Louis Berkhof

Systematic Theology:

III. The Resurrection of the Dead

The discussion of the second advent of Christ naturally leads on to a consideration of its concomitants. Foremost among these is the resurrection of the dead or, as it is sometimes called, "the resurrection of the flesh."


In the days of Jesus there was a difference of opinion among the Jews respecting the resurrection. While the Pharisees believed in it, the Sadducees did not, Mat_22:23; Act_23:8. When Paul spoke of it at Athens, he met with mockery, Act_17:32. Some of the Corinthians denied it, 1Co_15:1-58, and Hymenæus and Phyletus, regarding it as something purely spiritual, asserted that it was already a matter of history, 2Ti_2:18. Celsus, one of the earliest opponents of Christianity, made especially this doctrine the butt of ridicule; and the Gnostics, who regarded matter as inherently evil, naturally rejected it. Origen defended the doctrine over against the Gnostics and Celsus, but yet did not believe that the very body which was deposited in the grave would be raised up. He described the body of the resurrection as a new, refined, and spiritualized body. While some of the early Christian Fathers shared his view, the majority of them stressed the identity of the present body and the body of the resurrection. The Church already in the Apostolic Confession expressed its belief in the resurrection of the flesh (sarkos). Augustine was at first inclined to agree with Origen, but later on adopted the prevalent view, though he did not deem it necessary to believe that the present differences of size and stature would continue in the life to come. Jerome insisted strongly on the identity of the present and the future body. The East, represented by such men as the two Gregories, Chrysostom, and John of Damascus, manifested a tendency to adopt a more spiritual view of the resurrection than the West. Those who believed in a coming millennium spoke of a double resurrection, that of the righteous at the beginning, and that of the wicked at the end of the millennial reign. During the Middle Ages the Scholastics speculated a great deal about the body of the resurrection, but their speculations are mostly fanciful and of little value. Thomas Aquinas especially seemed to have special information about the nature of the resurrection body, and about the order and manner of the resurrection. The theologians of the period of the Reformation were generally agreed that the body of the resurrection would be identical with the present body. All the great Confessions of the Church represent the general resurrection as simultaneous with the second coming of Christ, the final judgment and the end of the world. They do not separate any of these events, such as the resurrection of the righteous and that of the wicked, and the coming of Christ and the end of the world, by a period of a thousand years. The Premillenarians, on the other hand, insist on such a separation. Under the influence of Rationalism and with the advance of the physical sciences some of the difficulties with which the doctrine of the resurrection is burdened were accentuated, and as a result modern religious liberalism denies the resurrection of the flesh, and explains the Scriptural representations of it as a figurative representation of the idea that the full human personality will continue to exist after death.


1. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT. It is sometimes said that the Old Testament knowns of no resurrection of the dead, or knows of it only in its latest books. The opinion is rather common that Israel borrowed its belief in the resurrection from the Persians. Says Mackintosh: "Strong evidence exists for the hypothesis that the idea of the resurrection entered the Hebrew mind from Persia."27 Brown speaks in a somewhat similar vein: "The doctrine of individual resurrection first appears in Israel after the exile, and may have been due to Persian influence."28 Salmond also mentions this view, but claims that it is not sufficiently warranted. Says he: "The Old Testament doctrine of God is of itself enough to explain the entire history of the Old Testament conception of a future life."29 De Bondt comes to the conclusion that there is not a single people among those with whom Israel came in contact, which had a doctrine of the resurrection that might have served as a pattern for the representation of it that was current among Israel; and that the faith in the resurrection which finds expression in the Old Testament does not find its basis in the religions of the Gentiles, but in the revelation of Israel's God.30 It is true that we find no clear statements respecting the resurrection of the dead before the time of the prophets, though Jesus found that it was already implied in Exo_3:6; cf. Mat_22:29-32, and the writer of Hebrews intimates that even the patriarchs looked forward to the resurrection of the dead, Heb_11:10; Heb_11:13-16; Heb_11:19. Certainly evidences are not wanting that there was a belief in the resurrection long before the exile. It is implied in the passages that speak of a deliverance from sheol, Psa_49:15; Psa_73:24-25; Pro_23:14. It finds expression in the famous statement of Job_19:25-27. Moreover, it is very clearly taught in Isa_26:19 (a late passage, according to the critics), and in Dan_12:2, and is probably implied also in Eze_37:1-14.

2. IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. As might be expected, the New Testament has more to say on the resurrection of the dead than the Old, because it brings the climax of God's revelation on this point in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Over against the denial of the Sadducees, Jesus argues the resurrection of the dead from the Old Testament, Mat_22:23-33, and parallels, cf. Exo_3:6. Moreover, He teaches that great truth very clearly in Joh_5:25-29; Joh_6:39-40; Joh_6:44; Joh_6:54; Joh_11:24-25; Joh_14:3; Joh_17:24. The classical passage of the New Testament for the doctrine of the resurrection is 1Co_15:1-58. Other important passages are: 1Th_4:13-16; 2Co_5:1-10; Rev_20:4-6 (of dubious interpretation), and Rev_20:13.


1. IT IS A WORK OF THE TRIUNE GOD. The resurrection is a work of the triune God. In some cases we are simply told that God raises the dead, no person being specified, Mat_22:29; 2Co_1:9. More particularly, however, the work of the resurrection is ascribed to the Son, Joh_5:21; Joh_5:25; Joh_5:28-29; Joh_6:38-40; Joh_6:44; Joh_6:54; 1Th_4:16. Indirectly, it is also designated as a work of the Holy Spirit, Rom_8:11.

2. IT IS A PHYSICAL OR BODILY RESURRECTION. There were some in the days of Paul who regarded the resurrection as spiritual, 2Ti_2:18. And there are many in the present day who believe only in a spiritual resurrection. But the Bible is very explicit in teaching the resurrection of the body. Christ is called the "firstfruits" of the resurrection, 1Co_15:20; 1Co_15:23, and "the firstborn of the dead," Col_1:18; Rev_1:5. This implies that the resurrection of the people of God will be like that of their heavenly Lord. His resurrection was a bodily resurrection, and theirs will be of the same kind. Moreover, the redemption wrought by Christ is also said to include the body, Rom_8:23; 1Co_6:13-20. In Rom_8:11 we are told explicitly that God through His Spirit will raise up our mortal bodies. And it is clearly the body that is prominently before the mind of the apostle in 1Co_15:1-58, cf. especially 1Co_15:35-49. According to Scripture there will be a resurrection of the body, that is, not an entirely new creation, but a body that will be in a fundamental sense identical with the present body. God will not create a new body for every man, but will raise up the very body that was deposited in the earth. This cannot only be inferred from the term "resurrection," but is clearly stated in Rom_8:11; 1Co_15:53, and is further implied in the figure of the seed sown in the earth, which the apostle employs in 1Co_15:36-38. Moreover, Christ, the firstfruits of the resurrection, conclusively proved the identity of His body to His disciples. At the same time Scripture makes it perfectly evident that the body will be greatly changed. Christ's body was not yet fully glorified during the period of transition between the resurrection and the ascension; yet it had already undergone a remarkable change. Paul refers to the change that will take place, when he says that in sowing a seed we do not sow the body that shall be; we do not intend to pick the same seed out of the ground. Yet we do expect to reap something that is in a fundamental sense identical with the seed deposited in the earth. While there is a certain identity between the seed sown and the seeds that develop out of it, yet there is also a remarkable difference. We shall be changed, says the apostle, "for this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." The body "is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body." Change is not inconsistent with the retention of identity. We are told that even now every particle in our bodies changes every seven years, but through it all the body retains its identity. There will be a certain physical connection between the old body and the new, but the nature of this connection is not revealed. Some theologians speak of a remaining germ from which the new body develops; others say that the organizing principle of the body remains. Origen had something of that kind in mind; so did Kuyper and Milligan. If we bear all this in mind, the old objection against the doctrine of the resurrection, namely, that it is impossible that a body could be raised up, consisting of the same particles that constituted it at death, since these particles pass into other forms of existence and perhaps into hundreds of other bodies, loses its force completely.

3. IT IS A RESURRECTION OF BOTH THE RIGHTEOUS AND THE WICKED. According to Josephus the Pharisees denied the resurrection of the wicked.31 The doctrine of annihilationism and that of conditional immortality, both of which, at least in some of their forms, deny the resurrection of the ungodly and teach their annihilation, embraced by many theologians, has also found favor in such sects as Adventism and Millennial Dawnism. They believe in the total extinction of the wicked. The assertion is sometimes made that Scripture does not teach the resurrection of the wicked, but this is clearly erroneous, Dan_12:2; Joh_5:28-29; Act_24:15; Rev_20:13-15. At the same time it must be admitted that their resurrection does not stand out prominently in Scripture. The soteriological aspect of the resurrection is clearly in the foreground, and this pertains to the righteous only. They, in distinction from the wicked, are the ones that profit by the resurrection.

4. IT IS A RESURRECTION OF UNEQUAL IMPORT FOR THE JUST AND THE UNJUST. Breckenridge quotes 1Co_15:22 to prove that the resurrection of both saints and sinners was purchased by Christ. But it can hardly be denied that the second "all" in that passage is general only in the sense of "all who are in Christ." The resurrection is represented there as resulting from a vital union with Christ. But, surely, only believers stand in such a living relation to Him. The resurrection of the wicked cannot be regarded as a blessing merited by the mediatorial work of Christ, though it is connected with this indirectly. It is a necessary result of postponing the execution of the sentence of death on man, which made the work of redemption possible. The postponement resulted in the comparative separation of temporal and eternal death, and in the existence of an intermediate state. Under these circumstances it becomes necessary to raise the wicked from the dead, in order that death in its widest extent and in all its weight might be imposed on them. Their resurrection is not an act of redemption, but of sovereign justice, on the part of God. The resurrection of the just and the unjust have this in common, that in both bodies and souls are reunited. But in the case of the former this results in perfect life, while in the case of the latter it issues in the extreme penalty of death, Joh_5:28-29.


1. THE PREMILLENNIAL VIEW RESPECTING THE TIME OF THE RESURRECTION. It is the common opinion among Premillenarians that the resurrection of the saints will be separated by a thousand years from that of the wicked. They almost seem to regard it as an axiomatic truth that these two classes cannot possibly arise at the same time. And not only that, but the type of Premillennialism which is now dominant, with its theory of a twofold second coming of Christ, feels the need of positing a third resurrection. All the saints of former dispensations and of the present dispensation are raised up at the parousia or the coming of the Lord. Those still alive at that time are changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. But in the seven years that follow the parousia many other saints die, especially in the great tribulation. These must also be raised up, and their resurrection will occur at the revelation of the day of the Lord. seven years after the parousia. But even at this point Premillenarians cannot very well stop. Since the resurrection at the end of the world is reserved for the wicked, there must be another resurrection of the saints who die during the millennium, which precedes that of the wicked, for the two cannot be raised up at the same time.

2. SCRIPTURAL INDICATIONS AS TO THE TIME OF THE RESURRECTION. According to Scripture the resurrection of the dead coincides with the parousia, with the revelation or the day of the Lord, and with the end of the world, and will immediately precede the general and final judgment. It certainly does not favor the premillennial distinctions with respect to this doctrine. In several places it represents the resurrection of the righteous and that of the wicked as contemporaneous, Dan_12:2; Joh_5:28-29; Act_24:15; Rev_20:13-15. All of these passages speak of the resurrection as a single event and do not contain the slightest indication that the resurrection of the righteous and that of the wicked will be separated by a period of a thousand years. But this is not all that can be said in favor of the idea that the two coincide. In Joh_5:21-29 Jesus combines the thought of the resurrection, including the resurrection of the righteous, with the thought of the judgment, including the judgment of the wicked. Moreover, 2Th_1:7-10 clearly represents the parousia (2Th_1:10), the revelation (2Th_1:7), and the judgment of the wicked (2Th_1:8-9) as coinciding. If that is not the case, language would seem to have lost its meaning. Furthermore, the resurrection of believers is directly connected with the second coming of the Lord in 1Co_15:23; Php_3:20-21; and 1Th_4:16, but it is also represented as occurring at the end of the world, Joh_6:39-40; Joh_6:44; Joh_6:54 or at the last day. That means that believers are raised up at the last day, and that the last day is also the day of the coming of the Lord. Their resurrection does not precede the end by a period of a thousand years. Happily, there are several Premillenarians who do not accept the theory of a threefold resurrection, but who nevertheless cling to the doctrine of a double resurrection.


a. Great emphasis is placed on the fact that Scripture, while speaking in general of the resurrection ton nekron that is, "of the dead," repeatedly refers to the resurrection of believers as a resurrection ek nekron that is, "out of the dead." Premillenarians render this expression, "from among the dead," so that it would imply that many dead still remain in the grave. Lightfoot also asserts that this expression refers to the resurrection of believers, but Kennedy says, "There is absolutely no evidence for this definite assertion." This is also the conclusion to which Dr. Vos comes after a careful study of the relevant passages. In general it may be said that the assumption that the expression he anastasis ek nekron should be rendered "the resurrection from among the dead," is entirely gratuitous. The standard lexicons know nothing of such a rendering; and Cremer-Koegel interprets the expression to mean "from the state of the dead," and this would seem to be the most natural interpretation. It should be noted that Paul uses the terms interchangeably in 1Co_15:1-58. Though speaking of the resurrection of believers only, he evidently does not seek to stress the fact that this is of a specific character, for he uses the more general term repeatedly, 1Co_15:12-13, 1Co_15:21, 1Co_15:42, 32

b. Premillenarians also appeal to certain specific expressions, such as "a better resurrection," Heb_11:35, "the resurrection of life," Joh_5:29, "the resurrection of the just," Luk_14:14, and "the resurrection of the dead in Christ," 1Th_4:16, — all of which refer to the resurrection of believers only. These expressions seem to set that resurrection off as something apart. But these passages merely prove that the Bible distinguishes the resurrection of the righteous from that of the wicked and afford no proof whatsoever that there will be two resurrections, separated from each other by a period of a thousand years. The resurrection of the people of God differs from that of unbelievers in its moving principle, in its essential nature, and in its final issue, and can therefore very well be represented as something distinctive and to be desired far above the resurrection of the wicked. The former does, and the latter does not, deliver men from the power of death. In spite of their resurrection unbelievers remain in the state of death.

c. One of the principal proof passages of the Premillenarians for a double resurrection is found in 1Co_15:22-24 : "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ's, at His coming. Then cometh the end, when He shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father." In this passage they find three stages of the resurrection indicated, namely, (1) the resurrection of Christ; (2) the resurrection of believers; and (3) the end (as they interpret it) of the resurrection, that is, the resurrection of the wicked. Silver puts it rather picturesquely: "In the resurrection Christ and many saints who rise in and around Jerusalem appear as the first band. More than 1900 years afterwards 'they that are Christ's, at His coming' appear as the second band. 'Then,' but not immediately, 'cometh the end' (1Co_15:24), the last great body like a band of forlorn creatures ending the procession."33 It will be noted that the idea "not immediately" is carried into the text. The argument is that because epeita (then) in 1Co_15:23 refers to a time at least 1900 years later, the word eita (then) in 1Co_15:24 refers to a time 1000 years later. But this is a mere assumption without any proof. The words epeita and eita do indeed mean the same thing, but neither one of them necessarily implies the idea of a long intervening period. Notice the use of epeita in Luk_16:7 and Jas_4:14, and that of eita in Mar_8:25; Joh_13:5; Joh_19:27; Joh_20:27. Both words can be used for that which will immediately occur and for that which will occur only after some time, so that it is a pure assumption that the resurrection of believers will be separated by a long period of time from the end. Another gratuitous assumption is that "the end" means "the end of the resurrection." According to the analogy of Scripture it points to the end of the world, the consummation, the time when Christ will deliver up the kingdom to the Father and will have put all enemies under His feet. This is the view adopted by such commentators as Alford, Godet, Hodge, Bachmann, Findley, Robertson and Plummer, and Edwards.34

d. Another passage to which the Premillenarians appeal is 1Th_4:16, "For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first." From this they infer that those who did not die in Christ will be raised up at a later date. But it is perfectly clear that this is not the antithesis which the apostle has in mind. The statement following is not, "Then the dead who are not in Christ shall arise," but, "Then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." This is frankly admitted by Biederwolf.35 Both in this passage and in the preceding one Paul is speaking of the resurrection of believers only; that of the wicked is not in his purview at all.

e. The most important passage to which the Premillenarians refer is Rev_20:4-6 :... "and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished. This is the first resurrection." Here Rev_20:5-6 make mention of a first resurrection, and this, it is said, implies that there will be a second. But the supposition that the writer is here speaking of a bodily resurrection is extremely dubious. The scene in the Rev_20:4-6 is evidently laid, not on earth, but in heaven. And the terms employed are not suggestive of a bodily resurrection. The seer does not speak of persons or bodies that were raised up, but of souls which "lived" and "reigned." And he calls their living and reigning with Christ "the first resurrection." Dr. Vos suggests that the words, " This (emphatic) is the first resurrection," may even be "a pointed disavowal of a more realistic (chiliastic) interpretation of the same phrase."36 In all probability the expression refers to the entrance of the souls of the saints upon the glorious state of life with Christ at death. The absence of the idea of a double resurrection may well make us hesitate to affirm its presence in this obscure passage of a book so full of symbolism as the Revelation of John. Wherever the Bible mentions the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked together, as in Dan_12:2; Joh_5:28-29; Act_24:15, it does not contain the slightest hint that the two are to be separated by a thousand years. On the other hand it does teach that the resurrection will take place at the last day, and will at once be followed by the last judgment, Mat_25:31-32; Joh_5:27-29; Joh_6:39-40; Joh_6:44; Joh_6:54; Joh_11:24; Rev_20:11-15.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: Does the Apostolic Confession speak of the resurrection of the body, or of the resurrection of the flesh? How do you account for the change from the one to the other? Do not all Premillenarians have to posit another resurrection of the righteous in addition to those that occur at the parousia and at the revelation? How do Premillenarians construe even Dan_12:2 into an argument for a double resurrection? How do they find an argument for it in Php_3:11? What is the principal argument of modern liberals against the doctrine of a physical resurrection? What does Paul mean, when he speaks of the resurrection body as a soma pneumatikon, 1Co_15:44?

LITERATURE: Bavinck,; Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 755-758, 770-777; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Consummatione Saeculi, pp. 262-279; Vos, Geref. Dogm. V. Eschatologie, pp. 14-22; ibid. The Pauline Eschatology, pp. 136-225; Hodge, Syst. Theol. III, pp. 837-844; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 829-841; Shedd. Dogm. Theol. pp. 641-658; Valentine, Chr. Theol. II, pp. 414-420; Dahle, Life After Death, pp. 358-368, 398-418; Hovey, Eschatology, pp. 23-78; Mackintosh, Immortality and the Future, pp. 164-179; Snowden, The Coming of the Lord, pp. 172-191; Salmond, The Chr. Doct. of Immortality, pp. 262-272, 437-459; Kennedy, St. Paul's Conceptions of the Last Things, pp. 222-281; Kliefoth, Eschatologie pp. 248-275; Brown, The Chr. Hope, pp. 89-108; Milligan. The Resurrection of the Dead, pp. 61-77.