Does the resurrection from the dead seem like a mystery to you?
Paul brings clarity to this often-overlooked biblical truth while acknowledging human mortality: "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 15:22-23).
Paul describes an order of resurrections commencing with "those who are Christ's at His coming," which Revelation 20:5 refers to as "the first resurrection." An order of resurrections commencing with one called "the first" means there are subsequent and sequential resurrections—and indeed these are described more fully elsewhere in the Bible.
A first resurrection for those who are Christ's
Paul describes the first resurrection, of those who have been Christ's faithful servants at His coming, this way: "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, 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. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:51-53).
Those raised and changed to immortality at Christ's return will live and reign with him for 1,000 years: "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them . . . And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished" (Revelation 20:4-5).
The glory of those who have "put on" immortality puts them permanently beyond the grasp of death: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power" (verse 6). These will be endowed with life eternal in the likeness of Christ (1 John 3:2), attaining the destiny of those who remain faithful—to "bear the image of the heavenly man" (1 Corinthians 15:45). This first resurrection, with those in it learning God's way and being made immortal before the rest of the world, is called a "better resurrection" (Hebrews 11:35).
A second resurrection for those who never knew God or Christ
What about those described in the book of Revelation as "the rest of the dead" who "did not live again until the thousand years were finished" (Revelation 20:5). Who are they? And what will become of them?
First, "the rest of the dead" constitute all those who were not "Christ's at His coming" and fall into two broad categories—those who died never truly knowing Christ, and those who have already willfully rejected Him as their personal Savior. These are two very different categories of people, facing two very different destinies.
The first group, who died without ever having known Christ, is described standing before the throne of God in a second resurrection: "And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened" (Revelation 20:12).
The prophet Ezekiel was given a vision by God in which he saw vast numbers of long-dead Israelites come back to life as flesh-and-blood human beings. In this vision, "breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army" (Ezekiel 37:1-10).
"Then," God tells them, "you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and performed it" (verses 13-14).
A merciful God, not willing that any should perish, reaches out to all those to whom the "books" of the Bible had never been open (in terms of understanding) and brings them back to life to offer them an intimate relationship with Him by putting His Spirit in them—a powerful demonstration of a merciful God so unwilling that any should perish that He reaches into the grave to offer life to the unsaved masses.
A final resurrection for those who ultimately reject God
But a merciful God, to be perfect, must also be just. Those who have knowingly and willfully defied the mercies and commandments of God in their lifetime even after coming to know God and His truth face a very different destiny in a final resurrection—that of the second death: "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14).
The unrepentant incorrigibly wicked of past ages meet their Maker in a resurrection to receive justice through a second death in the lake of fire, from which there will be no resurrection.
The biblical teaching on the resurrections provides hope, destiny and justice for all. There will be three resurrections for three distinct groups of people—each in their own order, each in their own time through the power of a perfectly merciful and perfectly just God not willing that any should perish. To learn more about these resurrections, with far more complete biblical explanations, download or request our free booklet What Happens After Death?