I Corinthians 15:51-58

What Happens When I Die?

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I Corinthians 15:51-58

What Happens When I Die?

Christopher Buckley considered himself to be an agnostic, but was brought up short by his five-year-old daughter, Caitlin, who started asking big questions at a young age. That is what children do, isn’t it. They ask big questions.

One day, out of the blue, Caitlin asked, “Dad, does everyone die?” Buckley was surprised, but managed to answer, “Say, how about a Flintstones pop-up ice cream bar?” The little girl asked, “But Dad, am I going to die?” Dad said, “Well, uh, I guess everyone dies. I mean, it’s part of…what’s your favorite part in the video ‘The Rescuers Down Under’?” Caitlin persisted, “But what happens after you die?” Buckley, torn between his agnosticism and his little girl’s question, answered, “You go straight to heaven.”

What happens when we die? That is the big question, isn’t it!

It doesn’t seem like such a big question when we are young. Even when we are young, we know that we will die someday, but we don’t really believe it. As teenagers, we had so much life in front of us that death seemed like something that happened to other people—to older people—to people who were so different from us that we could not even relate to them.

But then, even as young people, death encroached on us. I remember moments of silence in memory of high-school classmates who had died. A boy my age had a part time job in a garage. He was working on a truck tire that exploded and killed him. A young couple, in despair because their parents refused to allow them quit school and get married, parked their car in a garage and left the motor running. The girl died. Someone discovered the boy in time, and he lived. We couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen in small town Kansas in the 1950s—but it did. But, even then, death seemed distant and unreal. It couldn’t happen to us.

Then Vietnam heated up, and death didn’t seem as distant. I was working for a university as a dormitory director when the war started. We were having big problems with a freshman who was very smart, very spoiled, and very immature. The Dean of Men finally expelled him. I was in the Dean’s office when he broke the news to the boy.

The boy protested. He said, “You can’t do that. I’ll be drafted and sent to Vietnam. That’s a death sentence.” I felt really sorry for the boy, and thought that the Dean would relent and give him another chance. But the Dean said, “You aren’t doing anyone any good here. Maybe you will do someone some good over there.” And that was the end of the conversation. I was stunned. Later, I spent two years in Vietnam as a chaplain. Death no longer seemed so distant.

As we grow older, death comes closer. Parents die. A friend dies before his or her time. At some point, we see the face of our own mortality. Then we begin to ask, “What happens when we die?” That is an important question, and people have speculated about it throughout history.

Some people believe that death is the end. Once you are dead, that’s it! A few people will remember you for a while, but death is the end. Paul wrote the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians to Christians who believed that. He told them that they were wrong.

Some people believe that science will conquer death. A number of people have had their bodies frozen in the hope that, as science progresses, someone will be able to thaw them and bring them back to life.

A young man named Steven went through that process after his death. Someone asked his mother how she felt about it. She said, “I have only a remote hope for my boy’s resurrection.”

Other people believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation has become popular for a couple of reasons. First of all, it sounds hopeful. I might be reincarnated as a movie star—or a fighter pilot.

Secondly, a number of entertainers are promoting reincarnation. That started a number of years ago when the Beatles went to India to study Hinduism. A number of entertainers followed in their steps, and have popularized a number of Hindu beliefs, including reincarnation.

Most people who believe in reincarnation really don’t know very much about it. Reincarnation is not really very attractive. It tells us that we continue to come back to life in various forms until we finally get it right. Our fate is based on merit. If we live well, we might be reincarnated as a cow. If we live poorly, we might be reincarnated as a cockroach. We work our way up or down the ladder depending on how well we live our lives.

Reincarnation says that we work our way up and down the ladder until we finally get it right. Then we experience Nirvana, which is a state of nothingness—freedom from the endless climb up and down the ladder. Nirvana is the freedom to be dead and gone. That doesn’t sound too wonderful to me—and I don’t believe that it is true.

Paul was writing to Christians in Corinth who had decided that death was the end. Paul wrote to set them straight. He said, “Behold, I will tell you a mystery!” (15:51). In other words, Paul was saying, “I am going to tell you something that is too big for our human minds to fully comprehend, but I am going to tell it to you anyway.” He was saying, “I am going to give you a glimpse, however, cloudy, of God’s mind. And the he said:

“We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed,

in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,

at the last trumpet.

For the trumpet will sound,

and the dead will be raised incorruptible,

and we will be changed.

For this corruptible must put on incorruption,

and this mortal must put on immortality.

But when this corruptible will have put on incorruption,

and this mortal will have put on immortality,

then what is written will happen:

‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’

‘Death, where is your sting?

Hades, where is your victory?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God,

who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”


This is tough sledding, isn’t it! That’s what Paul meant when he said, “I will tell you a mystery.” He meant, “You are not going to understand all of this, but I’m going to tell you anyway.”

But, even if this is difficult, there are some things that we can understand. First of all, Paul is telling us that we will be resurrected from the dead, just as Christ was resurrected from the dead. We will have bodies in eternity—not just spirits. Just as Christ’s body was raised from the dead, so our bodies will be raised from the dead.

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Earlier in this chapter, Paul talks about Christ as the “first fruits” of those who died. He means that Christ’s resurrection is just the beginning of the harvest. That is what this term, “first fruits,” means. Christ was the first of many who will be raised from the dead. All who believe in Christ will be raised from the dead.

Then Paul goes on to tell us that our resurrected bodies will be somehow different from the bodies we now have. He says:

“We will all be changed….

For this corruptible must put on incorruption,

and this mortal must put on immortality.”

I take this to mean that our bodies will be different somehow from the bodies to which we have become accustomed. But I believe that we will be recognizable as the persons we have always been—body and soul—but that our bodies will somehow be different. Paul says that our body:

“It is sown a natural body;

it is raised a spiritual body.

There is a natural body

and there is also a spiritual body (15:44).

Do I understand all that? Absolutely not! Paul started this text by saying, “Behold, I will tell you a mystery!” That means that he is telling us about things beyond our understanding. He is giving us a glimpse—however cloudy—into eternity.

You see, trying to explain eternity to us is like trying to explain life to an unborn child. The unborn child just doesn’t have the equipment and the experiences to understand eating at McDonalds and working for IBM. How could you explain those things to an unborn child. Neither do we have the equipment and experiences to understand eternity. We won’t understand until we die. But God helped Paul to understand just enough to give us a glimpse into eternity.

I believe that our spiritual bodies in eternity will be perfect. I won’t be nearsighted. I won’t have scars from surgery. Helen Keller, the blind and deaf woman who lived such an inspiring life, put it this way. She said:

“There’s so much I’d like to see, so much to learn.

And death is just around the corner.

Not that that worries me. On the contrary,

it is no more than passing from one room into another.

But there’s a difference for me, you know.

Because in that other room I shall be able to see.”

“I shall be able to see.” Can you imagine what that meant to a woman who had lived her entire life in darkness and silence! “I will be able to see.”

Michelangelo also had the right perspective on death. A friend commented on the wonderful life that Michelangelo had lived and said, “After such a good life it’s hard to look death in the eye.” Michelangelo responded:

“Not at all. Since life was such a pleasure,

death, coming from the same great Source,

cannot displease us.”

Paul didn’t write First Corinthians 15 as a scientific textbook. Instead, God simply gives us a glimpse into eternity, and provides the promise that it will be wonderful. Paul concludes:

“Thanks be to God,

who gives us the victory

through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:57).

Christ invites you to participate in that victory. He invites you to come and to become a part of him. Receive him as your savior. Let him give you the victory over all things— in life or in death.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan