What We Know About the Afterlife
Part II: The General Resurrection

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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"An hour is coming," Jesus said, speaking of the Son of Man (v.27), "in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall 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 5:2-29).

Although many in the ancient world believed in an afterlife and tried to prepare for it in some way, the Jews were unique in their belief in a general resurrection - a resurrection of all the dead. Isaiah 26:19 promises:

Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.

And Daniel 12:2:

And 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.

In the time of Christ, the reality of the resurrection was hotly contested by religious teachers; the Sadduccees (who tended to reject anything supernatural) denying a resurrection of the dead, the Pharisees making it one of their key teachings (see Acts 23:8). The matter was settled when Jesus rose from the dead and, in the words of Luke, "presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs" over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3). Paul tells us that more than five-hundred brethren could testify to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4 are major sources for much of what we know about the resurrection. However, as a major theme of the New Testament, it is discussed in other books as well.

Without the resurrection of the dead, there is no Christianity. We can gather this from the message of the New Testament, but Paul makes this completely clear. Paul understood that the atonement of Christ at Calvary was linked to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not occur, we would have good reason to believe that the cross had triumphed over Christ (Romans 1:1-4). The resurrection of Christ is also linked to the resurrection of all Christians. It is to remember the resurrection of Christ that Christians worship on the first day of the week, our "Sunday" (Acts 20:7) rather than on the Jewish sabbath, which is the last day of the week, the day of rest, our "Saturday."

The resurrected Christ is the "first-fruits" of the dead. Jesus has not only triumphed, He has triumphed on behalf of His people. Jesus is the new, life-giving Adam. All who experience new life in Christ can look forward not only to revivification, but to glorification. In other words, their bodies will not just be made alive, they will be made "new" and prepared for eternity. In addition, the resurrected Christ will share fellowship with His people in His glorified body. Until the resurrection, all people, even Christians, will die as before. But Jesus is no less "the Resurrection and the Life," and will give life to His people upon His return.

We know only some things about the resurrected body. Paul criticized the Corinthians, saying that it was foolish to speculate about the nature of the resurrection body. He did tell them, however, that it would be different from other material things, and that it would be indestructible, glorious, immune to weakness, and "spiritual" (pneumatikon). There is an additional problem in understanding this description today, for the contemporary world tends to define "spiritual" as "ethereal," "immaterial," "incorporeal," and often as "unreal." But this is not the case. This body will be "spiritual" because it will not be part of a physical universe characterized by decay. But the resurrected Christ strongly denied that He was just "spirit."

The glorified body of Jesus Christ is a pattern for those who will follow. How much will our resurrected body be like the resurrected body of Christ? Will we be able to travel in an instant to anywhere we choose? Will we be able to pass through solid objects? This is hard to say. Certainly, when Jesus allowed His glorified body to be felt, and ate with His disciples, He seemed to be showing us something about His body that we could share. However, it would seem logical that Jesus would also retain, as the Second Person of the Trinity, certain capabilities as God that are not shared with His people. The "emptying" of Philippians 2 is not completely eternal in all respects because Jesus has completed His earthly ministry as Christ in this world even though He retains human form for eternity. For now, we can only speculate about some of these matters. What we can be sure of is that we will finally experience life in the manner in which God has always planned that we would spend eternity.

There will be an absence of frustration and a fulfillment of our potential. When God created mankind, He created into every one of us certain desires; such as the desire to be social and the desire to create -- to make things. These are not simply earthly desires, they are a part of the image of God in each one of us, individually and as groups. Our resurrected bodies will be the means whereby we are able to fulfill all that we were created to do in the age to come. Meanwhile, the impediments to accomplishment that have been a part of this age -- fatigue, weakness, sickness, adverse circumstances, lack of coordination or memory, the eventual deterioration of our bodies, and so forth -- will not hinder us any more. And because procreation does not take place, there will be none of the problems caused by gender.

A decomposed body will not prevent God from raising or glorifying our bodies. This might not seem logical, but it is nonetheless true. The deterioration of our bodies is a part of the present world. The great truth of the resurrection has never depended upon the preservation of the body, as in the belief of the ancient Egyptians. The same God who has the hairs of our heads numbered and is aware of every sparrow that falls is able to raise the dead, no matter how deteriorated.

The place we will live will be real. The Revelation to John presents future realities with symbolism, just as does all apocalyptic literature. Nevertheless, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth is real. Jesus promised to prepare a place for us (John 14:2-3). "And He who sits on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new'" (Revelation 21:5). We can be certain that if God has prepared us a real body in which to live out eternity, God is also planning a real place for us to dwell. Will we travel from that place? It would seem likely, but we aren't told. Will it be boring? No, because the greatest reality will be God, and God is infinitely new and attractive. But a place is being prepared for us. It does not exist now. It is not the "heaven" in which God's throne is. It is the new heavens and new earth that is described in The Revelation to John.

The resurrection will be rapid. Paul tells us that those who have died in the Lord will be resurrected first, then those who are alive at the Lord's coming. It will happen so rapidly that it will be over before we know it has started. We will meet the Lord in the air to prepare for a triumphant return. At that point, we will be part of the Lord's army, but our part in that army will be similar to that of the Israelites at Jericho, to stand and watch the victory the Lord will provide. The "church militant" will then become the "church triumphant."

It will be a time of joyful fellowship. God is "not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Luke 20:38). Prior to the resurrection, the church consists partly of those who have died and partly of those who still live on earth. But the spirits of those who have died are with God. Therefore, part of the church is in heaven, part on earth. Upon the bodily return of Christ, all the saints of all the ages will be united once again, fellow Christians and Christian workers, loved ones, those men and women we have only heard about but respected, and those we will come to know; all gathered together in joyful fellowship in the presence and fellowship of their Lord - the "blessed hope" of Titus 2:13.

The resurrection preceeds judgment. Throughout Scripture the twin truths of salvation and judgment are generally found together like two sides of the same "coin." In the same sense, Jesus is both Savior of His people and the Judge of all who oppose God. The wicked will also be raised, but there will be no glorification of their bodies. We know little more than that about their state for eternity. But it will be real, as real as the new heaven and the new earth. What we do know is that all do wise to fear an eternity outside the presence and blessing of God.

For Paul, belief in the resurrection flowed naturally from faith in God and His Christ. He asked Agrippa, "Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?" (Acts 26:8). The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is, perhaps, a great test of our faith. If it is meaningless to us, if it does not inform or affect our life, then we have reason to question whether we truly believe in the resurrection, whether we truly believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even whether we truly believe in God. It is a faith that can only become strong by reading and meditating upon the Gospel of the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is not a faith that we can reason ourselves into, but one we must be convinced of by the evidence to the risen Christ and the testimony of those who witnessed to it with their words and their lives.

Peter instructed us to "fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:13). It is not that the tasks God gives us to do on this earth and in this age aren't important. But the greater realities lie ahead, realities guaranteed by the bodily resurrection of Jesus upon His bodily return (I Peter 1:3-21).

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VII, Part 7, July 1999.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.