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?
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!