“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”
As far as I can tell, there are two traditional ways of interpreting this verse. They are as follows:
1) The unsaved are not mentioned at all
2) The unsaved are part of “the end” order; they are raised for judgment
The Unsaved are not mentioned
This interpretation goes something like this: This letter is addressed to believers. It concerns them and their fate after death. It does not have the unsaved in view.
The Unsaved are raised for judgment
The unsaved are in view in verses 27-28: “For he hath put all things under his feet . . .” The unsaved are raised to be trampled under God’s feet and destroyed.
Those are the two most common traditional interpretations of the orders. Now for a look at the Universalistic interpretations. I have selected three different interpretations, each one advanced by a particular Universalist author. The three views, and the authors representing them, are as follows:
1) The end represents a third order of men to be resurrected to life. The order consists of Christ, the elect, and the rest (or the end). This view is represented by Thomas Talbott.
2) There are only two orders: Christ and the rest of mankind, all of whom are saved at his coming. The end does not represent a third order. This view is represented by Thomas Thayer.
3) The three harvest feasts are the three orders; Christ is not included in the orders. This view is represented by Stephen E. Jones.
The End is a Third Order (Talbott)
Talbott sees “the end” order as a time when Christ brings all men in to subjection to himself. He points out that it corresponds to Philippians 2:10-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, in which all are eventually reconciled to God through Christ. He writes:
“ . . . in the middle of the discourse on resurrection, Paul works the theme of resurrection into a much larger context--one that includes . . . the bringing of all things into subjection to Christ . . . After informing us that “in Christ shall all be made alive,” Paul goes onto say: “But each in his own order” (vs.. 24). It is as if Paul has in mind the image of a procession, and he quickly lists three segments of the procession: At the head of the procession is Christ, the first fruits; behind him are those who belong to him at his coming; and behind them are the remainder--that is, those at the end of the procession--who are there when Christ “hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and authority and power” (vs. 24).” (Thomas Talbott , The Inescapable Love of God) p 64
Thayer believes that all are included in the second order: “those who are his at his coming.” He makes the following observations:
Verse 35 says: “But some will say, How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” The phrase “the dead“, he notes, makes no distinction between the saved and the unsaved.
The dead are all to be raised at the end of the world, simultaneously; “there is no precedence of the righteous over the wicked, in point of time.” (Thomas Thayer, The Theology of Universalism) p 222
The wicked are not mentioned as part of a third or end order, an omission Thayer finds impossible given the fact that “It would have ended all debate and doubt, on the most momentous question in the whole range of divine revelation.” Of “the end” he states “Now, observe, that the “end” comes immediately after the raising of those called Christ’s. No transaction, of any kind, intervenes between the second and third event of the series.” (p 222)
Christ is the “first fruits” of the resurrection harvest; Romans 9:16 states “If the first fruits be holy, the lump is also holy . . . ” (p 225)
He concludes his treatment of the matter by stating “ . . . in the resurrection, when the end comes, the wicked will cease to be wicked, and all souls purified, redeemed, and exalted in Christ . . . ” (p 225)
Christ is Not a Part of the Orders (Jones)
Each order, according to Jones, corresponds to a particular Jewish harvest or feast. The first order corresponds to Barley, which was the first fruit of the Jewish harvest. The next order corresponds to wheat, “when the Church is raised to stand before the face of God.” The third order corresponds to the grape harvest. The first order, he writes, is “NOT “Christ the first fruits” . . . It should read the “anointed first fruits.” The Greek word christos means “anointed.”
Of the third order--the grape harvest--Jones writes: “Note how often Paul says these people are to be put “under his feet” or “subjected.” There can be no doubt that Paul had the grape harvest in mind, for treading the grapes underfoot was universally known to indicate judgment.” (Stephen E. Jones, Creation’s Jubilee) chapter 6
Which one is correct?
It seems to me that of the three Universalistic interpretations, Jones’s corresponds best to the text. Let’s start with 1 Cor 15:22-23 “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order . . . ” You will note that these verses say that all who died in Adam will be made alive in Christ. Christ was neither made alive in Christ, nor did he die in Adam. Christ is not in Christ; Christ is Christ. Moreover, Paul already dealt with the resurrection of Christ in verse 20. By verse 22 he has moved from Christ to men. But each man in his own order.
On the other hand, Thayer makes an excellent point in noting that there’s no transaction between the second order and “the end.” Quite frankly, the wording is confusing. Paul employs language which, to me at least, seem to very strongly indicate a procession of three orders. And yet “the end” does not seem to be a separate order.
At any rate, we are left with three possibilities, all of which favor Universal Salvation. They are:
1) There is no third order. If there is no third order, then it is almost certain that all are included in the second due to the fact that there is simply no mention of the wicked; the only contrast--emphasized repeatedly--is that between the first Adam (encompassing all of mankind) and the second (presumably encompassing the same number). This fact is in keeping with the opening verse of the discourse “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” and the end, where God is “all in all.”
2) Christ is not part of the orders. If Christ is not part of the order, then it favors Jones’s interpretation, which, of course, is one that represents universal salvation.
3) Christ is the first of the three orders. This model poses logical and grammatical considerations that all but dictate that all in view are saved. As already stated above, 1 Cor. 15:20 deals with Christ, then moves onto man, suggesting that all will be made alive in Christ. Christ is not in Christ; hence it only makes sense to include him in this list as a prelude of two other orders who are to be made alive in Christ.