In a previous post on common popular fears surrounding the afterlife (here), I commented on Virgil’s depiction of Hades in the Aeneid and showed pictorially one anonymous artist’s rendition of the three judges of Hades (Rhadamanthus, Midos, and Aeacus) preserved on an Apulian red-figure volute κρατήρ (= a wine diluter; ca. 330-32o BC). There we read a graphic description from Virgil, and we saw a graphic picture from the “Underworld Painter,” of how the warden of hell, Rhadamanthus, ordered a fury to whip and torture those souls guilty of heinous crimes in their earthly life. This image of divine judgment and justice in the afterlife is an important point of cultural and religious engagement for understanding Paul’s triumphant discourse in 1 Cor 15:55-57: 

  • Where, O Death (θάνατε), is your victory (τὸ νῖκος)? Where, O Death, is your sting (κέντρον)? 56 The sting of death (τὸ κέντρον τοῦ θανάτου) is sin (ἁμαρτία), and the power of sin (ἡ δύναμις τῆς ἁμαρτίας ) is the law (ὁ νόμος). But thanks be to God who gives to us victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!

This is a very packed set of verses. What does Paul mean by the sting of death? The Greek word for “sting” is κέντρον and can mean something like a venomous sting of a bee, wasp, or scorpion. But it can also refer to a sharp object or goad used to spur horses, oxen, or other beasts of burden. 

The κέντρον, as early as Herodotus (Histories 3.130), was also used to torture prisoners of war and criminals. It was a torturing device used punish the wicked (cf. Aristophanes, Wasps 403-407).
    In the mythic world of the Aeneid, it was the furies who held whips, goads, and other weapons to torture and punish wrong-doers. But in 1 Cor 15:55, Death itself holds the κέντρον. The vocative θάνατε personifies Death, and Paul taunts Death as the last enemy. Or, as Garland puts it, “does Paul picture death wielding a goad in its hand to rule over humans and torture them?” (Garland, 1Cor, p. 745). Is Death a military general, believing it has victory (τὸ νῖκος) at hand (because of Adam’s fall), but only to find its victory stripped away, disarmed of its ability to torture and goad humanity any more, because of Christ’s death and resurrection? Here is my interpretative translation of 1 Cor 15:55-57 once more:

  • Where, O Death, you last of the apocalyptic superpowers, is your victory? You were robbed of your victory by Christ’s death and resurrection. Where, O Death, is your ability to torture and punish humanity? Where is your sting? 56 It used to be that Sin could torture, goad, and punish humanity as Death’s ally. Sin is the sting which culminates in death. The Law gave sin its power and authority to accuse humanity for failing to observe the commandments. 57 But not any more! Thanks be to God who through the cross and resurrection of Christ removes the sting from death by providing forgiveness for sin and vindicates believers at the resurrection by overcoming their death with new life. 

Christ’s resurrection is Paul’s historical anchor and theological point of assurance that the triple threat of Death, Sin, and the Law (when it empowers sin to accuse) has been neutralized forever. Christ snatches victory from Death and hands victory instead to God’s people. Where is your (σου) victory, O Death? I’ll tell you where it went, says Paul. God gave it to us (ἡμῖν) through Jesus Christ our Lord. Wow! Can I get an “Amen!” from the congregation out there?!
   In my next post, I will compare the Philodemus text on the “sting” and “bite” of death with Paul’s reference to death’s goad here in 1 Cor 15. While it is possible that the lexemes τὸ νύττεσθαι and δηγμὸν used by Philodemus are synonymous with the way Paul employs the word κέντρον, there are also very clear differences. But for now, we can simply all be challenged by Paul’s taunt against stingless Death and his unwavering confidence in what God had done through Christ.