In 1 Corinthians 15, are the dead in heaven as conscious immortal souls?

PURPOSE

Most Christians believe that, when Christ returns, His people will be resurrected with wonderful new bodies. However, most Christians also believe that all people have immortal souls, and that, between death and resurrection, their souls will exist in heaven without bodies but fully conscious.  But the lost will be tormented in hell after death and for all eternity.

I agree that the Bible teaches an immaterial part of each human being 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.

Sometimes the Bible refers to that immaterial part as the person’s “soul” and sometimes as “spirit.” In the Bible, similar to modern English, the words “soul” and “spirit” both have a wide range of meanings. Consequently, both ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are sometimes used to refer to the immaterial part of the human being. 

ETERNAL TORMENT

But I do not agree that the lost are or will be eternally tormented, for I do not believe that the immaterial part of humans is immortal.  For example, Jesus said that God is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (Matt 10:28). And Paul consistently warns that sinners 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 further discussion, see Eternal Life and Eternal Torment

STATE OF THE DEAD

I also do not agree that the Bible teaches that, after the death of the body, the immaterial part of the person continues to exist consciously in heaven.  

Paul writing1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s famous resurrection chapter. In it, he addresses challenges with respect to his teachings about death. That chapter deals with both the final outcome for the individual human being as well as with the final outcome for the world. Most of it 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 the current article is to analyze this chapter to determine whether Paul thought that people have immortal souls that, after death, exist consciously in heaven.

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

1 CORINTHIANS 15
– OVERVIEW –

Some Christians (probably ex-Sadducees) challenged Paul and said that there is no resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:12). 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 perished (1 Cor 15:17-19). 

If Paul believed that people have immortal souls, he would have stated that in this chapter, but there is no trace of such a thought.  On the contrary, 1 Corinthians 15 claims that:

The dead sleep (e.g. 1 Cor 15:51), 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 (1 Cor 15:20-22), which means they are currently not alive. 

God’s people will become immortal only when Christ returns. In other words, people do not already have immortal souls that are able to exist consciously in heaven after death.

Death is the last enemy which God will abolish (1 Cor 15:26; cf. 54-55). That means that death is not a friend that takes Christians to God in heaven. 

SUMMARY

SLEEP

1 Corinthians 15 describes death four times as “sleep” (e.g., 1 Cor 15:51). Jesus revived two people from death and, in both instances, explained death as “sleep.”  “Sleep” is a metaphor that implies that the person is unconscious.

WAKE UP

1 Corinthians 15 describes resurrection 18 times as egeiró.  The NASB translates egeiró as “raised” (e.g., 1 Cor 15:29) but since the first meaning of egeiró is “to waken” and since this chapter describes the state of the dead as “sleep,” egeiró may be translated as “wake up.” Since Paul says that the entire person wakes up, the entire person sleeps: It is not only the body that sleeps.

PERISHED

Paul wrote: “If the dead are not raised” then the dead in Christ “have perished” (1 Cor 15:16-18). In other words, then they will not be resurrected and there is nothing for us beyond death. As he continues to say, “if the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:32). This means that Paul was not aware of an immortal soul, and he did not think that the dead in Christ are in heaven in conscious existence.

MADE ALIVE

In 1 Cor 15:20-22, Paul explains that to resurrect God’s people is that they are “made alive.”  This implies that the person was not alive or existed consciously and immortally in heaven prior to resurrection.

THE DEBATE

This chapter is a debate about whether the dead are resurrected and with what kind of body they are resurrected. What is important to note is that neither Paul nor his questioners say anything about the conscious existence of immortal souls in heaven. This implies that Paul did not teach this.

IMMORTALITY

According to 1 Corinthians 15:51-53, Christians will only become immortal “at the last trumpet,” namely, when Christ returns. Then “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we (the living) will be changed” because “this mortal must put on immortality.” In other words, we are not already immortal.

THE LAST ENEMY

Greek philosophers explained death as a friend—the liberation of the immortal and divine soul from the prison-house of the corrupt body.  Today, we often read the Bible with that same mindset.  But Paul writes, “THE LAST ENEMY that will be abolished is death” (1 Cor 15:25-26). Death, in other words, is our enemy; not our friend.

THE SOUL

If the soul is not the conscious part of the individual, what is it?  God created all things and continually preserves all things. Similarly, when we die, the soul or spirit goes to God in the sense that He knows perfectly who or what each of us is and He is able to resurrect us exactly as we were, but immeasurably better.

TO DIE IS GAIN.

From the perspective of the experience of the living, time elapses between death and resurrection. But from the perspective of the dead, who is not aware of time, resurrection follows immediately after death. Therefore Paul could write, “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).

END OF SUMMARY –

SLEEP

1 Cor 15 describes death four times as “sleep.” For example:

We will not all sleep,
but we will all be changed
” (1 Cor 15:51; cf. 6, 18, 20). 

In this, Paul simply follows Jesus’ teachingThe Old Testament several times refers to death as sleep, but when Jesus walked this earth, the Jews, generally, did not think of death as a sleep.  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’” (John 11:14).

In the account of Jesus raising the little girl, He said to the mourners, “the girl has not died, but is asleep” (Matt 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 that:

Firstly, the person STILL EXISTS;

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

Thirdly, 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 egeiró.  The NASB translates the Greek word egeiró as “raised.” For example:

The dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Cor 15:52; cf. 15, 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 (1 Cor 15:6, 18) and “sleep” to describe the state of the dead (1 Cor 15:51), and since the primary meaning of egeiró is the opposite of “fallen asleep,” egeiró may be translated as “wake up.”

Although 1 Cor 15 uses egeiró many times, it never says that bodies wake up.  Paul always says that “the dead will be raised” (1 Cor 15:52).  “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 wrote:

16 … if the dead are not raised,
not even Christ has been raised;
17 and if Christ has not been raised,
your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.
18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only,
we are of all men most to be pitied.
(1 Cor 15:16-19)

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

Paul’s point is that “if Christ has not been raised,” then our sins are not forgiven and then, also and then the dead in Christ “have perished.” In other words, then they will not be resurrected. They have been destroyed utterly. Then there is nothing for us beyond death.  

Obviously, Paul was not referring to the body only, for we all know the body perishes at death. He was saying that THE ENTIRE BEING—body, soul, and spirit—HAS PERISHED.

He repeats the thought in verse 19 by saying that, then, “we have hoped in Christ in this life only.” He again repeats the concept when he write:

If the dead are not raised,
let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die
” (1 Cor 15:32).  

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

(1) The entire human being is perishable. Paul was not aware of an immortal soul.  

(2) Paul did not think that the dead in Christ are in heaven in conscious existence; and

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

MADE ALIVE

In 1 Cor 15:22, Paul uses the phrase “made alive,” as a synonym for “resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15:21) and for “raised from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20):

As in Adam all die,
so also in Christ all will be made alive.
” (v22).

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 existed consciously and immortally in heaven prior to resurrection.

THE DEBATE

In this chapter, Paul addresses two challenges to his teachings with respect to the dead. Today, in general, Christians put their hope in the immortality of the soul. We must, therefore, note what Paul says here about this.

The first challenge is that some said: “There is no resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15:12). These were probably Sadducees that became Christians. These people did not believe in an afterlife. They challenged Paul because he did. But they did not ask about the conscious existence of souls in heaven. This implies that Paul did not teach this.

In response, Paul says that the dead sleep and are made alive when they are resurrected. Contrary to what we might want him to say, he does not mention a conscious existence in heaven between death and resurrection

The second challenge is related and was probably asked by the same people: “How are the dead raised? And with WHAT KIND OF BODY do they come?”  Paul responds that our current bodies are perishable and mortal, while the resurrection body will be imperishable and immortal (1 Cor 15:42, 54). Given the belief today in an immortal soul, we must regard it as profoundly strange that Paul does not mention the immortal soul as a third kind of body. 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?

IMMORTALITY

“51 … We will not all sleep,
but we will all be changed,
52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,
at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound,
and the dead will be raised imperishable,
and we will be changed.
53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable,
and this mortal must put on immortality (
1 Cor 15:51-53).

Here, Paul describes death as “sleep,” implying an unconScious condition.

That “we will not all sleep” implies that he expected Christ to return within his generation (cf. Matt 23:36; 24:34).  For a discussion of this, see The Lord is coming soon.

Last TrumpetThe main point of these verses, for the purpose of the current discussion, is that Christians will only become “imperishable” or immortal “at the last trumpet,” namely, when Christ returns (cf. 1 Tim 4:16; Matt 24:30-31). Then “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we (the living) will be changed” because “this mortal must put on immortality.” In other words, we are not already immortal.

It is NOT only the body that is raised immortal and imperishable.  “WE will all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51).  It is, therefore, the ENTIRE HUMAN BEING that will become immortal when Christ returns.

THE LAST ENEMY

He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.
THE LAST ENEMY that will be abolished is death
” (1 Cor 15:25-26).

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, which became increasingly dominated by Greek Christians and by Greek philosophy, adopted this non-Biblical explanation.  Today, we often read the Bible with that same mindset.  However, since “He must reign until He has” abolished death, in the Bible, 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” (1 Cor 15:24) that set themselves against Him and His laws, “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). Then, “there will no longer be any death” (Rev 21:4).

THE SOUL

If the soul is not the conscious part of the individual, what is the immaterial part of human beings that 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.  God also continually preserves all things through the power of His Word (Heb 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:

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

The same applies to the person after death. The immaterial part of the person, which we may call the person’s soul or spirit, is the essence of the person, including the character and thoughts. When we die, the soul or spirit goes to God in the sense that He knows perfectly who or what each of us is and He is able to recreate or to resurrect us exactly as we were, but immeasurably better.

Christians who trust in the immortality of the soul for life after death do not depend on God for their eternal existence.  In contrast, to trust God and His promise of the resurrection is to depend on God and to trust God for what we cannot do ourselves.

TO DIE IS GAIN.

From the perspective of the experience of the living, time elapses between death and resurrection. But from the perspective of the dead, who is not aware of time, resurrection follows immediately after death. The moment they close their eyes, they are also resurrected. Therefore Paul could write, “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).

OTHER AVAILABLE ARTICLES