Disclaimer: This post is the theological perspective of the author and does not necessarily reflect the formal position of Sylvania Church. This particular issue, concerning eschatology and the interpretation of such events, is not meant to be divisive, but instructive and open for well-meaning dialogue.
The Future Resurrection and The Millennium
The hope of the resurrection. It is one of the central doctrines of the Christian religion. Through the resurrection Jesus demonstrated Himself to be the Son of God with power (Romans 1:4). It is a key aspect of Christian hope (Philippians 3:8-11). Yet, it is an eschatological reality – meaning it has to do with “the end times.” As such, it comes with its own unique set of interpretive problems. One such issue is the relationship of the resurrection to what is commonly referred to as “the Millennium.”
John makes reference to two resurrections, both in John 5:25-32 and in Revelation 20:4-15. Historically, there have been two main opinions on the matter of “how many resurrections are there?” On the one hand, those adhering to a position known as Dispensational Premillennialism hold that there is a physical resurrection of believers prior to the start of the 1000 year reign of Jesus. At the end of the reign, there is a resurrection of the unbelievers to judgment and the final culmination of all things. On the other hand, the position known as Amillennialism holds that the 1000 year reign of Christ is a metaphor for the current age in which Jesus is reigning spiritual through His people by way of the church. His first coming inaugurated the Kingdom of God and His second coming will bring about the full culmination of the Kingdom of God. In the meantime, he is spiritually raising sinners from death through the gospel – which is the first resurrection. The “second resurrection” is the future, physical resurrection of all people: some to life and some to judgment.
How do we determine which of these is the better interpretation? First things first: both of the these positions affirm a literal, future resurrection. Therefore, both positions are orthodox, in that, they do not deny the resurrection. Having stated that – let’s get started.
What This Blog Post Won’t Do
This blog post is not going to walk through all the arguments about the nature of the millennium, the proper reading of the Book of Revelation as apocalyptic literature, etc. If you want to look into some of these things, might I recommend starting with this sermon, this lecture series, or this roundtable discussion. This post isn’t going to resolve all the potential nuanced conflicts in the varying distinctions of eschatological perspective.
What this post will do is answer the question asked (posed by our good friend, Mike Peek – who you can find here). He asked, “How does someone holding the Amillennial position interpret the resurrections spoken of in Revelation 20 to be two different kinds of resurrections, since the same Greek word is used for both in the immediate context?”
Revelation 20 In Context
The first place to start is the place we always start – immediate context. In Revelation 20:4, John speaks of seeing those that had been martyred, persecuted, and remaining faithful “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” Later, in verse 5, he states, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection.” Seems pretty cut and dry. One resurrection before the 1000 years. One resurrection after the 1000 years. Case closed.
The problem comes when we read a bit further. The very next verse, Revelation 20:6, causes a significant interpretative problem. It reads, “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.” Here lies the trouble – no one teaches that there are three resurrections. If we take verse four to literally describe those who participate in a first, physical resurrection, then the only ones participating in that resurrection would be those martyred, persecuted, and faithful during the time of “the beast and his image.” Dispensational Premillennialism restricts this to a very specific time period, that in the grand scheme of life is rather small and short-lived. So what of the resurrection of the believers having died prior to the coming of the beast and his image? Are they given a special privilege to participate in this resurrection? Or is their resurrection at a different time as well?
This same text, Revelation 20:4, also indicates that over these specific, resurrected believers “the second death has no power.” Again – it is the same issue as above. What about the believers not living during the age of the beast and his image? Does the second death potentially have power over them? Of course not – and I don’t know any Dispensational Premillennialist that thinks so. But it is “what the text says.”
Later, at the end of the chapter, a cataclysmic war takes place. God overthrows His enemies and executes a final judgment. All those that are “dead” are raised, and a twofold judgment takes place. Those that are “dead” are judged by “the books” – which are their deeds. Those not found in “the book of life” experience the second death. The indication from the text here is this: of these raised in this “second resurrection,” some face eternal judgment and some receive eternal life. There is a unified resurrection.
For the person holding to an Amillennial perspective, none of this is problematic. The first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection: conversion/regeneration. The first resurrection is the dead sinner coming to life in the gospel. This resurrection protects the believer from the second death. The beast and his image have been ever-present in the world since the Fall, as the Scripture calls Satan the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Christ is reigning with his spiritually resurrected saints in a “millennial age” at this present moment, awaiting the final day of the culmination of the Kingdom of God – which coincides with the final resurrection and judgment.
John affirms this idea of a spiritual/physical resurrection distinction in John 5:25-32. There is a current “calling to life” and a future “calling from the tombs.” One is life in the Kingdom, the other is the culmination of that life at the final judgment.
It is important to note, Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture. Elsewhere, when the resurrection is spoken of as a future event – it is spoken of as a singular event for the believer and unbeliever alike. It is commonly referred to as “the resurrection.” It is viewed as a singular event – judgment unto life or death. Some go to the right, some to the left. Some enter in, some are cast out. (Acts 24:15; 2 Timothy 2:17-18; 1 Corinthians 15, and others).
Above all of this, the New Testament regularly portrays Jesus as our resurrection. In John 11:25, Jesus states, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The resurrection is current in Christ. It is an “already, but not yet” reality. We already are made alive in Christ. We are already seated in heavenly places in Him. Yet, we long for the day for all things to be made new. We long for our faith to be made sight. We long for our hope to be fulfilled. As such, the first resurrection is a current, spiritual resurrection. The second resurrection is a future, physical resurrection.