Why does the resurrection matter so much to Paul?

Reading based on Gorman chapter 8 and all the key Pauline texts relating to the resurrection.

Paul, originally a Pharisee, would have had some kind of belief in resurrection before he set out for Damascus. In the First century CE, most Jews, except for the Sadducees, had some unfocused imprecise idea of what it meant[1]. Resurrection was mentioned in Daniel (12:2)[2] in 2 Maccabees (7:11) and also by Philo[3] and Josephus[4]. Rabbis discussed what, exactly it could mean and there were many opinions. There are two points here. Second Temple Jewish ideas of resurrection could only happen to people who were already dead and secondly the idea could be used metaphorically, for example for the restoration of Israel after the Exile, as in Ezekiel 37.

Paul persecuted the early church because it believed in a Messiah who had been crucified by the Romans but according to them had now risen from the dead and also the early Christians were mixing with Gentiles. He had completely disassociated God and the crucified leader of a new sect. Whatever good things Jesus had said or done, he could not possibly be the Messiah. He had been condemned by both the Jewish court and Roman military ruler. “The cross was a stumbling block to Jews” (1 Cor 1:23).  What changed the persecutor happened on the road to Damascus, (1 Cor 9:1; 15:5-11). When Jesus appeared to Paul he was obviously no longer dead and since only God can raise the dead, according to the Pharisees, God must have raised him from the dead and exalted him. This completely changed Paul’s view of God’s plan not just for Israel but for the world. Jesus had been crucified for a divine purpose and his resurrection was the principle tenet of Christianity. This is seen, for example, in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, for example in chapter 6 verses 4-9, his epistle to the Ephesians, at the beginning, in verse 20 of chapter 1, right at the beginning of the epistle to the Galatians, and in his epistle to the Colossians, verse 12 of chapter 2. Paul is probably the only writer in the New Testament to write about Jesus’ resurrection as an eye witness.

In the time that followed Jesus’ appearance on the Damascus road, Paul realised that all his old belief about the Messiah freeing the Jews from foreign rule, re- building the Temple, bringing God’s justice to the whole world was wrong. Since God had raised one man from the dead he must have some special purpose. With reference to Isaiah 52:13, 53:4-5, 12 Paul sees Jesus’ death as redemptive. He was the suffering servant, redeeming the world not by violence but by absorbing violence. The cross, therefore, is seen as a divine blessing in the epistle to Galatians 3:13-14. Secondly Jesus resurrection must signal the general resurrection of everybody and this means a physical resurrection. In Romans 8:11 Paul writes, “If the spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit who lives in you”. But this also means that belief in the resurrection will result in experiencing a new life now not at the time of the general resurrection. Jesus was not just present on the Damascus road but is present in our lives today. The time between Jesus’ resurrection and a general resurrection is one of renewal, of experiencing a new life now by accepting Jesus as Lord.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is so central to the thought of the apostle Paul. It is mentioned in all but three of the Pauline epistles (2 Thessalonians, Titus and Philemon).[5] It is discussed explicitly in a number of passages on a number of subjects linked to Paul’s ethics and eschatology. The longest passage is in 1 Cor chapter 15. Corinth was a very important trading city because of its geographical position. It was also important because new ideas could be spread through trading links and Paul had an extended relationship with the Corinthians. As a Greco-Roman city with strong Pagan background (there were twenty six temples to different deities in Corinth[6]) the idea of the resurrection was a new and entirely revolutionary concept. In much of the correspondence to the Corinthians Paul is trying to get the believers away from their previous Pagan mind-set[7]. Amongst the Christian community in Corinth there seems to have been a lot of questioning about the resurrection and what exactly it meant or even denial of a future general resurrection, ( 1 Cor 15:12).

Paul starts with the statement that Christ died for our sins and appeared after his death not just to the twelve disciples but to over five hundred people, including himself last of all. Then he goes on to state the negative consequences of denying the resurrection (1 Cor15:13-19, 30-32): if there is no resurrection, then Christ has not been raised and is, therefore still, and permanently, dead: Paul’s faith and the Corinthians’ faith are worthless. What Paul is preaching is wrong. There is no forgiveness of sins and the cross has not divine vindication[8]. The logical consequences are that Christians who believe in the resurrection are just mistaken and that the suffering some believers undergo is a waste of time. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:32).

Then Paul goes on to consider the positive consequences of Christ’s resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-34, 50-58).     Christ’s resurrection is the “first fruits” meaning a general resurrection for those who have died in hope and that Christian faith and its effects on our daily lives, including suffering are the not in vain[9]. The resurrection shows that Jesus really is God’s Messiah and that his death is redemption for our sin and part of God’s plan. This shows indeed why the resurrection mattered so much to Paul. It is the basic core of the Christian faith.

Paul then goes on to explain what he means by bodily resurrection which is one of the points of dispute in the Corinthian community. He explains that our bodies will be changed, through the power of God into spiritual bodies. This is similar to   Philippians chapter 3 when Paul speaks of being “citizens of heaven”. He says that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own. Jesus will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. The risen Christ is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes.[10]    Perhaps the clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8: 9-11. “If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah dwells in you, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit but to your mortal bodies also.” Christ therefore “takes up residence in individuals and assemblies”, while individuals and communities simultaneously inhabit him[11]. This means that resurrection will not just occur at the end of life but will result in the change of life of the Christian believer and in the Christian community in relationship to the living Christ.

The resurrection is something in which we participate first of all existentially as in “newness of life” now (Romans 6:4) and also physically in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5,8). In Romans chapter 6, Paul seems to explain metaphorically the end of one way of life and the beginning of a radical new way of living. In doing so he centres on Jesus’ resurrection because it involves the re-orientation of believers from sin and self towards God. So according to Gorman believers’ present resurrection in the body anticipates their future resurrection of the body.[12]

Resurrection is a fundamental part of Pauline writings. In his letters he shows that Jesus’     humiliating death and resurrection were all part of God’s plan for the world, not the dreadful failure which it seemed at the time. Jesus died to redeem humanity from their sins and was raised from the dead. This means that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God and Lord. This is the basis of Christian teaching. Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus to make him understand the significance of his death and resurrection and to give him the commission to take the news of to the Gentiles. That is why the resurrection matters so much to Paul.


Gooder Paula Corinthians St John’s Nottingham Timeline Online

Gorman Michael J. Reading Paul (2008) Paternoster Press

Head Peter Jesus Resurrection in Pauline Thought: A Study in the Epistle to the Romans Online

Marshall H, Travis S and Paul I Exploring the New Testament Volume 2 (2002) SPCK

Stourton Edward In the Footsteps on St Paul (2004) Hodder and Stoughton

Thompson Michael The New Perspective on Paul (2010) Grove Books

Wright N T Heaven is not our Home (2008) Online

Wright N T The Resurrection of Resurrection Bible Review August (2000) Online

Wright N T Resurrection St John’s Nottingham Timeline


[1] N T Wright The Resurrection of Resurrection Bible Review August 2000

[2] “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

[3] Philo “On the Giants”

[4] War 2: 163

[5] Jesus’ Resurrection in Pauline Thought by Dr Peter Head.

[6] Timeline Dr Paula Gooder

[7] Timeline Dr Paula Gooder

[8] Reading Paul by Michael Gorman

[9] Gorman ibid

[10] Heaven is Not Our Home N T Wright 2008

[11] Gorman ibid

[12] Gorman ibid