For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
Universalism is the idea that everyone will be in Jesus’ kingdom, and that no one will be tormented forever in the lake of fire.
In my soteriology class last Saturday, I was asked why 1 Cor 15:22 doesn’t teach universalism. I didn’t give a very good answer then. So I thought this would be a great time for a blog on the verse.
The first part of 1 Cor 15:22 is clear. All the descendants of Adam die physically. The phrase in Adam all die means that all who are in Adam die physically. We are all in Adam.
The second part of the verse is not as clear. It depends on the meanings of the expressions in Christ and shall be made alive.
Does in Christ here refer exclusively to believers, as it typically does throughout Paul’s writings when he is referring to those who are in Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 3:1; 15:18; 2 Cor 5:17; 12:2; Gal 5:6; 6:15; Eph 2:13; Phil 1:1)? Or, in today’s verse, does in Christ take on a different meaning and refer to all of humanity?
Does shall be made alive refer to eschatological salvation from eternal condemnation? Or does it refer to bodily resurrection?
There are four options as to what Paul means in the second part of verse 22:
- If made alive refers to resurrection, then Paul could be saying that the entire human race is in some sense in Christ, and hence all–both believers and unbelievers–will be raised from the dead. One group is raised before the Tribulation starts and one group after the Millennium ends.
- If made alive refers to resurrection, Paul could be saying that all believers–those who are in Christ–will be raised in “the resurrection of life” (John 5:29; cf. John 11:25). He would not be saying anything about the resurrection of unbelievers 1 Cor 15:22b.
- If made alive refers to future eschatological salvation, then Paul might mean that the entire human race is in some sense in Christ, hence all will get into the kingdom.
- If shall be made alive refers to future eschatological salvation, then Paul could mean that all believers, that is, all who are in Christ, will get into the kingdom.
When asked this question last Saturday, I answered with option one. Then a follow-up question came about the expression in Christ. Doesn’t that expression refer exclusively to believers in Paul’s epistles?
There are at least six indications that Paul was not teaching universalism in this verse (or any other).
First of all, notice that “shall be made alive” is future. Believers already have everlasting life (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47). Believers already have eschatological salvation (John 3:17-18; 5:24; 6:35; 11:26; Eph 2:8-9; 1 Thess 5:10). Options three and four are ruled out on this basis alone.
Second, the context of 1 Corinthians is about believers exclusively, not about believers and unbelievers. In a JETS article entitled “The Strongest Argument for Universalism in 1 Corinthians 15:20–28,” Andrew Wilson writes, “There are, however, strong contextual indications that Paul is entirely concerned with the future of believers in this chapter, rather than of all human beings.” See here for the entire article. This rules out option one as well. The only option left is that Paul was speaking about the resurrection/glorification of believers when Christ returns.
In The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Dave Lowery comments, “resurrection will come to all those related to Him by spiritual birth. Paul would later expand this grand truth in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 5:12–19). Those who are a part of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) will one day follow the lead of their Head (Col. 1:18), but will not do so immediately” (p. 543).
Third, Paul rejected universalism (e.g., 2 Thess 1:9).
Fourth, the Lord and His other apostles rejected universalism (Matt 7:13-14; Luke 19:27; Rev 20:11-15).
Fifth, the promise of everlasting life to the believer is an exclusive promise. Only those who believe have that life (John 3:14-18, 36; 5:39-40).
Sixth, the Scriptures are clear that there is no such thing as people dying in unbelief, then later gaining everlasting life (John 8:24; Heb 9:27; Rev 20:15).i
The idea of eternal conscious torment (ECT) is one that most people in the world today reject. But it is the teaching of Scripture, and it is the will of God. If we reject ECT, we are rejecting the sovereign will of God, and we are willfully rejecting what His Word clearly teaches.
I do not think that any of us have a good understanding of what ECT will be like. The Scriptures say almost nothing about what eternity will be like for the unbeliever. (See my chapter on hell in The Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible.) I’m confident that whatever ECT will be, it will be fair, and it will not be cruel and unusual punishment.ii
The Scriptures are clear that unbelievers will not be part of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. They will live in a place (planet?) called the lake of fire (Rev 20:15). They will be forever separated from God and His people. That is why being cast into the lake of fire is called “the second death” (Rev 20:14; 21:8; see also Luke 19:27).
Those who believe in universalism have a hard time being motivated to evangelize anyone. But we who know that the second death will be the reality are highly motivated to share the message of life with our friends, loved ones, and all who will listen.
i I’m talking here about those who live beyond the age of accountability and who are mentally competent. Those who die prior to the age of accountability (or who were mentally incompetent) will be exceptions. Possibly they will all be given everlasting life and enter the millennial kingdom in natural bodies. I think it more likely, however, that they will enter the millennial kingdom in natural bodies and that they will have the opportunity to believe in Christ and be born again then. Either way, God will not condemn people who in this life were unable to believe.
ii It will be torment. It will last forever. And people who experience it will be conscious. But most of the ideas circulating today about ECT are based on medieval speculation, not the Bible. The Bible has remarkably little to say about what the lake of fire will be like.