Few questions are more important than what happens to us after death. For religious believers the question is particularly important, because most religions promise their adherents some kind of life beyond the grave.
What did Jesus Christ teach about life after death? Most people would find the answer surprising, because statements in the Gospels about life beyond the grave differ considerably from what traditional Christianity has long taught.
For example, John 3:13 plainly says that "No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man" (New International Version, emphasis added throughout). Statements like this show that Jesus and His disciples did not teach that heaven was the reward of the saved (to learn more, read "Do Good People Really Go to Heaven When They Die?").
Instead Christ repeatedly spoke of a future resurrection of the dead, a fact most of His hearers understood and accepted. After all, they were familiar with biblical passages showing that such notable figures as Job (Job 14:14-15), David (Psalm 16:9-10) and Isaiah (Isaiah 26:19) clearly expected to be raised from the grave. Jesus' close friend Martha, for example, told Jesus that she knew that her dead brother Lazarus would "rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (John 11:24).
So what did Jesus teach about the resurrection? Who will be in it? When will it take place? Will there be more than one resurrection? Let's examine His words to be sure we understand.
Coming resurrection "at the last day"
In John 6:40 Jesus gives an encouraging promise to His followers: ". . . This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." Christ explains that He is the very power behind that coming resurrection, that He will raise those who believe in Him.
Note that He also tells us the timing of the resurrection—that the dead will rise again "at the last day." In biblical terminology, "last day" generally refers to the time surrounding Christ's second coming or beyond.
The apostle Paul discusses the resurrection at length in 1 Corinthians 15. He tells us that the dead are resurrected in a specific order—first Jesus Himself, then "afterward those who are Christ's at His coming" (1 Corinthians 15:23).
In 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 he is even more specific: "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."
When is this "last trumpet"? Revelation 8-11 describes a series of seven trumpet blasts and associated plagues that precede Christ's return. At the sounding of the seventh trumpet, loud voices proclaim: "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!" (Revelation 11:15). This trumpet, then, announces Christ's return to earth.
"The dead in Christ" are raised
At this seventh trumpet Jesus returns to earth and "those who are Christ's" rise from their graves to meet Him. Paul spells out more details in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord."
As Paul describes it, both the faithful who have died in centuries past as well as the faithful still living at that time will be part of this resurrection. They are a specific group of people. In the verses quoted above, Paul calls them "the dead in Christ" and "those who are Christ's." Jesus Himself refers to this as "the resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:14, New International Version).
Those in this resurrection, Christ tells us, "can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection" (Luke 20:36, NIV). In other words, the family of God, currently composed of God the Father and Jesus the Son, will expand dramatically to include many more immortal spirit members. This is why Scripture calls Jesus "the firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29, NIV).
What will those who are given immortality in God's family in this resurrection be like? Paul asks and answers this question in 1 Corinthians 15: "But, you may ask, how are the dead raised? In what kind of body? . . . There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; and the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one thing, the splendour of the earthly another. The sun has a splendour of its own, the moon another splendour, and the stars yet another; and one star differs from another in brightness.
"So it is with the resurrection of the dead: what is sown as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body . . . As we have worn the likeness of the man made of dust, so we shall wear the likeness of the heavenly man . . . This perishable body must be clothed with the imperishable, and what is mortal with immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:35-53, Revised English Bible).
In other words, says Paul, we will be raised with a glorified, immortal, powerful spirit body! In fact, Daniel 12:3 (NIV) tells us that those in this resurrection "will shine like the brightness of the heavens . . . like the stars for ever and ever"! What an incredible transformation!
Reigning with Christ
But what will those who are raised to glorified, powerful spirit immortality do? They will not be raised to a life of endless leisure and idleness in heaven. No, God has something far more important in mind!
Jesus reveals the future of His faithful servants to His friend and disciple John in the book of Revelation. Revelation 20:4 tells us what happens to those who are given immortality in this resurrection: "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them . . . And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years."
Where do they reign? At that time Jesus Christ will have returned to earth to establish His Kingdom—so they will live and reign with Him on earth, rebuilding and reeducating the entire world in God's way of life. They will be the leaders and overseers of this new and transformed civilization to be built under Christ's rule. Revelation 5:10 tells us these resurrected saints are "a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (NIV).
This 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ and His saints is commonly known as the Millennium (after the Latin for "thousand years"). Describing this time, Isaiah 2:3 says: "Many people shall come and say, 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.' For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
Another resurrection to follow
Continuing in Revelation 20:5 makes a startling parenthetical statement: "But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished."
It also explains that the resurrection of Christ's faithful followers at His return is "the first resurrection."
John's vision then fast-forwards 1,000 years to the incredible time when "the rest of the dead" of Revelation 20:5 are raised. Notice Revelation 20:12: "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 is this resurrection all about? How does this differ from the first resurrection?
We first need to recognize that many billions of people have lived and died having never heard the name of Jesus Christ, the only name by which they could be saved (Acts 4:12). They never had the opportunity to learn of God and His way of life. So what happens to them?
Not understanding this second resurrection, theologians and religious teachers have wrestled with this question for centuries. Some think those in this category get a free pass into heaven; others think they burn forever in hell. Neither is remotely close to the truth, for God is eminently fair and just in all His dealings with all of humanity.
First opportunity to learn the truth
God will neither condemn nor reward those who have never heard or learned of His truth. However, He will, in His own time, give every man, woman and child who has ever lived an opportunity to learn and accept that truth, repent and receive His gift of eternal life. And that is what this great resurrection is all about.
When we remove our preconceived notions, we see that Revelation 20:12 is describing a period of judgment extending over some time, not a one-time sentencing. People in this resurrection will have time to learn God's truth—a truth they've never heard before—and to either accept or reject God's way of life.
Jesus himself draws the distinction between these resurrections in John 5:28-29. "Do not marvel at this," He says, "for an hour is coming in which all those in the tombs will hear His voice. And they will come out, the ones having done good into a resurrection of life; and the ones having practiced evil into a resurrection of judgment" (Green's Literal Translation).
Those who have lived righteously come up in what Jesus calls "a resurrection of life." As noted earlier, this is the first resurrection, to divine spirit immortality. The other resurrection, of those who have lived a life apart from knowledge of God and His ways, will be "a resurrection of judgment" —the time when they will have their opportunity to learn God's truth and accept or reject it, and they will be judged on that basis.
With this background we can properly understand one of Jesus Christ's most puzzling statements, found in Matthew 12:41-42 (NIV): "The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here."
Jesus here describes an astounding time when the long-dead people of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh (of Jonah's day) and the Queen of Sheba (from Solomon's era) will live again alongside those from Christ's generation. And while they had lived and died many centuries before Jesus was even born, they will point out that those of Christ's time had no excuse for rejecting the very Son of God.
In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus similarly points out that "it will be more tolerable . . . in the day of judgment" for the people of the long-destroyed cities of Sodom, Tyre and Sidon than it would be for those who had lived in cities like Capernaum in which He had performed miracles that proved His divine identity.
Ezekiel 37 includes a remarkable description of this resurrection in which people are raised to a temporary flesh-and-blood existence. Unlike those who are given immortality in the first resurrection, those in this second resurrection are fully human and subject to death. Those who choose God's way of living will receive eternal life as glorified members of God's family. Those who don't—as well as those in previous ages who have utterly rejected God's offer of salvation while alive—are destined to perish in the lake of fire, to be utterly burned up and forgotten (Hebrews 10:26-27; Revelation 20:14-15; Malachi 4:1).
These amazing prophecies show that God does not show partiality (Romans 2:11).
He will offer his gift of salvation to all who have ever lived. This is the surprising—and profoundly encouraging—truth Jesus taught about the resurrection.