What Is the “First Resurrection”?
DO YOU believe in a resurrection? That is, that the dead will be brought back to life? The Bible says: “There is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) Does such a thought seem farfetched to you?
Really, it should not seem strange. True, we all know that we are very complex in our physical and mental makeup. But actually our basic makeup is all represented in our body cells, particularly in the forty-six chromosomes in the nucleus of each cell. Additionally, our environment and experiences combine with our genetic inheritance to make us what we are. Why should it be viewed as too difficult, then, for the Creator to remake this pattern—the exact chemical and structural arrangement of the cells, together with the memory pattern? It would be easier than it was to design the cells at the time of man’s creation, putting in the original “mechanism” and the potential to bring out individual traits and the ability to pass the genetic combinations on to children. This the Creator did at the start.—Ps. 139:13-15; Gen. 5:3.
But what about the “soul”? Well, first of all we must recognize the Scriptural fact that every living creature has an organism or body, whether heavenly or earthly. (1 Cor. 15:40) There is therefore no such thing as a ‘disembodied spirit,’ such as spiritistic mediums talk about. The “soul” is the person, including both personality and organism. Throughout the Scriptures, all human attributes, mental, physical and spiritual, are shown as being manifested by the living soul, the living person. (Lev. 7:18, 20, 21; 23:30; Ps. 105:18) It is the functioning of the organism or body that expresses the personality. The dead body, without “spirit” or life force, or without the breath that sustains the life force, has no personality, no activity. (Gen. 7:22; Jas. 2:26; Eccl. 9:5, 10) It is therefore no longer a living soul. The soul has died, ceased to exist.—Ezek. 18:4.
THE “SOUL” RESURRECTED
Consequently, for God to resurrect a person, what would he have to do? He would have to make a body having the same traits, restoring also the memory, which has provided the person with the characteristics he had acquired during his lifetime. The entire soul would thus be restored. The person would then be able to identify himself. Otherwise, he would be like an amnesia victim, unable to say who he is or what he had done in the past.
The psalmist wrote, addressing Jehovah: “Your eyes saw even the embryo of me, and in your book all its parts were down in writing, as regards the days when they were formed and there was not yet one among them.” (Ps. 139:16) If Jehovah is capable of seeing and having a record of the child’s traits as soon as conception and genetic combinations take place, why can he not have an accurate record by which to reconstruct one who has died?—Compare Genesis 25:23; Romans 9:11-13.
What of a person’s body? We know that the atoms forming human bodies are merely building blocks. They have no personality. Need the resurrected body, then, be the same one, that is, be the same body preserved, or made up of the same atoms gathered back together? Obviously not. For example, a person may have died, and the atomic elements from his decayed body may have nourished a fruit tree growing near his grave. Other persons may have eaten the fruit. Therefore many persons’ bodies would now contain those atoms. Clearly, at the resurrection not all the bodies could have those same atoms back.
Some may object to this, saying that, in that case, the person would only be a “copy,” not the real person himself. He would be something like a videotape picture, merely a “recording” from God’s memory, they say. But they forget that, even now, the major portion of our bodies is constantly wearing out and being replaced. This is why we have to eat food. In seven years or so the individual’s organism is virtually a different body. He even has a different appearance. Yet do we not still count him as the same person? Certainly. When a mother sees a long-lost son, even if his appearance has changed and if he has acquired some new traits, his basic characteristics are the same, and the mother does not take long to recognize him. And she accepts him as her son.
We might further illustrate: A person dies. It may be that he was horribly mangled in an accident, or that his lungs, liver or other organs were partially destroyed by some disease. Obviously, he has to come back with a renewed or restored body if he is going to keep living after his resurrection. He is no mere “copy” but, rather, is the same person restored so that he can function as a “soul.” The body of Lazarus, for example, suffered considerable decomposition, for, as Lazarus’ sister Martha said to Jesus at the grave site: “Lord, by now he must smell, for it is four days.” (John 11:39) Yet, when resurrected by Jesus, he was, not a copy, but Lazarus, and was recognized as Lazarus by Jesus Christ, also by himself and his family.
RIGHT AND WRONG VIEWS OF THE “FIRST RESURRECTION”
What, though, is meant by the expression “first resurrection”? “First” can mean first in time and/or first in quality. This resurrection, then, must stand apart as something special. Who receive such resurrection?
Briefly stated, the “first resurrection” applies to the first ones to come back to the fullness of life. Such fullness of life the persons resurrected by the early prophets, and later by Jesus Christ and the apostles, did not receive. They died again. This was because Jesus Christ had not yet come in Kingdom power to judge the people and to reward his faithful servants.
Consider now the Bible’s description of the “first resurrection” as given in a vision to the apostle John. John reports:
“I saw thrones, and there were those who sat down on them, and power of judging was given them. Yes, I saw the souls of those executed with the ax for the witness they bore to Jesus and for speaking about God, and those who had worshiped neither the wild beast nor its image and who had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand. And they came to life and ruled as kings with the Christ for a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Happy and holy is anyone having part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no authority, but they will be priests of God and of the Christ, and will rule as kings with him for the thousand years.”—Rev. 20:4-6.
Though “executed with the ax,” note that these were not seen as headless “souls” by John. Rather, they were persons equipped with mental abilities to judge. However, in order to occupy thrones in the heavens, they had to have, not human, but spirit bodies. With regard to their resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote: “It is sown [in death] a physical body, it is raised up a spiritual body.”—1 Cor. 15:44.
But someone may ask, Is not this “first resurrection” the ‘spiritual rebirth’ that takes place as one of the first experiences in a Christian’s course? Is it not what the apostle Paul spoke of when he pointed out to the Colossian congregation that Christian circumcision was not literal, in the flesh? He wrote: “This is circumcision according to Christ. You have been buried with him, when you were baptised; and by baptism, too, you have been raised up with him through your belief in the power of God who raised him from the dead. You were dead, because you were sinners and had not been circumcised; he has brought you to life with him, he has forgiven us all our sins.”—Col. 2:11-13, The Jerusalem Bible; compare Ephesians 2:1-6.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia (copyrighted 1967) takes this view, saying, under the title “Millenarianism”:
“. . . The ‘first resurrection’ symbolizes Baptism, . . . by which one shares in Christ’s Resurrection. . . . All the faithful, both those on earth and those in heaven, share in the 1,000 year reign of Jesus, a symbol for the entire life span of the Church considered in its glorious aspect from the Resurrection of Christ until the Last Judgment.”
Does this explanation fit the “first resurrection” that John refers to in Revelation 20:4-6—the only place in the Bible where this expression is used? No, for John says, “they . . . ruled as kings with the Christ for a thousand years.” The “life span of the Church” has proved to be, not just one thousand years, but nearly two millenniums.
Furthermore, has any member of the true Christian congregation on earth thus far “reigned” as a king? Even Paul, an apostle, wrote to certain ambitious members of the congregation in Corinth: “You have begun ruling as kings WITHOUT us, have you? And I wish indeed that you had begun ruling as kings, that we also might rule with you as kings. For it seems to me that God has put us the apostles last on exhibition as men appointed to death, because we have become a theatrical spectacle to the world, and to angels, and to men.” (1 Cor. 4:8, 9) To his missionary companion Timothy, he presented the matter of reigning as coming after the Christian’s physical death, saying: “Faithful is the saying: Certainly if we died together, we shall also live together; if we go on enduring, we shall also rule together as kings; if we deny, he also will deny us.”—2 Tim. 2:11, 12.
Years later, when the apostle John was in exile in the isle of Patmos, he quoted the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ as saying to the congregation in Laodicea: “To the one that conquers I will grant to sit down with me on my throne, even as I conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” (Rev. 3:21) All the reigning, therefore, was future, after the death of the faithful disciples of Christ, not from the day of their baptism.
Paul also said of two professed Christians, Hymenaeus and Philetus, that they had “deviated from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already occurred.” (2 Tim. 2:17, 18) So he did not count the Christian’s baptism as the time of his resurrection.
Accordingly, the “first resurrection” of Revelation 20:4-6 is a real, literal resurrection from a physical death, from Sheol, the common grave of mankind. The apostle Peter spoke of the heavenly inheritance, not as being possessed already, but as “reserved in the heavens” and as “a salvation ready to be revealed in the last period of time.” He also spoke of the “grand promises” of God, that Christians would “become sharers in divine nature.” (1 Pet. 1:4, 5; 2 Pet. 1:4) To gain “divine nature” they would have to put off human, physical nature, ‘corruption putting on incorruption.’ Certainly their physical bodies were not incorruptible nor immortal.—1 Cor. 15:50, 52-54.
IMMUNE FROM THE “SECOND DEATH”
Another point in proof is seen in Revelation 20:6: “Happy and holy is anyone having part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no authority.” That second death is symbolized by the “fiery lake that burns with sulphur.” (Rev. 19:20; 20:14) Is this true of those who have merely been baptized in water and who have spiritually been made alive from death in trespasses and sins and who have been raised up together spiritually and been “seated . . . in the heavenly places in union with Christ Jesus”? (Eph. 2:1, 5, 6) No, it is still possible for them to prove unfaithful under test and to come under the penalty of the “second death,” total annihilation. That is why the apostle Paul warned baptized, anointed Christians: “Let him that thinks he is standing beware that he does not fall.” Also, Jesus counseled: “Prove yourself faithful even to death, and I will give you the crown of life.”—1 Cor. 10:12; Rev. 2:10.
If baptized, anointed Christians having the heavenly hope had already enjoyed the “first resurrection” and had been beyond the power of the “second death,” it would have been useless for Paul to write as he did at Hebrews 6:4-8 and Heb 10:26-31. Here Paul warned that one who had become a partaker of holy spirit and who then fell away could not be renewed to repentance, because he impaled the Son of God afresh for himself and put Him to public shame. Such ones, he said, trampled upon the Son of God, disrespected the blood of the covenant and outraged the spirit of undeserved kindness. God would execute vengeance upon them.
Since “over these [experiencing the first resurrection] the second death has no authority,” we can appreciate why it is called the “first resurrection.” It is the same kind of resurrection that Jesus Christ experienced on the third day of his death, a resurrection to instantaneous fullness of life. Jesus Christ then became “the firstborn from the dead.” (Rev. 1:5; Col. 1:18) The “first resurrection” is not only first in time but also “first” in being the best resurrection that the dead could experience. It is a resurrection to incorruptible, immortal life as a spirit son of God in God’s own heavens.
This is a wonderful hope. The apostle John wrote fellow anointed ones: “Beloved ones, now we are children of God, but as yet it has not been made manifest what we shall be. We do know that whenever he is made manifest we shall be like him, because we shall see him just as he is.”—1 John 3:2.
How can God have such confidence in these as to grant them immortality and incorruptibility—yes, even to make them associate kings with Jesus Christ, ruling over mankind on earth, including those who come back from death in an earthly resurrection?* How many receive the “first resurrection” as heavenly heirs? How do they qualify? How long will they rule and for what purpose? These questions will be considered in following issues of The Watchtower.