A few years ago I unexpectedly spent the first few days in January in England, in my hometown of Grimsby. I wish I could have made the trip under more pleasant circumstances.
I received word early one Sunday morning informing me my father had died suddenly, unexpectedly—if you can say that the death of anyone who has reached the age of 75 is unexpected. Several months earlier I had accompanied both my parents on a bus tour of central Europe. Then my father had seemed healthy and alert. I expected him to live for a few more years. But it was not to be.
Religion, in his mind, was for weak people who needed a crutch to lean on.
He woke up one day with a pain in his leg spreading to his abdomen. He lay back down. Within minutes he was gone. It had been so many years since he had seen a doctor, at first the family physician would not give him a death certificate and wanted to perform a postmortem examination. He changed his mind when he looked at my father’s medical history. He had suffered two heart attacks in 1986. All indications were he had suffered a third heart attack.
Dad was not a religious man. In fact, he was opposed to all forms of religion, especially the Christian kind. He had been a lifelong committed atheistic communist, dismissing religion as “the opium of the masses,” calling on the words of Karl Marx, founder of modern communism.
The funeral arrangements
Members of my family did not necessarily expect me to attend the funeral, since the trip from my Michigan home would be long and expensive and I had spent time with my parents only a few months earlier. But I wanted to go. I needed to go.
I also wanted to officiate at my father’s funeral, with my mother’s consent. I could not bear the thought of someone who did not know my father talking about Dad going to heaven when my father never believed in the place, nor would he have wanted to be there if he had.
When I arrived in Grimsby I called the funeral director to discuss arrangements with him. My mother had chosen to have my father cremated, which is a considerably more common practice in England than in many other countries. However, in contrast with funerals involving burials, a crematorium in England is normally able to allow only about a half hour for each service.
A funeral takes place every 30 minutes in a crematorium. The speed at which families have to say good-bye to their loved ones gives little time for anybody to reflect on that person’s life, much less think about the meaning of death and whatever waits beyond the grave.
My brother and his wife requested singing “The Lord’s My Shepherd” at the funeral. Their daughter, my niece Judith, had written a poem about Granddad she wanted to read. My mother had asked the hymn “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” be sung before I spoke. All this was to be a part of our allotted time.
Included also was the walk into the hall as the family slowly followed my father’s coffin. So, I was left with about ten minutes for my message. What can you say about your father in 10 minutes?
Except for one of my brothers, no one else in the family, immediate or extended, held any firm religious convictions. None had ever read a Bible. I have four brothers. All of them know that I am a church pastor and are aware of some of my beliefs.
What do you say about an atheist?
I decided to be honest and open about Dad, which is the way he always wanted things to be. He felt no shame or embarrassment about not having a religion. To the contrary, he was proud of the fact. Religion, in his mind, was for weak people who needed a crutch to lean on. So I began by saying he had no religious beliefs and always ridiculed the idea of going to heaven.
What a comfort it is to know the truth of God, that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” and receive eternal life.
I then went on to show that in this respect he was biblically quite sound—we do not go to heaven when we die. In that brief 10 minutes I read from Ezekiel 18:4 Ezekiel 18:4Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins, it shall die.
American King James Version×, showing the soul is not immortal; Ecclesiastes 9:5 Ecclesiastes 9:5For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
American King James Version×, which reveals that “the dead know nothing”; John 3:13 John 3:13And no man has ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
American King James Version×, which tells us “no one has ascended into heaven”; and Acts 2:34 Acts 2:34For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he said himself, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit you on my right hand,
American King James Version×, where Peter told the multitudes that even righteous King David had not ascended into heaven. But then I asked: “Does this mean we will not see Dad again?”
I quoted from 1 Corinthians 15:19-23 1 Corinthians 15:19-23  If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept.
 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
 But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.
American King James Version×: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep...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.”
“Those who are Christ’s” will be resurrected at His return, wrote Paul. But what about everyone else—the vast majority of people who, like my dad, never knew Christ? What about them?
The apostle Peter wrote that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to 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.
American King James Version×). These words encourage those who lose loved ones who did not believe.
The Bible reveals more than one resurrection
This passage takes us forward in time to the 1,000-year rule of Christ, the Millennium, following His return.
Revelation 20:4-6 Revelation 20:4-6  And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
 But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
 Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on 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.
American King James Version×puts it all together for us, with a little help from the Old Testament. This passage takes us forward in time to the 1,000-year rule of Christ, the Millennium, following His return. At the beginning of that time those who are Christ’s (1 Corinthians 15:23 1 Corinthians 15:23But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.
American King James Version×) are resurrected to rule with Him, to sit on thrones alongside Him (Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
American King James Version×).
This resurrection is to eternal life. Verse 6 says: “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” (emphasis added throughout).
We learn from this about a second death for some. This means there must be a second life, another physical life similar to the first one. If there is not to be a second life, there can be no second death.
Verse 5 helps us understand: “But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.” Who are the rest of the dead? By definition, they must be those who are not Christ’s, those who never knew Jesus or never knew Him well enough to accept Him as their Savior, through whom one can receive eternal life.
Verse 5 calls the resurrection to eternal life of those in Christ as “the first resurrection.” This shows, then, that there is a different, subsequent resurrection for those who were not Christ’s. Upon these the second death does have power, so it must be a resurrection to a physical existence.
The second resurrection is described in more detail in Ezekiel 37. Here the prophet described a vision in which he was projected into the future to see a valley full of dry bones, the skeletons of people long dead. Verses 5 and 6 follow: “Thus says the Lord GOD unto these bones: ‘Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews [muscles] on you, and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin, and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.’”
Could it be any clearer? Here is a prophesied resurrection to a second physical existence. If it weren’t physical, there would be no need for muscles, skin and breath. Spirit beings given eternal life (those in the first resurrection) do not need these. Only physical human beings do.
Continuing with Ezekiel’s vision, we see that once God has reassembled these bones, covered them with muscle and skin and given them life, He promises to give them the opportunity to “know that I am the LORD.” This is their opportunity for salvation, an opportunity they never had before. This is my father’s opportunity for eternal life.
Here the prophet described a vision in which he was projected into the future to see a valley full of dry bones, the skeletons of people long dead.
I intend to be there when he wakes up, 1,000 years after my resurrection to an eternal spirit existence as one of those who is “in Christ,” 1,000 years during which those in the first resurrection have the opportunity to transform this world into a perfect world ruling with Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of God. A thousand years is not too long to wait, especially when you are a spirit being and a part of God’s spiritual family.
As Peter tells us, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8 2 Peter 3:8But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
American King James Version×). Time will simply fly by when we are working with Jesus to prepare the world for the second resurrection—the return to life of literally billions of people who have neither known the true God or His Son and will learn their ways for the first time.
What a glorious future we have to look forward to! Trying to encourage people through a time of great persecution, the apostle Paul pointed the Thessalonians to the hope of the resurrection in his first epistle to them. After describing the first resurrection towards the end of 1 Thessalonians 4, the apostle adds in verse 18: “Therefore comfort one another with these words.”