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First Corinthians 15--Victory over Death and Hades

Oct 05, 2017

Epicurus was born in 341 B.C. on the island of Samos, which was not far from Ephesus. When his teacher quoted a Greek poem, saying, “Verily, first of all chaos was created,” Epicurus interrupted to ask, “Out of what chaos was it created?” The teacher became angry and told him it was no business of his to know. He told him to go to the philosophers for an answer. He replied, “Well, that is what I will do.”

He soon adopted the atomic theory, which was not original with him, but which he learned from Democritus, the atomist. Eventually, he set forth his Authorized Doctrines, consisting of three parts: Canon, Physics, and Ethics. Paul was very familiar with these, setting forth his own parallel models that were based upon the Hebrew Scriptures. Norman Wentworth DeWitt, in his book, St. Paul and Epicurus, page 11, says,

“Under the term physics the Greeks included all natural science, the division into various branches such as chemistry and biology being destined to await the modern era. Epicurus chose to sponsor the atomic theory of the constitution of matter, whether animal or mineral. The term atom signified the minimum self-existing particle of matter. The word itself means ‘indivisible’ and in order to express this idea in Latin the Romans coined the word individuus, from which we have the word ‘individual’.

"The whole theory of physics was reduced by Epicurus to Twelve Elementary Principles and a syllabus bearing this title was published for the use of his disciples.”

It is from the area of Epicurean Physics that Paul borrowed the term atomos in 1 Corinthians 15:52. By the time of Paul, Epicurean physics had had three centuries in which to establish itself, and the definition of atomos was clear and well established. Hence, when Paul used the term, he was speaking of the material that was to be changed, whereas his secondary statement, “in the twinkling of an eye” spoke of the timing that was instantaneous. Paul was not simply repeating himself.

That Paul was familiar with Epicurean physics is abundantly clear, because in Galatians 4:3 he refers to the atomic theory, saying that in times past, “we were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.” Atoms were also called elements, and Paul was referring to the bondage of Epicurean materialism. DeWitt tells us again on page 12,

“… [I]t was usual also to denote the atoms by the word elements, which properly means letters of the alphabet. The etymology of this word elements is curious and enlightening. The names of the letters seem to have come to us through the Romans from the Etruscans, who for some reason began with L M N, that is, el em en, hence Latin elementa, instead of beginning with A B C.”

Hence the bondage of non-believers was in the fact that they were bound by materialistic philosophy, bound spiritually and psychologically to tiny pieces of matter, atoms or elements. In other words, such unbelievers did not believe in the existence of God, a Creator, or of spirit. Therefore, they had no basis to change their identity from the old man to the new, or from the soulish man to the spiritual man.

In a word, the soulish man is carnal and bound to matter. It is not a spiritual soul, as other Greek philosophers believed.

Epicurus differed from mainstream Greek thought. Epicurus believed in a material soul, whereas most other philosophers believed in a spiritual soul. Curiously enough, in this particular issue, Epicurus and Paul were alike, though Paul believed that God had created “the all” (ta panta).

In the providence of God, in fact, the teachings of Epicurus had probably forced Paul to ponder the meaning of atoms or elements. Paul practically admitted to being an Epicurean in his early life, saying in Galatians 4:3, “WE, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.” By including himself among those in bondage at one time, he seems to admit that he had once been a follower of Epicurus. DeWitt believed this, although it is also possible that Paul was referring to carnal Judaism. If so, he was drawing a comparison between carnal Epicureanism and carnal Judaism.

At any rate, the point is that Paul’s use of the term atomos supports the idea of a bodily resurrection and a spiritual body that is inherently different from our present mortal body. This spiritual body, our inheritance, is as Jesus’ post-resurrection body in that it is both material and spiritual at the same time. Spirit and matter are to be married, not divorced. Matter is not inherently evil, nor was it created by the devil (demiurge). Matter will fulfill its purpose by expressing spirit after the great marriage between heaven and earth.

The Victory

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:54,

54 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.”

“Victory” in this case is used as a synonym for life. The victory is obtained by this change from mortality and decay to immortality and incorruption. It is another way of saying that death will be abolished (1 Corinthians 15:26). Paul then says in 1 Corinthians 15:55 NASB,

55 O Death [thanatos, “death”], where is your victory? O death [hades, “grave”], where is your sting?

Why the NASB mistranslates this verse is a mystery. I know of no other translation that renders both Thanatos and hades as “death.” The word hades is often translated “hell,” but it actually means “grave,” as the KJV renders it in this verse. It should be pointed out that this is the only instance where, in all of his letters, Paul uses the term hades. He was certainly not a preacher of hellfire and brimstone. The only time he acknowledges hades is when he speaks of our victory over death and the grave.

Verse 55 is actually a quotation from Hosea 13:14, which the NASB renders,

14 I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from death. O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting?...

We see, then, that the Greek word Hades is the equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol. We must define Hades, not through Greek philosophy, but by its Hebrew equivalent. The Septuagint says, “O death, where is your PENALTY.” The “thorns” of death refer metaphorically to the penalty for sin.

Paul utilizes a two-fold comparison here. The two concepts of mortality and perishability (that is, decay) are restated as “death” and “the grave.” Mortality is easily seen as a synonym for death. The perishability and decay of disease and old age is compared to the grave, where the body fully decays as it turns to dust.

God has promised that believers will overcome death and the grave in victory. No one will be given such victory apart from faith in Christ, but God has promised to turn every heart to Himself, either in this life or the next, so that in the end, all will secure the victory. Then death itself, the last enemy, will be abolished, and God will be all in all.

The Sting of Death

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:56, 57,

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

As I said earlier, the “thorn” of death is the penalty for sin. Hence, Paul says, “the sting of death is sin,” because it was Adam’s sin that infused death into all men (Romans 5:12). Sin, of course, has no power to kill apart from the law of God, for it is the law which makes sin sinful. Paul says in Romans 4:15,

15 For the law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation [or transgression].

In other words, in order for God to judge sin, there must be a law to break. If God had put away the law, as so many Evangelicals teach, then all men would be perfect in the sight of the law, and God would save all men by putting away the law. But if He had put away the law, neither would Christ have had to die to pay the penalty for the sin of the world.

But we know that this is not how God will save all mankind. Instead of putting away the law, Jesus paid its penalty and established the means by which men could be saved—through faith in Christ. God’s New Covenant vow thus began to be fulfilled; and when He has turned the hearts of all men to Himself, then He will be their God, and they will be His people. When complete, His glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.


This is part 114 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones