovah's Witness friends and neighbors greatly need to hear and receive through the true gospel and the real Jesus Christ.

 

Inside the Bible

Jesus said
John 6:40, "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."

Paul said
Romans 8:11 "But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you."

The Prophets said
Daniel 12:2, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt."

 

Inside CARM

Do annihilation and resurrection make sense?
According to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society when you die, you cease to exist.  On Judgment Day, only faithful Jehovah's Witnesses will be resurrected to life eternal on Paradise Earth.  The rest of all mankind will be annihilated, wiped out, and made to not exist with no eternal punishment in a fiery hell. There is a logical problem with this view.

The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Resurrection of Jesus
The Jehovah's Witnesses teach that Jesus did not rise from the dead in the same body He died in. This is a dangerous doctrine that contradicts the Bible and condemns those who believe it to eternal destruction because it is denying His physical resurrection which is the proof that He conquered death.

Enoch, the Watchtower, and rightly handling Scripture
The Watchtower Society felt the need to mangle clear Scriptures to get Enoch wrong because they had mangled other clear Scriptures to get the books of John and Hebrews wrong. Jehovah's Witness literature cannot handle scripture even in the little things. Their audacious claims to be the only channel through which anyone can understand the Bible are thus ludicrous. They are incompetent with the Word and must not be trusted as guides or teachers of God's people.

 

  • 1. For some examples, see: Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 14; Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 50; Novatian, A Treatise Concerning the Trinity, Chapter 10; Methodius, Discourse on the Resurrection, Part 3, Chapter 2.