The resurrection of the dead is listed in Scripture as one of the basic doctrines of true Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2). This truth about life after death was spoken of in the Old Testament by David (Psalm 17:15), Isaiah (Isaiah 26:19) and Daniel (Daniel 12:2). Someday everyone who has ever lived will come to life again.
Jesus Christ Himself spoke of the future time "when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29, English Standard Version).
The unfolding of God's plan is revealed in stages. When a Christian is called, baptized and receives the Holy Spirit, he enters a time of judgment—of evaluation of his life. Judgment is now on the "house of God," which is God's Church (1 Peter 4:17).
But as we'll soon see, there is more than one period of judgment revealed in Scripture, and more than one resurrection.
All of the pieces of the puzzle were not put into place until Jesus inspired the apostle John to write the final book of the Bible. It's titled Revelation because God revealed previously unknown teaching through it! It begins, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants" (Revelation 1:1). God gave the final inspiration through Jesus Christ of when and how people will be resurrected.
Let's review some common thinking about life after death in the New Testament era and see what the Bible actually teaches.
Diversity of beliefs in Jesus' day
We need to understand some of the background of the religious world at the time of Jesus to fully understand the Bible's teaching on this topic.
We know from the Gospels and other historical accounts that at least three main Jewish sects existed during the time of Jesus' ministry—the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes.
The Sadducees were primarily of the priestly class associated with the Jerusalem temple. They were wealthy, influential and generally corrupted by their greed. While they had the respect of the people due to their influence in the religious establishment, they were also resented because of their close relationship with the occupying Roman authority.
Pharisees were students and teachers of the law. The most influential sect among the Jewish people, they placed emphasis on strict observance to both the written law of Moses and the oral tradition that had been passed down from the Jewish elders.
The Essenes, a group not mentioned in the Gospels, emphasized separation from the rest of society. They lived away from the towns and were uninvolved in the politics of the Sadducees and Pharisees. The people of the desert community of Qumran who hid the Dead Sea Scrolls appear to have been part of the Essene movement.
These groups had different theologies and philosophies, and the people of Jesus' day were influenced by them all. One of the topics debated among the sects was what happens after death.
The doctrine of the immortal soul
According to the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, both the Pharisees and Essenes believed in the immortality of the soul, with rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked in a disembodied afterlife (Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chap. 1, secs. 3, 5).
This belief was combined with the biblical teaching of the resurrection, as they also believed that the immortal souls of the righteous would ultimately imbue enlivened fleshly bodies to live forever (ibid.; and Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, book 9, chaps. 22-23).
They were correct in believing in the resurrection, but they were wrong in believing that the soul is immortal. This is still a common belief today—along with the idea that a good person goes as a disembodied soul to heaven at death and a bad person goes to hell when they die. But none of this is biblically correct. Scripture tells us that the soul doesn't live forever, but that it can and does die (Ezekiel 18:4, Ezekiel 18:20; Matthew 28:10)—and that there is no conscious awareness in death (Ecclesiastes 9:5, Ecclesiastes 9:10).
So if the immortality of the soul is not biblical, where did this doctrine come from? Belief in a separate soul and body was popular in Greek culture, and was taught by one of their most famous philosophers: "In Plato's thinking, the soul . . . was self-moving and indivisible . . . It existed before the body which it inhabited, and it would survive" after the body died (Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 1994, p. 32).
For several centuries after Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, Greek culture and beliefs dominated that part of the world. When the Roman Empire succeeded the Greeks, they were highly influenced by Greek culture and philosophy and adopted many Greek beliefs. The Greco-Roman influence rubbed off on the Jews in the time leading up to and during Christ's day.
Jewish sects disagree about the resurrection
The Sadducees were different from the Essenes and the Pharisees in that they did not believe in an immortal soul or a resurrection (Josephus, sec. 4; Hippolytus, chap. 24). They believed only in the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—as the sole source of divine authority, and it did not specifically mention the resurrection.
Even though the resurrection was understood and revealed by biblical prophets such as Isaiah and Daniel, the Sadducees, because they didn't accept their writings as Scripture, rejected it. They thought of it as a new doctrine. "The Sadducees vigorously opposed the new doctrine of bodily resurrection. They held that 'when you're dead, you're dead'" (Eduard Lohse, The New Testament Environment, 1986, p. 61). We see in Mark 12:18-27 that the Sadducees tried to provoke an argument with Jesus over this issue.
The Sadducees had major disagreements with the Pharisees because the Pharisees believed in the resurrection. This is shown in the Bible when the apostle Paul appeared before the Sanhedrin.
Paul told the assembled group: "'I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am being judged!' And when he said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both" (Acts 23:6-8).
The Pharisees were closer to what the Bible teaches than the Sadducees, but their views were nevertheless warped—their understanding woefully incomplete.
The Greek and Roman concept of death
The Greek ideas of death had become widespread in Jesus' time. The idea of hell being a place where the soul went after a person's death is rooted in the Greek concept of Hades as an underworld that was home to disembodied souls. The idea was that once a person died, the soul would live on forever in the darkness of Hades. It wasn't a pretty fate.
The biblical truth is far more just and merciful. According to Scripture, what ultimately happens to wicked people is destruction or annihilation—not eternal torment.
Recognizing that the idea of a loving and merciful God is incompatible with the idea of a divine Being who would torture people forever in an ever-burning hell, growing numbers of people interpret "hell" or even "death" as eternal separation from God. But they fail to understand the Bible's teaching about a destroying hellfire—called gehenna in the Greek of the New Testament.
Even though the Jews did not understand all of the truth, they were far better off because they had the parts of the Bible that had been written up to that time. But the Bible wasn't completed until Jesus gave the Revelation to John. Because of what is revealed in the book of Revelation, we can more completely understand the fate of the dead and God's plan of salvation.
The beliefs of Jesus' disciples
Most of Jesus' early disciples were not officially part of any of the sects of Judaism, but they believed in the resurrection. We see this illustrated in the Gospel of John. Jesus had come to visit Mary and Martha in the village of Bethany after their brother Lazarus had died. Jesus was going to resurrect Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus told Martha, "Your brother will arise again" (John 11:23). The word resurrection comes from anastasis. Anastasis comes from two Greek words—ana, which means "again," and histemi, which means "to cause to stand." Because of Jesus' miraculous working, through His Father's power, He was going to summon Lazarus from the grave, and Lazarus would stand and walk again in a resurrected physical body.
What was Martha's belief regarding whether Lazarus would be resurrected? She said, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (John 11:24). We don't know if she thought this because of Jesus' teachings or already believed it before hearing His teachings.
In any case, what she stated was basically in line with the Pharisees' belief system. The Pharisees believed that everyone would arise at the same point in time: "Jews who believed in resurrection believed that it would occur on the last day when God made the new heavens and new earth. It would happen to everyone altogether" (Craig Evans and N.T. Wright, Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, 2009, p. 89). Let's see what the Bible actually teaches.
"The first resurrection"—God's faithful raised to eternal life
It's important to realize that God is not calling everyone to salvation in this day and age. That should be evident when we consider some key facts. Throughout ages past, many never heard the name of Jesus Christ or never even saw a Bible. Many babies and children have died young, well before reaching an age when they are old enough to be accountable. Even today millions of people live and die without ever knowing anything about the true God or the Bible. What is God's plan for them?
Jesus plainly said that not everyone could come to Him (John 6:44), at least not at that time. But He also said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).
God must call people to come to know Jesus Christ and receive His gift of eternal life through the resurrection of the dead. Over the centuries the mystery of the resurrection has been known to only a few.
"But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed!" wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 15:51, New Living Translation). A "secret" in the New Testament is a hidden truth. Jesus is going to return at the sound of a trumpet, and "the dead in Christ will rise first" (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Notice that not all are raised to life at this time—only "the dead in Christ," the true Christians who have lived and died over the centuries, with those who are still alive at that time changed and raised with them (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
What will be the function of those who are changed at the sound of the trumpet? God gave the final pieces of the puzzle to John in a vision. He wrote about the reward of the saints: "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 20:6).
This is plainly called "the first resurrection." It will occur at the end of "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4) when God will deliver His people through the coming of Jesus Christ.
When the Bible says that "the second death has no power," it means that the saints will live for eternity. They will never be subject to death again after they are resurrected. Theirs will be a life of overflowing bliss, ecstasy and pleasure. God inspired David to write, "In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11).
What about the others?
But what about everyone else? Notice this statement in Revelation 20:5: "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended" (New International Version). Those resurrected in this group are people who never completely understood the truth of God. Rather than them being condemned to eternal suffering or never awakening from the sleep of death, they will come to life again. This will be a resurrection to physical life, during which they will have the opportunity to repent and receive God's Holy Spirit and then live forever.
It's important to understand that this isn't a second chance for people to choose to follow God and Jesus Christ. Many billions of people have lived and died without ever having had an opportunity to truly know and understand Jesus Christ and God's plan of salvation. For these people, their opportunity to know and submit to God in a day of judgment or evaluation is still coming.
Remember what Jesus told the unbelieving people of His time. While they rejected Him, He said that the people of past, sinful civilizations would have repented if they saw His great works. He concluded that "it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:24).
Along with "the rest of the dead," the people of Sodom—a city destroyed by God for its evil—still have a time yet to come when they will have their opportunity to repent and follow God. They will at that time experience their ultimate judgment period. (Be sure to also read "Jesus Christ and the Great White Throne Judgment".)
Then there will be another resurrection to condemnation in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14-15). Those suffering this fate are people who despite sufficient understanding and opportunity, willfully turn away and spurn Christ, ultimately refusing to repent. Such a person will have effectively "trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace" (Hebrews 10:29).
Grace is God's free gift! It includes forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. When we sinned, we in essence crucified Him, making it necessary for Him to die so that we might be forgiven. But once called by God and converted, we must not crucify Him again. This is what we do when we receive the Holy Spirit but knowingly turn away and reject God (Hebrews 6:4-8). Such people will die for eternity.
Trust God's promises of literal resurrection
The apostle Paul was struck down on the road to Damascus by the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:1-9). He had a personal encounter. As a Pharisee, he believed in the resurrection. After God struck him down he knew a lot more about it, and he came to personally know Jesus Christ.
Some years later, he had to convince the church at Corinth of the veracity of the resurrection. In fact, 1 Corinthians 15 is often referred to as the "resurrection chapter," since that is its subject. Paul vividly describes a time when "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet . . . the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:52).
Paul beautifully taught the Corinthian Christians of a future time when they and other faithful followers of Jesus Christ would literally be brought to life again and changed into incorruptible spirit.
The resurrection is one of Scripture's key doctrines. It encapsulates the hope Christians have in a full redemption by God and Jesus Christ. It's not simply a changing redemption in a metaphorical sense, but a fully realized redemption that includes a real transformation into a glorified member of God's family for all eternity.
The apostle John assured early Christians that this change will be literal and profound: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." Not only will Jesus resurrect His followers to life, but they will be changed to "be like Him"—a truly wonderful hope for all who trust in God!
Read your Bible. Prove the truth about the resurrections. Have faith that if you repent and obey God, you can receive the free gift of eternal life as a literal member of God's holy, eternal family. Learn about the reward for those who repent and humbly serve God! You can live forever in the Kingdom of God. That is why God created you!