Firstfruits of the Sleeping: The Metaphor for Death in 1 Corinthians 15

When Paul discusses the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, he draws on the Old Testament metaphor of ‘sleep’ to refer to the death of believers. However, he never refers to Christ’s death as sleep. Though many scholars assume Paul employs the metaphor of sleep for death because it is temporary, this paper will argue that Paul uses the sleep metaphor because there is a difference in the spiritual meaning of the death of the Christian and of Christ. Christ died as judgment for sin, while the believer does not. This paper does not argue that the notion that sleep anticipates awakening is wrong, but rather that there is an additional reason for Paul’s use of the metaphor.

The first section introduces the background of 1 Corinthians 15 by examining references to death as sleep in the Old Testament. The Old Testament predominantly uses the metaphor about the regenerate. This section argues that the Old Testament does this because the deaths that are described as sleep are not because of judgment for sin. The second section examines Paul’s usage of the sleep metaphor in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 11:30. This section will argue that these passages also support the notion that Paul was speaking to the reason behind the death, not merely the temporality of it. The believers he references did not die because of judgment. The third section synthesizes the first two, arguing that Paul uses the sleep metaphor for death in 1 Corinthians 15 to draw a distinction between Christ’s death and believers’ death. In making this argument, it addresses Paul’s usage of the terms ‘sleep’ and ‘death’ in 1 Corinthians 15 as well as explaining how we can understand Paul’s language of “the resurrection of the dead.”

2 thoughts on “Firstfruits of the Sleeping: The Metaphor for Death in 1 Corinthians 15”

  1. Sleep Metaphor in 1 Corinthians 15
    The proposal is interesting but needs more clarity. In what way is the believer’s death not a judgment for sin in light of Paul’s statements elsewhere (Romans 5)?

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