New Horizons

How Many Resurrections Are There?

James W. Scott

Many years ago, one summer, I was asked to lead a midweek Bible study at an evangelical church. Being eager to do battle for the truth, I chose to do a series on eschatology. My plan was to gently wean these people away from premillennialism by looking at Bible texts, not at systems of interpretation.

Everything was going well until we had a visitor. This person denounced me for undermining one of the key doctrines of the faith (the premillennial return of Christ) and explained at length (with references to the original Greek) that there would be a resurrection of the saints "from" the dead at Christ's return, and, after the millennium, a resurrection "of" the remaining dead.

I don't remember what I stammered in reply. But now that I have fully recovered from my state of shock, I can take up the issue again.

One, Two, or Three?

Premillennialists teach that Christ will return before ("pre-") the millennium, as is clearly set forth (they say) in Revelation 20. From this passage they also deduce that there will be two resurrections, one of saints before the millennium (who are then judged and rewarded) and another of everyone else after the millennium (who will then be judged).

Many dispensational premillennialists go further, and distinguish between a resurrection of the saints at the beginning of the (supposed) Tribulation (when Christ returns "for" his saints and meets them in the air) and a resurrection of additional converts at the end of the Tribulation (when Christ finally reaches earth "with" his saints). So they discern three resurrections in all.

The traditional Reformed position, on the other hand, as set forth in the Westminster Confession, is that there is one general resurrection and one day of judgment for all: "At the last day [when Christ returns], such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up.... The bodies of the unjust shall ... be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just ... unto honor" (WCF, 32.2-3; cf. Larger Catechism, 87). Furthermore, there shall be "a day" when "all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ" and be judged (33.1), after which "the righteous [shall] go into everlasting life" and "the wicked ... shall be cast into eternal torments" (33.2). The Confession opposes the multiple resurrections and days of judgment propounded by premillennialists, although it does not explicitly link the resurrection to the last judgment (as do the Larger Catechism, 56, 88, and the Shorter Catechism, 38). (Still, the OPC has always permitted its officers to be premillennialists-and there have been a few-though not dispensationalists.)

The General Resurrection

There are certain Scriptures that refer to one resurrection of the just and the unjust together. For example, in Acts 24:15 Paul states that "there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust." Notice that there is "a" resurrection-only one. And "both" the just and the unjust are raised up in it. Yes, reply the premillennialists, from a distance there does seem to be "a" resurrection, but when we get closer we see that it unfolds in two (or three) stages, separated by Christ's millennial reign.

But in John 5:28-29 Jesus declares that "the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will ... come forth," both the righteous and the wicked. Are we to insert a thousand years into this "hour"? Admittedly, "the hour" is a figurative expression meaning "the time," yet it refers to a specific time or a short period of time, not one with a millennium dividing it in two.

Two Resurrections in One

While Jesus insists that all the dead will be raised together, in what Acts 24:15 calls "a resurrection," he also indicates in John 5:29 that this general event will really be two concurrent events, for "those who have done good" will participate in "the resurrection of life" and "those who have done evil" will participate in "the resurrection of condemnation."

The souls of the wicked will be reunited with their bodies, but they will not experience the glorious transformation that awaits the righteous dead (1 Cor. 15:35-55; 1 Thess. 4:16-17). This transformation will be so awesome that Scripture often calls it "the resurrection of the dead" (for example, Matt. 22:31 and 1 Cor. 15:42), as if the contemporaneous raising of the wicked for eternal death hardly deserves to be called "resurrection" by comparison.

The premillennialists are right to distinguish the resurrection of the righteous from the resurrection of the wicked. But they are the two concurrent parts of one general resurrection, not two stages of resurrection separated by a millennium. They differ in character, not in time. There are indeed two stages of "the resurrection" (of the righteous), but they are the resurrection of Jesus and the coming resurrection of those who belong to him (1 Cor. 15:20-23).

Resurrection from the Dead

There are one or two passages that refer to the resurrection of the just as "the resurrection from the dead," namely, Luke 20:35 (cf. Mark 12:23, 25) and Philippians 3:11 (where, however, most Greek manuscripts read "of the dead"). Elsewhere this resurrection is said to be "of the dead""for example, in Matthew 22:31 and 1 Cor. 15:42, where the context indicates that only the righteous dead are in view.

Premillennialists argue that the phrase "from the dead" in these passages implies that other dead people are left behind, for a later resurrection (after the millennium). However, the expression "from the dead" probably means no more than "from the realm/condition of the dead." Thus, in Romans 6:13 and 11:15 and Ephesians 5:14 there is no implication of other dead people necessarily being left behind. A resurrection "from the dead" need therefore imply no more than that the realm or condition of death is left behind.

Furthermore, there is reason to think that, within the general resurrection, the unjust dead are left behind initially. Just as the righteous dead will be raised and transformed at Christ's coming before the righteous living are transformed (1 Thess. 4:15-17), so it will undoubtedly be that the righteous dead will be raised before the unrighteous dead. The Lord will bring his resurrected saints with him, and then raise the unjust dead so that he may judge all of the living and the dead (2 Thess. 1:7-10; Acts 24:15-16; 10:42). The righteous dead are indeed raised out of the mass of dead humanity at the beginning of the general resurrection at Christ's return.

Revelation 20

The "souls" of the martyrs and other steadfast saints experience "the first resurrection." They live and reign with Christ for "a thousand years" (Rev. 20:4-6). That is, having been "faithful unto death," they "receive a crown of life" (2:10) and sit down with Christ on his thrown in heaven (3:21), resting (14:13) and ruling with him until his return to earth (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:21, 23), at which time their souls are reunited with their (glorified) bodies in the general resurrection (the implied "second resurrection") for the last judgment, after which the wicked experience "the second (eternal) death" (Rev. 20:5a, 11-15).

Premillennialists, who assert that "the first resurrection" is the resurrection of the just and that the second one is the resurrection of the unjust, insist that if the second resurrection is physical, the first must also be. However, all that the word "resurrection" requires is that there be a passage from death to life, which, as we have seen, is how John characterizes the Christian's experience at death.

Thus, Revelation 20 provides no reason to reinterpret the rest of Scripture: there is a general resurrection at Christ's return, followed by the final judgment.

Dr. Scott is a member of Trinity OPC in Hatboro, Pa. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 1998.

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