Are There Three Resurrections?
Some people teach that there will be three resurrections:
1) Of the saints at Christ’s return, before the millennial reign of Christ,
2) Of those who have not had an opportunity for salvation, at the end of the millennium, and
3) Of people who refuse to repent, shortly before the lake of fire.
We do not hold this view. Our articles about the millennium explain why we do not teach a specific chronology of the millennial reign of Christ. However, we do recognize that it is a legitimate question to ask about people who never had any opportunity for salvation. We believe that since God is righteous, he has made just and fair provision in the Judgment for them. We do not claim to know the specifics of what that will be, but we trust that the God who “wants all people to be saved” (2 Timothy 2:4) will take care of them in the best possible way.
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 the parable, good people are given life eternal and wicked people are condemned. However, both passages may present a simplified version of what may actually be a more complex reality. Those who accept Jesus’ offer of life, and respond to him in a positive way, will be given the blessing of living in fellowship and friendship with God forever. Those who reject this offer, even after knowing what it is, will not have to live with him forever. They experience the negative results of their own choice.
Although there are only two possible outcomes in the end, we can think of three groups of people as awaiting judgment. 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 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 sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ.
The book of Revelation, chapter 20, is the only place in the Bible that might suggest 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 reminds us that the book of Revelation is a highly symbolic book, and it can be misleading to read what it says in a strictly literal way.
Later in chapter 20, we are told of a “great white throne” judgment (verse 11). In vision, John saw the dead raised to life, standing before the throne (verse 12). The people are judged according to their deeds, but the text does not specifically tell us the result of that judgment, though it probably refers to those who have eternal life (who are written in the book of life). Next, we are told that all who are not in the book of life, presumably those who rejected Jesus as Savior, are sent 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. It is dangerous to base 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 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 stand before the judgment seat of God. All humans will be judged by God in Christ, and have a fair 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 cut off from him forever, pictured by their destruction in the lake of fire.
God will see us through all our trials, bring his people into their inheritance and defeat all the wicked. That’s what we 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 of people 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.
We believe that God will make fair and just provision for people who do not appear to have received the gospel in this life. But we do not teach any dogmatic timing or program – the when or how – regarding the receiving of salvation by those who seem to be among the unevangelized.
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.
The idea of three resurrections is too specific, but the main point regarding God’s gift of salvation in Christ is 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: “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 one more related idea: that the unevangelized will be resurrected for a certain length of time. One verse was sometimes used to specify a period of 100 years: 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 passage 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.” It is not talking about a time span for unevangelized peoples.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
What do we say about people who were not evangelized and did not have an opportunity for salvation?
First, we do not deny the possibility that there will be a time period in which people learn and have opportunity. We simply say that the Bible is not clear about the specifics, therefore we 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.
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.