Responding to I. Howard Marshall, who said that Paul does not “affirm that all die in Adam and all will certainly come to life in Christ” in 1 Cor 15:22, ((I . Howard Marshall, “Does the New Testament Teach Universal Salvation?” in Called to One Hope: Perspectives on the Life to Come. (ed. J. Colwell; Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000), 19.)) Talbott states plainly that, “in fact that is just what Paul’s sentence says…[Paul did not] say merely that all those who are in Christ would be made alive. To the contrary, he said that in Christ shall all be made alive.” ((Thomas Talbott, “Christ Victorious,” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (ed. Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 25.)) Thus frames the interpretive issues surrounding this important Pauline universal salvation verse. As Marshall reveals, “Talbott asserts that [1 Cor 15:22] means ‘The very same all that died in Adam shall be made alive in Christ.’” ((Marshall, “The New Testament Does Not Teach Universal Salvation,” 69.)) Neglecting the surrounding context, Talbott and others home in on the isolated sentence, “for as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” ((1 Cor 15:22.)) resulting in a misinterpretation and misapplication of this very important sentence.
In order to properly interpret and apply 1 Cor 15:22, one must place it in its broader context in 1 Cor 15:20-28, especially its immediate in v. 20-23. In this pericope, after proclaiming that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, Paul “sets out to explain how the resurrection of the dead has implications for those who have died in Christ.” ((Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 547.)) As v. 12 indicates, some questioned whether there was such a thing, a resurrection of the dead. Paul announces “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” ((1 Cor 15:13.)) If Christ had not been raised from the dead, then Paul’s preaching was useless and so was the Corinthian’s faith. Paul goes on to assure the Corinthians in v. 20 that Jesus Christ Himself “has indeed been raised from the dead,” which should assure the church at Corinth of their own bodily resurrection. As Fee says, “the resurrection of Christ absolutely guaranteed for Paul the resurrection of all who are ‘in Christ.’ This is the point he makes in vv. 20-22, using the metaphor of firstfruits and the Adam-Christ analogy.” ((Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987), 746.)) 1 Cor 15:20, then, is couched within a theological argument for a resurrection of the dead rooted in the reality of Christ’s own resurrection. Paul is not arguing for universal salvation, but for the reality of resurrection in light of Christ’s, which he argues along two tracks: firstfruits and an Adam Christology. ((Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 303.))
Paul first argues that Christ Himself is the the firstfruit, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” ((1 Cor 15:13. )) While some have argued for an OT connection with this “firstfruits” language—denoting “the first portion of the crop (or flock) which is offered in Thanksgiving to God” ((M. C. de Boer, The Defeat of Death: Apocalyptic Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), 109.))—others believe the language is less biblical and more metaphorical, functioning to signify a down payment and pledge by God for the final eschatological resurrection harvest. Fee argues that Christ is “God’s ‘firstfruits,’ God’s own pledge that there will be a full harvest of those who will be raised from the dead…Paul is asserting by way of metaphor that the resurrection of the believing dead is absolutely inevitable; it has been guaranteed by God himself.” ((Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 749.)) Hollemann goes further by arguing that Christ is “the ‘representative’ of those who will be raised: Christians will share in the resurrection of their representative.” ((Joost Hollemann, Resurrection and Parousia: A Traditio-Historical Study of Paul’s Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 49. (emph. mine))) Jesus is the first one who represents those who will come after Him in resurrection. Witherington echos both Hollemann and Fee in stressing “a connection between Jesus’ and the believer’s future resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is the first part of the harvest of those who have ‘fallen asleep’ and also that which assures the Corinthians that the rest of the harvest will eventually come.” ((Witherington, Conflict and Community, 304.)) The firstfruit resurrection of Jesus is “a harbinger of things to come…[it] implies that other fruits will be harvested at a later time.” ((Collins, First Corinthians, 548.)) For Paul, eschatological resurrection of those who have fallen asleep is his point.
An important question must be raised in v. 20, however, which also frames v. 22: who are “those who have fallen asleep”? Paul makes it clear in v. 20 that Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, who have died. It is clear from the preceeding context that Paul has believers in mind: not only does the second person pronoun “you” and “your” clearly refer to the Church of Corinth, but v. 18 explicitly states those “who have fallen asleep in Christ.” ((1 Cor 15:18. (emph. mine))) Of v. 20 Fee notes “here in particular Paul’s consistent use of “fallen asleep” to refer to believers who have died comes into focus. Not all who have died are raised to life in Christ, but only those who have fallen asleep in him.” ((Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 749.n14. (emph. mine))) The context for v. 20, then, must bear in mind v. 18 in order to understand that Paul refers to Christ as the harbinger of things to come for those who are in Him. Both have great contextual bearing upon our sentence of interest in 1 Cor 15:22. Here, Paul continues to extend and strengthen this representative role of Christ in his Adam-Christ analogy.
In 1 Cor 15:22 Paul first articulates what has become known as his Adam Christology; it is one of three passages where Paul explicitly places Adam and Christ in some sort of parallelism, where Jesus is regarded as God’s true humanity where all of humanity in Adam has failed. ((N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 26-29.)) Dunn develops our understanding of Paul’s argument when he writes, “Paul deliberately sets Jesus alongside Adam, as the one who answers to the claimant and long-standing emergency brought about for humankind by Adam’s first disobedience.” ((James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 200.)) He goes on to say that Adam here, as in Romans 5, is understood in 1 Cor 15:21-22 in a representative capacity: “Adam is humankind, an individual who embodies or represents a whole race of people.” ((Dunn, Theology of Paul, 200.)) Most modern commentators agree with this assessment: Adam stands as the beginning of the old order; ((Fee, First Epistle to Corinthians, 751.)) Adam is the head of the old creation, where all of mankind is views as originally existing, in whom all die; ((Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 1225.)) Adam is viewed as a historical person, responsible for bringing death into the human world; ((Witherington, Conflict and Community, 304.)) and Adam’s example is used as the prototypical human. ((Collins, First Corinthians, 548.)) Paul means to say that all of humanity has died in Adam, who is the representative of humanity in sin and death. This literalism leads Paul to use Adam as a symbol in order to make the reverse argument with Christ: the literal resurrection of Christ reverses the effects of Adam in order bring literal new life; Christ acts as a symbol for the new order, the new humanity that replaces the old in Adam.
The final part to Paul’s Adam-Christ analogy is Christ, in whom all are made alive. Thiselton best describes Paul’s typological parallel: “Paul shows that corporate and structural dimensions of ‘being human’ that characterizes the reign of sin and death all the more guarantees that all who are in Christ will share in solidarity with him the reality of the resurrection of the dead.” ((Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1226.)) As Adam embodies and represents a whole race of people, so also does Christ. Dunn describes this Adam-Christ relationship in terms of epochs: “Adam is the pattern or ‘prototype’ of Christ in that each begins an epoch, and the character of each epoch is established by their actions. Hence all who belong to the first epoch are ‘in Adam,’ and all who belong to the second are ‘in Christ.’” ((Dunn, Theology of Paul, 200.)) To what extent does the latter epoch embrace humanity, however? Though Paul clearly envisions Adam representing all humanity with sin and death, are all represented by Christ in the same way? Does Paul outlines a universal salvation here?
Supporting the theological positions of Talbott and MacDonald are a few exegetes who believe the all of 1 Cor 15:22b indeed refers to all humanity. As Collins argues:
To show that the resurrection of Christ does more than merely suggest the resurrection of those who have died in Christ Paul exploits the example of Adam…In Paul’s exposition of the Adam-Christ figure vv. 21 and 22 are set in synonymous parallelism. As such they mutually interpret one another. Christ is the source of life…By means of Christ all will be made alive. ((Collins, First Corinthians, 548. (emph. mine)))
Collins clearly believes that Paul is not merely suggesting those in Christ are made alive, but instead all humanity is in view as with Adam. Likewise, de Boer denies the syntax of v. 22b must be restricted to those who are in Christ: “the translation ‘all who are in Christ’ for v. 22b is not warranted by the syntax and is insupportable in view of 22a. One can scarcely translate the latter ‘all who are in Adam die,’ if such a translation is meant to imply that some people are not ‘in Adam’ and therefore do not die.’” ((de Boer, The Defeat of Death, 112.)) One could be sympathetic to and find resonance with such reads if the sentence in question was viewed in isolation. Surely Paul does write that all will be made alive in Christ as all die in Adam. Viewed in context, however, this sentence means something very different than what Collins, de Boer and others interpret it as saying.
Fee reminds us that ‘the general resurrection of the dead is not Paul’s concern, neither here nor elsewhere in the argument. Both the context and Paul’s theology as a whole make it clear that in saying ‘in Christ all will be made alive,’ he means ‘in Christ all who are in Christ will be made alive.’” ((Fee, First Epistle to Corinthians, 750. (emph. mine))) As we have already seen, the context in which 1 Cor 15:22 appears relates very specifically to those who are in Christ, and Paul expects us to read it in the context of his argument, rather than as a separate abstract theological argument for universal salvation as Christian universalists do. Marshall strongly argues that there is absolutely “no contextual evidence to justify the view that all people will be in Christ and will be made alive.” ((Marshall, “The New Testament Does Not Teach Universal Salvation,” 70.)) Richard B. Hays strengthens this argument when he reveals that “The unqualified ‘all’ of verse 22 is given further specification in the sentence immediately following: it is ‘those who belong to Christ’ who will be raised at the time of his coming…[Paul] says nothing one way or the other in this passage about the resurrection and judgment of unbelievers.” ((Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 264.)) Therefore, it is neither responsible nor accurate to argue for a universal salvation in 1 Cor 15:22. Contextually Paul is arguing for no such thing. Instead he is arguing that those who are in Christ can be assured that since He Himself has been raised from the dead, so too will they upon His return.