Victory over Death and Sheol
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.”
Epicurus 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 Cor. 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 timing. In other words, the change will be instantaneous rather than a lengthy process.
It is abundantly clear that Paul was familiar with Epicurean physics, because in Gal. 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 and were bound spiritually and psychologically to tiny pieces of matter, atoms or elements. In other words, such Epicurean unbelievers did not believe in the existence of God, a Creator, or even 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 had something in common. Neither believed in a spiritual soul. They differed, however, in that Epicurus did not believe in spiritual things, while Paul did.
Paul agreed with the other philosophers that spirit existed. However, the philosophers thought that the soul was spiritual, whereas Paul believed that the soul was fleshly—that is, ruled by the flesh. Here also Paul differed with Epicurus, because Paul did not teach that the soul was composed of matter, but only that it was fleshly, or oriented toward the flesh.
In the providence of God, 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 Gal. 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, which was a religion of bondage through the Old Covenant. My guess is that Paul saw both Epicureanism and Judaism as carnal religions, though in different ways. If so, in Gal. 4:3 he was most likely comparing carnal Epicureanism with carnal Judaism.
At any rate, the point is that Paul’s use of the term atomos supports the idea of a bodily resurrection, where the conscious identity of the New Creation man would have access to both a spiritual form and a physical body. That future physical body is not the same as the corrupt body that is currently our residence. It represents a merger between heaven and earth—a heavenly identity in an earthly manifestation.
This body, our inheritance, is like 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 becoming one of two homes for the New Creation Man after the great marriage between heaven and earth. Because this “priest” will have access to both garments, he will be able to minister in both realms.
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 by the change from decay to immortality and incorruption. It is another way of saying that death will be abolished (1 Cor. 15:26).
Paul then says in 1 Corinthins 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 here in this verse.
It should be pointed out that this is the only instance in all of his letters where 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 the eyes of Greek philosophy, but by its Hebrew equivalent.
Hosea also says, “O Death, where are your thorns?” The Septuagint renders this, “O death, where is your PENALTY.” The “thorns” of death refer metaphorically to the penalty for sin.
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 thorns sting those who brush up against them. So by Paul’s metaphor, taken from Hosea, death stings us like a thorn. It was Adam’s sin that brought thorns and thistles as part of the judgment for sin (Gen. 3:18). Hence, thorns came to symbolize death, not only in mankind but in the earth itself.
Paul says that “the power of sin is the law.” Sin has no power to kill us apart from the law of God, for it is the law which makes sin sinful. Paul says in Rom. 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 that has been broken. 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, Christ would not 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. 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.
Then and only then can it be said that God has fulfilled all that He has promised.
Having proven that the dead will be raised and not left in the grave forever, Paul concludes in 1 Cor. 15:58,
58 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.
If there were no resurrection, and if we only had one short life on earth, what a waste it would be to labor for a Kingdom that would never come! We would wait in vain for the day of reward. We would endure hardship, even to the point of martyrdom, all for nothing. Would it not be far better (as the world thinks) to live for our own pleasure. Should we not say with the world, then, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”?
But Jesus Christ was indeed raised from the dead, proving once and for all that the dead are raised. There have been others who were raised from the dead, such as Lazarus, but these were not raised to immortality. Lazarus later died in Marseilles in Gaul (now France) after ministering to the church for many years. Only Jesus Himself was raised in glory, setting the pattern for our own resurrection.
This is the basis of hope for every believer, for our expectation is “the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23-25). It is our hope, because it is not yet seen or experienced, though we have already received the promise of salvation. Such hope motivates us to press into the high calling of God.
This ends Paul’s instruction and admonition to the Corinthian church as he attempted to answer Chloe’s letter and to address the problems that had surfaced in the church during his absence. After this, Paul addresses some important practical matters.