One of the distinctive doctrines of the Church of God is the doctrine of the resurrections. The Bible is clear that there are two resurrections, the resurrection of the just and the resurrection of the unjust. And yet many of the organizations of the Church of God preach three resurrections, which is confusing to those who just look at the biblical account of the resurrections. It is therefore useful to examine what the Bible says about the resurrections and then to examine implications of these passages as well as some possible reasons why the Church of God has traditionally believed in three resurrections as opposed to the two resurrections clearly stated in scripture. It is the hope of this modest entry to examine the connections between the doctrine of the resurrections, questions of authority within God’s realm and Satan’s realm, as well as some of the more important problems within the Church of God. The issue of the resurrections is one of the areas where the interaction of doctrine and practice within the Church of God leads to fascinating connections.
There are plenty of texts that talk about the first resurrection in isolation (like 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), but only a few that talk about the two resurrections in tandem. Let us therefore examine them to see what the scripture tells us about them before we engage in interpretation of these passages, where the difficulties often begin. Revelation 20:1-4-6 reads: “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has a part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.”
Now, this passage is a very clear indication of there being more than one resurrection. After all, there can be no first resurrection and no distinction between the blessed and holy saints who take part in the first resurrection and everyone else unless there is (at least) two resurrections. Nonetheless, if we read this passage carefully, we will see that this passage only shows two resurrections. After the blessed are raised in the first resurrection at the return of Jesus Christ to the earth, the rest of the dead rise up a thousand years later. It would appear from this passage that no one rises from the grave directly to condemnation. This would also appear to be confirmed by a later passage, in Revelation 20:11-15: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works by the things which were written in the books. 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.” The same general point is made in Hebrews 11:35b: “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”
We will have much to say about the implications of this passage in two important and related issues later, but for now let us note that all of the dead who have not already entered eternal life rise up in the second resurrection. None of the dead are said to have raised from the dead directly to the second death. We will talk about the supposed exceptions to this and examine their implications, but for now let us note that what we have here are two resurrections, a resurrection from the dead for the blessed who rise directly into eternal life, and then a second resurrection of everyone else who are judged by their works (and by their repentance) and who either belatedly enter eternal life or enter the lake of fire for final judgment. Likewise, we again know that there are at least two resurrections because there cannot be a better resurrection unless there is a worse one. Nonetheless, if there were more than two resurrections, it would be said that there was a “best” resurrection. We ought to note that the brethren in Hebrews 11:35b did not fear an instant trip to the lake of fire. Rather, they desired a better resurrection, directly into eternal life, rather than being resurrected with everyone else.
Two Is Better Than Three
Why is it so important to distinguish between a view of two resurrections and a view of three resurrections? It is clear that the bible points out two resurrections, one for the righteous, a better resurrection into eternal life, giving those who are blessed enough to find it the right to judge the dead (about which we will have much to say later). What would be the point of assuming, in the absence of clear scriptural evidence, that there is a third resurrection where someone would automatically be condemned? Why assume that this “third resurrection” of condemnation would apply only or mainly to those who knew the truth but for whatever reason had “fallen away.” It would appear that instead of showing the love that would be the sign of Christians, all too many people want to keep others in line using fear tactics, making people afraid of the Great Tribulation or afraid of the lake of fire, and therefore more likely to put up with what is unacceptable than challenge it using an accurate knowledge of the Bible. Let us therefore examine why two resurrections is better (and more biblical) than three.
For one, the Bible itself only clearly details two resurrections. The judgment to the lake of fire is the latter part of the second resurrection in the way the Bible describes it, with part of the people in the second resurrection going to eternal life, and others who refuse to repent and honor God facing eternal judgment for that refusal. If someone would prefer to be destroyed rather than to worship God, they will receive their wish, even though God is not willing that any should perish but that all should find eternal life (1 Timothy 2:4). Passages like Hebrews 6:4-6 suggest that those who have tasted the heavenly gift and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit and have tasted the good word of God and the power of the age to come cannot repent again. That said, no one in this life would have tasted the power of the age to come, but would simply be in the situation of lacking the faith and courage to endure to the end—and God is merciful and just to forgive. I have seen many people leave organizations, for political reasons, or because of doubtful questions of doctrine, or because they were convinced that what they had believed before was wrong, or because of personal conflicts, but I have not seen anyone who was totally hardened in rebellion against God. I have seen merely sincerely deceived or frustrated people, and I do not see anything worthy of eternal judgment in those sorts of things that we are all prey to so easily.
Anything that reduces the fear of people when it comes to their lives is a good thing. We need to have a proper respect and honor of God and others, but that honor should not be tainted by fear and terror. We all know that perfect love casts out fear, but perfect fear casts out love as well. We do not want anyone to be loyal simply out of fear, but rather if we are truly the people of God we will want to develop our own capacity of love and that of others around us. Those things that lead to fear ought to be avoided as much as possible—a focus on the justice of God need not discourage us from pointing out God’s love and mercy as well, and his clear preference to be merciful rather than being harsh. Any time we feel the need to accentuate the harshness of God and avoid pointing out the love and mercy of God, we ought to ponder our own motives for doing so, and wonder if our motive is really for serving for the glory of God or to boost our own power and feelings of superiority over others, which we are not supposed to indulge in as servant-leaders in the image of Jesus Christ (Matthew 20:25-28), who did not come to lord it over others but came to sacrifice His life so that we might enter into God’s kingdom as a result of having our sins forgiven and covered with His blood.
Resurrections And Authority
How does the doctrine of the resurrections deal with authority? More than might be readily understood. Everyone understands intellectually that Christian leaders are called to be servant leaders and model their behavior after our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and that the early disciples did not do this so well, automatically modeling their behavior after the authoritarian, satanic, hierarchical top-down governments of the Gentile governments of their day (see Matthew 20:20-28). Of course, we as Christians today do not do any better than the disciples old, mostly because like they did we too tend to model our behavior after the leadership models around us, and most of those models are not godly in nature. There are at least two important connections between resurrections and the issue of authority. The first is in the responsibility of ordinary members, and the second is in the identity of that which is destroyed in the lake of fire. Both of these are worthy of comment.
We have already seen in Revelation 20 that in two locations, both of the locations where the first and second resurrections are discussed, especially in Revelation 20:4-6, the righteous and resurrected saints are given the power to judge the dead and sit on thrones as the royal priests of God. This future power in the Great White Throne Judgment is meant by God to have consequences in this life in the normal behavior of the Church of God . As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8: “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren!”
Clearly nothing has changed in the last two thousand years. Since believers are going to judge the whole world (as Revelation 20 states) as well as rebellious demons (more on that later), we need to develop our wisdom and our capacity to judge disputes fairly here and now. All too often, as organizations adopt the satanic authoritarian top-down hierarchical models of the Gentile world, ordinary members are never allowed, much less commanded and encouraged, to develop their capacity in resolving disputes and exercising their God-given capacity for reason out of fear that the members would no longer need the ordained ministry. And when leaders fear the capacity of their members to develop their God-given talents and capabilities, they seek to overcome their own insecurities and preserve their own power by causing their members to fear for their own eternal salvation if they step out of the narrowly constructed territory allowed to them by their leaders. On the other hand, a consistent view of the resurrections, and the role of resurrected saints in them, leads to a firm rejection of authoritarian ministers and their corrupt and satanic ways.
Resurrections And Demonology
We have already commented that there are implications of the doctrine of the resurrections to the spirit realm. This has implications to authority as well. Revelation 20:11-15 already stated that death and the grave would be cast into the lake of fire, even though they are not beings, utterly destroyed because there will be no death in the new heavens and new earth that follow the Great White Throne Judgment. Revelation 20:10 says that the devil and false prophet and beast will be put in the lake of fire as well. Given the impersonal nature of the destruction of death and the grave being destroyed, and the implication that the false prophet and beast were destroyed in the “lake of fire” at the beginning of the millennial reign of Jesus Christ, we should be open to an understanding that the beast and false prophet may not necessarily refer to the people who hold those offices at Christ’s return, but in systems of corrupt and satanic civil and religious government that have long held sway over the earth. After all, Daniel 2:44-45 showed that with the return of Jesus Christ the Gentile system of domination would no longer exist in the world, and the same is true of the corrupt and satanic religious systems that have dominated the world’s religious practice. And if we believe that the people who hold those offices are merely people who have been deceived by Satan like the rest of the world, doing the best they know how to do (which is generally not very good), then why would they not have a chance for repentance and salvation when they are given knowledge and a fair chance at salvation. And if the people who hold those offices have the opportunity for salvation but the return of Jesus Christ destroys those wicked offices of satanic authoritarian tyranny once and for all, that has clear implications.
For one, it would appear that only Satan among beings has a certain destruction (see Revelation 20:10, Ezekiel 28:17-19), and that every other being, both human and demonic, could then have an opportunity to repent. The fact that the judgment of the world in 1 Corinthians 6 is described in the same terms as the judgment of the (rebellious) angels suggests that the judgment includes a genuine chance for repentance and a restoration and reconciliation to all rebellious beings. If this is so, then it would offer a chance to refute the ultimate strategy of fear-induced obedience in the demonic realm from Satan himself. And this would suggest that the return of Jesus Christ would destroy one of the two faces of Satan’s behavior, the face of tyranny towards other beings through the possession of the institutions of authority in governments, churches, companies, and families, and other institutions that show Satan’s tendency toward authoritarian top-down rule based on fear rather than love. Satan’s rebellion against God (see Revelation 20:7-10) would then show the face of rebellion towards authority, the face of anarchy and chaos rather than tyranny. This would suggest that no authoritarian top-down rule based on fear and terror will survive into the millennial rule of Jesus Christ, which has major implications for our own present institutions and the way that they are governed here and now. Whether these implications are welcome or unwelcome depends in large part on whether we are imitating Christ or imitating Satan.
Today we have briefly explored the doctrine of resurrections and its implications on other aspects of doctrine and practice. The belief in a doctrine of resurrections that includes all humanity (and all of the demonic realm apart from Satan) directly eliminates a major source of fear that preserves corrupt authoritarian top-down structures in both human and demonic institutions of authority. A consistent understanding of the role of members in the world to come helps encourage members to develop their God-given capacity for reason and discernment in solving conflicts and problems here and now within our human institutions, as handling responsibilities here and now better equips us to handle those responsibilities in the world to come. A firm rejection of authoritarian tyranny along with an understanding of the possibility of repentance for all rebellious beings allows us to steadfastly oppose satanic institutions while retaining love and mercy for the deceived beings who hold offices, allowing us to hate the sin of oppression while loving the sinner who may sin against us in ignorance and fear at the threats of the unpleasant truths we believe and speak and write. We also find out that, as in so many other areas of life, a belief of doctrine in one area often has serious consequences for other doctrines that may at first seem unrelated, showing how our beliefs and practices are closely interconnected.