Excursus on Creation of Life and Biological Diversity (Part 25): Paul’s Use of Adam in 1 Corinthians 15

August 14, 2019     Time: 41:28

Paul’s Use of Adam in 1 Corinthians 15

Today we want to turn to Paul’s use of Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-46 and then in Romans 5:12-21.

John Collins, the Old Testament scholar, has remarked that while it is not easy to insist that Paul’s argument in the texts that we looked at last week depends upon the assumption of Adam’s historicity for its validity, the case is different when it comes to 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5, not to mention Acts 17:26.[1] In these crucial passages Paul lays out his Adam Christology. We will not try, in our brief time, to unpack all of the theological riches in these passages, but we will restrict our attention to their implications for the issue of the historical Adam.

In dealing with Paul’s two passages about Adam in 1 Corinthians 15 the question we face is whether his use of Adam is a merely literary figure – whether that suffices to capture Paul’s meaning with respect to Adam. Let’s review what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49. Paul writes,

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. . . . Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

In verses 45-46, Paul’s expression “Thus it is written” followed by his paraphrase of Genesis 2:7 directs our attention immediately to the Genesis narrative of Adam’s creation. There is little in the ensuing paragraph that takes us beyond the literary character in Genesis 2. There Adam is said to be the first man, physical (or, as it is sometimes translated, “natural” – the word in the Greek is psychikos which means “natural” or “physical”), from the earth, and to be made of dust. All of that is true of the figure that we meet in the Genesis account. He was, according to the story, the first human being that God had made, formed by God out of the dust of the earth, and therefore having a natural (psychikos) body. In saying that we all bear the image of the one made of dust, Paul may not be saying more than that we are all like the man described in the story. Each of us has a natural body (sōma psychikon – sōma is the Greek word for “body” and psychikon is the adjective describing that body – a natural body), made of dust, and therefore mortal.

There may, however, be a hint of the historical Adam in Paul’s expression “it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual.” Paul might mean simply that in the story the natural or physical body is created first. But it is not the case that in the story after the physical “then the spiritual” is created. True, God breathes into the earthly man the divine breath (though the word pneuma or “spirit” is not mentioned) so that the man becomes a living being; but that still belongs to the natural realm (psychikon) not to the spiritual realm. We have to wait until Christ’s resurrection for the spiritual to appear. So Paul might be attributing a genuine chronological or historical priority of Adam to Christ, in which case we have moved outside of the story to postulate a historical Adam.

Ultimately, whether Paul is using Adam more than just illustratively in 1 Corinthians 15:45-46 is apt to depend upon what he meant by his earlier statement in verses 21-22, “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” An illustrative reference to the literary Adam would suffice, I think, for Paul’s statement “As by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead,” for the antecedent of that sentence (“As by a man came death”) does not clearly move outside of the Genesis narrative, even though the consequent of that sentence (“so by a man has come the resurrection of the dead”) is external to the narrative. Paul’s statement “in Adam all die” may look like a truth asserted external to the narrative because it is not part of the literary Adam of Genesis that all die in Adam. But it is important to note that while Romans 5 contrasts the spiritual death and condemnation in Adam versus justification and righteousness in Christ, here in 1 Corinthians 15 the contrast is not forensic (or judicial), rather it is physical: in Adam all persons die physically but in Christ we shall someday be made alive and enjoy resurrection life. Notice that the concern here in 1 Corinthians 15, in contrast with Romans 5, is with physical immortality, not with righteousness and salvation. The contrast is between Adam’s mortality and the immortality that we will have in Christ through his physical resurrection from the dead.

In contrast to Romans 5, Paul’s employment of the Adam/Christ typology in 1 Corinthians 15 is thus focused on physical death and resurrection. Although we might think that physical death is the result of Adam’s sin, notice that Paul does not affirm this. Gordon Fee, who is a prominent evangelical commentator on 1 Corinthians, has commented as follows on 1 Corinthians 15:45,

The first Adam, who became a living psychē [being] was thereby given a psychikos [natural] body at creation, a body subject to decay and death. . . . The last Adam, on the other hand, whose ‘spiritual (glorified) body’ was given at his resurrection, . . .  is himself the source of the pneumatikos [spiritual] life as well as the pneumatikos [spiritual] body.[2]

On this view Adam was created with a mortal natural body. Think about it. If Adam and Eve had been naturally immortal, then why have a Tree of Life in the Garden at all? It would serve no physical purpose in paradise if they were naturally immortal. Notice that the Tree of Life serves to rejuvenate its eater physically, not spiritually, hence the concern about fallen man’s eating from the Tree and living forever. Notice that God’s concern was not that Adam and Eve would eat from the Tree of Life and be spiritually regenerated or born anew, but rather in their condition of alienation and condemnation from God they would be physically rejuvenated and immortal. So why have a Tree of Life in the Garden at all if they were naturally immortal? Moreover, think about this, Jesus Christ, though sinless, also had a body which was psychikos (natural) and therefore mortal so that he could die. It is only with his resurrection that his sōma psychikon (his natural body) was transformed into a sōma pneumatikon (a spiritual body). That happens at the resurrection. It cannot therefore be said that physical death is solely a consequence of personal sin, or Christ would not be able to die. The only sense in which physical death might be seen as a consequence of sin is, I think, indirect: it is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, cutting them off from any hope of immortality, symbolized by the Tree of Life.

So Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 associates human mortality with the creation of Adam, not with his Fall. Adam is created with a sōma psychikon; he does not get one by sinning. Paul implies that physical mortality is the natural human condition. In saying that in Adam all die, Paul may be saying that it is in virtue of sharing a common human nature with Adam that we share in his natural mortality. Perhaps Paul draws that inference based upon the literary Adam, but it may just go beyond the boundaries of the literary Adam to touch the historical Adam.


Student: The assumption that Adam is created mortal – I disagree with that because the Tree of Life is in Proverbs described as Wisdom. And the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil actually changed the conscience of man from in agreement with God into an agreement with the tempter. So when our conscience is sealed there's no way that we will go about living God's design and his ways. In that, when our conscience is sealed, all decisions are reversed from obeying God to rebelling against God. So it is that decision that they ate of this Tree, changed human conscience which brought mortality.

Dr. Craig: OK, now wait. That's the inference that I'm questioning. Everything you said so far I think is a perfect description of spiritual death – that that is brought about through the Fall resulting in human alienation from God and condemnation. But neither in Genesis 3 nor especially in 1 Corinthians 15 is our having a mortal, natural body associated with Adam sinning. Rather, Paul says very explicitly that the first man Adam became a living being, and that is the image then that we bear as human beings like Adam.

Student: There is a direct association between spiritual and physical in my concept.

Dr. Craig: Now, wait. But the question is: is your concept correct? Is it biblical?

Student: It's developed by God through all this Bible study. OK, so I won't claim it’s correct, but listen to my justification.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I want to hear it.

Student: Everything in the Bible talks about spiritual truth which has a physical manifestation. Everything. All spiritual truth has physical manifestation. That is why when our spirit died, our physical body has no chance of living on.

Dr. Craig: We are spiritually dead apart from Christ, but yet physically very well. Right?

Student: Eternal life is promised for the spiritual being. Right? When we become born again as a spiritual person because Christ is a life-giving spirit. And then we receive that life from Christ and we become a born-again spiritual being which is reconciled to the triune God. So there is that physical ramification of this truth that is the eternal life.

Dr. Craig: What you've just been describing sounds to me like spiritual renovation and renewal. But what we're talking about here is having a sōma pneumatikon as opposed to a sōma psychikon (having a spiritual or supernatural body compared to a natural body). When does that take place? It doesn't take place when you're born again or saved. It takes place at the resurrection. When Christ returns then you will be transformed and you will receive your spiritual body. So the question is: when did you get this sōma psychikon or how did Adam get a sōma psychikon? Was he born with it, or did he get it as a result of the Fall?

Student: When our spiritual alignment agrees with Christ, the exchanged life takes place where he died for our sin, we live for his righteousness. That reality has a physical ramification of eternal life. That's right. And that's a physical ramification.

Dr. Craig: Well, in the sense that it will lead to our resurrection some day from the dead, which is still future. That's something we await for and hope for. Yes, there will be a physical manifestation.

Student: Just like Christ, the Sheol cannot hold his body because he's totally righteous. I mean that he cannot remain dead. He actually physically died, but he cannot remain dead. He has resurrected. So will we. We will physically die but we will not remain dead because of our spiritual alignment with the Christ, and that gives us that physical reality.

Dr. Craig: I don't think we're disagreeing at all about that. As I said, my focus here is not on the part of the contrast between Christ and Adam where we look at what we will have in Christ and what we will become in Christ. I'm interested in the part of the sentence where he says, “as in Adam all die.” What does that mean? Does that mean that when Adam fell his body lost its natural immortality and became mortal, and somehow that's been passed down to us? Or is it the case that Adam was created mortal, but given the Tree of Life as an opportunity for renewal and rejuvenation but lost it when he fell and was expelled from the Garden?

Student: I believe Adam was created to choose between the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – one directed to immortality and the other directed to mortality. And they chose or been tempted into taking the mortality, but I don't believe they were created without immortality.

Dr. Craig: You think they were created immortal.

Student: Yes. If they choose the Wisdom route, they would have the Spirit of God and then they will continue that life with God’s design and purpose. That's how I believe.

Dr. Craig: All right.

Student: You know when Moses talks about nephesh and ruach, how does this tie into that context with Paul’s understanding of the natural and the physical?

Dr. Craig: OK, he’s using a couple of Hebrew terms here – nephesh and ruach – which can be translated as “soul” and “spirit” though they have a very wide range of meanings. In Genesis it doesn't say, interestingly enough, that . . . what it says is, as I recall, that God breathed into him the breath of life and that Adam became a living being (nephesh hayah – a living being). And that's the same that is true of an animal, for example. An animal is a living being. But the divine ruach (or spirit) is not mentioned in Genesis, nor is pneuma mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15. So the idea there is simply that God animates this physical body that he has formed from the dust, and Adam becomes alive. Paul associates that act in 1 Corinthians 15 with Adam’s having this natural body. You see the word psyche here in the word “natural.” Psychikon comes from psyche which is the word for “soul.” It is similar to nephesh in Hebrew, but psyche is “soul.” So literally a “soulish body” – that is to say, a body that is animated by the human soul and therefore alive.

Student: This poses an interesting question because a lot of times doctrinally we are predisposed to think of physical death as a result of the eating of the fruit.

Dr. Craig: You are right. And this has been a reversal of thinking, frankly, on my own part as a result of this study. I used to think that the sōma psychikon was the result of sin, and I'm amazed I could have missed what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 where he says so plainly that God created the first man Adam and he became a living being – psyche – and that's the sōma psychikon. So I've had to change my own thinking on this. Go ahead.

Student: It's certainly something to think about because I'm in the same boat here. But also, in support of it, they didn't die right away. If they ate the fruit and that was going to be spiritual death as well as physical death at the same time, then certainly Eve would have died first, or you would think.

Dr. Craig: This is a very point that John Collins, whom I quoted earlier, makes. He says the threat in Genesis 2:7 – “in the day you eat of it you will surely die” – must be referring to spiritual death (not physical death) because when they ate of it they didn't drop over dead physically. But they were alienated from God in the way that someone earlier so eloquently described. So I think you're right. I think that the threat of death and then what actually happens to them when they sin supports this view, as well as the fact that having a Tree of Life in the Garden for sinless people would be utterly pointless if they already had natural immortality. So I think you're making a good point which other Old Testament scholars have made.

Student: You just said something that's very related to my question. The whole thing about the Tree of Life. What you're saying sounds reasonable that, OK, then why would you need the Tree of Life if he was immortal and was that to keep him alive? But Revelation 2:7 where it says in eternity in paradise there will be a Tree of Life. So what is the purpose of that one when we have immortal bodies then, if that is any evidence? Revelation 2:7 – he is talking to the church in Ephesus. After the message he says, “He who has an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” That’s talking about eternity, is it not? And we have an immortal body. So why . . . if that's evidence that it's mortal then that would kind of blow that theory.

Dr. Craig: Well, it cannot be for the purpose of bestowing immortality upon otherwise mortal, corruptible bodies because in the resurrection state . . . I mean Paul couldn't be more clear. We will have immortal, honorable, glorious, supernatural bodies which will be incapable of corruption and mortality. Nothing could be clearer from 1 Corinthians 15 than that. Therefore as Christ is raised from the dead never to die again, you're not going to need a Tree of Life in the eschaton to keep you alive otherwise you're going to corrupt and die. That's out of the question. So at best this would serve some sort of symbolic value. It can't be bestowing immortality upon corruptible bodies.

Student: I agree with you, but because of that I can't agree with the other theory that the Tree of Life in the Garden has any bearing on proving that the bodies were mortal and needed it to live. Because it's there in eternity and it's not needed.

Dr. Craig: What I'm thinking of here is why God expels them from the Garden. Why does he kick them out of the Garden? He says, Lest they eat the Tree of Life and live forever. So he seems to think there that if they go and eat this they'll rejuvenate physically and will live forever. But there wouldn't be any point in having that kind of a tree in the Garden if they were sinless. I think it's important, too: don't impose one part of Scripture on another. You can't just sort of take things out of the book of Revelation and use that as an interpretive grid for Genesis or Paul, I think.

Student: It only posed a question because if that is kind of a proof or if that is the reason you were using, I'm thinking it kind of falls apart because it's not always used in that way. I hear what you're saying. There's other things that don't answer the mortality-immortality as far as him keeping them out. That sounds like it was maintaining their life mortally. I just would not use the Tree of Life as the point to prove it. Because to me it kind of falls apart on the other end.

Dr. Craig: OK.

Student: I was thinking along the exact same lines. If the idea is that Adam and Eve would have lived immortally in Eden by continued renewal, continued eating from the Tree of Life to continue forever, having immortality. If that's the case in Genesis, then if you look in Revelation 22 it says that the Tree of Life was on each side of the river bearing twelve kinds of fruit and the leaves were for the healing of the nations. So if that is the case are we then to understand that in heaven we would continually be immortal by virtue of continually eating from the Tree of Life? And then if you skip down to verse 15 of Revelation 22 it says outside are the dogs – the people who are not believers don't have access to the Tree of Life. That would actually infer that they would ultimately die again – annihilationism.

Dr. Craig: I would say again what I said a moment ago. I think it's just illegitimate to take passages written by a different author at a totally different time that are highly symbolic and used those as an interpretive grid for these narratives in Genesis. I think that probably what the author of Revelation is imagining here or portraying heaven as a kind of restoration of an Edenic state. It's like a return to paradise, and so you've got things like the Tree of Life and so forth. But I don't see that as being necessarily literal or in any way non-symbolic, and it shouldn't be a guide to how to understand Genesis and what Paul has to say.

Student: I just had something of a comment, and it kind of goes back to a previous point in the class where you're talking about in the day you shall eat of it you shall surely die. The day being interpreted there isn't a literal day given that they didn't drop down and die. I was just suggesting maybe this is evidence that the days aren't literal.

Dr. Craig: So what are you saying?

Student: In the day you shall eat of it you shall surely die – you pointed out they don't drop dead on that day specifically. That suggests that the day that he's speaking of isn't the literal day.

Dr. Craig: The idea is that if eating from this Tree brings physical death then you would expect that to happen. And it doesn't. Instead there is a kind of spiritual death.

Student: I was just kind of suggesting that this might be like special pleading – to take days literally in a certain part but when you get to this part it’s . . .

Dr. Craig: That gets into the wider debate. In Genesis 2 and 3, in contrast to Genesis 1, it is talking about literal days it seems to me. Right? We're not dealing there with the six days of creation in Genesis 1. We're here in Genesis 2 and 3, and I think that what it's meant to convey is the certainty of their death when they disobey God in this way. But it seems to me naturally to take this as a spiritual death rather than saying that physical death results.

Student: The human saying that really has thrown me a curve all my life is “justice delayed is justice denied.” That's a human concept. That doesn't apply to God. He doesn't necessarily have to do on exactly the same day what he said. As long as he issues the order and that's clear. In the Book of Daniel where Daniel prayed to God to have something removed from him and he didn't get an answer, I believe the Bible says for like twenty days, and he said to the angel when he finally got there, What took you so long? And the angel says, The order was given the day you prayed and God sent me. I was intercepted by the Prince of Persia and I had to go get a higher angel to come help me get through. And they broke through and came and brought Daniel the answer. I've wrestled with this pretty much all my life. You look at things that are happening and you say, Why doesn't God do something about this? You look at the Second World War and the Nazis and their roll across Europe and I can only say that when Nuremberg came along in 1945 and all of those top Nazis ended up facing the court, justice was no longer delayed. And it was swift and they hung big time. I don't know that – and you got into this with the study of Genesis – evening and morning were one day. My concept is, the order may have been given that day and it became as certain as “let there be light” and there was light. When? That's the problem I have with all of this trying to lay human ideas on God and say, Why aren't you doing something that I understand? I just sit back and say, Guess who doesn't understand God? It's not God. It's me. I have never lived in the spiritual realm. I have only lived in the human realm. I don't know what it's going to be like, but I wrestle with the idea of eternity because I just say how can there be no beginning and no end? I can't understand that. Everything we deal with has a beginning and it has an end because we're locked in a time frame.

Dr. Craig: OK, well, let's not get into issues of time and eternity. Let's deal with this – the Fall and its consequences. My argument here is based primarily upon the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul grounds Adam being a sōma psychikon – having a sōma psychikon – not in his Fall, but in his creation. Paul says, This is the way Adam was created. That's what really leapt out at me in looking at these verses. He doesn't point to the Fall; he points to the creation. Now, in light of that, go back to Genesis and what do you find? You don't find them dying physically, but you do find them dying spiritually. If they were naturally immortal (again, as I say) then the Tree of Life would serve no physical purpose in the Garden. Now, maybe it has some symbolic purpose someone suggested. But it sure doesn't look like that’s what it's for. It seems like it's supposed to be a tree that will rejuvenate your youth when you eat its fruit. And that would suggest naturally mortal people who, if they don't sin, will live forever in paradise because they will eat of the Tree. I grant you – you can read it a different way if you want. I think that's perfectly possible. But if your train of thought goes through the steps that I followed, beginning with 1 Corinthians 15 and then going back, it seems to me that this makes the best sense of the biblical data.

Student: When you look at Revelation 2, the context is the endurance of the church in Ephesus. So when he tells them to the one who conquers (he's talking about the church enduring) I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life. To me that seems like it's just a metaphorical way of saying that those who conquer will enter into eternal life. I don't think that it is an interpretive stretch to say that that's metaphor because the chapter begins with a metaphor. The chapter says, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” So to then go on to describe the endurance of the church of Ephesus and describe the reward as the Tree of Life, to me that just seems to be further metaphor – it is just saying you will enter into eternal life.

Dr. Craig: You are making a very good point about Revelation 2:7, because he is talking to people in Ephesus and says if you don’t lose your faith and if you conquer and succeed then you will be able to eat of the Tree of Life, which is probably just a symbol for resurrection life – that you will be raised from the dead and live with Christ in heaven. Then you have the passages later that someone earlier highlighted in 22. The book of Revelation is just full of these sorts of symbols. Once we are raised from the dead and have a resurrection body patterned on Christ, you are not going to need to eat fruit from a tree to keep from dying again. You are going to have a sōma pneumatikon that is glorious, immortal, incorruptible, and imperishable.


As I said, I thought this would be thought-provoking. It has caused my own thinking to change on this issue, and I hope that you will consider it as well.

Next time we will turn to Romans 5 and see what Paul has to say about condemnation and death being in Adam.[3]



[1]           C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton Ill.: Crossway, 2011).

[2]           Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), p. 789.

[3]           [3]Total Running Time: 41:28 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)