Some years ago I remember being very struck by Paul’s admission in Philippians 3 that he hadn’t yet attained to the resurrection from the dead:
” I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal,but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”
My first problem is with the idea of attaining to the resurrection of the dead. I can understand attaining a better place in heaven or a greater closeness to God. However, surely everyone is resurrected? There is no choice there right? And being resurrected has nothing to do with attaining anything, it is going to happen regardless of what you have attained:
“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28,29)
Paul himself argues very strongly that there will be a resurrection in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15) and there is no mention of having to attain to it there:
“12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. …..
29Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?31I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,
“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”
My second problem was with Paul saying that he hadn’t yet attained to it. If Paul hadn’t attained to the resurrection from the dead after planting churches and being called an apostle of Jesus Christ, what hope is there for the rest of us?
So I went digging a bit deeper and discovered that the word Paul uses for resurrection in Philippians 3:11 is different from when it is used elsewhere in the NT. There is a preposition tacked onto the front of the word used for resurrection which means “out of” i.e. ανάστασις is the Greek word for resurrection used elsewhere in the bible but in this case it has the preposition ἐξ prepended to it: ἐξανάστασις. Greek scholars (I’m not one) will tell you not to read too much into this but I don’t think it is unreasonable to translate it as “resurrection out from among the dead”.
Of course, the most explicit reference to a first and subsequent resurrection is to be found in Revelation 20:
4I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They 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 a thousand years. 5(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
I am not sure about the beheading bit but the rest of it seems clear enough. When you add this to the promise to the overcomer in Rev. 2:11b: “He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.” I think it is easy enough to see the connection. It sure is hard to interpret it in another way. What possible resurrection could Paul not have attained to if not this one? Later in 2 Timothy 4:8, near the end of his life, he seems assured of having reached it. He also talks in that verse of those who love His appearing attaining to the same crown.
There are other verses that make sense in the context of two resurrections. Paul says in 1 Cor. 6:
Judging the world would seem very difficult if the judges are involved in the same judgement day in the same way as those being judged! Have a look at Rev. 20:4 above again.
So I believe it is clear that the saints that Paul refers to are the same as the overcomers that John refers to in Revelation. At the judgement of the dead described in Revelation 20:11 – 15 these are the judges along with Christ the supreme judge who witness to the works of those being judged. Matthew 25:31-46 refers to the same judgement. I believe that when Jesus says to the sheep and goats: “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren” that the brethren he is referring to are sitting on either side (or in front) of Him and are the judges also.
Let’s imagine the Judgement Day for a minute. Here are billions of people being judged by, perhaps, millions of saints in the presence of the Supreme Judge. Everyone is coming up to be separated into sheep and goats. Ahead of you in the line you see people who you think should go to heaven but they end up in the lake of fire and others who you think should be in the lake of fire end up in heaven. You weren’t faithful to death so you lost that assurance that comes from being in vital contact with the Father and you find yourself naked and confused and not knowing if you are a sheep or a goat. The terror of that is to taste of the second death.
There are other verses that make sense in the context of a first and second resurrection:
“…others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection.” Hebrews 11:35b
And the curious case of those who said that the resurrection was past even though they were obviously there to say it:
“Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.” (2 Timothy 2:17b, 18)
The resurrection that could have already taken place could be the first one. Perhaps they were trying to get at Paul’s followers by pointing out that the first resurrection had already happened and Paul wasn’t in it.
Of course none of this is main stream, evangelical Christian theology and doubtless there are people who have studied the Scriptures all their lives as a full time profession who could make mincemeat of my arguments. But I’ve been saying these things to many people for over 15 years now and so far no one has come up with a better explanation of these verses.
If you who have read this far can come up with some good counter interpretations of these verses then please let me know them. Otherwise, I would say: Go for the first resurrection. It mightn’t be easy but it will certainly be worthwhile.