The Resurrections of the Dead

Teachings About the Resurrections of People

The book of Revelation touches on the subject of resurrections in chapter 20. However, the doctrine concerning the resurrections of people is based primarily on passages outside of the book of Revelation. Let’s review those other passages of scripture first, and then see how they might assist our understanding of Revelation 20.

  • Dan 12:2 — “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt”.
  • Luke 14:13-14 — 13 But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
  • John 5:24-25 — 24“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. 25“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
  • John 5:28-29 — 28“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
  • John 11:23-26 — 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.
  • Acts 24:15 — a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.
  • Rom 2:6-8 —  [God,] 6who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 7to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.

There are a few observations we can make from the references above:

  • There are undoubtedly two resurrections. As Paul put it in Acts 24:15, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. Every person shall take part in exactly one of these two resurrections.
  • The two resurrections go hand in hand with one’s permanent state. The righteous receive everlasting life, which would mean entry into the kingdom of God. The unrighteous receive judgment and everlasting contempt.
  • There may be an order of these resurrections. Whenever mentioned together, the resurrection of the righteous is mentioned first.

For the sake of completeness, we should say that there is a third type of resurrection that we might call temporal resurrection. This includes the resurrections from the dead of various individuals as recorded in the Bible (1 Kings 17:22, 2 Kings 4:32-35, 2 Kings 13:21, Matt 27:51-53, Mark 5:41-42, Luke 7:14-15, John 11:43-44, Acts 9:40, Acts 20:9-12). All of these resurrections were done as a sign in order to confirm that the person who worked the miracle was representing God. However, we must assume that all of these people who were resurrected in this way eventually died again, and they are awaiting one of the final two permanent resurrections mentioned above.

Paul’s Teaching about Resurrection

Perhaps the most detailed discussion concerning resurrections is found in 1 Corinthians 15. There, Paul first discusses the resurrection of Christ in 1 Cor 15:1-11, and then in 1 Cor 15:12-19, Paul explains why the resurrection of Christ is necessary and that all of our hopes depend upon it.

Then he goes on to discuss the resurrections of people in verses 20 to 34:

1 Cor 15:20-22 – 20But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

Thus Christ is identified as the man who brings resurrection to mankind in contrast to Adam who, through sin, brought death to mankind. The details of the resurrection are in the verses that follow:

1 Cor 15:23 – 23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming,

An order of resurrections (both chronologically and in magnitude) is given, consistent with the previous verses. Christ’s own resurrection was the first permanent resurrection unto righteousness. One could say that Christ’s resurrection effectively broke open the gates of death making it possible for his followers to also follow him into their own permanent resurrections unto righteousness. The resurrection of his followers is said to take place at His (Christ’s) coming.

1 Cor 15:24-26 – 24then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26The last enemy that will be abolished is death.

In verse 24, we see that after the resurrection of the righteous comes “the end”. The “end” is when Christ reigns, all other rule and authority is abolished, and Christ enemies are dealt with. Finally, death itself is abolished. These verses must refer to the resurrection and judgment of the unrighteous, because death could only be abolished after every person has been resurrected to either the resurrection of the righteous or the resurrection of the wicked. Once everyone has been resurrected to their eternal state, there is no more need for the state that we know of as death.

Please notice that we again see an ordered pair of resurrections. First comes the resurrection of the righteous people (verse 23),  then the resurrection of the unrighteous people (verse 25-26), confirming the order implied by the resurrection passages above.

 1 Cor 15:27-28 – 27For HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.

This elaborates on why verse 24 calls this period “the end”. The final events, which include both resurrections and the abolishment of death discussed above, mark the accomplishment of all things that Christ set out to do. The kingdom of God is once again the only kingdom, and it is filled with only the righteous. All has been restored to as it was after creation when God saw all things and said “it is good”. The difference is that God will have revealed things about Himself that could never have been known apart from the plan of redemption through Christ. For example, His mercy and His wrath have been revealed.

1 Cor 15:29 – Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?

Having explained resurrections, Paul now returns to his original point where he argues that the resurrection of the dead is a vital doctrine. The “baptism for the dead” mentioned in this verse refers to the Jewish practice of ritually cleansing the body of persons who have died, which is done as a preparation for resurrection. Paul’s point is that this practice is meaningless if there is no resurrection. Of course, Christians understand baptism to be a symbol of dying in Christ and being resurrected again.

1 Cor 15:30-34 – 30Why are we also in danger every hour? 31I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. 32If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE. 33Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 34Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.

Paul makes the point that if there is no resurrection, then we may conclude that there is really nothing to be gained by striving to live in obedience to Christ. All benefits of seeking righteousness are merely temporal. But Paul argues that the absurdity of that conclusion demands a resurrection.

The Sheep and the Goats

Jesus taught about a division of people in Matt 25:31-46, comparing it to the separation of sheep and goats. Many commentators believe it refers to a separate judgment that takes place immediately upon Christ’s visible return at the end of the bowl judgments (but before the millennial kingdom), and that it is thus applicable only to people who are still alive on earth at that time.

However, I believe it’s best to understand that Jesus is using this analogy of sheep and goats to describe the same two general resurrections that we’ve discussed above.

Let’s look at the text of the sheep and goats division:

Matt 25:31-33 – 31“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32“All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

The parable goes in Matt 25:34-46 to explain the sheep and goats:

  • The sheep are identified as those who ministered to Jesus by ministering to others (feeding them when hungry, offering a drink when thirsty, and other forms of kindness). These “sheep” are the righteous who are admitted into the kingdom and will have eternal life (Matt 25:34).
  • The goats are identified as those others who failed to minister to Christ by failing to minister to others. These “goats” are the unrighteous sent to the eternal punishment (Matt 25:41).

The first sentence, “when the Son of man comes in glory”, is one reason why some people tend to think that this sheep and goats judgment takes place immediately when Christ appears on earth. In other words, they believe that Christ’s appearance, His sitting on the throne, and His division of the sheep and goats will all happen at once. However, the text actually does not imply immediacy. All we know is that the division of sheep and goats won’t happen until after He sits on His throne, and that won’t happen until after He appears in Glory. We don’t know how much time occurs between these events.

So, we have at least two options about how to understand this sheep and goats judgment, and we should decide which option best agrees with scripture:

Option 1: The sheep and goats judgment happens immediately after Christ’s visible return, and it is a special judgment that affects only people who are alive on earth at the end of the bowl judgments, but before the millennial kingdom. In this sense, it is unrelated to resurrections.

Option 2: The sheep and goats judgment starts when Christ begins his reign on earth, which is at the beginning of the bowl judgments, and it ends with the great white throne judgment. As explained in The Rapture, the bowls begin with Christ gathering all of the righteous saints, with the dead saints resurrected and then the living saints taken in the rapture. Notice that this event will divide all people of all time into two groups — the sheep who will be taken to heaven, and the goats who will not. After the millennial kingdom, the unrighteous dead are also resurrected (Rev 20:5), and these two groups — the righteous and unrighteous — will be sent to their eternal state in the great white throne judgment (Rev 20:11,12). Therefore, the sheep and goat judgment is ultimately describing the same two general resurrections of the dead discussed above.

Below are reasons for why I believe Option 2 above should be preferred over Option 1:

  • The “sheep” are commended for showing kindness for one another. This commendation doesn’t make much sense if the context is narrowed down to just those people who survived the bowl events (as claimed by option 1). If anything, those people should be commended for perseverance and not receiving the mark of the beast as in Rev 12:11, Rev 13:10, Rev 14:12-13, Rev 15:2, or Rev 20:4. However, this commendation does make sense if the context applies generally to the redeemed people across all time (which is option 2).
  • Similarly, the “goats” are rebuked for failing to be kind to others. Again, this rebuke is more appropriate as a general rebuke for all unredeemed people of all time, which agrees with option 2.
  • Option 1 makes the rather incredible proposal that the unredeemed people of the end times, who have been cursing God and murdering saints (Rev 9:21, Rev 16:11,21), are actually going to say, Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?, as the “goats” do in Matt 25:44.
  • Christ said the final assignment of each person to their eternal state takes place when he sits on his glorious throne.and gathers all nations before Him. This fits exactly the description of the “great white throne judgment” that we see in Rev 20:11,12,13 (discussed below). That great white throne judgment clearly takes place after Christ has reigned as king on earth during the Millennial kingdom, and it is applicable to all people of all time (in agreement with option 2).
  • At Christ’s visible return to earth in wrath, we have many passages which indicate that Christ will kill all the wicked people of the world (e.g. Isa 13:12, Isa 34:2, Isa 63:6, Jer 25:33, Ezek 30:3, Zeph 1:3,17,18, Rev 19:21). However, we don’t have scriptural support for the (option 1) idea that Christ will send them to their eternal punishment at that time. Thus it is more scripturally consistent to say that the wicked who are killed at Christ’s return will face the same general judgment as all the other wicked after the Millennial kingdom (which is option 2).
  • In Rev 20:13, we see all of the unredeemed dead resurrected to eternal punishment. These unredeemed dead would include all those killed at Christ’s visible return. If those people were sent to their eternal punishment at Christ’s visible return (according to option 1), why are they brought before the great white throne just to be sent to eternal punishment again?
  • Look at the broader context of the sheep and goats passage, which is at the end of Matthew chapter 25. Throughout chapter 24, Jesus spoke specifically about events in the end times. This continues into chapter 25 with the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1-13). However, Jesus then changed the subject with the Parable of the Talents that follows in Matt 25:14-29. The Parable of the Talents is not specific people alive in the end times, but rather it speaks about the judgment of all people, with some being rewarded, and others being punished. That is, Jesus began discussing the two general resurrections of the dead and their eternal state. The parable of the Talents is then followed by the parable of the Sheep and Goats. It would be odd for Jesus to change the subject again by going back to discuss people in the end times (as claimed by option 1). It is much more natural to understand that He would continue on with the same subject, which is the two general resurrections of all people (as claimed by option 2).

The Resurrections of Revelation 20

I believe we shall see that the scriptures discussed above will greatly inform our understanding of the resurrections mentioned in Revelation 20. Furthermore, Revelation 20 will also enlighten our understanding of resurrections.

First, comes something called the “first resurrection”:

Rev 20:4-6 — 4Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.

Naturally, there are a number of questions to ask about this passage.

♦ Who are those on the thrones?

As discussed in Who Are the Twenty-Four Elders?, The thrones here are best assumed to be the thrones of the “elders” seen earlier in Revelation (Rev 4:4, Rev 11:16). This event appears to be the same event described in Daniel chapter 7:

First in Dan 7:9-10: 9“I kept looking Until thrones were set up, And the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow And the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire. 10“A river of fire was flowing And coming out from before Him; Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; The court sat, And the books were opened.

And then Dan 7:26-27 26But the court will sit for judgment, and his dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever. 27‘Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him.’

The elders on the thrones appear to be involved in both rewarding the saints and judging the wicked, since they speak during the seventh trumpet, Rev 11:18, The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small — and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

Who are being resurrected in this “first resurrection”?

Verse Rev 20:4 tells us that the first resurrection involves those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand. Clearly this refers to faithful believers who were martyred during the great tribulation.

However, although these end times martyrs are the only group mentioned, there are good reasons to believe that this first resurrection involves all redeemed people of all time:

  • John calls this the first resurrection, and it makes sense that he should be referring to the same first resurrection that he himself wrote about in his gospel: 28“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29). Of course, these same two resurrections were mentioned in Dan 12:2 and Acts 24:15. This first resurrection taught in all these passages clearly includes all of the righteous, and not just those martyred in end times.
  • This English translation of 20:4 says “they came to life“, which suggests that their resurrections occurred right at that moment. However, the Greek text really only says that “they lived” (it is translated as such in the KJV and YLT). In other words, the were seen alive in 20:4, but their actual resurrections could have taken place at an earlier time. In particular, they could have been part of the general resurrection of the righteous (described in 1 Thes 4:16-17).
  • Rev 20:5 tells us that the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. However, it becomes clear in Revelation 20 that the rest of the dead are those who take part in the second resurrection, which is the judgment of the wicked. Notice that there are no other resurrections besides these two! If other believers (besides those who were martyred in the end times) are to be resurrected to eternal life, they must be part of the first resurrection.
  • In Paul’s discussion of resurrections in 1 Corinthians 15, he says, “in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him“. This makes it clear that all of Christ’s followers are resurrected at Christ’s coming — not just the end times martyrs.

Still, if this first resurrection involves all believers, why does this passage specifically mention only the end times martyrs? I believe that there is a plausible reason. The purpose in specifically mentioning end times martyrs is not to exclude others from the first resurrection, but to make it clear that this first resurrection is the resurrection of the righteous. Certainly, if there is any group that has been singled out as righteous in the context of Revelation, it is these who are faithful unto death (Rev 2:10, Rev 6:11, Rev 12:11). Also, I believe that Rev 20:4 is intended to be, and will be, a verse of special encouragement to those who will be facing martyrdom in those days.

When does this first resurrection occur?

Note that verse 4 isn’t explicit about the timing of this resurrection. That John saw their souls alive in heaven suggests that their resurrection had already taken place sometime earlier.

In fact, I believe the simplest and best answer regarding the timing of the first resurrection is that it takes place at the same time as the rapture, which I take to be right at the beginning of the bowl judgments. After all, Paul links the first resurrection with the rapture in 1 Thes 4:16-17, 16For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Paul makes this point also in 1 Cor 15:51-52.

With this view, there is exactly one resurrection of the righteous, and it is the first resurrection. In this one event, all believers, whether alive or dead, will be raised (via rapture or resurrection) with Christ at the commencement of the Day of the Lord (i.e. the bowl judgments). The saints remain in heaven for the full duration of the bowl judgments, and then reign with Christ when he returns at the conclusion of the bowl judgments, which also marks the beginning of the Millennial kingdom.

Side note: We may assume that the redeemed people on earth during the millennial kingdom will be mortal. As such, it makes sense to think that when they die, they would immediately take part in this first resurrection also. The important point is that they will be resurrected before those who are resurrected after the millennial kingdom — that is, before the second resurrection, which is discussed below.

What is the second resurrection?

This is the resurrection of disgrace (Dan 12:2), of judgment (John 5:29), and of the wicked (Acts 24:15). This resurrection, according to Rev 20:5, takes place after the 1,000 year Millennial kingdom. This second resurrection is also called the “second death” in Revelation 20.

Rev 20:11-15 — 11Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

As you can see, those in this second resurrection go to eternal punishment, in agreement with the teachings related to the second of the two general resurrections mentioned at the top of this article. This is discussed further in the Revelation 20 Commentary.

What Happens to People When they Die?

This question is a bit off-topic, and yet it’s a natural thing to wonder about after discussing the different resurrections of the dead. Furthermore, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. In this section, I’ll offer my opinions about which answer is best, but it’s only opinions.

When the righteous die: There appears to be a resurrection of the righteous dead during the end times (just before the bowl judgments). Until then, Paul refers to the dead as those who are “asleep”. From this, I believe that there is a sense in which the righteous dead are not resurrected immediately upon death.

On the other hand, we have some verses that do speak of people having a conscious presence in heaven that precedes the end-times resurrection of the righteous dead (Luke 23:43, 2 Cor 5:6-7, Phil 1:21-24, Rev 6:9).

This tension between being “dead and asleep” versus “dead but alive in heaven” may be explained by Paul in Rom 8:10, Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. In Romans 8, Paul explains that there are two “realms”, (1) the realm of the flesh, and (2) the realm of the spirit. Resurrection is impossible in the realm of the flesh (1 Cor 15:50), but it is possible in the realm of the spirit, and we join the realm of the spirit if we have the Spirit of Christ within us (Rom 8:9, Rom 8:13).

Conclusion: I believe that upon physical death, a righteous person remains spiritually alive. In that state, he or she is consciously alive with Christ in heaven. And yet, this state is not the same as resurrection, and it is not the final state. The righteous who die, even though spiritually alive with Christ, shall be joined with imperishable and glorified bodies at the resurrection (1 Cor 15:42-44).

When the unrighteous die: It appears that the unrighteous who die also enter a temporary state. The word for this state is “Hades”, and it is treated as if it were a place. Being in the state of Hades seems to be equivalent to physical death, and we should not assume that it is a place that is only for the unrighteous (Matt 16:18, Rev 1:18). It’s just the state of death, and both believers and unbelievers physically (in the flesh) have a presence there. The important difference is that the spiritually dead unbelievers have a presence only there. They do not have the spiritually alive presence with Christ that believers enjoy.

I’ll note that Luke 16:23 suggests that unbelievers (unlike believers) have a conscious presence in Hades, and that for them it is torment. On the other hand, this account in Luke 16 is a parable, describing a situation that likely did not and could not happen in actuality. I tend to think that this account is not given as a real situation to teach about the state of death, but as a hypothetical situation to teach about state of unbelief. It probably isn’t wise to draw doctrinal conclusions beyond the intended point of the parable.

Conclusion: The unrighteous remain in Hades until the second resurrection, which is the resurrection of disgrace and judgment that occurs after the millennial kingdom. By that time, all of the righteous will have already have been resurrected (mostly before the millennial kingdom). Therefore, when the unrighteous receive their resurrection, Hades will be empty and without purpose, and so it will be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26, Rev 20:14).

It seems reasonable to assume that the unrighteous dead will not perceive the passage of time between the time of their death and the second resurrection. This means that from their perspective, the final moments of physical death will be immediately followed by the dreadful presence before the great white throne of judgment.

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