Question: "What does it mean that "the last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Corinthians 15:26)?"
Answer: In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes the future resurrection of believers from the dead. There were some who denied the reality of the future resurrection, and Paul defends the truth to the believers in Corinth who had been deceived by that false teaching. Paul explains that the resurrection of believers in Christ is assured because Jesus Christ Himself rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:13).
Paul then looks forward to the second coming of Christ, when He will return with the resurrected saints and at which time He will destroy “all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24–26).
The enemies of God that will be destroyed include Satan, who by his deceit and lies ruined Adam and Eve and all humanity after them. All human beings inherit the sin nature from Adam (Romans 5:12), and all must live in bondage to sin unless delivered by Christ from their sinful state. Satan destroyed the innocence of Adam and Eve when he tempted them to rebel against God. But Jesus, who has redeemed the elect, will have the final victory over Satan and his demons when they are destroyed forever (Revelation 20:1–10).
Another enemy to be destroyed is sin, which all human beings are guilty of committing. On the cross, Jesus saved His people from the punishment and the power of sin. Believers need no longer fear God’s wrath against their sin because Jesus took the punishment sinners deserve. He also delivered believers from the power of sin, granting us the ability to resist sin through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within and whose power is greater than the power of sin. One day, sin will be completely destroyed, and believers will no longer live in the presence of sin. The apostle John describes the New Jerusalem, which will come down from heaven and be entirely free from sin: “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27).
First Corinthians 15:26 says that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Death will be the last of all, because it is the “wages of sin” (Romans 6:23) and must continue to exist until sin has come to an end. Death was the last of the enemies to come, and it will be the last to be destroyed. How will this happen? Those who are in Christ will be raised to eternal life in the presence of God and will die no more. Even unbelievers will live eternally in the lake of fire, and there will be no more physical death for them (Mark 9:48). Physical death is the last enemy to be destroyed, both for the righteous and the wicked.
The defeat of death by the God of life proves the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Death can only be destroyed by the resurrection of both the wicked and the righteous, who will die no more. If there is no resurrection, then death will still rule and people will be subject to it. The fact that death will be destroyed assures us of the resurrection. “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:54; cf. Isaiah 25:8).