I watched Don Preston place great emphasis on the “present passive indicatives” in 1st Corinthians 15 in his You Tube series, ‘Morning Musings’, as if they were indubitable proofs of his view. They are not. As I have already noted, Preston publishes my book, written as a former Full Preterist, Exegetical Essays on the Resurrection, in which he states that it is a “must read.” In that book I make a case for the present passive indicatives (PPI).
First, what is a PPI? Well, it’s Greek. Greek conjugation, actually. Take a Greek verb, for example, like luo (“I loose”). This form is the present active indicative. It is present in tense, and indicates a kind of “action” being performed by the subject. That is what you would learn in first semester Greek. In intermediate and advanced Greek it’s not that simple.
But, let’s cut right to the chase (that’s an idiom). “…we witnessed of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead are not raised” (v.15 and following). Now, this translation is from the English Standard Version. The King James Version has this, “…we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.” You’ll note that the present tense is used in both, “are” and “rise.” They are both passive, too (passive means the subject of the verb is being acted upon by another person or force). No big secret going on here.
Here’s the issue: Paul is writing around 56 A.D. Why would he use a present tense for the resurrection of the dead if, in fact, that event is to be regarded as wholly future? He also uses it for the phrase, “death is being destroyed” in verse 26. If we were to simply apply first semester Greek, we would conclude that at the time of Paul’s writing, the dead were being raised, and death was being destroyed. Yet, in our 21st century mindset, the dead will be raised and then death will be destroyed. That is, the resurrection of the dead has not yet happened and neither has the abolition of death, which, again, in everyday church thinking happens when Jesus returns.
Now, let’s look at some other forms before we get real detailed. For Jesus himself, the perfect passive indicative is used: he has been raised. Past tense. Well, past tense with an emphasis on present state: he has been raised and presently is raised (“Jesus is Lord”). This is an interesting point for Preston for he denies, as I have shown, that Jesus is in the same body that was raised, whereas here it is clear that the body he was buried with is the same body he was raised with (and has). But, this fact is beside the point: Jesus’ resurrection is past at the time of Paul’s writing. Question to be pondered: is it the verb itself that tells us this, or the context? I’ll answer that later on, because we will be getting into intermediate stuff.
Paul uses the present tense for those who die, too: “in Adam all are dying” (present active indicative). Now, it would appear to be true that at the time of Paul’s writing everyone was in the process of dying. In fact, he uses another present tense: “I am dying daily” (verse 31). So are you. Ask any physiologist. New converts are “being baptized” (verse 29, 30 – they don’t baptize themselves).
Wouldn’t this seem to suggest that the dead were in fact being raised at the time of Paul’s writing? Well, no, because, you see, both Preston and the orthodox Christian would not ever state that dead souls were coming to life one by one at the time of Paul’s writing. For Preston, “the dead” represent old covenant Israelites who died before Jesus was born. Surely he would not suggest that they were “being raised” as Paul was dipping his pen into ink and writing to the Corinthians! For Preston, the resurrection was future (70 A.D.). For me and the rest of Christianity, it is at the end of history, “the last day.” So, we can rule out the idea that the present indicative means “present actions occurring at the time of the speaker or writer.” “It is raining!” That’s present action happening at the time of the speaker. Does the Present Tense (so-called “tense”) have any other nuances? Yes.
For example, and we don’t have to venture far, Paul wrote in verse 32, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we are dying” (present active indicative). What? Are they not dying today, too? Just tomorrow? 2 Samuel 12.11 says, “I will raise calamity against you” and virtually all translations have it as the Future tense (“I will raise”). But, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, has a present active indicative: “I am raising calamity against you”. The Hebrew is a participle. When we turn to the experts, the Greek grammars, we are confronted with numerous examples of the present tense being used where it is impossible to understand the context as action presently occurring. The grammarians call this a “futuritive present”. Allow me to quote J.H. Moule: “…we may define the futural present as differing from the future tense mainly in the tone of assurance which is imparted – that the Present is not primarily a tense in the usual acceptation of the term is shown not only by the fact that it can stand for future time but by its equally well known use as a past” (Moulton, J.H. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Volume 3, p.120). Now, before any Full Preterists get into a conspiracy theory that Moulton would only say something like this is because he is not a Full Preterist (and this, unbelievably, has been said), it must be shown that in this section of his work, he is not commenting at all on anything eschatological. He’s just commenting on the several examples that can be shown where the context (the other surrounding words) prevent a present active indicative form from meaning that present continuous action is taking place at the time of the speaker or writer. This brings us to a very important point about Greek (and any language): context determines the action, not the form of the verb. The form alone is an identifier for the sake of classification. The action is determined by context (surrounding words). We also have to identify, if possible, the controlling verb in question.
Before we point out the controlling verb, let it be said that Paul does in fact use the Future Tense form for the resurrection. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” All are dying, all will be made alive. When? After he has destroyed all power, rule and authority. Even Preston, again, acknowledges the future here.”Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…” Those are future verbs. When? “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall rise again incorruptible. And we shall be changed.” All future verbs with surrounding words (context) that clearly state that the resurrection will happen “in a moment” in the future. The resurrection of the dead and the change of those living is not a process and is not an ongoing thing happening at the time of Paul’s writing. It is something in the future, and when it happens, it will happen “in a flash.”
Now, in light of this, what do we do with Paul’s use of the present tense form? Are those fallen asleep in the Christ, the dead, “being raised” at the time of Paul’s writing? That would contradict his statement that it would happen “in a moment” when it happens. That’s the context. Two answers, other than Preston’s, have been given. The first has to do with the controlling verb of the entire discussion: “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (verse 12).” See that little word, “is”? That’s a present indicative. “There is no resurrection of the dead” is what was being said at the time of Paul’s writing. “There is no such thing as the end of the world.” The subject matter is the doctrine of “the resurrection of the dead”. That’s a doctrine that is taught as being in the future (like the end of the world is). Saying, presently, “there is no resurrection of the dead” is the same as saying, “the dead are not being raised.” Grammatically, these two statements are saying the same thing. You could substitute them if you want: “if there is no resurrection of the dead (i.e., that doctrine is not going to happen), then not even has Christ been raised.” That’s the same thing as saying, “if the dead are not being raised, then not even has Christ been raised.” Let’s use the English example: “there is no such thing as the end of the world.” “If the world is not being brought to an end (present tense)” and so on. The objection by Paul in the present tense is in order to meet the objection being issued in the present tense: there is no resurrection of the dead simply means, by transformative grammar, “the dead will not be raised.”
In fact, to bolster this argument, we have two examples of the Sadducees denial. They are those “who say that there is no resurrection” (Mark 12.18). This is repeated in the other Gospels (in loc) and in Acts 23.8. Now, surely, the Sadducees in their denial were not imagining anything pictured as happening in the present! They presently denied the presently held doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. “The dead are not raised” is frequently heard even today. If there is no truth to the resurrection of the dead, then, in objection, the dead are not being raised.
There is, also, another possibility considered by many leading commentaries. Jesus was raised from the dead, and not in isolation, either. Paul stated that he is not just the only one raised or ever will be bodily raised from the clutches of death. He is the Firstfruits of the dead. The first of an order. Well, this changes the whole ballgame. If some among the Corinthians were denying a future resurrection of the dead, yet affirmed the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (and with it, the benefits of salvation), then Paul has them in a corner: Jesus is, in fact, the First of an Order of the Resurrection of the Dead. Paul’s logical argument, then, is clear: If there is no resurrection of the dead, and Christ is the First to be raised from the Dead, then this implies that those whom He is the First of will also be raised in the same manner. But, if those of whom He is the First of are not raised, then neither is He raised of whom He is the First! BOOM! Mic drop! In fact, Paul already said this in the same letter leading up to this discussion: “And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (6.14).
This means that the resurrection of the dead has already began. The same Spirit, the same God who raised up Jesus is already at work in the believers. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8.11). As far the dead, those who have fallen asleep prior to their resurrection, Paul answers in the letter to the Thessalonians: they are already “with Jesus” and he will bring them at that time and raise their bodies: “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep…For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1st Thessalonians 4.13-15). The answer to the loved ones of the Thessalonians who have died is that they are “with him” in heaven. And, he will bring them “with him” when he descends “from heaven”. Well, if they are already “with him” then what is being “raised”? The only logical answer is their bodies – that which is theirs, which is dead. This passage is one of the more clearer passages of Paul’s belief in the resurrection of the dead.
In conclusion, Preston’s point that just because the present tense is used here must mean that his doctrine of the nature of the resurrection (corporate, invisible, of Israel’s dead only) and his teaching that the resurrection took place in A.D. 70 is false. Preston wants to use the present tense here in order to demonstrate the nearness of the time of the resurrection in relation to the time of Paul’s writing. That is, if Paul is using the present tense, then the resurrection must be near to his time. But, this consideration is not at all what a present tense is. In many cases it is to denote ongoing present action at the time of writing, not the nearness of an action. Preston does not believe that the dead souls of old covenant Israel were presently being raised in the Body of Christ (corporately) at the time of his writing. For Preston, that event took place in AD 70. Therefore, and I missed this entire point in my book when I wrote it, the present tense does not denote the “nearness” of an event, but rather the assurance of the event (whether near or far is irrelevant). Also, other considerations of the context must be considered without any exclusion. The present tenses in 1st Corinthians 15 are not in any way a feather in the cap of Preston’s off the charts interpretation that the dead (old covenant Israel) were currently “being raised” at the time of Paul’s writing into the corporate “Body of Christ”. This is defeated by the very fact that the resurrection, when it happens, will happen “in a moment.” Yet, since Jesus, the First, is already raised, the inauguration of the resurrection of the dead has began through the Spirit who raised up Jesus, and is now at work in believers with the goal of bringing them to full resurrection life, in the same image of the First Man to be Raised. We so long for that day!