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Consider 1 Corinthians 15:51:

(NASB) Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed,

(W & H) ἰδοὺ μυστήριον ὑμῖν λέγω· πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα πάντες δὲ ἀλλαγησόμεθα,

Should this be read as not all will fall asleep (only some will fall asleep) or all will not fall asleep (none will fall asleep)?

  • "all will not fall asleep" does not only mean that "none will fall asleep" -it can mean that some will fall asleep but not all. – Daisy Apr 22 '16 at 18:07
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    @Daisy I realize that in colloquial English it might mean either. Formally, the two possibilities are not logically equivalent: if one falls asleep, the first is contradicted, and if none fall asleep, the second is. For this reason, the phrase must be considered formally in the language in which it was written. – Andrew Apr 22 '16 at 18:41
  • hmm... maybe you can give a source for this logic. And explain it a little better? "the first is contradicted" -? – Daisy Apr 22 '16 at 19:36
  • @Daisy It's first order logic. Let A be a proposition. The negation of A is "not A" and is false when A is true and true when A is false. Paul here has given us a proposition as a negation: "we will not all sleep". In the Greek, the word order is "all not we-will-sleep", (we-will-sleep is one word in Greek) and we know that in the Greek word order is sometimes crucial, and sometimes inconsequential. That there are two possible readings (ambiguity) of the English translation is problematic because the readings are not equivalent: "none will fall asleep" is false if any one falls asleep, but ... – Andrew Apr 23 '16 at 21:50
  • @Daisy ... "some will fall asleep" is true. On the other hand, "some will fall asleep" is false if no one falls asleep, but "none will fall asleep" is true. Since these are exclusive given either outcome, we should be more careful than to say "it can be read either way" if we wish to preserve consistency of our reading. The difference is the application of the negation in the context of the other words. We ought to consider whether the phrase means "(not) (all will fall asleep)" or "(all will) (not fall asleep)" in the original language- is the negation applied to "all" or to "fall asleep"? – Andrew Apr 23 '16 at 21:59
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Analysis of the Greek Text

According to Joseph Henry Thayer, on the word πᾶς,1

III. with negatives;

  1. οὐ πᾶς, not every one.
  2. πᾶς οὐ (where οὐ belongs to the verb), no one, none, see οὐ, 2 p. 460; πᾶς μή (so that μή must be joined to the verb), no one, none, in final sentences, Jn. 3:15 sq.; 6:39; 12:46; 1 Co. 1:29; w. an impv. Eph. 4:29 (1 Macc. 5:42); πᾶς … οὐ μή w. the aor. subjunc. (see μή, IV. 2), Rev. 18:22.

In addition, on the word οὐ, he wrote,2

plur. οὐ πάντες, not all, Mt. 19:11; Ro. 9:6; 10:16; οὐ πᾶσα σάρξ, not every kind of flesh, 1 Co. 15:39; οὐ παντὶ τῷ λαῷ, not to all the people, Acts 10:41; on the other hand, when οὐ is joined to the verb, πᾶς … οὐ must be rendered no one, no, (as in Hebrew, now לא … כָּל, now כָּל … לא; cf. Winer, Lex. Hebr. et Chald. p. 513 sq.): Lk. 1:37; Eph. 5:5; 1 Jn. 2:21; Rev. 22:3;

To summarize:

On the one hand, if the Greek text had stated «οὐ πάντες μὲν κοιμηθησόμεθα πάντες δὲ ἀλλαγησόμεθα», then it would be translated as "Indeed, not everyone shall sleep, yet everyone shall be changed." Here, οὐ πάντες (οὐ immediately preceding πάντες, rather than the verb κοιμηθησόμεθα) is understood as "not all," as in "some shall sleep." It would not mean "none, no one," as in "no one shall sleep (i.e., die)."

On the other hand, since the Greek text states «πάντες μὲν οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα πάντες δὲ ἀλλαγησόμεθα», with οὐ immediately preceding the verb κοιμηθησόμεθα rather than πάντες, it would be translated as "Indeed, no one shall sleep, but everyone shall be changed." It could also be translated as "all shall not sleep" as long as it is understood as "no one shall sleep" rather than "some shall not sleep."

In his commentary on 1 Cor. 15:51, Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer wrote,3

This interpretation alone, according to which οὐ, in conformity with the quite ordinary use of it (comp. immediately οὐ δύναται, 1 Corinthians 15:50), changes the conception of the word before which it stands into its opposite (Baeumlein, Partik. p. 278), is not merely verbally correct, but also in keeping with the character of a μυστήριον; while, according to the usual way of taking it, the first half at least contains nothing at all mysterious, but something superfluous and self-evident.

George Benedikt Winer wrote,4

George Benedikt Winer, A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, p. 555

George Benedikt Winer, A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, p. 556

The Implication

Because the apostle Paul wrote «πάντες μὲν οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα πάντες δὲ ἀλλαγησόμεθα», that is, "no one shall sleep, but all shall be changed," he believed --- at the time he authored his epistle --- that he and those Christians whom he addressed would experience the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ before they died. Of course, it was at a later time that the apostle Paul was resigned to experiencing death (cp. 2 Tim. 4:6-8) and at some time thereafter experiencing the resurrection of the dead instead of being changed while still alive and not experiencing death.


Footnotes

1 p. 493, πᾶς, III.

2 p. 460, οὐ, 2.

3 p. 384-386, 1 Cor. 15:51

4 p. 555-556


References

Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the New Testament. Trans. Moore, John C.; Dickson, William P. New York: Funk, 1889.

Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. Rev. ed. New York: American Book, 1889.

Winer, George Benedikt. A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament. 7th ed. Andover: Draper, 1892.

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  • What about tense? I'm curious if it is saying, in the context of the passage speaking of Christ's return and our resurrection(v42, 52, "at the trumpet") that no one will continue to sleep. Not that they will never sleep at any point prior or after. For example, the US abolition declared that no one would be a slave. It did not say they never were slaves before. – Joshua Apr 23 '16 at 11:59
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Most, but not all, translations understand πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα to mean 'not all of us will die' (some might), rather than 'all of us will not die (none of us will die).

However, the usual word order to express 'not all' would be οὐ πάντες, and this order appears multiple times in 1 Corinthians.

For example:

1 Corinthians 6:12 12 Πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν· ἀλλ’ οὐ πάντα συμφέρει. πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν· ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἐγὼ ἐξουσιασθήσομαι ὑπό τινος.

1 Corinthians 10:23 23 Πάντα ἔξεστιν· ἀλλ’ οὐ πάντα συμφέρει. πάντα ἔξεστιν· ἀλλ’ οὐ πάντα οἰκοδομεῖ.

1 Corinthians 12:29-30 29 μὴ πάντες ἀπόστολοι; μὴ πάντες προφῆται; μὴ πάντες διδάσκαλοι; μὴ πάντες δυνάμεις; 30 μὴ πάντες χαρίσματα ἔχουσιν ἰαμάτων; μὴ πάντες γλώσσαις λαλοῦσιν; μὴ πάντες διερμηνεύουσιν;

1 Corinthians 15:39 39 οὐ πᾶσα σὰρξ ἡ αὐτὴ σάρξ, ἀλλὰ ἄλλη μὲν ἀνθρώπων, ἄλλη δὲ σὰρξ κτηνῶν, ἄλλη δὲ σὰρξ πτηνῶν, ἄλλη δὲ ἰχθύων.

All the above verses have οὐ πάς or μὴ πάς, which is translated 'not all.'

Regarding the word order in πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα, Gordon Fee makes the following comment:

The unusual word order can probably best be explained stylistically, as anticipating the next clause. It can only mean, “not all.” So Robertson, Grammar, 423 (contra his own note on p. 753!); Moule, 168. (NICNT)

Following are the two contradictory notes in Robertson's grammar:

HYPERBATON. Adverbs sometimes appear to be in the wrong place, a phenomenon common in all Greek prose writers...in 1 Cor. 15:51 πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα means 'all of us shall not sleep,' not 'none of us shall sleep.' (p. 423)

Yet on page 753, he writes:

With πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα, 1 Cor. 15:51, the οὐ goes with the verb. The effect is the same as πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα, above. ‘We all shall not sleep’ means that 'none' of us shall sleep. ‘We shall all be changed.’ Per contra, see οὐ πάντες Ro. 10:16= ‘not all.’

If Robertson's two statements are in fact contradictory, then when he says it means all of us shall not sleep, not none of us shall sleep, apparently he understands Paul to be saying that there will be members of the group 'we' who do not die, and not that Paul is claiming no one included in 'we' will die.

If there is ambiguity grammar-wise, perhaps theological considerations can help determine what Paul meant.

Gordon Fee writes:

Paul’s emphasis is on the necessary “change” that will happen to all, both the living and the dead. Not all will die since by the nature of things some will be alive at the return of Christ; but all, including those alive at the time of the Parousia, must be transformed...

Regardless of whether Paul was expecting the parousia to come in his lifetime or not, it seems unreasonable that he believed that the parousia would come before he or anyone in his audience would die. Thus, it is more likely that he meant 'not all' will die. He is not claiming that everyone would be protected miraculously from death before the parousia, whether he was expecting the parousia within 10 years, 10 days, or not sure when it would come.

As Alford comments:

'(All of us) shall not sleep, but (all of us) shall be changed:' i.e. 'the sleep of death cannot be predicated of (all of us), but the resurrection-change can.

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  • There are also some interesting textual variations on 1 Corinthians 15:51, although they do not appear to be directly related to this question. See NET Bible's note. – למה זה תשאל לשמי Apr 23 '16 at 11:18
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In short, it means not everyone will wait between death and resurrection.

Sleep here refers to death. When we die, the body stays here on Earth, and the spirit goes to the spirit world. Most people must wait some time in the spirit world before their spirit can reunite with their body at their resurrection. It may also be the case, however, that people can be changed from mortality to immortality in an instant -- the twinkling of an eye spoken of in the following verse. While everyone must pass through death, those who experience the twinkling don't "sleep" in the same sense because they don't wait in the spirit world. In the end, all will be resurrected.

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  • I see that you are a new user and that your post was down voted twice without comment. Personally I should hope that in the future you will not be treated so rudely. Having said that I wonder if you couldn't improve your post by providing evidence that "spirit goes to the spirit world" and also for the idea that the "spirit is reunited with the body". Thanks. – user10231 Apr 25 '16 at 10:46

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