One or Two Resurrections?

Revelation 20:4-5 speaks of two different resurrections of the dead from Hades1 separated by a thousand years. (The “thousand years” in Revelation would likely denote a long period of time, not a literal thousand years.) The first is a resurrection of Jewish martyrs and the second is the resurrection of everyone else in order to be judged. However, there is some debate about whether John actually had two resurrections separated by a millennium in mind when he wrote this.

In his book The Parousia, J. Stuart Russell suggests Revelation speaks of one resurrection and one judgment in the author’s near future. He argues vv 7-10 digressed from the account that continues in v11 and should be viewed as a parenthetical look at what will happen in the distant future. Furthermore, since Revelation 5a–“But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished”–is absent in a little over a third of all manuscripts of Revelation including two of the three best (Sinaiticus and 2053 don’t have it, Alexandrinus does), it’s possible John had only one resurrection in mind that had two parts: the resurrection of the righteous and the resurrection of the unrighteous.

However, if the writer of Revelation was expecting two resurrections, then he was probably expressing a minority view.

The resurrection of individuals is only mentioned once in the Old Testament. In the book of Daniel, chronologically the last book of the Old Testament, we read about a resurrection of the dead from the underworld (Sheol) involving “many”—both good and bad. This passage likely expresses a belief that all Jews would one day be resurrected.

Later, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus speaks of those resurrected being like angels. And in Luke, Jesus speaks of the worthy being resurrected. I think it’s likely the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are accurately reflecting Jesus’ view that Jews would be resurrected upon his return from heaven; however, unlike in Daniel, it appears only righteous Jews would be resurrected at Jesus’ return.2

In Acts, Luke has Paul saying he believes in the resurrection of the just and unjust (Acts 24:15). But in Paul’s epistles, Paul speaks of attaining to the resurrection, and he says those who die “in Christ” will be resurrected. From these statements, it seems likely Paul agreed with Jesus that only the righteous would be resurrected; however, it seems Paul considered all believers—Jew & Gentile—eligible for resurrection at Christ’s return.

We do read about a day of judgment in the Gospels, but this judgment happens at the time of Jesus’ return. While the Gospel of Mark only implies a coming judgment, the Gospel of Luke is more direct (10:14, 11:31-32), and in the Gospel of Matthew we read that Jews would be judged by Jesus and his disciples who will be seated on 12 thrones (Matthew 19:28); Gentiles from neighboring nations would also be judged according to their treatment of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 25:31-46).

After examining all of these views, I think we can affirm all of the New Testament writers likely believed a resurrection and judgment would occur at the return of Jesus, but I don’t see evidence suggesting any other New Testament writers expected a second universal resurrection and judgment.
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1In the New Testament, we still read about the underworld (Gr. Hades); however, by the time of Jesus, the Nazarenes, Pharisees, and other Jewish sects had views of the underworld similar to that of the Greeks–the righteous dead were separated from (and treated better than) the unrighteous dead in a two-compartment underworld.
2I believe Jesus only had faithful Jews in mind for the resurrection because he said he was sent “only to the lost sheep of Israel” and he told his disciples not to take the gospel to any Gentile cities.
It appears the writer of the Gospel of John does not believe Jesus will return to establish the messianic kingdom. Instead, he writes that at Jesus’ return, all the dead will be resurrected. The unrighteous will be judged and destroyed, and the righteous will be taken by Jesus to heaven. (John 5:25-29)

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