Are There Three Resurrections?
Some people teach that there is a resurrection: 1) Of the saints at Christ’s return, 2) Of those who have not had an opportunity for salvation at the end of the millennium, 3) and Of the unregenerate wicked before the lake of fire.
However, we teach that God will gather all the living and the dead before the heavenly throne of Christ for judgment. The righteous will receive eternal glory and the wicked will be condemned.
In regard to the resurrection of the dead, the church believes that Christ will return and the saints will rise in the resurrection to meet him (1 Thessalonians 4:13‑17). Unrepentant sinners who deliberately and ultimately reject the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ will perish in the lake of fire. This death is eternal, and the Scriptures refer to it as the second death. As far as the unevangelized dead are concerned, we believe that the Lord has made righteous provision in the Judgment for them.
Regarding the question of the number of resurrections, we have to remember that Jesus spoke of only two classes of people as arising simultaneously from the grave. He said, “Those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:29). The same two groups are apparently spoken of in Matthew 25:31-46, and are represented by sheep and goats in a parable. Here the groups seem to come to Jesus’ judgment seat at the same time as he returns in glory.
In Jesus’ parable, the good people will be resurrected to life eternal and the evil will rise to condemnation. The later group seems to be the one involved in what is described as “the second death” (Revelation 20:14). People cannot die unless they are alive. And Jesus did say that “all” who are in the graves would come forth, some to life and some to condemnation. Therefore, the church has traditionally concluded that the incorrigibly wicked will be resurrected to face the lake of fire, which is the execution of the sentence for their sins since they rejected Jesus’ saving work, while the resurrected saints will reign with Christ in the kingdom of God.
Nevertheless, we can think of three groups of people as awaiting judgment in some sense. This allows us to include all people who have ever lived in God’s purpose. That is, there are three classes of people in relationship to salvation: 1) Those who are true believers in this life (who are led by the Holy Spirit), 2) Those who are (so far as we know) ignorant of God and his purpose even at the time of their death or perhaps misinformed as to what the gospel really says, 3) Those who have knowingly rejected God and the cleansing sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ.
It is only the book of Revelation, chapter 20, which on the surface seems to indicate the idea of several, perhaps three resurrections. The book speaks of the martyrs as “coming to life” and reigning with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:4). The “rest of the dead” do not come to life until the thousand years are ended (verse 5). These two “comings to life” events collectively are said to be the “first resurrection” (verse 5). It is not clear how we are to understand this. Are these two risings occurring at different times? Such an ambiguity teaches us that the book of Revelation is a highly symbolic book, and to read what it says in a strictly literal way, can be misleading.
Later in chapter 20, we are told of a “great white throne” judgment (verses 11). In vision, John saw the dead raised to life, standing before the throne (verse 12). The dead are judged according to their deeds, but the text does not specifically tell us the result of that judgment, though we can safely presume it refers to those who have eternal life (who are written in the book of life). Next, we are told that all those who are not in the book of life, presumably those who rise in a condemnatory judgment because they rejected Jesus as Savior, are thrown into the lake of fire (verses 14-15). This could be the same judgment to which Jesus referred, in which those who have done good rise to live eternally, and those who have done evil rise to be condemned (John 5:29; Matthew 25:31-36).
How this all fits with earlier verses in Revelation 20 that speak of what appears to be a “first resurrection” in two parts is not clear. This points up the danger of basing a conclusion about any sequence or number of resurrections solely on a few verses in Revelation, which as mentioned earlier, is a book written in symbols and metaphors, and is not always in chronological order.
While some points may be unclear about the sequence and number of general resurrection events, what we can know for sure is that the dead will be judged. We may not know exactly how or when, but every person will have an opportunity to stand before the judgment seat of God. All humans will be judged by God in Christ, and receive an opportunity to put their faith in Jesus and accept God’s gracious offer of salvation. Those who love Jesus and his appearing will be resurrected to live eternally in the presence of God. Those who are God’s enemies will be destroyed and cut off from him forever, pictured by their destruction in the lake of fire. Despite this final end of the incorrigibly wicked, we know God is just, fair and merciful.
God will see us through all our trials, bring his people into their inheritance and vanquish all the wicked. That’s what we really need to know. We can speculate about the specific details of how all this will come about, but we should not turn speculation into dogmatic statements of doctrine. What we can know for sure is that God loves all people and he will save for eternal life all who come to him in trust and love.
What is the fate, then, of those who appear not to have heard the gospel of salvation? Jesus said of any village that rejected him and the disciples: “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10:15). Jesus also stated the same thing about Tyre and Sidon when speaking of two Jewish towns whose people failed to repent after seeing his miracles (Matthew 11:22). This is an indication that even those who might be deemed by human judgment as the “worst” of humanity will arise in the judgment and receive mercy.
To summarize, it is the position of the church that God will make fair and just provision for people who do not appear to have received the gospel in this life. That was the main point of what we used to teach. But we do not teach any dogmatic timing or program – the when or how – regarding the receiving of the grace to salvation by those who seem to be among the unevangelized.
But we do teach that all humans will be judged on the same basis as we are. That is, they will be judged by their response to Jesus Christ, the only name by which we may be saved. The church’s statement on “Eternal Judgment” in its Statement of Beliefs says the following on this important matter:
At the end of the age, God will gather all the living and the dead before the heavenly throne of Christ for judgment. The righteous will receive eternal glory, and the wicked will be condemned to the lake of fire. In Christ the Lord makes gracious and just provision for all, even for those who at death appear not to have believed the gospel.
Our previous teaching on the idea of three resurrections was too specific and dogmatic, but the main point regarding God’s gift of salvation in Christ is still true. God will ensure that everyone is given a fair opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel of salvation in Christ. God’s intent toward all human beings is summarized in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Now, let us consider the church’s past teaching about the “100-year period,” since for many of our members it is a part of the millennium question. This teaching about a 100-year period, as to its length, was based on a single verse that is part of a larger Scriptural grouping, Isaiah 65:17-25. Here it says that in this “new heavens and new earth” (verse 17) there would never be “an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth.”
The Scripture does not tell us what we thought it did in terms of the time element. The verse doesn’t say the new heavens and earth period will be a hundred years long, but that someone who dies at a hundred during this time will be thought to be but a young person. Others would die at an older age. A further problem with using Isaiah 66:22 is that it is about “the new heavens and new earth,” not the “millennium.”
The church concludes that we should not be dogmatic about the outlines of God’s kingdom or “millennium” or about a “100-year period.” What does the church say then about people who were not evangelized and converted in this life and did not have an opportunity of salvation?
First, the church does not say the millennium or a “judgment period” after it will not occur. The church simply says that the Bible is not clear about the specifics, therefore the church cannot be dogmatic about the details.
Second, we are not dogmatic about successive resurrections and time periods. Instead, we emphasize the fairness and love of God, that there is a resurrection, and that all people who ever lived will have an opportunity to stand before our Lord and believe in him for salvation.
Therefore, the essence of the church’s traditional teaching is the same. God will make righteous provision for every person to know and accept the gospel, but the exact form and timing of that provision is not something we can be dogmatic about.
What we know with greatest clarity is that God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son, Jesus, to be our Savior. We can be totally confident God will give all people an opportunity to be judged by him in mercy, to receive the opportunity to put their faith in Jesus and to accept God’s gracious offer of salvation. We know God is just, fair and merciful. No matter how he unfolds the future that the prophecies of the Bible picture, it will be good and right for everyone.