We are glad to explain this highly misunderstood topic in detail. As we will see, the Bible clearly teaches THREE resurrections–not just one.
Paul was inspired by God to write in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26:
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [who have died]. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam ALL die, even so in Christ ALL shall be made alive. But each one IN HIS OWN ORDER: Christ the firstfruits, AFTERWARD those who are Christ’s [true converted Christians] at His coming. THEN COMES THE END, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an END to all [rebellious human and demonic] rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till he has put all ENEMIES under His feet. The LAST ENEMY that will be destroyed is death.”
Paul reveals that there is an ORDER of resurrections.
(1) THE FIRST RESURRECTION: When Christ returns, only those who died IN CHRIST will be resurrected. They will be resurrected to immortality. Not all the dead will be resurrected at that time.
Romans 8:11 reads: “But IF the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in YOU, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give [eternal] life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit [which] dwells in YOU.”
This resurrection to eternal life at the time of Christ’s return is described in 1 Corinthians 15:50-54.
It is also referred to in 1 Corinthians 6:14: “And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise US up by His power.”
The New King James Bible, as quoted above, does not accurately convey the Greek meaning of this passage–and neither do most other English translations. Paul is actually saying here that God will raise us up from among the dead.
The German Elberfelder Bible points out in a footnote that the literal meaning is that God will raise us out of the dead; that is, that He will bring us back to life from among and out of the dead. The passage shows that not all the dead will be resurrected at that time.
The same concept is conveyed in Philippians 3:11, where Paul speaks about his desire to “attain to the resurrection from the dead.” The choice of the word “from” is not the best. The German Menge Bible translates, “resurrection out of the dead.” Again, the Elberfelder Bible points out that Paul is talking about a resurrection from among the dead. In German, the word is “Heraus-Auferstehung”; that is, a resurrection out of the dead. This passage does not talk about a resurrection of all the dead. V.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, gives the literal meaning of the word as “the out-resurrection from among the dead.”
That there will be more resurrections than just one, is also clearly revealed by Jesus in John 5:28-29: “… for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth–those who have done good, to the resurrection OF LIFE, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of CONDEMNATION.”
Those in the first resurrection will become immortal Spirit beings–they will be part of the resurrection of ETERNAL LIFE. In speaking to the Church of God in Smyrna, Jesus said that those who overcome, “‘…shall not be hurt by the second death'” (Revelation 2:11). The nature of the “second death” will be explained below. Jesus’ promise, not to be hurt by the second death, is made to all who are called NOW to be a part of the first resurrection–as the firstfruits of God’s plan of salvation (Compare Revelation 20:6). But, the resurrection of condemnation will come later.
The first resurrection will be attained by those God has specifically called, who have repented, overcome in this lifetime and who have endured to the end–those who have not given up on their calling and returned to the ways of the world! Christians are being judged NOW. Peter states: “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now ‘If the righteous one is scarcely saved, Where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?'” (1 Peter 4:17-18).
In his second letter to the Church, Peter very specifically addresses the issue of accountability that those who are called NOW face if they turn away from God. Verses 18 through 22 of 2 Peter chapter 2, contain somber warnings for anyone so foolish as to reject God’s calling and who allow themselves to be overcome by the world, Satan or their own desires, to the point that they permanently cut themselves off from God.
(2) THE SECOND RESURRECTION: Following the first resurrection of those who died “in Christ” will be the second resurrection of those who had not accepted Christ when they died. They will come back to live, and then they are given their first opportunity. But their resurrection will come LATER–it will NOT occur at the time of Christ’s return.
Revelation 20:5, 11-12 describes the SECOND resurrection: “But the REST OF THE DEAD [who were not in the FIRST resurrection] did not live again UNTIL the thousand years [the Millennium] were finished… Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it… And I saw the dead, small and great, STANDING before God… And the dead were JUDGED…”
This second resurrection is not one to eternal life, but to physical life. It is a resurrection to JUDGMENT–but NOT to condemnation!
Ezekiel 37:7-11 describes the resurrection of the entire house of Israel to PHYSICAL LIFE. They will be resurrected in the SECOND resurrection. When the dead of Israel are brought back again to physical life, God will deal with them as He deals with true Christians today. Once a person comes to true understanding, accepts God’s way of life, repents of his sins, believes in Christ‘s sacrifice and the gospel and becomes baptized, then God grants him forgiveness and offers him the gift of the Holy Spirit. We see in Ezekiel 37:14 that the Holy Spirit is offered to the resurrected Israelites–obviously after they have repented of their sins and have become baptized. The people of the house of Israel will know God and begin to live a life pleasing to God. If they overcome and endure, they will receive immortality (compare Romans 11:32; Romans 11:26).
But it is not only the people of Israel who will be resurrected at that time. We read in Matthew 12:41-42 that the men of Nineveh and the queen of the South “will RISE UP in the JUDGMENT” with people who were alive at the time of Jesus Christ. Compare, too, Matthew 10:14-15 and Matthew 11:21-24, referring to other unconverted people who had died in the past.
Some commentaries understand that the Bible teaches more than one resurrection. The Nelson Study Bible comments on Revelation 20: “The resurrection of the dead will not encompass all people at the same time… there will be a first resurrection of dead believers before the thousand years of Christ’s reign and a final resurrection after the millennium is finished, before the great white throne judgment…” However, as we will see, the resurrection before the Great White Throne is NOT the final resurrection.
Halley’s Bible Handbook states: “… there will be Two resurrections, one before, and one after, the Millennium…”
But this is not accurate, either. There will be actually TWO resurrections after the Millennium. The SECOND resurrection, after the Millennium, was discussed above. But there will a FINAL resurrection which will follow the second resurrection. We refer to it as the THIRD resurrection.
(3) THE THIRD RESURRECTION: Sadly, there are those who have had their opportunity. They have committed the “unpardonable sin.” They knew and understood perfectly well, that they had to submit to Christ, but they refused to do so. They became bitter, hateful, resentful and malicious. They made the unchangeable decision NEVER to repent. If a person has reached that stage that he cannot repent, because he has made the final decision NOT to WANT to repent, then God will not force repentance on such a person. God grants repentance, but a person must want to receive it. A person, though, who maliciously rejects Christ, would only continue to live in misery and pain–and that is why God will save such a person from eternal misery, by DESTROYING him in a lake of fire.
Revelation 20:13-15 describes the THIRD resurrection, which will occur some time AFTER the judgment period of the second resurrection:
“The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”
God refers to the coming THIRD resurrection in the book of Daniel. In contrasting the FIRST resurrection with the THIRD resurrection, we are told, in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to EVERLASTING life, Some to shame and EVERLASTING CONTEMPT.”
Notice, it does not say that they will live forever in everlasting contempt. But it says that they will WAKE UP “to” everlasting contempt–their fate will be one of everlasting consequences.
The following Scriptures also describe the fate of those who will be brought back to life in the third resurrection: Obadiah 16; Malachi 4:3; Matthew 3:10; Hebrews 6:4-8; Hebrews 10:26-27; and 2 Peter 3:7.
The vast majority of all of humanity will be judged during the second resurrection. Even at this time, it may well be that some will ultimately reject God’s offer of salvation and eternal life–just as some called before the first resurrection will have turned away from God.
However, God is “…not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9); and, God “…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Yet, God will not force people to choose life– even though He will give all an opportunity for eternal life in His Kingdom.
You might also want to read Christ’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in Luke 16:19-31. While Lazarus was resurrected to immortal life in the FIRST resurrection, the rich man is being resurrected, more than 1,000 years later, in the THIRD resurrection. He sees the flames and acknowledges his fate, knowing that he will be cast into the lake of fire to be burnt up.
In spite of what many preach and believe today, the Bible clearly reveals that there will be some who will have committed the unpardonable sin. They will be destroyed by fire: “‘But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death'” (Revelation 21:8).
Some have wondered why there should be a third resurrection, if their fate was already sealed at the time of their death. Why wouldn’t God just leave them in their graves–rather than resurrecting them again to physical life to destroy them forever? We may not know completely the answer to this question, but God gives us several hints. God is a God of JUSTICE. In raising those who have committed the unpardonable sin to physical life, their attitude will become manifest to all alive at that time. When they witness their conduct, they will never be able to question God’s compassionate and uncompromising justice; as well as His merciful wisdom to free those hateful human beings from their emotional misery and pain.
While most professing Christians don’t believe in more than one resurrection–if they believe in a resurrection at all–the Bible clearly reveals three resurrections. True Christians are to strive to attain the FIRST or “better resurrection” (Hebrews 11:35). We read that if they attain that resurrection to eternal life, they will not “come into judgment” of the second resurrection (compare John 5:24).
God has given the responsibility of judgment to Jesus Christ (Compare John 5:22), and all will appear before Christ for this judgment–whether called now or in a future resurrection (Compare 2 Corinthians 5:10).
For further information on the important subject of the three resurrections, please read our free booklets, “Do We Have an Immortal Soul?“, “God’s Commanded Holy Days,” “The Meaning of God’s Spring Holy Days” and “The Meaning of God’s Fall Holy Days.” In addition, you might want to read our Q&A on, “Do You Teach a Resurrection of the Physical Body?,” and you may want to listen to Norbert Link’s audio sermon, dated October 18, 2003, titled, “The Three Resurrections.”
Lead Writers: Norbert Link and Dave Harris