The First Resurrection

Revelation 20:4-6 presents two separate resurrections, "Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. 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 finished.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years".

It is widely accepted that the second resurrection is a bodily resurrection. But Christians debate whether the first resurrection is a bodily one or a spiritual one. This is another important variable in the end time puzzle.

Pre-Millennial Perspective
From a Pre-Millennial perspective, the first resurrection is a bodily resurrection of the 'righteous', and takes place at the end of this present age, immediately before the Rapture. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 says, "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord."

Notice that Revelation 20:4-6 gives the impression that the first resurrection is limited to Christian martyrs. On the other hand, Paul identifies this as a resurrection of 'the dead in Christ', and taking into account his preceding statements in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, it seems clear that he has in view all Christians who have died, not a group of Christians limited to martyrs.

Speaking of the 'first resurrection', Revelation 20:4-6 says, "…They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years…Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection". To reign with Christ seems to be the primary purpose of the first resurrection.

Jesus also spoke of a resurrection 'of the righteous'. Speaking about rewards, he said in Luke 14:13-14, "But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous".

Also, in Luke 20:34-36, Jesus said, "…The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are regarded as worthy to share in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. In fact, they can no longer die, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection".

These statements by Jesus seem to support the idea that there is a 'first resurrection' which is limited to 'the righteous', or to 'those who are regarded as worthy'.

Taking these and other passages together, I take the view that the first resurrection is a bodily resurrection of all the righteous (from both Old and New Testament periods), but from these only those considered most worthy are chosen to rule with Christ. This is consistent with Christ's Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:11-27, in which people are assigned cities to rule according to their gifting and to how faithfully they used that gifting during their earthly lives.

However, an implication of this Pre-Millennial view is that during the Millennium, Earth will be populated by people who survive end time events and enter the Millennial age in their mortal bodies. These mortals will be ruled by Christ and his resurrected followers who exist in their glorious immortal bodies. At the end of the Millennium, there will then be a general resurrection of all who have died during the Millennium, together with the unrighteous from all previous ages, and all these will face the final judgment.

Another implication of there being two bodily resurrections is that there must then be two judgments, one after the first resurrection, and another after the second resurrection.

Both these implications are seen as problematic by Amillennialists and Post-Millennialists.

And if it is true that all dead Christians are raised in the first resurrection, but that only some of them are considered worthy to rule with Christ, what then happens to the rest? My assumption is that they spend the Millennium in the Father's House (John 14:1-3), which I believe is in the New Jerusalem, the Heavenly City. The Millennium is a transitional age between the present age and the eternal age. At the start of the Millennium, Satan is imprisoned in the Abyss, which is the hell of the present age, but the beast and the false prophet prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the hell of the eternal age. Both realities exist and overlap during the Millennial age. Likewise, it is reasonable to argue that some resurrected Christians spend the Millennium on the Earth, ruling with Christ. The rest spend the Millennium in the Heavenly Jerusalem, where Christ is also omnipresent.

Amillennial and Post-Millennial Perspective
Amillennialists and Postmillennialists understand the first resurrection to be the spiritual resurrection of the soul that occurs when a person comes to faith in Christ and receives salvation (John 5:24-27, Eph 2:5-6, Col 2:12-13; 3:1). It affects our inner beings, hearts and minds (2 Cor 4:16, Rom 12:2, Eph 3:16). The second resurrection is then a general resurrection of the body, affecting all of humanity from all of history, and occurs at the end of the age when Christ returns.

Augustine quotes Jesus in John 5:25-26, "Mark my words carefully: I am telling you that a time is coming, in fact it has already come, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall live. For as the Father has life in himself, so has the Son, by the Father's gift". He then comments, "He is not yet speaking of the second resurrection, that is, the resurrection of the body, which is to come at the end of the world, but about the first, which is here and now…For in this first resurrection, only those take part who will be blessed for eternity, whereas in the second, about which Jesus is soon to speak [in John 5:28-29], he will teach us that the blessed and the wretched alike take part". (City of God, Bk. XX, Ch. 6, p.903-904)

If the first resurrection is a spiritual one that occurs at salvation while we are still physically alive in the body, then how do we reign with Christ? Augustine understood that the souls of the righteous dead are currently reigning with Christ in heaven over the world in this present age. He wrote, "But this reign after death belongs especially to those who struggled on truth's behalf even to death; and that is why it is only the souls of the martyrs that are mentioned in the Apocalypse. Nevertheless, we take the part as implying the whole, and interpret it as meaning that the rest of the dead also belong to the Church, which is the kingdom of Christ'. (City of God, Bk. XX, Ch.9, p. 916). In other words, he understood that after physical death, all Christians enter into Christ's heavenly kingdom, but only those considered most worthy are privileged to reign with him.

I have to admit that it does seem simpler to have only one bodily resurrection, and therefore only one judgment, and no intermediate age between this present age and the eternal age. But just because it seems simpler does not make it correct.