The Eschatology Debate
A Neglected Millennial Passage from Saint Paul
I have borrowed the title above from the premillennialist Robert D. Culver, whose article bearing it appeared in Bibliotheca Sacra in 1956. In his article, Culver pointed out correctly that the notion of two resurrections with a millennium separating them is "the prime essential affirmation of premillennialism." Alas, however, "It is the usual thing for discussion of this subject to proceed as if the twentieth chapter of Revelation contains the only essential data on the subject -- as if the whole issue of a further probationary period after the parousia of Christ could be settled once and for all if a period of time between a future resurrection of the just and another of the unjust could be discovered in or expelled from that passage. Granted that Revelation 20 is the most complete passage on the subject, its value as definitive evidence is hampered by the fact that it appears as part of an apocalypse or vision. Of prophetic visions Moses was told there would always be something less than 'mouth to mouth' speech, 'even apparently and not in dark speeches' (Num 12:8). All informed persons who attempt exposition of the Book of Revelation will heartily agree."
Therefore, Culver would like to find a passage outside of Revelation that contains the "prime essential affirmation." He thinks that 1 Corinthians 15:20-24 fits the bill. Here we have a passage "from the prosaic, usually factual and direct pen of Paul," one that discusses the resurrection in plain language. In Culver's words "it is difficult to find even a common figure of speech." Culver believes that if he can demonstrate that this passage supports premillennialism, he will have placed the doctrine upon a more secure foundation. For the premillennialist, whose eschatology depends largely upon the interpretation of one difficult, figurative passage of Scripture (Rv. 20:1-10), this is a pertinent concern.
I argue here that this passage is indeed a lucid statement of Paul's eschatology and one that comports with John's vision in Revelation 20:1-10. Contrary to Culver's hopes, however, the teaching of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 about the resurrection and the use of Psalms 2:8 and 110:1 accord with a postmillennial rather than a premillennial doctrine of the future.
The Premillennial Interpretation
How, then, does Culver interpret this passage? The premillennial interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 proceeds along the following lines. In Adam all die, so in Christ, all men shall be resurrected in the future (vs. 22). But there is a God determined order of three different groups. To begin with, Christ Himself is resurrected as the firstfruits (23a). Then, Christians are resurrected at His parousia (23b). Finally, at the end of the millennium, the rest of the dead are raised (24a). The quotation of Psalm 110:1 in verse 25 and the picture of Christ handing over the kingdom in verse 24 would be understood with reference to the millennial age, at the very end of which death itself is destroyed (vs. 26).
While this interpretation seems plausible at first, upon scrutiny, it will be seen to labor under severe difficulties. First, the initial words of verse 24, eita to telos (literally, "then, the end"), seem hardly to fit the premillennial view. It is indeed true that eita ("then") implies some sort of interval after the parousia and before the end. As the premillennialist Godet indicates, the length of the interval is unspecified; eita implies a "longer or shorter interval between the advent and what he [Paul] calls the end." What the premillennial interpretation requires us to believe, however, is that Paul speaks of a parousia which brings in a thousand year glorious reign of Christ, but for some reason, he passes over that age in silence. We are to understand that Paul refers to a premillennial parousia and then jumps immediately to the end of the millennium, almost as if the intervening 1000 glorious years were not so important. It could be argued, of course, that his particular purpose in the passage was not to expound the millennium, but it still strikes me as remarkably odd that a millennium, in which all of history is to find its glorious climax, could be passed over here without so much as a single word.
There is another difficulty concerning the use of the word eita. Though it may be said to imply an interval in most, or even all, cases where it is used, there is no example in the New Testament of eita being used of a long interval. But in the premillennial scheme, the interval from the parousia to the end is at least 1000 years -- and it may be longer, for some premillennialists understand the 1000 years of Revelation figuratively. Neither in the LXX, nor in the Apocrypha, nor in the New Testament is there any example of eita being used to imply such an extended period of time. It seems all the more unlikely, then, that Paul would take a word which regularly connotes a relatively short interval and include within it not only the time, but also all the glory of the millennial kingdom.
A second, and more important, problem concerns the doctrine of the resurrection in the context of Paul's discussion. Paul speaks of death as the last enemy to be destroyed (vs. 26). But in the premillennial view, there is a resurrection before the millennium, and that resurrection is the resurrection of God's people -- those who share in the resurrection glory of Christ. Thus, death as an enemy has already been destroyed long before the end. The problem here cannot be evaded by the idea that Paul is speaking of death in the abstract so that it is not until the end of the millennium that it is finally defeated, for Paul himself, later in this chapter, identifies the defeat of death with the time of the resurrection and transformation of God's people (15:51-57). Consideration of the larger context demonstrates that in the discussion of the most crucial point, the resurrection of God's people, premillennialism cannot be reconciled with Paul's words.
There is a third problem, the one which presents the most formidable challenge to the premillennial interpretation. Paul says that Jesus must reign until death has been destroyed (vs. 25-26), which the premillennialist can only interpret to mean that the millennial reign of Jesus will continue until death is defeated after the millennium. This confronts not only the problem with the timing of the resurrection victory of God's people pointed out above, but also the problem that Paul, like the rest of the New Testament writers, everywhere speaks of the resurrection of Christ as His enthronement. In addition, every writer in the New Testament who quotes Psalm 110:1, speaks of Jesus' reign not as if it began after the parousia, but as having begun with Jesus' resurrection. The implications of this for premillennialism are devastating.
The first apostle to declare that Psalm 110:1 was fulfilled in the resurrection and ascension of Christ was Peter, in his famous Pentecost sermon: "For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.' Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Ac. 2:34-36). The writer of the book of Hebrews twice refers to Psalm 110:1 being fulfilled in the resurrection and ascension of Christ (Hb. 1:13; 10:12-13), the second time in terms most emphatic: "But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God,' and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." (Hb. 10:12-13). In Ephesians, also, Paul alludes to Psalm 110:1 and proclaims unequivocally that the inauguration of Christ's reign took place at the time of His resurrection (Eph. 1:20-22).
In the past, dispensationalists disputed this reading of the New Testament evidence. In most cases, the importance of Psalm 110 and its use in the New Testament was not treated seriously. When it was discussed, the plain obvious sense of Scripture, the literal reading, was denied in favor of a complicated exegesis based upon fine distinctions. Alva J. McClain, for example, discovered in Peter's words not an announcement that Jesus fulfilled the Davidic promise, but a distinction between Jesus present session in heaven and the throne of David which He would occupy in the future. Remarkably, in his massive work on the kingdom of God, McClain does not deal with other quotations of Psalm 110 in the epistles. Other classic dispensational authors are equally silent. In one of the most detailed dispensational studies of prophecy ever published, J. Dwight Pentecost includes no exposition of Peter's pentecostal sermon. Similarly, he references Psalm 110 frequently, but does not expound it. Charles L. Feinberg passes over Peter's sermon superficially. John F. Walvoord's famous work, advertised as a "basic text" of premillennial theology, also contains no exposition of Psalm 110 as it is used in Peter's sermon or in the rest of the New Testament.
More recently, however, a "progressive" dispensationalist, Darrell L. Bock, offered a detailed exegesis of the relevant portions of Peter's sermon and came up with results worth citing:
Bock has not given due attention to the implications of his exegesis of Peter's sermon for the use of Psalm 110 in the rest of the New Testament. But he does provoke important questions. What would be the theological implications for premillennialism were one to note that the universal New Testament application of Psalm 110:1, as well as Paul's own interpretation in at least one other context, is to the present reign of Christ? And what would it mean to assert that Jesus reign must continue until all His enemies are defeated, the last one being death? Given Bock's understanding of Acts 2, is it not only most natural, but exegetically imperative that we interpret 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 as teaching that Christ's reign began at his resurrection? And is it not clear that the most natural interpretation utterly precludes the premillennial understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28?
If premillennialists do not come up with solid Biblical answers to these questions based upon the kind of careful exegesis that Bock has done in Acts 2, the premillennial view is bound to loose adherents, unless a large number of Christians continue to carefully neglect Culver's "millennial passage."
The Postmillennial Interpretation
The postmillennial reading of 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 follows a more natural reading of the text. Paul explicitly mentions only two resurrections. The first resurrection is Christ's; the next is the resurrection of those that are His (15:23). No third resurrection is mentioned in the text and can only be discovered in the words "then comes the end" if it has been imported through the auspices of a theological bias. What Paul stated, and he stated it with emphasis, was not that there would be a third resurrection at the end, but that when the end comes, Jesus will hand over all things to God. He will do this, according to Paul, because He will have accomplished a full victory, not only over all historical enemies, but even over death itself. Man's historical task will have been fulfilled and eternity will begin, without death, sin, or tears, when God is all in all.
Interaction with the premillennial view of vs. 20-28 has already introduced many of the important arguments for a postmillennial exegesis. It may be helpful to restate them here. First, as I pointed out above, Paul mentions two resurrections, no more (vs. 23). Second, the word eita does suggest an interval between the coming of Christ and the end. But the interval implied is that which is required to finish the work of judgment prerequisite to the Son's delivering all things to the Father (vs. 24). Paul is not here neglecting to mention the millennial kingdom that occurs during the interval implied between the coming of verse 23 and the beginning of verse 24. What eita implies is the interval required for the explicitly referred to abolition of all earthly rule and authority at the final judgment, which is necessary both for the summation of all things in Christ and for the final deliverance of all things to the Father. Third, Paul writes of the reign of Christ as a present reality. Throughout the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus is the time of His enthronement and Psalm 110 is repeatedly said to have been fulfilled when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father. To imagine that Paul introduces this frequently quoted passage with a meaning that it nowhere else has, and that Paul expects his readers to understand this wholly unique view of Psalm 110:1 without any explanation of this new meaning is a rendering based upon theological prejudice, not sound exegetical method. This is not to mention the fact that the theology of the New Testament as a whole is everywhere a resurrection theology, so that a faithful proclamation of the Gospel proclaims Christ as the resurrected, ascended, seated, and crowned Lord of Lords and King of kings (cf. Ac. 2:25 ff.). Fourth, the last trumpet in verse 52 and the victory over death celebrated in the verses that follow belong to the time of Jesus' coming, when His victory over the last enemy shall be finalized. The resurrection, the coming of Christ, and the end of history are placed together in this context. After the coming of Christ and the associated judgment, there is nothing but "the end" (vs. 24).
Discussion of the passage in terms of the millennial question, however, carries with it the danger of our mistaking Paul's profound theological message, for he was not writing proof texts for a modern debate. He was correcting a false theological notion among the Corinthians. Some in the Corinthian church had denied the future resurrection of all men (15:12). Paul explains to them that to deny the resurrection of the dead is also to deny the resurrection of Christ, and, therefore, in principle to deny the entire Gospel (12-19). Having refuted their views with an argumentum ad absurdum, Paul then offers a positive theological explanation of the meaning of Christ's resurrection for the Christian (20-28). His teaching here is grounded in an important theological idea and his quotation of two important Old Testament texts. Other passages are perhaps alluded to, or at least provide a background for Paul's reasoning here.
The theological idea to which he appeals is the relationship between Adam and Christ. It is such a fundamental part of Paul's doctrine of salvation (cf. Rm. 5:12, ff.) that we must assume the Corinthians are aware of the basic notion. What is important here is the implications of the doctrine of Adam and Christ for the resurrection: "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead" (15:21). Adam's sin brought death to all men. The only way that the consequences of Adam's sin could be undone was through resurrection, the reversal of death because of Christ's righteousness (cf. Rm. 5:12, ff.). For just as Adam was a covenant head whose sin brought about the death of all those for whom he acted as representative, so also, Christ, the head of a new covenant, is the covenant representative of a new humanity, which receives life in Him (15:22).
Christ's resurrection has a special significance. To understand it, we must remember that Paul speaks here of the Messiah. It was the Messiah who died for our sins according to the Scriptures of the Old Testament (15: 3) and it was the Messiah who rose again from the dead -- again, in accordance with the prophecies of the Old Testament Scriptures (15:4). The resurrection, then, is an essential aspect of Jesus' Messianic work as the covenant Lord of a new humanity.
The resurrection of the Messiah is called the "firstfruits" of the resurrection. If one understands the meaning of the "firstfruits," it will be clear that verse 23 is speaking only of the resurrection of believers. For the resurrection of the Messiah is, by this word "firstfruits," connected inseparably to the resurrection of the saints. The Messiah's resurrection entails the resurrection of the saints, just as Adam's sin and death brought about the death of those he represented. The covenantal work of the Messiah in defeating sin and death must result in resurrection victory for all those He represents. So, later in the context, Paul explains that the saints will be resurrected in the future and given bodies that are appropriate to the glory of the future state (1 Cr. 15:35, ff.). Until then, the Messiah must reign, so that He may put down every enemy of God, for the work of the Messiah in undoing the sin of Adam is not finished until every enemy of God in history is defeated (vs. 25).
It is at this point, verse 25, that Paul clearly quotes Scripture, though it is important to note that the language of verse 24 probably contains an allusion to Psalm 2 and the warfare between the Messiah and the rulers of this world, and may also be alluding to passages such as Isaiah 9:7 and Daniel 7:13-14, which speak of the Messiah's everlasting kingdom. Be that as it may, when Paul does specifically quote Scripture in verse 25, he understands the Messiah's reign as present. In Paul, as in the rest of the New Testament, it is the present course of history over which Jesus has been given "all authority" (Mt. 28: 18). Death, like every other enemy of God, must be defeated by Jesus, for that is what it means for Him to be the last Adam, the covenant Head of a new humanity. Without the defeat of every enemy including, but not limited to death itself, salvation would not truly be won.
The next Scripture quoted by Paul, and it is only a partial quotation, is Psalm 8:6, "Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet." Did Paul simply borrow the words of this Psalm without intending to connect his present explanation to its overall meaning? That is doubtful since this Psalm celebrates what it means for man to be created in the image of God. The Messiah is the one who fulfills this. Jesus reigns now in heaven, having been given glory and dominion over all things in His resurrection because He defeated Satan and sin definitively at the cross. When all things have finally been subdued under the Messiah, then He will offer the creation unto God as One who has completed the mandate originally given to Adam at the creation of the world (Gn. 1:26-28).
To state plainly what Paul implies through his quotation of Scripture, Jesus the Messiah fulfills the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the Restoration. Or, in words Paul used in another place, "For all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen, unto the glory of God by us" (2 Cr. 1:20). Jesus is the New Adam. He has won the right not only to eat the tree of life and to give it to us (Rv. 2:7), but to sit on the throne at the right hand of God and to grant us a place in His kingdom reign (Rv. 1:6; 5:10; 20:1-6; 1 Pt. 2:9). Our resurrection with Him and session with Him at the right hand of God is not something that is reserved wholly for the future, for we are already raised with Christ and seated in the heavenly places with Him (Eph. 2:6), as co-rulers in His kingdom with Him. Through the spiritual warfare of His people, the victory of the cross is extended and applied (Eph. 6:10 ff.; Rm. 16:20; Rv. 19:11-16), so that the nations of the world may be discipled (Mt. 28:18-20) and God's glory manifest. Paul's quotations of Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:6 point to the Messianic victory of Jesus in His resurrection, a glory that we begin to share now and that we shall enjoy with Him forever.
Culver was correct on one point, Paul's words have been sadly neglected in our century. So has the profound exposition of these words by Geerhardus Vos, who long ago (1930) offered the kind of detailed exegesis of Paul's words which illumines debate. Perhaps my exposition above is more inadequate than I imagine. If so, it will be refuted or rightfully ignored. But progress among evangelicals in the eschatological debate will not come until we offer detailed exegesis and interact with one another in terms of it.
1. Robert D. Culver, "A Neglected Millennial Passage from Saint Paul," Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 113, no. 450, April, 1956, p. 142.
4. This is not strictly true. Paul uses various figures such as "firstfruits," the notion of death as an enemy, and the covenantal expressions "in Adam" and "in Christ."
5. For Culver's interpretation, it is vital that the words "in Christ shall all be made alive" refer to all men, so that the resurrection of the unjust may be included in the following context.
6. For some reason, Culver limits his discussion, and apparently his research into the context also, to verses 20-24, a mistake which has serious consequences for his understanding of the context.
7. Frederic Louis Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Kregal, reprint, 1977), p. 787.
8. See: Mk. 4:17, 28; 8:25; Lk. 8:12; Jn. 13:5; 19:27; 20:27; 1 Cr. 15:5, 7, 24; 1 Tm. 2:13; 3:10; Hb. 12:9; Jms. 1:15.
9. Three quotations of Psalm 110:1 (Mt. 22:44; Mr. 12:36; Lk. 20:42-43) come from our Lord's refutation of the Pharisee's thinking. It is all the more significant, therefore, that the disciples saw this Psalm fulfilled in the resurrection (Ac. 2:34; Eph. 1:22; Hbs. 1:13; 10:12-13).
10. The Greatness of the Kingdom (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), pp. 400-01.
11. Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958).
12. Millennialism: The Two Major Views (Chicago: Moody Press, 1936; revised ed. 1980), p. 141.
13. The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959). It may be mentioned that both Walvoord and Pentecost refer to Harry Ironside as asserting a gap between Psalm 110:1 and verse 2, but this is not related to passages in the New Testament.
14. Darrell L. Bock in Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, ed. Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 49.
15. I favor the view that Paul is the author of Hebrews.
16. Culver's title was right! From his perspective there is a neglected millennial passage here -- the one that mentions the kingdom between the parousia and the end.
17. I am not suggesting intentional distortion of the passage on the part of premillennialists, nor do I refer to "theological prejudice" here to imply a sort of exegetical conspiracy on their part. Like everyone else, premillennialists read the Bible in the light of their theology, for theological presuppositions are a necessary and natural part of reading and interpreting the Bible. Presuppositions that are correct illumine Scripture by suggesting the relationship of one passage or teaching of Scripture to another. Incorrect presuppositions, on the other hand, run foul of natural exegesis and create problems for the reader. This may be unpleasant, but it is also helpful, for it informs us that we have presuppositions in our theology that we need to revise.
18. It is possible to understand verse 22 as speaking of all men being resurrected in Christ, some to life and others to everlasting damnation. How one views verse 22 does not determine the overall view of the passage, nor its bearing on the millennial question. It simply seems to me more natural to view the two expressions "in Adam" and "in Christ" as being limited.
19. Of course, for Paul, there was no "Old Testament." There is no evidence that he or any other writer of the "New Testament" ever thought of the Bible as two books bound under one cover. There was only one holy book, consisting of Scriptures, in which he included his own writings and those of other apostles.
20. Again, disagreement on this point is not decisive for the millennial debate. It is simply a matter of suggesting what seems clearly to be the most natural theological reading of the text.
21. Isaiah's "little apocalypse," (Is. 24-27) explicitly quoted later in the chapter, may also inform the text here.
22. Note that speaking of death as an enemy may be an allusion to Isaiah 25:8, Hosea 13:14, and similar passages. In Psalm 56:13, David thanks God for "delivering" his soul from death, where the word "deliver" is one that is often used in contexts that speaking of deliverance from an enemy (Ex. 2:19, 18:4; etc.).
23. "It is God that avengeth me, and subdueth the people under me." (Ps. 18:47; cf. also, Ps. 2:8; 21:8-9; etc.)
24. The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, reprint), pp. 236, ff.