To be “in Christ,” or not to be “in Christ”? Is that the question?

“For even as, in poverty, all the members of the family are hungering, thus also, in inheritance, shall all the members of the family be filled.”

Even before I get to the scriptural reason I wrote the above statement, I trust you can see that these aren’t two options the family in question has to choose between. These are simply two equally true statements, both of which apply to the same group of people at different points in time. Simply put, this is what’s known as a parallelism, and the people in the first clause of the parallelism (all the members of the family) are the exact same set of people in the second clause, just experiencing two different reactions (hunger and lack of hunger) due to two different factors (poverty and inherited wealth) that were both equally imposed upon them with no say in the matter on their part, at two different periods of time in their lives (one being the present and one being the future).

A parallelism like this can also be expressed somewhat mathematically: “For even as, in a, x are starving, thus also, in z, shall x be filled.” The set known as “x” is the exact same group of people in both clauses (with “a” and “z” being two different reasons for their two different states at two different times), not two separate groups of people who have to choose between poverty and inheritance. The family (“x”) begins hungry “through poverty” or “because of poverty” (“in a”) rather than because of any financial choice of their own, and they will also eventually be filled with food “through inheritance” or “because of inheritance” (“in z”) rather than because of any financial choice of their own.

It’s equally important to notice that the above statement doesn’t say, “For even as all the members of the family in poverty are hungering, thus also shall all the members of the family in inheritance be filled” (or, to put it mathematically, it doesn’t say, “For even as x in a are hungering, thus also shall y in z be filled” — with x being the family members “in poverty” and y being another set of family members who are “in inheritance” in this version of the example). Neither does it say, “For even as all the members of the family in poverty are hungering, thus also shall all the members of the family who choose to have an inheritance be filled,” I should note. No choice is implied here at all; rather, two sets of chronological experiences by the same group of people are spoken of.

I trust it’s clear to everyone reading this that the parallelism is simply telling us: even as, because they have little money right now, the members of this family are all hungry, it’s equally true that, because of a promised inheritance, the same members of this family will all eventually never go hungry again for the rest of their lives. It should be equally clear that it isn’t saying that only the family members in poverty are going hungry while only the family members who will inherit money no longer will be, but rather that every member of this family both began with and will end with the exact same experience as every other member of said family.

But what does this have to do with Scripture, or with being “in Christ”? Well, there’s a similar parallelism (actually, there are a number of them, but I’m going to begin with just one) in Scripture that says: “For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified.” – 1 Corinthians 15:22, Concordant Literal Version

Of course, those of us in the body of Christ are already quite familiar with this passage, since it’s one of the verses that helped lead us to understand what Paul’s Gospel actually means. We know it’s telling us, just like the fact that, because of what Adam did, all humans are mortal, it’s equally true that, because of what Christ did, all humans will eventually be made immortal. (To be vivified, as the CLV renders the Greek word ζῳοποιέω/zōopoieō, simply means to be made immortal, or to be brought beyond the reach of death, and should never be confused with simple resurrection. The word resurrection, or ἀνάστασις/anastasis in the original Greek, is a completely different word from ζῳοποιέω, and has a completely different meaning. Indeed, resurrection is something that only those who have already actually died can experience — note the tense of the word in the above passage; it actually says all “are dying” rather than all “have died,” both in the CLV and in the original Greek — and not everyone will actually die, although it’s also true that most people will have to first be resurrected before they can be made immortal since relatively few people will still be alive right before their vivification, and this fact has caused Christians throughout history to often conflate the two words, but simply being resurrected is no guarantee that one will be vivified at that point, as the general resurrection prior to the Great White Throne Judgement should make obvious.)

While those of us in the body of Christ are well aware of the above truths, most Christians who read this verse are instead forced to interpret it as saying there are two separate groups of people being referred to here, those who are “in Adam” and those who are “in Christ,” and that only those who are “in Christ” will be saved (and that those who are “in Adam” won’t be), and because of this they have to read the verse as instead saying, “Even as all in Adam die, thus also shall all in Christ be made alive,” although the fact of the matter is that basically no translation of Scripture actually words it in such a way so as to say “shall all in Christ” rather than the “in Christ, shall all” that it actually says (in fact, I looked to see if there were any Bible versions that did render it that way and, out of the entire list I checked, I could only find one version — the New Living Translation — that rendered it even close to being along those lines; interestingly enough, even the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation didn’t screw this one up).

This misunderstanding of the passage is largely due to the tightly-held presupposition of most Christians that the idea of Infernalism — the doctrine that dead non-Christians will suffer forever in a place called “hell” or in a place called the lake of fire — has to be true (although the same goes for Annihilationists — those who hold to the idea that dead non-Christians will simply cease to exist forever instead — of course, because they also believe that being “in Adam” vs being “in Christ” here is referring to two different groups of people one has to choose to be a part of). However, the fact is that neither Infernalism nor Annihilationism actually lines up with what Paul is saying here.

You see, Paul’s parallelism here can also be expressed mathematically, the exact same way the example I gave above can be: “For even as, in a, x are dying, thus also, in z, shall x be vivified.” (For reference, see again my first mathematical example: “For even as, in a, x are starving, thus also, in z, shall x be filled.”) Just like in my example parallelism, the set known as “x” is the exact same group of people in both clauses (with “a” and “z” again being two different reasons for their two respective states at two different periods of time), not two separate groups of people who have to choose between Adam and Christ. In fact, since this is a parallelism, and because we know that nobody chose to be mortal “in Adam” but rather that we were all simply born that way, this also tells us that “thus also” nobody can choose to be “in Christ” in this particular verse either. “All” (“x”) became mortal/dying “through Adam” or “because of what Adam did” (“in a”) rather than because of any choice of their own (our mortality precedes any sin of our own, and is in fact the reason we sin, otherwise newborn babies would be incapable of dying prior to their first sin and abortions would be impossible to perform), and they will eventually become immortal/be vivified “through Christ” or “because of what Christ did” (“in z”) rather than because of any choice of their own.

So why do Christians get confused by this verse? It’s due to a combination of the fact that they’ve misunderstood the various passages in Scripture about judgement and “hell” — and are interpreting this and other Pauline passages about salvation in light of their misunderstandings of those judgement passages rather than interpreting those particular passages in light of this and other Pauline passages about salvation — along with the fact that the Greek word ἐν/en in this verse is rendered as “in” (“in Adam” and “in Christ”) rather than “through” or “because of” in many translations of Scripture (including the one I quoted). These factors lead them to assume one can only be “in” one of the two people, which causes them to miss the fact that the word “all” in both clauses is the exact same group of people (“all of humanity”). To be fair, these words can mean “inside” something, positionally-speaking (either literally or figuratively, depending on the context), but both the Greek word “ἐν” and the English word “in” can also mean “through (the action of)” or “because of” something or someone, and that’s what Paul was getting at in this parallelism, as I’m hoping my example about poverty and hunger, as well as the mathematical way of expressing the respective parallelisms, helped make clear.

However, let’s forget all of the above, for the moment, and assume that “ἐν” in this passage actually is referring to being “in Christ” from a positional perspective rather than referring to vivification being because of what Christ accomplished. Does that change anything at all about the end result I concluded it would culminate in (all humans eventually experiencing salvation)? Not even slightly. To put it simply, just as every human begins “in Adam” (and hence is dying), thus also every human will end “in Christ” (and hence will be made immortal).

But how can I say that? Isn’t it true that only believers are “in Christ,” positionally-speaking? Well, the answer to that question is both “yes” and “no.” This all comes down to understanding one of the most important principles of scriptural interpretation there is, one I’ve discussed various times in the past on this site: the difference between the absolute perspective and the relative perspective. (If you aren’t familiar with this particular hermeneutical principle, read this article and then this article before continuing with the one you’re reading now, because without understanding this concept, it’s basically impossible to properly interpret much of Scripture at all without coming to all sorts of confused conclusions.)

From a relative perspective, yes, it can be said that only believers are “in Christ,” based on what Paul wrote to the Romans. But from an absolute perspective, we know that not only will all things in the heavens and on the earth be headed up “in Christ,” as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, we know that “in Christ [“in Him,” referring to Christ] is all created, that in the heavens and that on the earth,” as Paul wrote to the Colossians. So everything/everyone is “in Christ” from the very beginning, and everything/everyone will be headed up “in Christ” at the end, and indeed anyone included in the “all” that is created “in Him/Christ” in the heavens and on the earth are the same “all” who will also be reconciled by Christ as well, as Paul also wrote in that same passage to the Colossians. In fact, that particular passage is another example of Paul using a parallelism (more specifically, an Extended Alternation) to explain this fact.

Just as he used a parallelism in his first epistle to the Corinthians to explain that everyone will eventually be vivified, he uses a parallelism in this passage to tell us that not only are all humans (meaning all the things created on the earth, as mentioned in verses 16 and 20) both created in and reconciled by Him, but that all the creatures in the heavens (as also mentioned in the same two verses, referring to a list of celestial beings that overlaps with another list of creatures who are described in Ephesians 6 as being the spiritual forces of wickedness among the celestials) are also created in and reconciled by Him, and there would be no need to reconcile celestial beings in the heavens who didn’t sin, so it can only be the “fallen” celestial beings in the heavens who are being reconciled, and if all of them are going to be reconciled as Paul says here, we know that all the creatures on the earth will be as well, as he also says there. But if you’re having trouble with this parallelism, replace the word “all” with the variable x again in both verses 16 and 20 — in fact, do it in all the verses from verse 16 to verse 20 — and it should become clear what it means.

So, simply put, even if “in Christ” in 1 Corinthians 15:22 was meant to be positional in nature, everyone is “in Christ” from an absolute perspective anyway, and the context of the parallelism makes it clear that it has to be talking about the absolute rather than the relative perspective (especially in light of the next few verses in that passage, which you can read about here).