Doctrine of the Resurrection according to St. Paul

Author: Pope John Paul II

Doctrine of the Resurrection according to St. Paul

Pope John Paul II


The following is the text of the Holy Father's address during the general audience on 27 January.

1. During the preceding audiences we reflected on Christ's words about the other world, which will emerge together with the resurrection of bodies. Those words had an extraordinarily intense resonance in the teaching of St. Paul. Between the answer given to the Sadducees, transmitted by the synoptic Gospels (cf. Mt 22:30; Mk 12:25; Lk 20:35-36), and Paul's apostolate there took place first of all the fact of the resurrection of Christ himself and a series of meetings with the risen Christ. Among these must be included, as the last link, the event that occurred in the neighborhood of Damascus. Saul or Paul of Tarsus who, on his conversion, became the Apostle of the Gentiles, also had his own post-paschal experience, similar to that of the other apostles. At the basis of his faith in the resurrection, which he expresses above all in the First Letter to the Corinthians (ch. 15), there is certainly that meeting with the risen Christ, which became the beginning and foundation of his apostolate.

God is not dead

2. It is difficult to sum up here and comment adequately on the stupendous and ample argumentation of the fifteenth chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians in all its details. It is significant that, while Christ replied to the Sadducees, who "say that there is no resurrection" (Lk 20:27), with the words reported by the synoptic Gospels, Paul, on his part, replied or rather engaged in polemics (in conformity with his temperament) with those who contested it.(1) In his (pre-paschal) answer, Christ did not refer to his own resurrection, but appealed to the fundamental reality of the Old Testament covenant, to the reality of the living God. The conviction of the possibility of the resurrection is based on this: the living God "is not God of the dead, but of the living" (Mk 12:27). Paul's post-paschal argumentation on the future resurrection referred above all to the reality and the truth of the resurrection of Christ. In fact, he defends this truth even as the foundation of the faith in its integrity: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.... But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead" (1 Cor 15:14, 20).

God of the living

3. Here we are on the same line as revelation. The resurrection of Christ is the last and the fullest word of the self-revelation of the living God as "not God of the dead, but of the living" (Mk 12:27). It is the last and fullest confirmation of the truth about God which is expressed right from the beginning through this revelation. Furthermore, the resurrection is the reply of the God of life to the historical inevitability of death, to which man was subjected from the moment of breaking the first covenant and which, together with sin, entered his history. This answer about the victory won over death is illustrated by the First Letter to the Corinthians (ch. 15) with extraordinary perspicacity. It presents the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of that eschatological fulfillment, in which, through him and in him, everything will return to the Father, everything will be subjected to him, that is, handed back definitively, "that God may be everything to everyone" (1 Cor 15:28). And then—in this definitive victory over sin, over what opposed the creature to the Creator—death also will be vanquished: "The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Cor 15:26).

Imperishable soul

4. The words that can be considered the synthesis of Pauline anthropology concerning the resurrection take their place in this context. It will be opportune to dwell longer here on these words. We read in the First Letter to the Corinthians 15:42-46 about the resurrection of the dead: "What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual."

Historical experience

5. Between this Pauline anthropology of the resurrection and the one that emerges from the text of the synoptic Gospels (Mt 22:30; Mk 12:25; Lk 20:35-36), there exists an essential consistency, only the text of First Letter to the Corinthians is more developed. Paul studies in depth what Christ had proclaimed. At the same time, he penetrates the various aspects of that truth which had been expressed concisely and substantially in the words written in the synoptic Gospels. It is also significant for the Pauline text that man's eschatological perspective, based on faith in the resurrection of the dead, is united with reference to the beginning as well as with deep awareness of man's historical situation. The man whom Paul addressed in the First Letter to the Corinthians and who (like the Sadducees) is contrary to the possibility of the resurrection, has also his (historical) experience of the body. From this experience it emerges quite clearly that the body is perishable, weak, physical, in dishonor.

Mystery of creation

6. Paul confronts such a man, to whom his words are addressed—either in the community of Corinth or also, I would say, in all times—with the risen Christ, the last Adam. Doing so, Paul invites him, in a way, to follow in the footsteps of his own post-paschal experience. At the same time he recalls to him the first Adam. That is, he induces him to turn to the beginning, to that first truth about man and the world which is at the basis of the revelation of the mystery of the living God. In this way, Paul reproduces in his synthesis all that Christ had announced when he had referred, at three different moments, to the beginning in the conversation with the Pharisees (cf. Mt 19:3-8; Mk 10:2-9); to the human heart, as the place of struggle with lusts within man, during the Sermon on the Mount (Cf. Mt 5:27); and to the resurrection as the reality of the "other world," in the conversation with the Sadducees (cf. Mt 22:30; Mk 12:25; Lk 20:35-36).

Enlivening of matter

7. It belongs to the style of Paul's synthesis that it plunges its roots into the revealed mystery of creation and redemption as a whole, from which it is developed and in the light of which alone it can be explained. According to the biblical narrative, the creation of man is an enlivening of matter by means of the spirit, thanks to which "the first man Adam became a living being" (1 Cor 15:45). The Pauline text repeats here the words of Genesis (2:7), that is, of the second narrative of the creation of man (the so-called Yahwist narrative). From the same source it is known that this original "animation of the body" underwent corruption because of sin.

At this point of the First Letter to the Corinthians the author does not speak directly of original sin. Yet the series of definitions which he attributes to the body of historical man, writing that it is " dishonor..." indicates sufficiently what the consequence of sin is, according to revelation. Paul himself will call it elsewhere "bondage to decay" (Rom 8:21). The whole of creation is subjected indirectly to this "bondage to decay" owing to the sin of man, who was placed by the Creator in the midst of the visible world in order to subdue it (cf. Gn 1:28). So man's sin has a dimension that is not only interior, but also cosmic. According to this dimension, the body—which Paul (in conformity with his experience) characterizes as " dishonor..."—expresses in itself the state of creation after sin. This creation "has been groaning in travail together until now" (Rom 8:22).

However, just as labor pains are united with the desire for birth, with the hope of a new child, so, too, the whole of creation "waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God..." and cherishes the hope to "be set free from its bondage to decay, and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:19-21).

Try to understand

8. Through this cosmic context of the affirmation contained in the Letter to the Romans—in a way, through the "body of all creatures"—let us try to understand completely the Pauline interpretation of the resurrection. According to Paul, this image of the body of historical man, so deeply realistic and adapted to the universal experience of men, conceals within itself not only the "bondage of decay," but also hope, like the hope that accompanies labor pains. That happens because the Apostle grasps in this image also the presence of the mystery of redemption. Awareness of that mystery comes precisely from all man's experiences which can be defined as the "bondage of decay." It comes because redemption operates in man's soul by means of the gifts of the Spirit: "We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8:23). Redemption is the way to the resurrection. The resurrection constitutes the definitive accomplishment of the redemption of the body.

We will come back to the analysis of the Pauline text in the First Letter to the Corinthians in our further reflections.


1. Among the Corinthians there were probably movements of thought marked by Platonic dualism and neo-Pythagoreanism of a religious shade, Stoicism and Epicureanism. All Greek philosophies, moreover, denied the resurrection of the body. Paul had already experienced in Athens the reaction of the Greeks to the doctrine of the resurrection, during his address at the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17:32).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 February 1982, page 3

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