When will the resurrection occur?
The Bible speaks about the topic of resurrection many times throughout both the Old and New Testaments. In general, the Bible speaks of two types of resurrection:
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1. The resurrection of the just
2. The resurrection of the unjust
Of these, the Old Testament says, "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).
Jesus also referred to the two types of resurrection when He said: "Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29).
Paul also speaks about both types of resurrection when he said: "But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust" (Acts 24:14-15).
In regard to the question of when these resurrections will occur, the Bible states that the resurrection of the just will occur first, followed by the resurrection of the unjust.
As to the resurrection of the just, scripture indicates that it will occur in three stages and mirror how harvests were conducted in Old Testament times. During those days, there would be a harvest of the first fruits, followed by the general harvest, and then a last harvest of what was called the "gleanings."
The first fruits harvest was one that served as a "proving" harvest. If the first fruits were good, it was a reflection that all the harvest would be good. But if the first fruits were poor, it was an indicator that the entire crop would be bad.
Jesus' resurrection was the first fruits resurrection and serves to showcase the fact that all believers who follow after Him are guaranteed to have a glorified, sinless body and life just like His. Of this fact, Paul says: "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20). Regarding the order of resurrection, Paul also says: "But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:23).
The second resurrection – the general harvest or resurrection – occurs, as Paul said, when Christ comes for His Church at the time of what is called the rapture (the catching away): "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Paul also refers to this resurrection a second time in his first letter to the Corinthians where he states, "I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:50-53).
The last resurrection of the just (the "gleanings") happens at the start of Christ's one thousand year reign on the earth and is spoken about in the book of Revelation: "Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with 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. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years" (Revelation 20:4-6). Notice how the writer of Revelation refers to the resurrection of the just as the "first resurrection."
Finally, the resurrection of the unjust will occur at the end of Christ's thousand-year reign and will only concern unbelievers: "Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:11-15).
There will be two types of resurrection – one for believers and one for unbelievers – with the resurrection of the just involving three separate resurrections. The resurrection of the just comes first followed by the resurrection of the unjust.
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