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The Resurrection of the Dead

What Does the Bible Really Teach?

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

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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 Acts 26:8Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?
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).

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 Acts 1:22Beginning from the baptism of John, to that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.
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, emphasis added throughout). Notice that “with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33 Acts 4:33And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was on them all.
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).

Having personally seen and talked with the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1 1 Corinthians 9:1Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not you my work in the Lord?
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; 15:8; Acts 22:6-10 Acts 22:6-10 6 And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come near to Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. 7 And I fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to me, Saul, Saul, why persecute you me? 8 And I answered, Who are you, Lord? And he said to me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you persecute. 9 And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spoke to me. 10 And I said, What shall I do, LORD? And the Lord said to me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told you of all things which are appointed for you to do.
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), 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 Acts 26:22-23 22 Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue to this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: 23 That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light to the people, and to the Gentiles.
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).

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 James 1:18Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
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).

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 1 Corinthians 15:20But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept.
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). 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 Colossians 1:15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:
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, 18; Romans 8:29 Romans 8:29For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
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). 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 Philippians 3:20-21 20 For our conversation is in heaven; from where also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: 21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like to his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things to himself.
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; compare 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 1 For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed on with our house which is from heaven: 3 If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. 4 For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed on, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. 5 Now he that has worked us for the selfsame thing is God, who also has given to us the earnest of the Spirit.
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).

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 1 Corinthians 15:44It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
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, 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 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.
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: “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 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:
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). At that epochal time, Christ’s disciples and true followers will experience what the Bible calls the “ better resurrection” (Hebrews 11:35 Hebrews 11:35Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:
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).

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 John 5:21For as the Father raises up the dead, and vivifies them; even so the Son vivifies whom he will.
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). 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 John 5:29And shall come forth; they that have done good, to the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, to the resurrection of damnation.
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; Daniel 12:2 Daniel 12:2And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
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; Acts 24:15 Acts 24:15And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust.
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), 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 Revelation 5:9-10 9 And they sung a new song, saying, You are worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for you were slain, and have redeemed us to God by your blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; 10 And have made us to our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
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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 John 3:16-17 16 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. 17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
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: “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 John 12:32-33 32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to me. 33 This he said, signifying what death he should die.
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).

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 1 Timothy 2:3-6 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. 5 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; 6 Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.
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).

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 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.
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).

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 Ezekiel 37:1-9 1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the middle of the valley which was full of bones, 2 And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, see, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, you know. 4 Again he said to me, Prophesy on these bones, and say to them, O you dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus said the Lord GOD to these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live: 6 And I will lay sinews on you, and will bring up flesh on you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD. 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. 8 And when I beheld, see, the sinews and the flesh came up on them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. 9 Then said he to me, Prophesy to the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus said the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.
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). 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 Revelation 20:11-12 11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
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.

Then in Ezekiel 37:11 Ezekiel 37:11Then he said to me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.
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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 Romans 11:26And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:
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). 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 Romans 8:23And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
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; James 1:18 James 1:18Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
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; compare Luke 12:32 Luke 12:32Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
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).

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 Ezekiel 37:13And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,
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). 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 Acts 2:37-39 37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brothers, what shall we do? 38 Then 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. 39 For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call.
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; 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 Hebrews 9:27And as it is appointed to men once to die, but after this the judgment:
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). A similar judgment is now taking place in the lives of all truly converted Christians—”the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17 1 Peter 4:17For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?
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). 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 Matthew 11:20-24 20 Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: 21 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. 22 But I say to you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, which are exalted to heaven, shall be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in you, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I say to you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.
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).

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 Revelation 20:11-12 11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
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.

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 Matthew 12:41-42 41 The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. 42 The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.
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).

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 Revelation 20:11-12 11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
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. 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 2 Peter 3:9The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
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), 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 1 Corinthians 6:9Know you not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
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; Galatians 5:19-21 Galatians 5:19-21 19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, jealousies, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Contentions, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
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; Revelation 21:8 Revelation 21:8But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
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).

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 Hebrews 2:10For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
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). As the apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23 1 Corinthians 15:22-23 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.
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, 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!

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