Tim Patrick continues TGCA’s Apostles’ Creed series …
The penultimate clause of the Apostles’ Creed forms a theological pair with the earlier line, ‘on the third day he rose again’. One speaks of what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion and burial, and the enduring change to his human nature. The other speaks of the future that awaits all who have died, and all who will die, before the return of Jesus. Theologians call the latter the General Resurrection of all people, to distinguish it from the singular resurrection of Christ.
Jesus’ resurrection is not a discrete event, but the beginning of a mass resurrection of the dead.
While there is some utility in making the straightforward distinction between Christ’s resurrection and the General Resurrection, it is far better to understand them as being part of a single event spread out over time. Certainly, this is the idea captured in the language of ‘first fruits’ which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 15:20 when discussing the resurrection of Jesus. He says:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. (NRSV text throughout)
For the old covenant people of God, there was a ritual of first fruits mandated in the Law at Leviticus 23:9-14 (a text that is full of gospel allusions). The ritual there was to help the people celebrate a harvest, acknowledging it as a great blessing from God. It began with the harvesters bringing the first sheaf of cut grain stalks to the priest who would raise it up before the Lord. At this moment, the sheaf represented the entire harvest; the point was not only to give thanks for the small bundle, but for a much larger crop that was soon to be cut and brought in.
Similarly, when Paul calls the risen Jesus the ‘first fruits of those who have died,’ he wants his audience to understand and celebrate the fact that Jesus’ resurrection is not a discrete event, but the beginning of a mass resurrection of the dead. He makes this perfectly clear in 1 Corinthians 15:21–23:
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
Two key lessons flow out of this. The first is that the resurrection of all people is guaranteed; in fact, while it will not be complete until Christ returns, it has already begun. There is therefore, no need to fear that God does not have a plan for us after our deaths because God has already started work on his new phase for humanity with his new Adam (c.f. 1 Corinthians 15:45). Just as the entire human race followed the first Adam into mortal life, so too will all humanity follow the second Adam into resurrection life. Moreover, this is part of God’s even greater plan to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). The end has begun and we will be included in it as part of the General Resurrection.
Just as was the case for Christ, so too believers will rise from death radically transformed.
The second lesson is that each of us in our individual resurrections will be like Jesus in his resurrection. The great harvest is of the same kind of grain as the first fruits. In Philippians 3:21, Paul says that ‘[Christ] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’. Just, as we saw, was the case for Christ in an earlier post, so too believers will rise from death radically transformed. Our bodies will be fully-spiritual, even as they remain fully-physical. It is both amazing and humbling to realise that in the end, we will be made like the one we follow in our bodies as well as our focus and morality (cf. 1 John 3:2).
The Comfort of Christ’s Life in Ours
Of course, for Christians facing real physical persecution or violence, or for those enduring sickness, infirmity or disability, hunger or homelessness, there is additional comfort. Whatever happens to our bodies in this life, they will be more than restored in the next. If any one of Christ’s people is beaten, raped, tortured or even killed, the damage to their bodies will not be permanent.
For believers with cancer, paralysis, dementia, or even those infected with dangerous viruses, there is a new and restored life—foreshadowed in the healings of the Bible—that will be shared with all who believe on the day of resurrection.
Those who go without their basic meals and any stable place to call home can know that God will nourish them after this life (eg. Luke 16:19–25) and that their saviour too did not always have a place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20) but now he prepares a place for believers in his Father’s house (John 14:2).
We must not make light of the terrors, afflictions and deprivations that far too many suffer today. But understanding Jesus’ resurrection and its significance for the rest of us is vital if we are to persevere faithfully through the many and varied trials of life.
The Quick and the Dead
Two final questions need to be addressed when considering the General Resurrection:
- What about those who are not believers? and,
- What about those who will be alive when Jesus returns?
There are several texts in the Bible which indicate that both believers and unbelievers will be resurrected: Daniel 12:2, John 5:28–29, Acts 24:15 and Revelation 20:11–15. However, this does not mean that their eternal fate will be the same. While the faithful are resurrected in order that they might spend eternity with Jesus and the Father in the New Creation as forgiven and redeemed image-bearers, those who refuse to believe are resurrected in order that judgement can be declared over them. Indeed, all must face judgement (Hebrews 9:27) and death will not provide an escape from it for the wicked.
Without any judgement, there can be no justice, and God’s character and final plans require the bringing of pure and complete justice.
This is essential if God’s justice is to be delivered. Without any judgement, there can be no justice, and God’s character and final plans require the bringing of pure and complete justice. So unbelievers will be raised along with believers, although their experiences will be very different. Whether, and how, unbelievers will be transformed in their resurrection is not made clear to us in the Scriptures.
As for Christians who are still alive when Jesus comes back: while they will not be resurrected (because they are not all going to drop dead as Jesus returns), they will nonetheless undergo the same instantaneous physical transformation that occurs as part of resurrection, resulting in them having the same imperishable, immortal—glorified—bodies as Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). This is because being made a new creation is fundamental to participating in the New Creation, and the living will not miss out on this any more than the dead (c.f. 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
Fullness of Hope
Belief in the General Resurrection is far bigger than an expectation of more of the same after we die. It is the fullness of the glorious Christian hope. While Jesus’ death on the cross secures our forgiveness and reconciliation with the Father, the resurrection is what we are reconciled for: a life with Jesus; being like Jesus; glorifying the Father as participants of his eternal New Creation. Far more than a closing nicety of the Creed, this is our final hope and the deep longing of our hearts, minds and souls.