In 1 Corinthians 15, do immortal souls, after death, exist as conscious people?

PURPOSE

Most Christians believe that, when Christ returns, His people will be resurrected with wonderful new bodies.  However, most Christians also believe that people have immortal souls, and that, between death and resurrection, their souls will exist in heaven without bodies, but as fully conscious thinking and feeling persons.  At the same time, the lost will be eternally tormented in hell.

This website agrees that the Bible teaches that each human being has an immaterial part.  Sometimes the Bible refers to that immaterial part as ‘soul’ and sometimes as ‘spirit’.  In the Bible, similar to everyday English, the words “soul” and “spirit” has each developed a range of related meanings.  In this way, both ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are sometimes used for the immaterial part of the human being. 

We also agree that the immaterial part of man survives death.  Stephan, for example, just before he died, said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  The immaterial part of man also returns to the body when the person is revived from death.  Elijah, for example, prayed that the child’s soul may return to him.

Eternal Torment

But we do not agree that the lost are eternally tormented, for we do not believe that the immaterial part of the person is immortal.  Jesus said that God is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.  Paul consistently warned sinners that they will die, for example, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  This refers to eternal death.  In the end, God will be “all in all” (1. Cor. 15:28).  This does not allow for an eternal hell where creatures curse God. For a discussion of this, see Eternal Life and Eternal Torment

State of the Dead

We also do not agree that the Bible teaches that the immaterial part of the person continues to exist in heaven, after the death of the body, as a thinking and feeling person.  

Paul writing1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s famous resurrection chapter, in which he provides comfort with respect to the Christian’s life after death.  It deals with both the final outcome for the human being (individual eschatology) as well as the final outcome for the world (general eschatology).  It mainly discusses the resurrection of Christians, when Christ returns.  It addresses both the CERTAINTY of the resurrection as well as the TYPE OF BODY with which God’s people will be resurrected. 

The purpose of this article is to analyze this chapter to determine whether Paul thought that people have immortal souls that, after death, are alive in heaven as conscious persons.

This article, like all others on this website, uses the NASB translation as default.

SYNOPSIS OF 1 CORINTHIANS 15

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s famous resurrection chapter, do the immortal souls of God’s people, after death, exist as conscious people?

Some Christians (probably ex-Sadducees) challenged Paul and said that there is no resurrection from the dead (v12).  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul responds by saying that if there is no resurrection, then Jesus was also not resurrected, and then our sins are not forgiven.  Then we only benefit in this life from serving God, for those who have died, have been utterly destroyed (v17-19).  Neither the challenge nor Paul’s response shows any awareness of an immortal soul.  On the contrary, Paul’s response shows that the soul is mortal.

The purpose of 1 Corinthians 15 is to provide comfort with respect to the Christian’s life after death.  Paul talks about when and how Christians will be resurrected.  Today, most Christians put their hope in an immortal soul.  If this also was what Paul believed, he would have stated that in this chapter clearly and loudly, but there is no trace of such a thought.  To the contrary, 1 Corinthians 15 claims that:

The dead sleep (e.g. v51), which implies that they are unconscious. 

Resurrection means that the dead will wake up, which confirms that they are sleeping, and therefore unconscious. 

Resurrection also means that the dead are to be made alive (v20-22), which means they are currently not alive. 

It is not the old body that sleeps or wakes up or is made alive.  The old body turns into dust.  A major purpose of 1 Corinthians 15 is to explain that the immortal and spiritual resurrection body will be totally different from our current mortal, natural bodies (v42-49).  Further evidence in 1 Corinthians 15, against the concept of an immortal soul, include:

God’s people—both the living and the dead—will become immortal when Christ returns, but only Christ’s people will become immortal (v51-54), which means that people do not already have immortal souls that are able to exist consciously in heaven after death.

Paul describes death is the last enemy which God will abolish (v26; cf. v54-55); not a friend that takes Christians to God in heaven. 

People who trust in an immortal soul for life after death put their trust in themselves.  Paul, in contrast, put his trust in God to resurrect His people by His creative power.

OVERVIEW

Sleep

1 Corinthians 15 describes death four times as “sleep,” for example, “We will not all sleep” (v51; cf. v6, 18, 20). In this, Paul simply followed Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus revived two people from death (Lazarus and a little girl).  In both instances, He purposefully explained death as “sleep.”  “Sleep” is only a metaphor, but it implies that:

1. The person STILL EXISTS;
2, Death is TEMPORARY; and
3. The person is UNCONSCIOUS. 

The person, consequently, experiences the transition to the resurrection body as instantaneous. For the individual, there is no time between death and resurrection.

Wake up

1 Corinthians 15 describes resurrection 18 times as egeiró, which the NASB translates as “raised,” but which Strong’s Concordance defines as “to waken, to raise up.” Since 1 Corinthians 15 uses “fallen asleep” for death (v6, 18) and “sleep” to describe the state of the dead (v51), and since the primary meaning of egeiró is the opposite of “fallen asleep,egeiró is better translated as “wake up.”

It is not the old body that wakes up.  The old body turns into dust.  A major purpose of 1 Corinthians 15 is to explain that the immortal and spiritual resurrection body will be totally different from our current mortal, natural bodies (v42-49).  On resurrection day, God creates a new and much more glorious body.  It is the entire person that wakes up and, therefore, the entire person that sleeps. 

Perished

Some Christians (probably ex-Sadducees) challenged Paul and said that there is no resurrection from the dead (v12).  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul responds by saying that if there is no resurrection, then Jesus was also not resurrected, and then our sins are not forgiven.  Then we benefit in this life only from serving God, for those who have died, have perished (v17-19).  “Perished” means destroyed utterly and refers to the entire being—body, soul, and spirit. Neither the challenge nor Paul’s response shows any indication of an awareness of an immortal soul.  On the contrary, Paul’s response shows that the soul is mortal.

Made alive

In verses 20 to 22, Paul explains that to resurrect God’s people is to make them alive, which means they are currently not alive.  Again, it is not the old, natural body that is made alive, for that body has returned into dust; never to return.  It is, rather, the entire person that is “made alive.”  “Made alive” implies that the person was not alive or conscious after death.

Tomorrow we die.

If the dead are not raised,
let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die
” (v32).

The point is the same as before, namely, if the dead are not raised, then there is no existence after death.  This shows that Paul did not think of dead Christians as already in heaven in conscious existence.  This verse also shows that Paul put his hope in the resurrection.  In contrast, most Christians today put their trust in the immortality of the soul.

Death is our enemy; not our friend.

He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.
THE LAST ENEMY that will be abolished is death
” (v25-26).

The Greek philosophers explained death as a friend—the liberation of the immortal and divine soul from the prison-house of the corrupt body.  Soon after the disciples died, the church, that became increasingly dominated by Greeks Christian, accepted this non-Biblical notion.  We, their spiritual children, today we read the Bible with that mind-set.  However, since “He must reign until He has” abolished death, death is our enemy; not our friend that takes us to God.

Paul nowhere said that dead Christians are in heaven.

In this important chapter Paul explains dying and death on the one hand, and waking up, making alive and resurrection on the other.  He explains that our current bodies are mortal and perishable, while the resurrection body will be imperishable, immortal and spiritual.  (v42, 54) 

Given this, and given that most Christians today put their hope in the immortality of the soul, is it not strange that Paul nowhere says that Christians, or the immaterial part of them, are in heaven?  Would that not be a massive omission, given that the purpose of this chapter is to give comfort with respect to life after death?

“We” become immortal when Christ returns.

This section discusses verses 51-53.

Who will be changed?

We will not all sleep,
but we will all be changed
” (v51).

We” refers to the Christians of Paul’s day.  Paul wrote that “we will not all sleep” because he and the disciples thought that Jesus will return before their entire generation has died off (Mt. 23:36; 24:34).  See The Lord is coming soon.  “We will all be changed means that both living and dead Christians will be changed.

When will “we” be changed?

at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound,
and the dead will be raised imperishable,
and we will be changed.
” (v52).

Also elsewhere in the Scriptures, we read that the trumpet will sound when Christ returns and the dead are resurrected:

 “The Lord Himself will DESCEND from heaven
… and with the trumpet of God,
and the dead in Christ will RISE first

(1 Tim. 4:16; cf. Mt. 24:30-31).

How will “we” be changed?

 “For this perishable must put on the imperishable,
and this mortal must put on immortality
” (v53).

It is NOT only the body that is raised immortal and imperishable.  “We will all be changed” (v51), including the living in v52 and “the dead” in verse v52.  It is, therefore, the ENTIRE HUMAN BEING that will become immortal when Christ returns.

Both the living and the dead become immortal when Christ returns, but only Christ’s people will become immortal.  People who reject Christ will never become immortal, which means that they will not live forever.  In other words, human beings are NOT ALREADY IMMORTAL.  As we already read in verse 23, “In Christ all will be made alive … at His coming.”  They do not have immortal souls that can survive death as conscious persons. 

What is the immaterial part of human beings?

If the soul is not the conscious part of the individual, what survives death?

God exists without cause but is Himself the Cause of all things.  He also continually and intimately maintains all things through the power of His Word.  God, in an unexplainable way, maintains every person every second of every day.  Every thought, desire or deed is made possible by God’s continual preservation.  God does not exist somewhere far away, rather “in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28).

Most Christians trust in the immortality of the soul. That means that they do not depend on God for eternal existence.  Paul, in contrast, trusts God’s promise of the resurrection, which depends on God’s creative power.

The immaterial part of the person, that remains after death, is the essence of the person, including the character, and thoughts.  We may call this the person’s soul or spirit.  It goes to God in the sense that we depend on God—on His trustworthiness creative power—to resurrect us exactly as we were, but immeasurably better.

These concepts are now discussed below in more detail.

ARE THE DEAD CONSCIOUS – 1 CORINTHIANS 15?

Sleep

1 Corinthians 15 describes death four times as “sleep:”

We will not all sleep,
but we will all be changed
” (v51; cf. v6, 18, 20). 

In this, Paul simply follows Jesus’ teachingThe Old Testament several times refers to death as a sleep, but when Jesus walked this earth, the Jews, generally, did not think of death as such.  However, Jesus revived two dead people, and in both instances, He purposefully explained death as “sleep:”  

After Lazarus died, Jesus said to His disciples: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep” (John 11:11).  The disciples responded that if Lazarus sleeps, he will get better.  “Jesus then said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’” (v14).

In the account of Jesus raising the little girl, He said to the mourners, “the girl has not died, but is asleep” (Mt. 9:24).  The people did not understand, and they laughed. 

In other words, Jesus purposefully explained death as “sleep.”  “Sleep” is only a metaphor, but it implies:

Firstly, that the person STILL EXISTS;

Secondly, that death is a TEMPORARY condition from which the person will awake; and

Thirdly, that the person is fully UNCONSCIOUS. 

After the last thought of the dying person, the next conscious thought will be in the new and powerful resurrected body, at the return of Christ.  The person, therefore, experiences the transition to the resurrection body as instantaneous.  It is therefore completely valid for Paul to say he will be with the Lord immediately after his death (Phil. 1; 2 Cor. 5).

Waking Up

1 Corinthians 15 describes resurrection 18 times as waking up (egeiró).  The NASB translates the Greek word egeiró as “raised,” for example:

Christ “was raised on the third day” (v4, 12, 14-16, 17, etc.) and
The dead will be raised imperishable” (v52; cf. v15, 16, 29, 32, 35, etc.). 

But Strong’s Concordance defines egeiró as “to waken, to raise up.” And the first meaning of this word, in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, is ”to arouse from sleep, to awake.”  Since 1 Corinthians 15 uses “fallen asleep” for death (v6, 18) and “sleep” to describe the state of the dead (v51), and since the primary meaning of egeiró is the opposite of “fallen asleep,egeiró is better translated as “wake up.”

Although 1 Corinthians 15 uses egeiró many times, it never says that bodies wake up.  Our current BODIES CANNOT WAKE UP after death.  The old body turns into dust.  On resurrection day, God creates a new and much more glorious body. 

Paul therefore always says that the ENTIRE PERSON wakes up.  (I.e. Christ and “the dead” – See the examples quoted above.)  “The dead” refers to the entire being of the person; not a part of the person. Since the entire person wakes up, it is the entire person that sleeps after death. 

Perished

Paul thought of the soul as perishable, for he wrote:

If Christ has not been raised …
you are still in your sins.
Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ
have perished.
” Then
we have hoped in Christ in this life only” (v17-19).

The Greek word translated “perished” is apollumi.  Strong’s Concordance defines it as “to destroy, destroy utterly.” 

In other words, according to Paul’s argument, “if Christ has not been raised,” then our sins are not forgiven, and then the dead in Christ have been destroyed utterly.  Then there is nothing for us beyond death.  Obviously, Paul was not referring to the body, for we all know the body perishes at death.  Paul was saying that THE ENTIRE BEING—body, soul and spirit—HAS PERISHED.

This means:

That the entire human being is perishable.  In other words, the soul is NOT IMMORTAL.  

That the souls of “those also who have fallen asleep in Christ” do NOT already exist consciously and immortally in heaven, for if that was the case, then Paul could not have raised the possibility that they “have perished.”

Made alive

In verse 22, Paul uses the phrase “made alive,” as a synonym for “resurrection of the dead” (v21) and for “raised from the dead” (v20):

As in Adam all die,
so also in Christ all will be made alive
” (in verse 22).

It is not the old, natural body that is made alive, for that body has returned into dust; never to return.  It is, rather, the entire person that is “made alive.” 

If the essence of the individual (the immortal soul) lives as a conscious person in heaven after death and is implanted into the new body when Christ returns, then “made alive” is the wrong wording.  “Made alive” implies that the person was not alive or conscious prior to resurrection.

Tomorrow we die.

In verse 32 Paul wrote something similar:

If the dead are not raised,
let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die
.” 

In other words, if the dead are not raised, then there is no existence beyond death.  Death is the end.  This means that:

Paul did not think that Christians, who have already died, are in heaven in conscious existence; and that

Paul put his hope in the resurrection.  In contrast, most Christians today put their hope in the immortality of the soul; on the hope that they will go to heaven at death.  

Paul nowhere said that dead Christians are in heaven.

Given that the hope in Christianity, in general, is on the immortality of the soul, is it not remarkable, in this important chapter, that Paul nowhere says that Christians, or the immaterial part of them, are in heaven?

In this chapter Paul deals with two challenges to his teachings:

The first is that “some among you say that THERE IS NO RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD” (v12).  These were probably the Sadducees that became Christians.  In response, Paul mentions dying and death on the one hand, and waking up, making alive and resurrection on the other, but he never mentions a conscious existence in-between. 

The second is the related question, probably from the same skeptics, “How are the dead raised? And with WHAT KIND OF BODY do they come?”  Paul responds by writing that our current bodies are perishable and mortal, while the resurrection body will be imperishable and immortal (v42, 54).

Is it not strange that, in the first place, there is no question from these skeptics about the conscious existence of the soul in heaven?  And secondly, since Paul explains the resurrection body by comparing it to the natural body, is it not profoundly strange that there is no mention of the intermediate stage?  Would that not be a massive omission, given that the purpose of this chapter is to give comfort with respect to what happens after death?

We” become immortal when Christ returns.

This section discusses verses 51 to 53 of 1 Corinthians 15.  These verses explain when human beings will become immortal, and when.

Who will be changed?

We will not all sleep,
but we will all be changed
” (v51).

We” refers to the Christians of Paul’s day.

Paul wrote, “we will not all sleep” because Jesus used “sleep” to explain the nature of death, as discussed above.  This statement also indicates that he and the disciples expected Christ to return before their entire generation has died off (Mt. 23:36; 24:34).  For a discussion of this, see The Lord is coming soon.

The “we” in “we will all be changed still refers to the Christians of Paul’s day.  “All” includes both those that “sleep” (the dead – v51), as well as those that “remain” (the living – v6) will be changed.

When will “we” be changed?

at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound,
and the dead will be raised imperishable,
and we will be changed.
” (v52).

Paul already earlier in the same chapter indicated that the dead will be resurrected when Christ returns:

in Christ all will be made alive …
those who are Christ’s at His coming
” (v22-23).

Also elsewhere in the Scriptures, we read that the trumpet will sound when Christ returns and the dead are resurrected:

Last TrumpetThe Lord Himself will DESCEND from heaven with a shout,
with the voice of the archangel
and with the trumpet of God,
and the dead in Christ will RISE first
” (1 Tim. 4:16).

They will see the SON OF MAN COMING
… with power and great glory.
And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet
and they will gather together HIS ELECT
from the four winds
” (Mt. 24:30-31).

How will “we” be changed?

For this perishable must put on the imperishable,
and this mortal must put on immortality
” (v53).

Christ’s people only become immortal “at the last trumpet,” when “the dead will be raised.

It is NOT only the body that is raised immortal and imperishable.  “We will all be changed” (v51), including the living in v52 and “the dead” in verse v52.  It is, therefore, the ENTIRE HUMAN BEING that will become immortal when Christ returns.

Both the living and the dead become immortal when Christ returns, but only Christ’s people will become immortal.  People who reject God will never become immortal, which means that they will not live forever.  In other words, humans are NOT ALREADY IMMORTAL and they certainly do not become immortal when they die. As we read in verse 23, “In Christ all will be made alive … at His coming.”  They do not have immortal souls that can survive death as conscious persons.

Death is our enemy; not our friend.

He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.
THE LAST ENEMY that will be abolished is death
” (v25-26).

The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato explained death as a friend—the liberation of the immortal and divine soul from the prison-house of the corrupt body.  Soon after the disciples died, the church, that became increasingly dominated by Greeks Christian, accepted this non-Biblical explanation.  Today we read the Bible with that mind-set.  However, since “He must reign until He has” abolished death, death is our enemy; not our friend.

Death is also God’s enemy.  Death never was God’s will.  Death is the consequence of rebellion against Him.  When He has “abolished all rule and all authority and power” (v24) that set themselves against Him and His laws, and thereby eradicated sin, death will also be eradicated.

The immaterial part of human beings

What is the immaterial part of human beings?  If the soul is not the conscious part of the individual, what survives death?

God exists without cause but is Himself the Cause of all things.  No being exists unless it is God’s will for that being to exist.  He “calls into being that which does not exist” (Rom. 4:17). 

God also continually and intimately preserves all things through the power of His Word (Hebr. 1:3; cf. Col. 1:17).  In an unexplainable way, He preserves every person every second of every day.  Every thought, desire or deed depends on God’s continually supplied power, even when we use our God-given abilities for evil purposes.  It is, therefore, impossible to distinguish God from His creation:

 “There is but one God, the Father,
from whom are all things …
and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things,
and we exist through Him
” (1 Cor. 8:6).

In Him we live and move and exist
(Acts 17:28; cf. Rom. 4:17; Rev. 4:11).

As stated, most Christians today trust in the immortality of the soul for life after death. That means that they do not depend on God for eternal existence.  Paul, in contrast, trusted God’s promise of the resurrection, which depends on God’s and trustworthiness and creative power.

The immaterial part of the person, that remains after death, is the essence of the person, including the character, and thoughts.  We may call this the person’s soul or spirit.  It goes to God in the sense that we place our reliance on God—on His love and creative power—to resurrect us exactly as we were, but immeasurably better.

This explains the state of the dead from the human perspective.  There is also the perspective from infinity.  God created time and space, but He, Himself, exists outside time.   Time is something which we experience as linear because we exist within time.  For us, existing within time, there is time between death and resurrection.  However, when a person dies, the immaterial part of the person goes to God, and God exists outside time.  The immaterial part of man then exists without time.  There is, therefore, in reality, no time between death and resurrection.