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THEOLOGY > Future > The Millennium > The First Resurrection  


Two resurrections are not explicitly stated in the Scriptures, but the concept is definitely taught, or implied, in the last book of the Bible. Reference is made to “the first resurrection” and in connection with these words the statement is made that “the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished” (Rev. 20:5), obviously a reference to a second resurrection. This verse seems to require two resurrections; the entire passage follows:

And I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with Him for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6).

Related to this passage are difficult exegetical and theological questions, and answers to these questions are dependent upon hermeneutical decisions relative to other issues. The difficulties are challenging. Consider some of the pressing questions:

Are the thousand years symbolic or literal?

Are the two resurrections symbolic or literal, or is the first resurrection symbolic
and the second resurrection literal?

Who will be raised in the first resurrection?

Who will be raised in the second resurrection?

Are the thousand years symbolic or literal?

It is well known that there are three basic answers to this question: Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism. Only Premillennialism understands the years to be literal; the other two views interpret them as symbolic. For a fuller discussion of these positions, see: Three Millennial Views and Testimony of the Fathers.

The approach of this site is Premillennial, though, in light of some of the trying exegetical and theological issues, that position is open for discussion. Eschatology should never determine fellowship (see: Eschatological Humility).

Are the two resurrections symbolic or literal, or is the first resurrection symbolic and the second resurrection literal?

In this passage two resurrections are implied. The first resurrection is stated in verse 4: “they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (this is called “the first resurrection”; see: First means First); and the second resurrection is stated in verse 5: “But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.”

It would seem that these two verses must be interpreted in the same manner, that is, either both of the resurrections are symbolic or both are literal. Throughout the history of the Church no serious attempt has been made to interpret both of these verses as symbolic, but numerous writers, past and present, consider each of these resurrections to be literal. Especially in the early days of the Church the consensus was that there would be two resurrections, with the two being separated by a thousand years.

But in recent times a novel view has been offered, one which interprets the first resurrection as symbolic and the second as literal.

Support for such a position is found in the concepts of the first and second death: the first death which is physical and temporary (end of physical life; see: Death), while the second is spiritual and permanent (judgment by God and separation from Him at the beginning of eternity; see: Death). Similarly the two resurrections in Revelation 20 follow the same reasoning, except the order is reversed: the first resurrection in verse 4 is spiritual (salvation of the person, the new birth), while the second resurrection in verse 5 is physical (resurrection of the body).

In opposition to the above interpretation is the more traditional understanding that views both of these as literal, or bodily, resurrections. The natural reading of the text supports such a view. There is no reason from the wording of the passage to jump to the conclusion that the resurrections are essentially different, with one being spiritual and the other being physical.

There is support in the text for concluding that both resurrections are of the same type. Note the verb, the aorist indicative form of zaō, ezāsan, that appears in both verses, 4 and 5, and is translated respectively as follows: “they lived” and “live” (NKJV, but “came to life” and “come to life” in ESV). It would seem that both verbs must be interpreted in the same manner: literal in both; symbolic in both; but not symbolic in v. 4 and literal in v. 5. Forcing these verbs in connecting verses to refer to events that are essentially different is strained exegesis, especially when there is no factor within the text to warrant such an interpretation.

Consider the extended and oft-quoted commentary by Alford, perhaps oft-quoted because it is so true to the text and because it exposes subtle and ingenious attempts to manipulate the text in order to support a prior position:

It will have been long ago anticipated by the readers of this Commentary, that I cannot consent to distort words from their plain sense and chronological place in the prophecy, on account of any considerations of difficulty, or any risk of abuses which the doctrine of the millennium may bring with it. Those who lived next to the Apostles, and the whole Church for 300 years, understood them in the plain literally sense: and it is a strange sight in these days to see expositors who are among the first in reverence of antiquity, complacently casting aside the most cogent instances of consensus which primitive antiquity presents. As regards the text itself, no legitimate treatment of it will extort what is known as the spiritual interpretation. If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain psychai ezesan at the first, and the rest of the nekroi ezesan only at the end of a specified period after that first,—if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave;—then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything (Alford, The Greek Testament, IV, 732).

Alford concludes:

If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardy enough to maintain: but if the second is literal, then so is the first, which in common with the whole primitive Church and many of the best modern expositors, I do maintain, and receive as an article of faith and hope (Alford, The Greek Testament, IV, 732-3).

To live is to come back to life from the dead—it is to live again after physical death. There is no hint of a discussion in the text of the spiritual nature of man, separated from God, and the resulting state which can be referred to as death; rather the passage is speaking of two events separated by a period of time that take place at the end of time. And in both of the events the obvious idea is physical resurrection. To think otherwise is to introduce a concept into the passage that is foreign to the passage, and reveals an attempt to force the passage to confirm to a prior mindset.

Therefore the references to two resurrections must be viewed as identical, with both resurrections being literal bodily resurrections, but as involving two different groups.

Who will be raised in the first resurrection?

The answer to this question is dependent on the interpretation given to verse 4, which reads as follows:

Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years (Rev. 20).

The problem is the identity of those who come to life and reign with Christ. The uncertainty is over whether these individuals are to be viewed in an inclusive sense (all saints) or in a limited sense (tribulation saints).

The options are two: one, the reference is inclusive, meaning all believers; two, the reference is limited, meaning believers from the Tribulation. In other words, is it a statement that the tribulation saints will indeed be raised but the resurrection of others is not excluded from the text? If so then the reference is inclusive, including the saved from all of history, both Old and New Testament eras. Or will the first resurrection be limited to saints who will die during the Great Tribulation period and remain true to the faith until their death? If this is so then the resurrection is limited to this group of believers.

Involved in either position are exegetical problems, as well as conflicting views from the testimony of Christian history. Additionally, the entire issue is greatly exacerbated by the question of the nature of judgment.

While some interpreters posit one general judgment, others speculate that there will be multiple judgments, ranging from two to seven. It is conceivable that both scenarios are incorrect and that the teaching of the Scriptures is not time, place, number, and manner of the judgment or judgments, but simply the fact of judgment. That is, it is not chronology but reality and certainty that is the essence of the Biblical teaching (see: Reality of Judgment).

The Inclusive Interpretation – While verse 4 does not specifically include the believers from all ages, neither does it exclude them. Just because they are not referenced it does not follow that they should not be numbered in the first resurrection—so goes the argument of this interpretation. Moreover, some affirm that the martyrs are symbolic of all the saved that are raised at that time.

But if this understanding is accepted then the fact that this is a violation of the text must be explained. The text plainly states that only those from the Tribulation will be raised. And these are the ones who reign with Christ: “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” (Rev. 20:5). Upon what basis then is this restriction denied in order that believers from all of history can be said to be raised? It would seem that the text is being set aside in favor of a prior commitment that all believers will immediately be raised when Christ returns to initiate the Millennium.

Also there is the problem of believers who have been raised and have been ruling with Christ for the thousand years, and then they face the judgment at the end of the thousand years that is to determine their eternal destiny. Would God postpone the judgment of believers for such an extended period? This order of things does not seems consistent with the manner in which God relates to His people. Of course, this problem is created by the predication of one general judgment at the conclusion of the Millennium instead of two or more judgments. Again, this brings into question the nature of judgment (see: Reality of Judgment).

But if the position is taken that believers will not be part of the last judgment because they will be judged by Christ—Judgment Seat of Christ—at the beginning of the Millennium, then it brings into question the concept throughout Scripture that all people will be at the last judgment and a separation will take place at that point. The insertion of a separate judgment for believers at the beginning of the Millennium is a judgment without Scriptural support.

It is true that in John 5:28-29 some find support for separate judgments of believers and unbelievers:

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming 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.

These verses speak of “the resurrection of life” and “the resurrection of judgment,” and are pressed into use by those who assume an inclusive position in order to justify the judgment of believers at the time of their resurrection, leaving unbelievers to be judged at a later time. Respectively these two judgments are known as the Judgment Seat of Christ and the Great White Throne Judgment. Is this passage to be understood as two separate and distinct judgments, or is the truth of the passage that at the time of judgment there will be one of two destinies? The natural reading would appear to support a single judgment with two verdicts. The following quote is indicative of the inclusive interpretation:

WHO it is to consist of? This passage speaks only of the martyrs and the non-worshipers of the beast; but other passages show that all His saints are to be partakers of this reward. 'This honor have all His saints;' all who have followed Christ, or suffered for Him, from Abel downwards. They have suffered with Him here, and they shall reign with Him here. They have fought the good fight; they have overcome the world, and the god of this world. The conflict and the tribulation have been sore, but the recompense is glorious. Oneness with Christ now secures for us the glory of that day (H. Bonar, Sermon, “The First Resurrection”).

The above paragraphs constitute some of the arguments for the first resurrection not being restrictive and including all saints. Perhaps the real problem is an incorrect understanding of the nature of judgment (see: Reality of Judgment).

The Limited Interpretation - Clearly the text affirms that those who will come to life are those who have been martyred for not accepting the mark of the beast, and, possibly, additionally those who have died during the reign of the Antichrist. Worded differently, the text is a precise statement of those who will be raised at the first resurrection? Additionally, the text refers to “the rest of the dead,” a phrase that defines the rest of the people who are not specifically spoken of as being raised.

In order to broaden the plain and limiting statement of the verse to include all saints there must be definitive support in other Scriptures; there is none. Passages that are used to support a broader interpretation than is allowed by a natural reading of the verse are indirect and inferential, and not specific. It seems that a preconceived chronology dictates the interpretation of the verse. The strongest support for the limited position is the teaching of the verse itself.

If the position is taken that only saints from the Great Tribulation will be raised, then the text is understood to be definitive, and, additionally, the text is restrictive. The text is taken at face value. Only those who do not accept the mark of the Antichrist (see: The Antichrist) and who are killed or die during the Tribulation, the faithful saints, will be raised.

Also this restrictive or limited view is consistent with another Biblical teaching, the fact that before the last judgment all people will be raised and will be present for the judgment, and a great separation will take place, the sheep from the goats, the believers from the unbelievers, those who are in the book from those who are not in the book.

Other Biblical teaching seems to relate in close proximity the resurrection of all people and the judgment: the resurrection will take place, and immediately there will be the judgment which will separate the saved from the lost. Throughout Scripture the resurrection is for the purpose of judgment, and following the resurrection is the judgment. Perhaps this fact provides insight into the real nature of judgment. Note in the following verses the close relationship of the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the judgment:

For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay each person according to what he has done (Matt. 16:27);

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, the He will sit on His glorious throne . . . and He will separate people one from another . . . and He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” . . . then He will say to those in His left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” . . . and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matt. 25:31-46);

An hour is coming 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 (Jo. 5:28-29);

He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:31);

We will all stand before the judgment seat of God . . . so then each of us will give an account of himself to God (Rom. 14:11-12);

Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire . . . if the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (I Cor. 3:13-15);

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (II Cor. 5:10);

They will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (I Pet. 4:5);

The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints (Rev. 11:18);

Then I saw a great white throne . . . and I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books . . . and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).

Clearly in the above passages the resurrection of the dead and their judgment are seemingly simultaneous. The purpose of the resurrection is for judgment, and there is no great time between the two events. Additionally, the texts seem to indicate that all people will be judge together, and at the judgment there will be a separation.

But there is a problem if the first resurrection is restrictive and limited to saints from the Tribulation. The scenario in the New Testament must be explained which indicates that when Christ returns all believers will be raised in order to be with Him—the Groom is coming for the bride (Matt. 24:29-31; I Thess. 4:13-18). And when the Lord returns all of His own will be raised in order to be joined to Him. If the restrictive view is accepted then the vast majority of believers will not be raised when the Lord returns but will be raised one thousand years later. This seeming inconsistency must be dealt with. It is true that there are Scriptures that do relate the two—Christ’s return and the resurrection of all saints with no intervening time period.

Conclusion – It is difficult, if not impossible, to unite properly all the concepts that are found in the Scriptures. The pressing dilemma may be the determination by the interpreter to remain loyal to a chronology that consciously or unconsciously guides his interpretation.

The first resurrection may include all the saints—Inclusive View—who have died prior to Christ’s return (the problem here is the final judgment of believers one thousand years after they are raised and after they have been ruling with Christ; it would seem that their destiny is already known so what is the purpose of the judgment). Or the first resurrection may include only those saints who were martyred—Limited View—during the Great Tribulation (the problem here is the fact that the Scriptures seemingly teach that all believers will be raised at the Second Coming).

While admitting the possibility of an improper interpretation, a limited resurrection at the first resurrection is appealing, especially if priority is given to the restrictive wording of the text in Rev. 20. It should be noted that such an interpretation has been the minority view throughout Church history. On the other hand, if an adjustment is made in the traditional concept of judgment, then perhaps all saints will be raised at the beginning of the Millennium (see: Reality of Judgment).

Who will be raised in the second resurrection?

The answer to this question is determined by the answer to the above question. If all the saints are raised in the first resurrection, then at the second resurrection all of the unbelievers will be raised. If only the saints from the Great Tribulation are raised in the first resurrection, then all other people, both believers and unbelievers, will be raised at the second resurrection (see: The Second Resurrection).  

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