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The Promise of Life After Death

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God promises that life will return through a resurrection of the dead. This is how mankind can receive His gift of eternal life.

In the first chapter we dealt with God’s gift of physical life. In the second chapter we discussed death itself. We have learned that we are mortal; life is temporary. Now we will focus on what happens after death. Even though our bodies are temporary, subject to decay and death, God has planned for us much more than just this limited, physical existence.

Thousands of years ago the patriarch Job asked the same question we ask ourselves: “If a man dies, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14 Job 14:14If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.
American King James Version×
). He went on to answer the question in stating to God: “All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee” (Job 14:14-15 Job 14:14-15 14 If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. 15 You shall call, and I will answer you: you will have a desire to the work of your hands.
American King James Version×
, KJV). After death a person is unconscious, waiting for God to call him from the grave and restore him to life.

What does the Bible say about the remarkable phenomenon of restoration to life? When will it take place? What else happens at this time? Will the resurrected still be flesh and blood, or will they be brought back to a different kind of life?

The answers to these questions go to the core of the meaning of our existence. As we study the Bible to find the answers, we can be encouraged, motivated and inspired by God’s plan for life after death.

The promise of the resurrection

Paul, as we saw briefly in the last chapter, spoke of a great change that will take place when he referred to both the resurrection of the dead and the state of those who remain alive at the time of the resurrection at the return of Christ. A marvelous transformation must occur before we can receive the gift of eternal life. The dead in Christ will be resurrected to an “incorruptible” existence, and those in Christ who are still alive will be instantly changed from a mortal, physical existence to an incorruptible state.

Notice again Paul’s description of this astounding event: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed —in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 51 Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
American King James Version×
).

As explained in the previous chapter, those who have died are unconscious, as if they are sleeping a dreamless sleep, awaiting their time to be called out of the grave and resurrected to a new life. The period from the last moment of consciousness until they are awakened in the resurrection will seem as if no time had passed at all, just as if they were waking from sleep or from a coma.

Paul shows clearly that this resurrection will occur when Jesus Christ returns to the earth: “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [died], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.

“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 13 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
American King James Version×
).

Two groups resurrected at Christ’s return

In both passages Paul distinguishes between two groups of Christ’s followers—those who have died and those who are still alive when Jesus returns—both of whom will be in this resurrection. Although “it is appointed for men to die once” (Hebrews 9:27 Hebrews 9:27And as it is appointed to men once to die, but after this the judgment:
American King James Version×
), some will remain alive when Jesus returns. So what will happen to these faithful followers who are still alive then?

At that time, these people’s physical lives will be over, because they will be miraculously and instantaneously changed to incorruptible spirit, inheriting the gift of eternal life.

Paul describes this wonderful change a little earlier in the same chapter. “So also is the resurrection of the dead,” he wrote. “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body [flesh and blood], it is raised a spiritual body [no longer physical, but composed of spirit]. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
American King James Version×
).

Paul then explains that while “the first man Adam became a living being,” a physical creature of the dust of the earth, “the last Adam [Jesus Christ] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45 1 Corinthians 15:45And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.
American King James Version×
)—that is, He was resurrected as a spirit being with a body composed of spirit. And so it will be with us, as Paul explains.

The apostle continues: “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man [Christ]. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:49-50 1 Corinthians 15:49-50 49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. 50 Now this I say, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption.
American King James Version×
).

At the end of our physical lives—the conclusion of this temporary and mortal existence—comes death. After that comes a resurrection in which we must be changed because, as Paul wrote, mortal “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Those who are “in Christ”—who have been called, repented, been baptized and been led by God—will be transformed in that resurrection to eternal, spiritual life, glorified as spirit beings like the resurrected Jesus Christ (Romans 8:16-17 Romans 8:16-17 16 The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: 17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
American King James Version×
).

What happens after the resurrection?

The words quoted earlier from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 13 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
American King James Version×
describe Jesus’ triumphant return to earth. Heralded by the shout of an archangel and the sounding of a trumpet, God will resurrect the dead in Christ to eternal life; the living who are Christ’s will be changed from mortal to immortal and will ascend to meet and greet Him.

Scriptures show that those in this resurrection will not stay in “heaven” (in this case the earth’s atmosphere—”the air,” as it states) with Christ, but will descend with Him as He takes control of and begins to reign over the nations (see Daniel 2:44 Daniel 2:44And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.
American King James Version×
; Daniel 7:13-18 Daniel 7:13-18 13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. 14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. 15 I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the middle of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. 16 I came near to one of them that stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things. 17 These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.
American King James Version×
; Zechariah 14:1-4 Zechariah 14:1-4 1 Behold, the day of the LORD comes, and your spoil shall be divided in the middle of you. 2 For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3 Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. 4 And his feet shall stand in that day on the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall split in the middle thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.
American King James Version×
; Acts 15:15-17 Acts 15:15-17 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, on whom my name is called, said the Lord, who does all these things.
American King James Version×
; Revelation 11:15 Revelation 11:15And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
American King James Version×
; Revelation 19:15 Revelation 19:15And out of his mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treads the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
American King James Version×
).

The resurrected saints (this term meaning those sanctified or set apart, applying to all of Christ’s followers) will reign with Christ on earth in His Kingdom. As Revelation 5:10 Revelation 5:10And have made us to our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
American King James Version×
states, Jesus will make them “a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (New International Version). (To learn more about these incredible events, be sure to read the booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom .)

Who will be resurrected?

Now let’s look at another important detail regarding the resurrection: Some will be resurrected to receive eternal life, but others will be resurrected to a coming judgment. Jesus makes this distinction Himself: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29 John 5:28-29 28 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, 29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, to the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, to the resurrection of damnation.
American King James Version×
, New American Standard Bible).

God gave us this temporary, mortal life to prepare us for eternal life. The hope and promise of that resurrection is intriguing and inspiring. But knowing there is also a “resurrection of judgment” gives us reason to pause. Why might one person be resurrected to life and another be resurrected to judgment?

The resurrection of life is through Jesus Christ

When he was challenged by religious leaders, Peter made the point that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12 Acts 4:12Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
American King James Version×
). Paul points out that our resurrection can take place because God first resurrected Jesus. Unless He was resurrected before us, we have no hope (1 Corinthians 15:12-19 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: 14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. 16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: 17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins. 18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
American King James Version×
).

Jesus promised: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25 John 11:25Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
American King James Version×
)—shall live again, that is. One of the best-known verses in the Bible, John 3:16 John 3:16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
American King James Version×
, promises that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

The simple truth is that we can receive the gift of eternal life only through Jesus Christ. “For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 Acts 4:12Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
American King James Version×
). How do we demonstrate our belief in Him? What obligations does that carry?

Jesus said that those who are His disciples must be willing to place everything else in life secondary to seeking the Kingdom of God (Luke 14:25-33 Luke 14:25-33 25 And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said to them, 26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sits not down first, and counts the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? 29 Lest haply, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, 30 Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. 31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, sits not down first, and consults whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an ambassador, and desires conditions of peace. 33 So likewise, whoever he be of you that forsakes not all that he has, he cannot be my disciple.
American King James Version×
; Matthew 6:33 Matthew 6:33But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.
American King James Version×
; Matthew 13:44-46 Matthew 13:44-46 44 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to treasure hid in a field; the which when a man has found, he hides, and for joy thereof goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: 46 Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
American King James Version×
). People have devised many ways to live, with many false values and distractions (Matthew 6:19-20 Matthew 6:19-20 19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust does corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
American King James Version×
; Matthew 7:13-14 Matthew 7:13-14 13 Enter you in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it.
American King James Version×
), but the reality is that there is only one right way and only one Savior.

In concluding the first recorded sermon after Jesus’ death, Peter called on believers in Christ to repent, undergo baptism and receive from God His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
American King James Version×
). Repentance is a sincere and heartfelt realization of our own sinfulness and inadequacy.

But it is also our resolve to forsake our former way of life to begin a new life in Christ. Baptism portrays that resolve (Romans 6:1-6 Romans 6:1-6 1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? 3 Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: 6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that from now on we should not serve sin.
American King James Version×
). (To better understand these topics, read the booklet The Road to Eternal Life .)

Many scriptures reveal what we must do to demonstrate our belief in Jesus Christ.

For example, Colossians 3-4 is a long passage that describes the complete commitment we must make. We must allow God to change our very nature, and we must learn to imitate Jesus in everything we do. If we are truly yielded to God, Christ will live His life in us through the power of God’s Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20 Galatians 2:20I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
American King James Version×
).

We also learn that our personal reward will be based on how we live. Indeed, God gives “eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil … but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good” (Romans 2:6-10 Romans 2:6-10 6 Who will render to every man according to his deeds: 7 To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: 8 But to them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, 9 Tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man that does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; 10 But glory, honor, and peace, to every man that works good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:
American King James Version×
).

More than one resurrection

Another major aspect of the resurrection revealed by Scripture is that the dead come back to life in a particular order, in sequence, according to a plan.

Not all will be resurrected at the same time, though Christ’s followers of this age will be: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man [Christ] also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. 21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.
American King James Version×
).

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes that we must have God’s Spirit within us if we are to be resurrected to life: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:11 Romans 8:11But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwells in you.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

The resurrection we have described so far occurs when Jesus returns. It will include only “those who are Christ’s” (1 Corinthians 15:23 1 Corinthians 15:23But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.
American King James Version×
), also called “the dead in Christ” (1 Thessalonians 4:16 1 Thessalonians 4:16For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
American King James Version×
).

These are people who have understood that salvation is through Jesus Christ and who have shown their belief in Him through the commitment of repentance, baptism and obedience to God’s Word as led by the Holy Spirit. As we have seen, they will be transformed into immortal spirit at Christ’s return, thus inheriting eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:50-53 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 50 Now this I say, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
American King James Version×
).

Others who have died

But now we have a dilemma. What happens to people who never had the opportunity to come to a proper understanding and make the needed commitment to God through Christ? Are they the ones Christ spoke of who will be resurrected to judgment?

What about infants and other young children who die long before they can understand or gain the maturity to receive the Holy Spirit and seek God’s Kingdom? What about people who have lived and died in ages past or in remote regions today without ever even hearing the name of Jesus Christ, much less learning His teachings and being able to respond with any kind of commitment to Him? What about people who adhere to high moral values but don’t hold to any particular religious beliefs or commitment?

What will happen to them and when? Will the treatment these people receive be just? Is God fair? Will He give everyone equal opportunity to receive eternal life? Or is He selective, offering eternal life to only some?

The first resurrection

Let’s begin with what John describes as the first resurrection. He speaks of “those who are Christ’s,” some of whom had suffered martyrdom and all of whom had rejected false religions and deceptive teachings.

He writes of the vision he received in the book of Revelation: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. ( The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. )This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:4-6 Revelation 20:4-6 4 And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Notice that some come to life after the 1,000-year reign of Christ. Those given eternal life at the beginning of that period, at Christ’s return when they will reign with Him, represent the first resurrection. But here we plainly see that others, “the rest of the dead,” do not come to life again until 1,000 years have passed. If only one resurrection is to occur, John would simply have referred to it as the resurrection. However, since he uses the phrase “the first resurrection,” it is evident that at least one more resurrection must follow.

 Summary

We have learned from the highest written authority—the Bible—that at Jesus Christ’s return He will resurrect His true, faithful followers and grant them the incredible gift of eternal life. They are the only ones who will have a part in this resurrection.

Yet we’re told in 1 Timothy 2:3-4 1 Timothy 2:3-4 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; 4 Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
American King James Version×
that “God our Savior … desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” What, then, of the billions of people who have already died and never had the knowledge of the truth? Is it too late for them?

This brings us to a discussion of one of the most truly amazing aspects in God’s plan for life and death—what God has in store for the rest of the dead.

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