The Resurrection of the Dead: What Does the Bible Really Teach?

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Many people have at least a vague notion that the Bible teaches about a resurrection. But what is the resurrection all about? And how does it fit into God's overall plan for salvation?

The Resurrection of the Dead: What Does the Bible Really Teach?

While defending his teaching as a prisoner bound for Rome, the apostle Paul asked King Herod Agrippa II, "Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?" (Acts:26:8).

We could well ask the same question of the intelligentsia in our modern, secular age. Disbelief in the Bible is rife among our intellectual and media establishment. Few either know or understand what God's plan is for humanity and how the resurrection fits into His overall purpose.

When talking to Agrippa, it's clear from the context that Paul had the resurrection of Jesus Christ foremost in mind. Especially during the Church's early period, preaching Christ's resurrection was a crucial part of the apostles' message. One of the reasons another apostle had to be chosen to replace Judas Iscariot was that "one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection" (Acts:1:22, emphasis added throughout). Notice that "with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts:4:33).

Having personally seen and talked with the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians:9:1; 15:8; Acts:22:6-10), Paul carried on, enthusiastically confirming the fact of Jesus' resurrection. He further told Agrippa, "To this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great . . . that the Christ [the Messiah] would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead" (Acts:26:22-23).

Note that the unmistakable implication from this passage is that others would follow.

The resurrection of God's firstfruits

God uses the analogy of Israel's agricultural harvests to illustrate important aspects of His plan of salvation—the "harvesting" of mankind, in a sense, in which the resurrection of the dead plays a major role. Aspects of this plan are pictured by specific annual festivals and Holy Days, which in turn represent harvest times in ancient Israel . (To understand more fully the links between the harvests, Holy Days and the plan of God, download or request our free booklet God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind . )

"Firstfruits" is a term used to denote the first part of the harvest. This part was considered holy. As God's people, truly converted Christians are considered firstfruits of God's spiritual harvest (James:1:18).

Jesus is the first of the firstfruits—the most holy part. "But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [in death]" (1 Corinthians:15:20). The apostle Paul explained that Jesus is "the firstborn over all creation," "the firstborn from the dead" and "the firstborn among many brethren" (Colossians:1:15, 18; Romans:8:29). Clearly others would follow in due time.

The Bible is speaking here of a resurrection to everlasting life as a spirit being— not simply a temporary restoration to life in a physical body. In several places in the Bible individuals were restored to physical life prior to the resurrection of Jesus. But they all died again.

Paul, however, makes the important distinction between these and the resurrection of God's firstfruits: "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly [physical, material] body that it may be conformed to His glorious body" (Philippians 3:20-21; compare 2 Corinthians:5:1-5).

An entire chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 15, discusses the resurrection. It begins by affirming Jesus' own raising to life, followed by a description of the restoration to similar life of His disciples and true followers—God's firstfruits.

Paul describes the nature of this resurrection of the firstfruits: "It is sown a natural [physical] body, it is raised a spiritual body . . . as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man [Jesus Christ]. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God " (1 Corinthians:15:44, 49-50).

Even true Christians cannot enter the Kingdom until the return of Jesus Christ to earth, pictured in God's plan by the Feast of Trumpets—one of His annual Holy Days. On the fulfillment of this day, when the last trumpet sounds, the dead in Christ will be resurrected and God will harvest His firstfruits in the fullest sense.

Notice 1 Corinthians:15:51-52: "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" (compare 1 Thessalonians:4:16). At that epochal time, Christ's disciples and true followers will experience what the Bible calls the " better resurrection" (Hebrews:11:35).

More than one resurrection

Christ plainly stated: "For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will" (John:5:21). Both the Father and the Son have the authority and the power to raise the dead. Then Jesus goes on to say: "I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live . . . for the hour is coming in which all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come forth" (verses 25, 29-30).

While several passages in the Bible make it clear that there will be a future resurrection of both just and unjust human beings (John:5:29; Daniel:12:2; Acts:24:15), the long time differential between these two distinct groups is not clarified by the apostle John until Revelation 20: "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them . . . And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years" (verse 4).

Notice that the first sentence of the next verse is parenthetical, informing us of a much later second resurrection: "But the rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years were finished" (verse 5).

Then the last sentence of verse 5 refers back to and naturally joins with the previous description of the resurrection of the righteous saints in verse 4: "This is the first resurrection." This first resurrection is composed of those who will join Christ in His millennial (i.e., 1,000-year) rule.

Verse 6 continues to define the conditions of the first resurrection: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over 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."

Revelation:5:9-10 anticipates true Christians' part in assisting Jesus Christ in His millennial rule over the earth: "You [Christ] were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (New International Version).

The second resurrection

Doctrinally speaking, Revelation 20 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible. For one thing it is the only chapter that shows the time difference between these resurrections and who will be in which. Both resurrections play crucial roles in God's overall plan and purpose for humanity.

Verses 11 and 12 reveal a significant part of the story: "Then I [the apostle John] saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it . . . And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened . And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books."

What are these books by which these people are judged? Clearly they are the books (plural) of the Bible. God judges all people by the same biblical standard He has always used. This will not change.

In properly understanding this vital passage, we should remember the important principle that the Bible interprets the Bible. Other passages penned by the apostles John and Paul are highly significant in properly comprehending these two verses.

Notice what some theologians call the golden text of Scripture, John:3:16-17: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved."

Christ later said: "'And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself . 'This He said, signifying by what death He would die" (John:12:32-33).

Later the apostle Paul summed up God's intentions for humanity: "For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth . For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy:2:3-6).

Many of the people standing before God in this second resurrection will have never even heard the name of Jesus Christ, much less believed in Him. Do we think God is going to consign them in their ignorance to some sort of never-ending punishment in an ever-burning hellfire?

Is salvation only for God's firstfruits in the first resurrection, or doesn't that very term firstfruits imply salvation for others who will follow after?

Will God not give all who have ever lived a full opportunity for salvation? For those who come up in the second resurrection, this is not a second chance, but their real first chance. For billions of people, this will be their first opportunity to ever learn of God's truth and plan, to ever hear of Jesus Christ, the only name by which we can be saved (Acts:4:12).

The valley of dry bones

The second resurrection to temporary physical life is pictured by Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel:37:1-9). This Hebrew prophet saw in vision that "breath came into them, and they lived , and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army" (verse 10). They are shown standing just like the resurrected peoples of Revelation:20:11-12.

Then in Ezekiel:37:11 God identifies these dry bones as "the whole house of Israel." It is at this future time that "all Israel will be saved" (Romans:11:26). By no stretch of the imagination is all Israel being saved during this age of man—only a relatively small group the Bible calls "the firstfruits" are being saved now (Romans:8:23; James:1:18; compare Luke:12:32).

But when this extensive resurrection occurs 1,000 years after the first resurrection, "Then you [ Israel ] shall know that I am the Lord , when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves" (Ezekiel:37:13). They never really knew God during their previous lifetimes. Now they will have that opportunity for the first time.

What will God then do? "I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live" (verse 14). Many, if not most, will truly repent, be baptized, receive God's Spirit and be converted—following the pattern revealed by the apostle Peter (see Acts:2:37-39; 3:19-21).

When we put together all the scriptures on this subject and understand them properly, we see that this future period is one of judgment, in this case meaning evaluation over time and not an instant sentencing of sinners to an ever-burning hellfire. The apostle Paul wrote, "It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews:9:27). A similar judgment is now taking place in the lives of all truly converted Christians—"the house of God" (1 Peter:4:17). For others this judgment comes after this second resurrection back to physical life.

Jesus and the judgment

Jesus Christ Himself shows that the peoples of Israel will not be the only ones to rise in the second resurrection to be judged at that time. Jesus makes this point very clear, though few have understood it, not recognizing how God will make salvation available to all in His great plan:

"Then He [Jesus] began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: 'Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.

"'And you Capernaum, . . . if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew:11:20-24).

The peoples of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom were not Hebrews or Israelites. Yet they will also be part of the great resurrection to physical life mentioned in Revelation:20:11-12.

And they won't be the only ones. Christ plainly stated: "The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South [Sheba] will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here" (Matthew:12:41-42).

Here Jesus plainly describes the people of Jonah's day and of Solomon's time, who had lived more than 700 and 900 years earlier, being resurrected alongside those who lived in Christ's day! Together all these "will rise in the judgment," He said.

It should be clear that a number of biblical passages support and round out the enormous significance of this period of judgment pictured in Revelation:20:11-12. During this time God will shower His abundant mercy on all those who have lived in the past without either really knowing Him or truly understanding His way of life. They will have the marvellous opportunity to obtain salvation and be a part of God's eternal family.

Our Creator is a God of great mercy. Indeed He is so merciful that after immense patience in hopes of genuine repentance (2 Peter:3:9), He simply will not allow the incurably wicked, those who stubbornly persist in thinking and doing evil to be a part of His Kingdom (1 Corinthians:6:9; Galatians:5:19-21; Revelation:21:8).

Their penalty, however, is not a cruel eternal existence in an ever-burning hellfire, but the second death in a lake of fire. (For the true meaning of hell in Scripture, request or download our free booklet Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach? )

God's magnificent purpose for humanity

The awesome result of our Creator's activities on this earth lies "in bringing many sons [and daughters] to glory" (Hebrews:2:10). As the apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians:15:22-23, God accomplishes His plan in stages: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order."

God is enlarging His family in His own way and according to His own timetable. Many assume that today is the only day of salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first resurrection represents the firstfruits of God's salvation. But a much larger group, representing the greater part of all who have ever lived, will be privileged to be offered salvation some 1,000 years later. They constitute the great later harvest of men and women who will then receive the opportunity for everlasting life in the Kingdom of God!


ytheml01's picture

no one has come back to tell me anything about heaven or hell...

I know the bible says that the dead know nothing under the sun after death..

I do know that this society makes a very big deal off of dying and makes lots of money keeping the dead in the limelight....

dick nellis

dick nellis's picture

for ytheml01
There is one that came back to tell you the true story of what is important in this life. He wrote what is often called the user manual for our lives - The Bible. It is true, except for the (intentional or accidential) mistranslations. Satan continues to try to deceive us so do as those of Berea did. (Acts 17:11) Confirm everything with the Bible. If it is not in the Bible it may not be from God.
Yours in Jesus
dick nellis


KARS's picture

@ ythem "Nakdimon replied, "How can this happen?" Yeshua answered him, "You hold the office of teacher in Isra'el, and you don't know this? Yes indeed, I tell you that what we speak about, we know; and what we give evidence of; we have seen; but you people don't except our evidence! If you people don't believe me when I tell you the things of the world, how will you believe me when I tell you about the things of heaven? No one has gone up into heaven; there is only the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man." YOCHANAN (John) 3:1-13 JCB
So when you read this chapter in whichever translation you want, please being at verse one to keep it in context for understanding. When our Savior Christ says no one has gone to heaven, then that means that no one is in burning hell fire awaiting the resurrection. I was told that I was going to hell. Well, that is not what our Savior said in verse 13.

xvr owino

xvr owino's picture

Kindly consider my pts. People aren't ressurrected to be preached to because they didn't have a chance to know about Jesus in their life. Romans:2:14 says "when Gentiles who dont have the law do by nature things req'd by the law, they are a law to themselves ...the req'ments of the law are written in their hearts through the conscience..." So they shall be judged by their conscience which everyone was given- there will be no excuse even if Gospel didn't come to them. John:5:28 tells us what the real goal of the ressurrection is"...those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned."So ressurrection purpose is to REWARD people with life or condemnation for kind of lives already lived. No word about another preaching. You'r considered "blessed" to be in the 1st or "better" ressurection because that means youll not suffer the 2nd death (lake of fire). Logically that means that to be in the 2nd ressurrection( theres no 3rd ressurrection!) you are "unblessed" because you will suffer the 2nd death. This means u had better be in the 1st ressurrection to be among the saved. Yes,the 2 ressurrections are 1,000 years apart.


Skip's picture

Hello xvr owino
(That is hard to pronounce!)
What is Romans 2 talking about?
First of all, Romans 2 is part of a much longer letter.
To get the overall main message we have to do some real study.
Second, Romans is considered by many to be really complicated.

But you have actually gotten closer than many to the Truth.

What I can't figure out is why you don't see that Paul, talking to these (possibly) sophisticated Romans, still goes on about all this Israelite/Jewish stuff IF the Roman Gentiles just need to be concerned about matters of everyday,ordinary,human conscience. The reason he does is because the way we think & feel about what is right & wrong is NOT the criteria that God used, uses, and will use.

God uses the same criteria for everyone but everyone is not shown (they do not understand) that criteria at the same time. And that is the reason we need more than one resurrection: not to reward & punish but to teach & explain.

As a scientist might express it: it is really quite "elegant."

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

@Xvr Owino
Re: “People aren't res[u]rrected to be preached to”


Sodomites “‘exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord’…will…learn God's truth for the first time and have the opportunity at last to repent and receive God's gift of salvation”:

“The White Throne Judgment is not an instant sentencing but a period of evaluation and corrective measures spanning the new lifetime of those resurrected”:

“In the final judgment, every person's eternal destiny hinges on whether his disobedience to God's law is forgiven because of his personal repentance and his genuine faith…All who refuse to meet those conditions will be judged as unrepentant sinners and condemned…ignorance of the law does not excuse anyone from the condemnation the law imposes for sin. Even those who have sinned in ignorance will perish… if they are unwilling to quit transgressing the law. Only sinners who repent…may be justified by God's grace”:

Norbert Z

Norbert Z's picture

I find Hebrews:9:27 rather interesting when it comes to deaths (Matthew:10:28) and resurrections.

"And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment"

How many times did Lazarus die? Twice, first occured before Jesus resurrected him at his tomb and seeing he isn't around now, that would make for a second time.

So which death is verse 27 pointing towards?

The way I view it, is people are going to have two choices. Either you'll have to read into that scripture and say there are exceptions to "appointed for men to die once" to avoid a contradiction between first and second resurrections. The evidence of Lazarus and a few others having died twice is in the Bible. Or that verse in Hebrews is referring to the second death only.


Skip's picture

Hello Norbert Z,

Not only Lazarus but many others come out of their graves at the death of Jesus Christ. (Matt 27: 52 & 53)And then they died again.

Hebrews 9: 27 means that there is a physical death
& a spiritual death, as you probably already know!

It appears to me that the God who makes Law can, very occasionally, operate in a way that does NOT tear those Laws asunder but
does show AND demonstrate that God is THE Lawmaker.

Yes, there are a few exceptions to some rules.


KARS's picture

Hi Skip,

It shows what a genious God our Father is. By having some people raise from the dead and live a little while then die again; How could the Pharisees and Sacchees lies be true?

They told the guards to tell everyone that Jesus Christ body was stolen.

Those people where a witness to the world at the time that our Savior Jesus Christ is the Messiah.

Norbert Z

Norbert Z's picture

Hi Skip,

I mostly try not to tell other people what to believe, but I do believe we all need to do the work of thinking these things out for ourselves (Psalm:32:9). It's not always easy to figure out the intended point of view of a writer/speaker.

You mention "many" came back from the dead and that is what is correctly written in Matthew 27. When I wrote a "few", it was in comparison to a larger topic being discussed, the amount mentioned in Revelation:20:11-12. The "many" that is mentioned in Matthew would make up only a few in comparison to the verses in Revelation, no?

What you had in your mind is one thing, what I had in mine is another but what is written in scripture; who will tell people what to believe?

I trust that the Holy Spirit and a good relationship with God plays the deciding role in all of this, no matter what any person teaches. Whether it is the truth or as Paul states in 1 Timothy:1:7.

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

Hello again,

Re: “their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day” (Rom:2:14b-15a, ESV 2011).

Romans:2:14-15…One cannot truly repent and come to conversion without a conscience that will restrain one from sinful behavior”:

“[A] second chance at life is not the same as a second chance at salvation”:

Re: “the resurrection resulting in condemnation/judgment” (John:5:29b, Expanded Bible 2009).

Context: “3213…Judgment (Jn:5:22,30)” (Zodhiates 1996, “Lexical Aids to the NT”).

‘To condemn’ (CEV, EMTV, GNT, ISV 2010, NET, NIV 2011, NKJV, RVG, TNIV); to judge guilty (ERV 2008)—versus ‘to judge’ (ABPE 2010, APB, ASV, BBE, CEB 2010, Darby, Douay-Rheims, ERV, ESV 2011, GWT, HCSB 2009, INR, LEB 2010, LITV, Logos21, NASB, NBLH, NLT 2010, NTV 2010, SSE, WEB, Weymouth, YLT)

“‘condemnation [or judgment]’ (John:5:28-29)…a process of evaluation rather than an act of sentencing or punishment”:


KARS's picture

wow Mr. Vellar, you have done your studying. Thanks for your references.

I will repeat myself one more time to all of you.

"'It shows what a genious God our Father is. By having some people raise from the dead and live a little while after the death of our Savior Jesus Christ. Then, they died again.

How could the Pharisees and Sacchees lies be true?

They told the guards to tell everyone that Jesus Christ body was stolen.

Those people who rose from the dead; where a witness to the world at the time (30? AD I can't remember the exact year right now) that our Savior Jesus Christ is the Messiah

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

Hello Norbert,

Heb:9:27 “states a general rule, not necessarily a limitation on how often a person can die. Lazarus is a[n] example” (Mr. Larry Walker):

God’s plan “requires a resurrection for everyone”:

“All…will have an opportunity through the resurrections to learn God's way of life, repent, receive God's Spirit and inherit eternal life. Those who refuse will be burned up and cease to exist. These resurrections are not to be confused with” historical “resurrections”:

“[Heb:9:27]. Those who have fulfilled the purpose of physical life will be resurrected in bodies composed of spirit to receive the gift of eternal life. Those who were never called will be brought up by a resurrection to a restored physical existence and judged, given their opportunity for eternal life. Those who reject…Christ…will be cast into the lake of fire”:

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