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The Final Enemy

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:26


COVID-19 has invaded our world and inflicted devastating economic losses, hundreds of thousands of infections—and even more seriously—tens of thousands of deaths. And if the scientific projections are accurate, we stand to lose hundreds of thousands of people to this pandemic before it’s finished. Although this particular virus is novel, its consequences are not. Crushing economic loss, sickness, and death have been enemies of humankind since our earliest days. In his vigorous defense of the seemingly absurd notion of the resurrection of the dead, the Apostle Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Evidently some of the earliest Christian communities had expressed doubts about the possibility that dead believers would rise again—an ironic and pitiable position, indeed, for people who supposedly put their hope in the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Paul goes on to say that everyone who is “in Adam” will die (1 Corinthians 15:22). This is a reference to the familiar story from the book of Genesis where God creates a man (the word “man” in Hebrew is adam) and places him in a garden with two designated trees. The name of the first is the tree of life, so one would naturally expect the second to be called the tree of death, but instead it goes by a more appealing name: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:5-9). Yet, this tree of knowledge turns out to be exactly what we suspect: a tree of death. When Adam and his wife disobey God’s command by eating from it, they are driven from the garden and are no longer given access to the tree of life, thus ensuring their death as well as the death of everyone who would come after them (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:22-24).

Pietà by Michelangelo

This is why Paul says that all who are “in Adam” die. Yet Paul also says there is more to the story. Just as all those who are “in Adam” die, all those who are “in Christ” will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). Exactly what it means to be “in Christ” has been vigorously debated over the centuries. Paul uses the phrase some 165 times in his letters but never defines it precisely. Three main views have gained ascendancy: 1) Adolf Deissmann argued that the phrase refers to a “mystical union” between Christ and the believer.[1] 2) Others argue that it refers to a “corporate unity” between Christ and the family of believers as a whole.[2] 3) Although elements of these first two views are certainly defensible, Stanley Porter argues for the most likely view, in my opinion, when he says the phrase refers to being under Christ’s sphere of influence.[3] In other words, just as humans are under the influence of Adam’s sin and therefore must die, believers are under the influence (or power) of Christ’s righteousness and therefore will rise again and defeat death.

There is, however, a proper order to death’s defeat. According to 1 Corinthians 15:23-26, the order is this:

1. Christ himself rises from the dead.

2. Christ will return.

3. Christ will deliver the kingdom to his father after destroying every authority and power… the last of which is death.

Although we continue to fight a losing battle with death between the events of Christ’s resurrection and his return, the day is coming when Jesus will deliver the kingdom to his father and destroy the enemy of death for all those who are in Christ. But how does a person gain the status of being “in Christ?” In Romans 5, Paul says that all humans are sinners by nature (as descendants of Adam) and by choice (that is, by our own actions). Salvation in Christ, on the other hand, is a free gift that comes from God through faith (Romans 5:15-17; Ephesians 2:8-9). So, in order to be granted the gift of being “in Christ,” one has to have faith in Christ! This might not make much sense philosophically, but our ways are not God’s ways, and our thoughts are not his thoughts!

In the last chapter of the book of Revelation, John describes his final vision of the throne of God and of the Lamb (Jesus). In this vision, he sees the tree of life on either side of a river which flows from God’s throne, the leaves of which are “for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost access to the tree of life for all humanity and so death has been an enemy of humankind ever since. But God has promised that this enemy will be destroyed, and God keeps his promises. So even as we struggle and ultimately succumb to the relentless hand of our age-old enemy, remember this: those who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins will one day be granted access to the healing leaves of the tree of life.

[1] Adolf Deissmann, St. Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History (2nd ed.; trans. W. E. Wilson; 1927; repr. New York: Harper, 1957), 297-99. [2] An example of this view is C. F. D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1964), 19. [3] Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (2nd ed,; Biblical Languages: Greek 2; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), 159.

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