Is 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 Premillennial?

Bruce Terry

It is not uncommon to hear a premillennialist expound 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 as follows:   first comes the resurrection of Christ, then at his coming the resurrection of believers happens, then comes the end (or final resurrection of unbelievers). The millennium must happen between the first and last resurrections. Is this what the passage is teaching? The purpose of this article is to study the possible orders taught in this passage and relate them to other passages so as to discover the actual meaning of the passage.

We may begin by agreeing with the premillennialist that the two occurrences of the word "then" in the passage mean "next in order," not "at that time." It is obvious that the resurrection of believers follows the resurrection of Christ and that the delivering up of the kingdom follows the resurrection of believers. These things are only logical. So the passage contains a major order which may be summarized as follows:

  1. first, the resurrection of Christ;
  2. next, the resurrection of those who belong to him (this happens at his second advent);
  3. and last, the end, when he delivers up the kingdom to God the Father.

But verses 24-26 also contain a minor order. It is:

  1. first, the destroying of every rule and authority and power;
  2. next, the destroying of the last enemy-death;
  3. and last, the end, when he deliverers up the kingdom to God the Father.

But how should we combine these lists? Two possibilities commend themselves. The first involves having the destruction of the enemies to follow the resurrection of believers. This gives the following order:

  1. the resurrection of Christ;
  2. the resurrection at his advent of those who belong to him;
  3. the destroying of every rule and authority and power;
  4. the destroying of the last enemy-death;
  5. and the end, when Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father.

The other possibility is that the destruction of death is the final resurrection which happens at the same time as the resurrection of believers. This gives us the following order:

  1. the resurrection of Christ;
  2. the destroying of every rule and authority and power;
  3. the resurrection at his advent of those who belong to him and the destruction of the last enemy-death;
  4. and the end, when Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father.

Now, before proceeding further, it might be wise to look at these two interpretations in the light of premillennialism and amillennialism. If the destruction of death does refer to the bodily resurrection, the latter interpretation could only be amillennial. The former interpretation could be either premillennial or amillennial. The premillennialist would argue that a thousand years intervenes between the second and fourth event. The amillennialist would argue that the second and fourth event happen within the same hour (John 5:28-29). To be fair, however, the word "hour" in John 5:25 covers a span of at least almost two thousand years. Whether "hour" in verse 28 means a literal hour or is a figurative use meaning "time" must be understood in the light of other passages.

Now the purpose of Jesus' coming is two-fold. He is coming both to save the righteous (Heb. 9:28) and destroy the wicked (1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:6-10). The question is:  which comes first? The former interpretation would place the saving of the righteous first; the latter would place the destruction of the wicked first.

At this point we need to examine the evidence of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. There we find that the dead in Christ will rise before those Christians still alive will be changed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-52). Then we find that those who are alive will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air. Now the word translated "to meet" is literally "to a meeting of" Greek apantesis). It means "to meet and escort one paying a parousia, or visit, to a place. Since kings were often spoken of as paying a parousia to a city, we find that parousia is one of the regular words used to describe King Jesus' second coming (cf. 1 Thess. 4:15).

It is common to hear dispensationalists expound this passage as saying that when Christians are raptured (i.e., caught up, from the Latin in this passage rapieinur), they will escort Jesus back to heaven for a seven-year wait. But a closer look at the other two places where apantesis is used shows that this is not what the passage is saying.

In Matthew 25:6 the ten virgins are told to come out "to meet" the bridegroom. Now who turned around—the bridegroom or the virgins? It was the virgins, not the bridegroom. In the same way, when Christians are caught up into the air "to meet" the Lord, he does not turn around. They are the ones who turn around to escort him toward the earth.

Now I say "toward" the earth and not "to" the earth because scripture never tells us whether he will set foot on this earth again. That is not to say that he will not—he may. I have often heard some of my Christian brothers argue that the fact that his setting foot on earth is not clearly revealed in scripture means that he will not. But that is rather like the rabbis who argued that because Sarah's mother was never mentioned in scripture, she had no mother. The scriptures do not tell us whether or not Jesus will set foot on this earth again; and it really doesn't matter. If the point was important, it would have been revealed.

But what is the significance of Jesus coming on toward the earth? In the former interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 it would be to destroy the wicked. In the latter interpretation it would possibly be to hold the final judgment. All in all, this point would seem to favor the former interpretation. Revelation 20:11-13 would seem to indicate that the earth will be destroyed before the wicked dead will be raised and before the final judgment. That seems to fit the pattern of the former interpretation better. The fact that the latter interpretation would have the wicked dead rising before the living Christians are changed also weighs against it. While it is not possible to speak in absolutes, the evidence would seem to favor the salvation of the righteous before the destruction of the wicked.

In addition, the former interpretation would seem to fit better with Revelation 20. I realize that most amillennialists take a symbolic postmillennial interpretation of this passage, and make the thousand years symbolic for this present age. But it is also possible to be amillennial by taking a symbolic premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20. The symbolic postmillennial interpretation involves taking the word "resurrection" to refer either to baptism or to the living on of the spirit after death. The problem with this is that the word "resurrection" is elsewhere used only to refer to the resurrection of the body. The verb "to rise" is used for other things, such as baptism or even rising from bed, but resurrection" is not.

But if a premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 is to be preferred, does that mean that the thousand-year reign mentioned there must refer to a literal thousand years? No, with the Lord one day is like a thousand years. Numbers are used symbolically in the book of Revelation. When Revelation 4:5 refers to the seven spirits of God" is this a contradiction of Ephesians 4:4? No, we understand that there is in fact only one Spirit" and that the number seven" is being used as a symbol for the completeness of God's Spirit.

In the same way, the thousand years of Revelation 20 may be taken symbolically to show the greatness of Christ's second coming. In fact, if Revelation 20 be taken as premillennial, the thousand years must be taken as symbolic to avoid conflict with such passages as 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 and 2 Peter 3:10-13. In the former passage the vengeance on those who afflict the Christians happens on the day that the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven, not a thousand years later.

In summary, it would seem that 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 is referring to the resurrection of believers before the destruction of Christ's enemies. While this understanding is open to either a premillennial or amillennial interpretation, such passages as 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 and 2 Peter 3:10-13 would indicate that a literal premillennial understanding of Revelation 20 and thus 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 is unacceptable.

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This article orginally was published as:

Terry, Bruce. 1983. Firm Foundation, 100 (June 21): 6 [426].

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