God's Word provides assurance of life after death—though not in a heavenly afterlife as thought by so many!
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). 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" (verses 14-15, 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).
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 cloudsto meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
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), 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).
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" (verse 45)—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" (verses 49-50).
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).
What happens after the resurrection?
The words quoted earlier from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 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; 7:13-18; Zechariah 14:1-4; Acts 15:15-17; Revelation 11:15; 19:15).
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 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, 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). 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).
Jesus promised: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live" (John 11:25)—shall live again, that is. One of the best-known verses in the Bible, John 3:16, 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). 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; Matthew 6:33; 13:44-46). People have devised many ways to live, with many false values and distractions (Matthew 6:19-20; 7:13-14), 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). 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). (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).
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).
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).
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, 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), also called "the dead in Christ" (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
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).
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, 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.
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 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.