by Erick Blore, M.A.R., M.S. Ed
The view suggested in this article is not entirely new, some of it was taught before by James Stuart Russell; however, there was one element of Russell’s system that kept his view from receiving wide-spread acceptance: a 70 A.D. resurrection. To be sure, full-preterism teaches a 70 A.D. resurrection, but it is the “second resurrection” and not “fleshly.” Also, Amillennialism teaches a fist century “first resurrection,” but it too is not “fleshly” and begins at the first coming of Christ. To my knowledge, no one today sees validity in a 70 A.D. fleshly first resurrection of the Church because the very idea sounds preposterous…
And it is, given Russell’s conception and defense of it. However, we will demonstrate why a first century fleshly first resurrection is not only valid, but the very thing needed to make sense out of the millennium and maintain a general “fleshly” resurrection to come, the last judgment, and the end of the world, all of which were equally a part of Russell’s system. If that sounds like a contradiction, stay tuned. This article will present a new take on a somewhat old view (Russell’s preterist-premillennialism) in order to defend an even older view: Amillennialism.
Why the title? Playing off of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” full-preterists authored a “9.5 Theses” outlining the basics of their view. And so, being in part an answer to full-preterism, it seemed apropos. But, besides being a lame attempt at humor, the subtle reference to “laborers” or “working hours” does have deeper significance. But, first let us briefly set the historical and theological context for this thesis.
James Stuart Russell
Before R.C. Sproul launched James Stuart Russell to relative fame with his book, The Last Days According to Jesus, Russell was virtually unknown to most Christians. Like C.H. Spurgeon before him, Sproul had many positive things to say about Russell, but questioned whether he had gone too far, particularly in the area of the resurrection. Full-preterists say no, while historic-preterists say yes. The main difference between the two groups is that preterists typically see 70A.D. as “a” coming of the Lord, while full-preterists see it as “the” coming.
Russell is perhaps the only theologian of note that maintained “the” parousia occurred in 70A.D. and yet managed to avoid the type of scorn full-preterists have received. In fact, many admired his work, and though apprehensive about some of his speculations, saw it as profitable for edification. Of course, there are those who would disagree with Spurgeon and Sproul, but this is because Russell’s work in our time has been used as a gateway to views even he disagreed with and of which he wrote:
“Some interpreters indeed attempt to get over the difficulty by supposing that the thousand years, being a symbolic number, may represent a period of very short duration, and so bring the whole within the prescribed apocalyptic limits; but this method of interpretation appears to us so violent and unnatural that we cannot hesitate to reject it… We believe, however, that this is the solitary example which the whole book contains of this excursion beyond the limits of ‘shortly.’”
Russell enjoyed the relative good graces of the Church in part because he insisted on a future resurrection to come, therefore given his important contribution to the study of eschatology, many were willing to cut him some slack in other areas. As Spurgeon said:
“Though the author’s theory is carried too far, it has so much of truth in it, and throws so much new light upon obscure portions of the Scriptures, and is accompanied with so much critical research and close reasoning, that it can be injurious to none and may be profitable to all.”
Part of the reason Spurgeon thought Russell went too far was in assigning most of the Revelation to 70A.D., and making too much of the words “soon” etc. However, today’s “partial”-preterists largely agree with Russell on this, making him even more accessible than in his own time. But, there is still that one elephant in the room: his church-wide 70 A.D. resurrection.
Simply put, Russell was not convincing in his interpretation of 1 Thes. 4 and 1 Cor. 15. Therefore despite his arguments demonstrating the first century audience relevance of the two passages using time honored hermeneutic principles, there was no way on earth the Church would accept his system.
70 A.D. Parousia?
From the beginning of the Church there have been those who have attributed Mt. 24 and a whole host of other verses to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Some examples can be found in Gary Demar’s The Early Church and the End of the World. Besides various church fathers, many church Reformers, scholars of our day, even early non-canonical writings such as The Gospel of Bartholomew, The Gospel of Nicodemus, The Apocalypse of Baruch, The Apocalypse of Ezra, Christian Sibyllines, teach a “partial-preterism.”
Knowing this article will have an audience already acquainted with the many “soon” “quickly” “this generation” passages, and arguments about “audience relevance” etc., it’s a waste of time to revue them. I will be taking for granted from this point on that 70A.D. was the fulfillment of Mt. 24 at the very least. For my own part, I believe James Stuart Russell’s The Parousia still to be one of the best treatments of the topic, along with David Chilton’s Days of Vengeance, and Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness. If you have not heard the preterist case made before, start with these. They are obviously not perfect, but they are perhaps the most well-known and introduce the reader to broad range of ideas.
For those who already consider themselves “preterist,” there are two passages in particular where there is disagreement: 1 The. 4, and 1 Cor. 15. And so, it is with these we will be spending the most time, especially since they yielded Russell’s most controversial opinions and torpedoed any chance at wide-spread adoption of what we might dub “preterist-premillennialism.” But before we get to those passages, let’s set the stage by discussing where Christ is said to reign at his parousia.
Christ’s Reign: From Earth, or Over Earth
One would be hard pressed to locate a major historic, reformed, or evangelical confession that teaches the earth as the Church’s blessed hope, the location of the millennium, or Jerusalem as the seat of judgment. It may be implied in general terms like “return to judge,” or “come again,” but explicit mention of “where?” is never said. It is not found in the Thirty-Nine Articles (1572), nor the Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), the Irish Articles of Religion (1615), or the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560). The Augsburg Confession and the Second Helvetic Confession even condemns premillennialism (the Helvetic explicit that Christ will not touch ground). The Belgic Confession comes close, but seems to teach just a “cleansing” of this world of its evil, not as the final reward which is, “a glory such as the heart of man could never imagine”
In fact, like the Second Helvetic Confession, both Westminster’s Larger and Shorter Catechism describe the “coming” of the Lord more as a “going” of humanity before his throne, particularly the righteous being “caught up to Christ in the clouds” where they will remain in a state of glory forever. Moreover, the great commentaries on these catechisms by Thomas Vincent, Francis Beattie, Mathew Henry, Thomas Watson, and John Flavel all state that at the Parousia the resurrection saints dwell eternally in heaven (even after the new heaven/earth). At no time after Christ’s ascension does he step foot back on earth, for this is not required for him to reign over the earth, nor to “come” to earth in judgment. In fact, one introduction to the Shorter Catechism for children says:
Q. 144. What will become of the righteous [in the day of judgment]?
A. They will be taken to heaven
Q. 145. What is heaven?
A. A glorious happy place, where the righteous shall be forever with the Lord.
Scripture supports this point. Nowhere in the Revelation is Christ said to step foot back on earth, not even in the passage regarding the millennium. What is stated is that after the first resurrection the martyrs reign “with” Christ, and after that is the general resurrection which again does not feature Christ back on the planet, only judging it. Again, if anything, it seems to be more of a “going” of humanity before Christ, than the Premillennialist’s concept of a “coming” of Christ back “onto” the planet to reign from modern-day Israel.
Amillennialists might not be shocked by the statements above, but for the Premillennialist it is nearly blasphemous. Passions run high when it comes to the distinction of “on” or “over” the earth. However, it poses no problem for Christ to be reigning from heaven instead of from earth as far as the power he can exert over the nations, but Premillennialists believe their view takes the Bible most literally, and therefore more seriously–which is fallacious. Even if the Premillennialist is not willing to grant what appears to be obvious symbolism in certain portions of the Bible, it can be demonstrated with more didactic portions of Scripture that Jesus is not on the planet during the millennium (nor thereafter) unless through the Holy Spirit.
It may come as a surprise to Premillennialists, but there is no mention of an earthly reign of Christ in 1 Cor. 15. It is only assumed. Also, an earthly reign is not the picture we get from 1 Thes. 4:14-17, the famous “rapture” passage. Even Premillennialists see this passage as teaching a catching up of resurrected saints to meet the Lord “in the air.” Premillennialists, however, postulate a return after seven years back to the planet with Christ. This is well and good, but that is not taught anywhere in this passage. In fact, it seems to teach the opposite, saying in verse 17, “thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
In the Greek, the word for “thus” means “in this manner,” not “therefore” as though it is a conclusion, and Paul states that that manner will be forever. In what way will they forever be with the Lord? It would seem in the manner previously described, being raised from the dead and taken to heaven.
In fact, this fits perfectly with the promise Christ made to the Apostles that he was going to heaven to prepare a place for them, and that when he came he would take them there to be in the place he was ascending to (Jn.14:1-6). Jesus had to “go” somewhere; that somewhere is where he was going to make preparations for them so that they could be with him where he was going to make preparations.
Lest someone question where Christ was going, he says very clearly, “I am going to Him who sent me… I go to the Father…I came forth from the Father, and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again, and going to the Father” (Jn.16-17). All indicators point to Christ leaving this world to remain personally in heaven preparing for his disciples’ arrival. They would see him again; however, the world would not. As he explained: “this world sees me no more” (Jn. 14: 19). How long is “no more”? There is nothing in the Bible to indicate it means anything less than “never again.”
Part of the issue is reading into the word “coming” the destination. Coming “to” earth for judgment is not necessarily coming “onto” the earth for judgment. Only the Premillennialist system clings to the latter (but could, in fact, be maintained without it), but Amillennialism does not, and typically has not featured Christ reigning from earth, but from heaven over the earth. This may seem like splitting hairs, but there is a world of difference and we need to be careful not to build an entire eschatological system without recognizing it.
There is, however, one verse that seems to teach Christ coming back to reign from the earth: Act. 1:11. The Premillennialist believes himself to have the upper hand when it comes to this passage. Jesus was on the planet, taken off of the planet, and is said to “come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” But read closely, does this mean he would return “onto” the planet to reign “from” earth, or return “to” the planet, to reign “over” the earth? Both are equally possible from this passage, but only the latter can be harmonized with the description in 1 Thes. 4 of Christ receiving his own in the air. Add to this that “in the same way” might be referring to “exalted in the glory cloud” (which also harmonizes with 1 Thes. 4) and the Premillennialist case becomes even weaker, leaving Premillennialism’s “earthly reign” with only one verse — the interpretation of which is highly unlikely.
Moreover, Mt 24 also speaks of the parousia as the sign of Christ in the heavens, and him coming in the clouds to gather his elect from the ends of the earth. Although not speaking of resurrection, this Mt. 24 “gathering” is done while Christ is “on the clouds of the sky” (Mt. 24:30) and there is no mention in Mt. 24 or 25 that Christ touches down on the planet for this (or any other) purpose.
There are also Old Testament passages Premillennialists cite, the most explicit being Zech. 14:4. That verse states the Messiah’s “feet will stand on the Mount of Olives,” and this around the time of a great conflict against Jerusalem. What Premillennialists overlook is that there already was a tribulation of biblical proportions in Jerusalem’s history which fits all of the prophecies concerning the “tribulation.”
As it is my goal to keep these articles brief, I will belabor non-Premillennial interpretations of this passage. For those interested, John Calvin dealt with the Premillennialist interpretation of Zechariah in his day, and men like Gary DeMar have made the case for interpreting this passage (and many others) as a reference to the 70A.D. destruction of Jerusalem. Assuming my audience is mostly Amillennial, I will spare them the beating of dead horses, and simply recommend to any Premillennialist (those still reading this article) to consult any Amillennial commentary or website for other passages.
Although Christ reigning personally “from” the earth is not a staple Amillennial belief (He reign’s today on earth through the Holy Spirit), a symbolic millennium is. If the millennium is a “literal” thousand years, then both Amillennialism and Russell’s preterist-premillennialism are impossible.
However, it is also not germane to the Historic Premillennial system to insist on an exact length of the millennium, only that it has not yet begun. Premillennialism is not weakened by recognizing the description of duration as symbolic; in fact, it might find more credibility to those familiar with Old Testament symbols. Conversely, Amillennialism is not necessarily proved by an indefinable length of the millennium, for it might not have begun yet, as Premillennialists claim. Be that as it may, Amillennialism and Russell’s view cannot be maintained without it, so let us now consider the length of the millennium.
Classic Amillennialism teaches that the millennium is symbolic of “a long time.” We might say it is an innumerable length. However, to say that it is “innumerable” is not to say it has no end, it simply means that its end is not in sight or able to be numbered given the information we have about it. Amillennialists say it is “an indefinite long time” because the length is said to be a “thousand years.”
Amillennialists do not define it this way out of necessity (a literal thousand years already passed), but because in a highly symbolic book such as the Revelation, we find many images taken from the Old Testament and from common Jewish expressions, Rev. 20 has all the characteristics of a symbol. In fact, we see the same number being used this way in the Psalms, from which we gather its meaning “all” at the most, or at least “too numerous for us count.”
“For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” Ps. 50:10
“The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands.” Ps. 68:17
“For a day in Thy court is better than a thousand outside.” Ps. 84: 10
“For a thousand years in Thy sight are like yesterday when it passes by.” Ps. 90:4
It’s not unusual then that John, when describing the long duration of Christ’s reign over the earth, would use a common symbol.
To say that the millennium is “innumerable” also does not mean its end is not, nor will ever be in sight. However, it does (at the very least) mean that the end of it would not be in sight of the Revelation’s original audience. In other words, John told his first century audience about the millennium, and told his generation near the close of the first century that the duration of the millennium was beyond their ability to foresee, and beyond their limited remaining years. John was in essence telling them that the years of the millennium were as the cattle on a thousand hills. The end of the millennium was not to happen within the lifetime of John’s audience regardless of when it began.
Again, this in no way weakens Premillennialism or strengthens Amillennialism; however, it poses a problem for groups like “full”-preterists. Full-preterism relies on the millennium ending not only within the lifetime of John’s audience, but very shortly after John’s informs them of it using the imagery of a “thousand years.” Yes, full-preterism concedes it is a symbol, however, for them it symbolizes a forty year “Davidic reign.” However, besides this being a “short time,” it fails to account for the use of the symbol for an audience nearing the end of the first century–who would be seeing the last cattle on the thousandth hill if full-preterism were correct.
Some may claim it is retroactive and began even further back than Christ’s ministry, perhaps even as far back as the beginning of the world with the first martyr Abel. One of the many problems with this (and traditional Amillennialism) is the description of the first resurrection’s participants. It is the first resurrection that kicks off the millennium, and so the participants in this event must first have been around, but also have experienced the things that would make their rising from the dead necessary. But, before we get to the participants in the millennium, let’s look at the other main argument for Amillennialism.
The Binding of Satan
Both Amillennialists and full-preterists place the beginning of the millennium during the earthly ministry of Christ because Christ drove out demons. The argument is as follows: Christ drove out demons, demons cannot be driven out unless Satan is bound, therefore Satan was bound at the time Christ drove out demons. It seems simple enough, but there are issues with this.
The major problem is the result of the “binding” in both cases. In the case of Christ and the Apostle’s ministry of exercising demons, it was on an individual basis, not international. The result of the binding in the Revelation is that the nations should be deceived no more. Moreover, this “deception” is not merely an uncertainty or rejection about the merits of Christianity we still see today, or even idolatry or demon worship in general, but is explicitly mentioned only a few verses prior as the deception of the “false prophet” towards those who received the mark of the beast (Rev. 19:20). This deception is narrowly defined as tricking people into worshipping a wounded but risen “beast” as Lord, as opposed to Jesus the Christ (Rev. 13:12). The beast was not even wounded, never mind strengthened until about the time John wrote this letter.
Given that the internal context already narrowly defines the deception, can we read into the binding of the serpent in the Abyss the binding Jesus only referred to analogously regarding the exorcism of demons from individuals? I do not believe so. To be sure, both are a “binding” of Satan, but they are at two radically different levels, and both clearly defined in the confines of their own context. One is individual, one is international; one loosens a demon from a body, and one loosens nations from the deception that the “false prophet” foisted upon those who took the mark (or seal) of the beast during a specific forty-two month period (Rev. 13:5).
It cannot be both ways; the international deception spoken of in the Revelation is either the deception of the false prophet mentioned in the immediate context, or it is one imported from a theft analogy used by Christ in the gospels. Unless one is prepared to say that every non-believer in every nation was (or is) personally possessed by Satan himself, the “binding” in Revelation should be recognized as “the” binding, not just “a” binding. It’s certainly true that the gospel has been spreading since the time of Christ, and it may in fact be because Satan is currently bound in the Abyss or because demoniacs are exorcized, but neither is the specific deception spoken of in Revelation that began nearly forty years after the earthly ministry of Christ. Therefore that “binding” cannot be what (or when) Amillennialists and full-preterists teach.
The Release of Satan
Traditionally, Amillennialists have viewed the release of Satan after the millennium as a great spiritual conflict preceding the final judgment. Premillennialists and full-preterists have seen this as an assault upon the physical city of Jerusalem, the former placing it in the future, and the latter in 70A.D.
If Gog and Magog are physical nations, and if they assault Jerusalem in the future it is not really a problem for Amillennialism. It may be the case that Jerusalem fills a unique role in the future; it may be the case that they become a beacon of Christianity like Postmillennialists envision for all nations. That John would call a possibly future city of Jerusalem the “beloved city” or “camp of the saints” may seem odd now, but historically it was the beloved city where even Jesus and the Apostles began their spiritual assault on the nations. In fact, “Gog and Magog” could even be “literal” reconstituted nations named “Gog and Magog” for all we know, despite the seemingly obvious use of symbolism here. For our purpose it doesn’t matter what they are.
What does matter, however, is that this conflict is in the future, and not a reference to 70A.D. Full-preterists borrow the classic Amillennial idea of a spiritual first resurrection beginning during Christ’s ministry and merely end it in 70A.D. with the notion that Gog and Magog are symbolic and the “beloved city” is literal. It has already been shown how unlikely it is that the millennium began at that point, but if it did then 70A.D. cannot be ruled out as the Gog and Magog conflict just on the basis that the millennium wouldn’t seem long enough. Beginning the millennium prior to 70A.D. would make the full-preterist’s interpretation at least somewhat possible. But given our other points, it is not. Moreover, surrounding physical Jerusalem as “the camp of the saints” would be a poor strategy during the tribulation, since the saints were told to flee Jerusalem during the tribulation (Mt. 24:16-18).
But did we not just say a physical conflict in Jerusalem does not matter to the Amillennial apologetic? Yes. Is it not counterproductive then to grant the Premillennial and hyper-preterist idea that this conflict might be physical? No, because even if physical, the conflict cannot be referring to 70A.D., or the tribulation. This is impossible for the above reasons and for another very good reason.
This end of the millennium conflict cannot be referring to 70A.D. or the tribulation of Mt. 24 because Satan’s defeat at the end of this conflict winds him up in the same place as the beast and the false prophet: the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). But when were the beast and false prophet sent to the lake of fire? At the beginning of the millennium (Rev. 19:20). How much time passes between the judgment of the false prophet and Satan? The entire millennium.
Therefore full-preterism is at a loss because it views the work of the beast Nero and the false prophet as taking place during the tribulation around 70A.D. However, once they are assigned to the lake of fire, they are not released. So begin the millennium where you will, these two people (or entities) are not active during it, nor are they released after it. Look closely, only Satan himself is released from the Abyss, and the conflict he initiates is without the beast and false prophet. So, who are Gog and Magog? Certainly not the beast and/or false prophet who will be incapacitated while the conflict takes place beyond their knowledge a “long while” after they’ve been gone.
Some extend the beast to the “world system” since the beginning of time, or the Roman Empire. However, the latter (as will become more apparent) would exclude from the first resurrection most of the Old Testament prophets who did not deliver the word of God during the Roman empire, and the former would exclude all the others unless we’re prepared to call God’s beloved, chosen, Old Testament theocracy in which many prophets operated before they were conquered by various Empires “the beast”? No. God’s nation was in competition with “the beast” if one defines it as the ungodly world system. A particular issue arises for anyone taking “the beloved city” (Rev.20:9) in the same prophecy to mean physical Jerusalem, for that would be the capital city of a “beast” nation.
It is best to see the beast in John’s description as Rome in general, and Nero in particular. If we extend this to some nebulas “world system” it leads to a strange retroactive historicism where this forward looking prophecy is also backwards, where Old Testament saints have their souls raised and reign with Christ before the he was even born, where they are martyred for the testimony of “Jesus” before anyone knew his name, where Rome and Nero somehow killed Abel, or the beloved city was part of the beast. There is no need for any of this, and it’s unwarranted by the text.
Both Amillennialism and full-preterism fall short when it comes to the binding of Satan, and cannot be used to support the idea that the millennium began prior to 70 A.D. nor especially that it ended in 70 A.D. Only the Premillennialist honors John’s description of what the deception is, and the distinction between the tribulation and the battle of Gog and Magog. This is further demonstrated when we look at the general description of the participants in the first resurrection.
The First Resurrection
The participants in the first resurrection have a very particular experience. It is described as such:
Given thrones to sit upon to dispense judgment for the duration of the millennium.
Reigning with Christ for the duration of the millennium.
Overcoming the first death for the duration of the millennium.
Speculations about the inclusion of others aside, the description of these raised souls is further noted. They are:
Beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and the word of God.
They did not worship the beast or his image, nor took the mark of the beast.
Can these participants be all the saints from the Old Testament, or even the New? No. Regarding the first description, we know that Christ’s name was not known to the saints in the Old Testament. Not until Mary was given the name “Jesus” by the angel Gabriel was the name of the Messiah known. This may seem like a fine point, but it is vital. The Apostles made much of the fact that their testimony was that “this Jesus” was the Christ. That “no other name was given among men by which we must be saved.” Only New Testament prophets held the testimony of Jesus, and so only New Testament heralds of his name can be safely included at this point.
Some find it a mystery why Jesus would sometimes tell people not to proclaim he had done such and such a miracle, and it is because he was aiming for the cross; it was the testimony of the crucified and raised Christ which he told to proclaim to the nations. In fact, how many prophets got killed for preaching a messiah would come someday? How many people Old Testament prophets were killed for proclaiming a non-crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth? As far as we know, none. But, there were many killed for the testimony about a particular Jesus of Nazareth in the first century.
Some may object, for John says, “…and the word of God.” But, it is more natural to see John making an additional description of the same group who were beheaded for their testimony about this particular Jesus, the son of Mary. It is not two different groups, but one group who were beheaded for their inspired teachings. The reason the “word of God” is added, is to point to this inspiration, for it is God’s word which interprets the person and work of Jesus, otherwise even if we had witnessed the resurrected Jesus we might just see a first century Jewish guy who beat the odds and come back to life only to defy gravity and float into space. No, the word of God tells us what all of this means; it is the Spirit’s commentary on the person and work of Jesus.
That the first resurrection is limited in some sense is indisputable given that there is a second one for “the rest of the dead.” Stating that the first resurrection is limited should not, therefore, be controversial in the least. Moreover, maintaining that it is a physical resurrection should not be controversial given that the Biblical concept of resurrection is the raising of the self-same physical body. Yes, “resurrection” is used of regeneration or position elsewhere, but there is nothing in Rev. 20 to recommend this idea. The first of the raised “dead” are called souls, and so the rest of the “dead” must naturally also be souls. One cannot define one resurrection as spiritual and the other physical without undermining the text.
Russell dropped the ball in applying this to the whole church even though he viewed it as a physical rapture and not regeneration. Full-preterists follow in the steps of Amillennialists by applying this to the whole Church. However, John does not say the whole church is raised in the first resurrection. Of its participants he says this:
“And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” (Rev. 20:4-6)
Someone will object, saying, “That sounds like a Church-wide resurrection to me, unless some of the church worshipped the beast and took his mark.” This is a legitimate observation, but only if we see John multiplying participants instead of building upon the description of the first group mentioned. John could just as easily be embellishing the description of the ones given thrones who died for their testimony of Jesus. This can be better seen in translations such as the King James which reads:
“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”
Or again, in the Amplified Bible:
“Then I saw thrones, and sitting on them were those to whom authority to act as judges and to pass sentence was entrusted. Also I saw the souls of those who had been slain with axes [beheaded] for their witnessing to Jesus and [for preaching and testifying] for the Word of God, and who had refused to pay homage to the beast or his statue and had not accepted his mark or permitted it to be stamped on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived again and ruled with Christ (the Messiah) a thousand years.”
And in the New Living Translation:
“Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given the authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their forehead or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
In other words, yes, if John is multiplying participants to include everyone who did not worship the beast, then a Church-wide first resurrection is inescapable. But, as has been seen, the Greek can just as easily be taken to be qualifying the previously mentioned group, leaving us not with a Church-wide resurrection, but a resurrection of “testifiers,” more particularly those who were given the testimony of Jesus Christ, to act as his witnesses. What we glean is indeed a “martyr” resurrection, but not “martyr” because they were killed, but because they were messengers — the biblical definition.
Yet, is this not descriptive of all Christians? Were not all Christians the witnesses of Jesus? Did they not all testify to the world that Jesus was the Christ. In some sense, yes, but in another sense, no. We are used to using the term “witness” in this way to speak of leaving Bible tracts in restaurants, or talking to our uncle Lou about the Bible, but that is not how the New Testament uses this term. When the New Testament uses “witness,” it means someone who saw the risen Christ, i.e. “witnessed” his resurrection and could testify of it. These witnesses became emissaries to the world that Jesus of Nazareth had come forth from the tomb, and they saw him afterwards. This certainly includes the Twelve Apostles, but likely includes all those specially equipped and supernaturally inspired to tell the world about Jesus, and perhaps even their companions and co-laborers who suffered along with them in their divine commission.
No violence has been done to Rev. 20 to arrive at the above conclusion, in fact, it is more in-line with the explicit description and Biblical definitions. But, how does this fit with other passages about the parousia and resurrection. If our view is correct, and passages such as 1 Thes. 4, and 1 Cor. 15 are also speaking of the first resurrection, then they must also present it as limited to this group, or else it’s back to the drawing board. But indeed, they do present a first resurrection limited to the same group as John describes- commissioned testifiers/martyrs.
The Second Resurrection
Another issue with Amillennialism is highlighted by Millard Erickson in his A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium, which is that the two resurrections are only distinguished in the Revelation by time, not nature, and one cannot read into the first resurrection “regeneration” or a “spiritual” resurrection. Premillennialists like Erickson point out that the text uses the same words to describe the experience of people at both resurrections, “they lived” or “they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years was over.”
Not only are the end results of each resurrection described in identical terms, the prior status is identical, “the rest of the dead.” By saying the “rest of the dead” the writer connects the concept of “death” between the two groups. They are both “dead” in the same way, and both “come to life” in the same way. His point is one of internal consistency. Based on the description, we can take the two resurrections as physical, or spiritual, but not both. And, some Amillennialists, such as James A. Hughes recognize the force of this argument and so make both resurrections “spiritual” based on the term “souls,” even holding to a spiritual resurrection in 1 Cor. 15.
Hughes, says Erickson, believes that “souls” refers to disembodied spirits in the afterlife and not the “whole man.” This seems to be the most natural view in light of the context. However, based on this, Hughes argues that disembodied souls unlike bodies cannot die or come back to life, and it is the “soul” that is said to live, not the body.
Virtually all Amillennialists hold to a spiritual first resurrection, but “spiritual” in the sense of “regeneration,” and believe the second to be physical. Hughes finds this disconnect unfounded and believes the second resurrection to be spiritual too but only for the wicked. However, this second resurrection is different in that it is only the confirming of their souls as “dead.” Erickson describes it as a “hypothetical” resurrection.
However, Hughes cannot deny that “soul” can refer to the whole person. Nor does his view (if correct) do justice to the most basic tenet of biblical anthropology, which is that if the human soul is to be complete it must be connected to a body; for without a body, the soul is without a home, or “unclothed.” It is true that souls cannot die in an annihilationist or ontologically degenerative manner, but they must indeed have died previously if they are “resurrected.” The traditional Amillennial approach at least recognizes this.
But can physical resurrection be described as a soul “living again”? Of course. In the beginning, God created the body of Adam first, and then breathed the soul into it. In other words, preparation was first made for the soul to be embodied; that’s how important a physical body is to the completed life of a soul. Just as Adam’s body came to life when it was joined to the soul, so every other human soul begins its existence (or “life”) in connection to the body. The soul can survive afterwards if disembodied, but this is not the existence God ultimate intends for it.
Furthermore, one wonders how else one would describe the conscious dead being given new physical life to reign with Christ? Had John said, “and I saw bodies, they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years,” there would no doubt be Zombie-millennialists to contend with today, claiming soulless corpses is what John had in mind. No, by using the term “soul” John is highlighting that these dead saints have not been forgotten, and that they will overcome the very thing that made them disembodied in the first place…physical death at the hands of Jewish and Roman persecutors. They “live again” in the way they lived before, in a body.
Hughes believes the first resurrection is synonymous with going to heaven. It does in fact include that, especially since the raised ones are raised to reign with Christ who appears to be in heaven at this time. Both groups are dead souls, one group lives during the millennium, the other group does not. The former is no longer threatened by “second death” the latter appear to be. Of the second group, the Greek, says Hughes, could be rendered, “they did not live even ’til the end of the thousand years,” rather than “they did not live again until after the thousand years were through.” The latter implies the others would live again, but the former implies they would not.
Hughes’ case, although recognizing the difficulty of the traditional Amillennial interpretation, is not a strong one. First of all, there is a reason why some translate the debated passages as “they came to life and reigned… did not live again until…” which is that it is also a legitimate translation. For the “again” is implied, and the “until” although not necessarily meaning a change after said point, can and does in just as many instances. The latter is beyond even Hughes’ dispute and so is moot; it is the former that is the question. If one can translate the phrase as “live again” and context favors it, then there is nothing more to argue.
That the “again” can be translated is a question of the Greek. In layman’s terms, there are two words “not” and “lived” used, and the word “lived” does not have prefixed to it two letters that would be the equivalent to the English “re” (as in “reignite,” or “redo”). Hughes says that the souls are not said to re-live, but to “live.” So why then do some translators insert a re-living into the translation?
Hughes is missing the point. The re-living is implied and so some translators simply bring out the implication in translation. Hughes would say that neither the souls in the first nor second resurrection “re-live” physically just that the first ones live through regeneration and the second ones remain in a state of “death” reserved for “second death.” But how is re-life implied? Very simply, it is implied by a word in the passage that does, in fact, have the “re” prefixed to it. When the first group “lives” it is called by John the “first resurrection.” This means the life given by definition is new life, re-life, i.e. “living again.”
One cannot divorce the name of the event, and the term assigned to it, from the imagery describing it. It is not called the first “surrection” or surging of life to these souls, but a second or resurgence of life whereby they “live again.” Hughes misses the forest for the trees in his translation, which although grammatically correct, is a grasping at straws when it comes to justifying an entire eschatological system. Even if one defines the first resurrection as regeneration, it would be “re-generation” at the “re-surrection” implying re-life, or living again.
And, since regeneration is spoken of elsewhere as a type of resurrection for the soul, we cannot take regeneration off the table even if it is viewed as the first time the soul is given spiritual life, but we would have to make the second resurrection “regeneration” as well. At the very least, we cannot take physical resurrection based on Hughes’ arguments. Both are equally valid conceptions for a soul being given a new lease on life. But, Hughes persists by claiming the Greek is in his favor.
Hughes claims that if “they lived” uses an ingressive aorist verb tense (making it “they came to life”), then “they reigned” must be the same, rendering it, “they began to reign a thousand years” thus making Premillennialism absurd (having a slow and gradual thousand year long resurrection and reigning). Again, this is a grasping at straws.
Millard Erickson is unwilling to concede this point, and appeals to one of the standard authorities on Greek, A.T. Robertson. Robertson disputes the necessary connection one must make between two verbs of similar tense in just such a case. Hughes only acknowledges Robertson’s work in a footnote saying that it cannot apply to this case because it would break up the syntactical connection. As Erickson points out, this is begging the question, assuming something to prove something. Who says the verbs must share a syntactical equivalence based merely on their being in the same verse? Only Hughes. He’s stating the point to prove the point.
Erickson make a few closing observations about Hughes’ unique view as well. First, that not all of the examples Hughes cites as “spiritual resurrection” in the New Testament are necessarily spiritual or regenerative in nature. Some appear to be physical indeed. Erickson also points out that Hughes claim that the second death does have power over all who do not take part in the first resurrection, but does, in fact, have power over everyone who takes part in the second is fallacious. John does not say who the second death has power over, merely a particular group it will not have power over. No implication is made that everyone at the second resurrection is subject to second death, only that those who reign with Christ a thousand years are not.
There are other criticisms one can make of Amillennial treatments of the two resurrections in the Revelation, but these are, I believe, enough to show that the weight is clearly in favor of the Premillennial view of two resurrections, identical in nature, separated only by an epoch of time. We need not argue over disputed points of Greek grammar to defend Amillennialism, or invent hypothetical second resurrections. Amillennialism must be true with two flesh resurrections or not at all. Fortunately for the Amillennialist, two flesh resurrections still prove their system, thanks in part to Russell’s view on the 70 A.D. parousia. Russell also concluded the Church was presently in the millennium, but ironically used the better arguments of the Premillennialist to prove this.
The Martyr Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15
I believe it is better to maintain belief in the clear orthodox teachings of Scripture even when there appears to be the inconsistent application of a hermeneutical principle in one or two passages. I also believe that it appears “partial” preterists are inconsistent in their application of “audience relevance” in 1 Thes. 4 and 1 Cor. 15 because they are, in fact, being inconsistent. As James Stuart Russell demonstrated, both passages indicate a first century parousia. And yet, the implications Russell drew from this were equally inconsistent. Be that as it may, there is no reason to abandon the hermeneutic principle, nor conclude from it a church-wide resurrection and rapture. In fact, this too contradicts John’s explicit description of the first resurrection limited to “martyrs.”
Here is where the rubber really meets the road. 1 Corinthians 15 has been slaying giants since Sosthenes sent it. I remember after being introduced to full-preterism reading Max King’s treatment of 1 Cor. 15 and feeling like I had just been to a magic show. I couldn’t figure out where all the mirrors were, but it was apparent that a very elaborate trick had just been played–and played very well. Since then, I and others have pinpointed the many fallacious arguments he used, and the trick no longer titillates.
I say all of this, because I want the reader to stick with whatever interpretation they have of 1 Cor. 15 unless the one I’m about to offer brings out the natural meaning more — without trying to “wow” the reader with new terminology and Greek rules that may or not even apply. Moreover, unlike King, this will not take hundreds of pages to lull the reader into submission–thinking it might be true because it took so darn long to explain.
Some may already question my ability to interpret Scripture given that I said “Sosthenes” sent the letter to the Corinthians, when everybody knows it was Paul. And yet, there it is in the first verse:
“Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church at Corinth…”
I’m not just trying to keep the reader on his or her toes; there is a point to this. The point being that Paul was not alone in his ministry. Just as Christ hand picked him to be an Apostle, Paul picked certain people to share in his ministry, the most famous being Timothy. Not much is known about Sosthenes, but it doesn’t really matter, he was a co-laborer in the Apostolic commission to bear the testimony of Christ. Both of these men are candidates for the first resurrection. They were commissioned testifiers, and Paul was thankful that, “the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you [the Corinthians].” The Corinthians were evidence of his commission. Some appreciated Paul’s authority, and some questioned it.
Indeed, the early Church was not much different than today’s church as far as factions go. Paul chastises them in the first chapter for pitting Apostles against each other, and playing favorites, as though the church planter made a difference. In speaking of the apostles, he said the gospel was simple to understand, that it was foolish to boast of who testified about it, but that, “we do speak wisdom among those who are mature.” Speaking again of himself and fellow laborers Paul says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we [the apostles] might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we [the apostles] also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom…”
Too often when we see a plural pronoun we apply it to ourselves when the author is speaking of himself and a group he particularly belongs. The above is just one such case. The “we” is not the whole Church in our day, or even in Paul’s day, but another group he was a part of, the apostolic band–inspired missionaries specially chosen for particular persecutions and rewards based on their commission. This is important to keep in mind throughout the letter to the Corinthians (and many other books of the Bible). It is not a knit-picking to mention pronouns; it is a legitimate point that must be observed if we are to make any sense out of the Bible. How else could one begin to understand when Paul says, “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.”? If we dismiss careful attention to pronouns, we end up applying all sorts of things to ourselves that are not applicable in the least.
But Paul continues, “For, I think God has exhibited us apostles last of all as men condemned to death… we are fools for Christ’s sake, you are prudent in Christ…” (1 Cor. 4:9-10). “We” is vital to understand what Paul is saying. This remains true for the rest of the chapters where when speaking of the Corinthians he more often than not uses “you,” when speaking of himself he says, “I” and when speaking of the apostolic band he uses “we” or “us.” He does sometimes use “us” or “we” to mean all Christians, such as in 1 Cor. 8:6, but even in this case it could very easily be another reference to the apostles. Even verses such as 9:10 which are typically taken universally seem to be references to the apostles as can be seen in 9:11. However, others seem indisputably universal, such as 10:6, “but these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved.”
The point is that more often than not the first person plural pronouns refer to Paul and the other testifiers, and so when we see one we should not automatically favor a universal interpretation. On the contrary, we ought to first consider that application is for the testifiers. Perhaps it would be helpful at this time for the reader to put down this article and read through the letter to the Corinthians, circling all of the pronouns and counting how many times “you” “we” etc. are used and looking closely to whom it refers to. Otherwise, we shall proceed taking it for granted that indeed, “we” and “us” almost always refers to Paul and his companions. Again, this is not proof of our proposition, just something to keep in mind as we proceed.
We might ask why Paul talked so much about himself? Is this a case of narcissism? No. Paul talked so much about himself and his ministry because it was constantly being challenged by certain people in the church. Conversely, those who supported Paul sometimes went overboard in their support, pitting him against the other apostles. Paul corrected both of these extremes. The early church took great pride in their patron apostles, whether it was Peter, Paul, James or any other. But, Paul explained they were all equal co-laborers in the gospel, none were given preferential treatment, and the persecutions one apostle suffered were not to be compared with the persecutions other apostles suffered (as though it indicated they were more blessed for enduring them or receiving less of them). Paul, being among the most persecuted, made clear that it did not grant him special status.
In sum, when we at last arrive at 1 Cor. 15, we need to pay careful attention to the pronouns so we can see clearly what Paul means when he says things like, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for [on behalf of] the dead. If the dead are not raised?” Who are the dead? Every dead Christian? No. “The dead ones” are dead apostles and testifiers. Why be baptized for apostles who were not “good enough” to be kept alive by God until the parousia? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning of 1 Cor. 15 and work our way down.
There is so much to say about this passage, it is hard to resist tangents, but I will try to stick with the main points. In 1 Cor. 15:1-11 we see Paul once again defending the legitimacy of his ministry and inclusion in the apostolic band. Some have concluded that 1 Cor. 15 is concerning the resurrection of Israel because Paul mentions a bunch of Jewish people in the beginning, but those Jewish people are mentioned not because they were Jewish, but because they are other Apostles and witness testifiers to Christ’s resurrection.
But there is something very interesting in verse 6. In discussing this particular group of people (the twelve, the five-hundred, etc.) he says, “most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” There are the living testifiers, and the dead ones. “Falling asleep” was sometimes the faithful’s way of saying “dead” because it pointed to resurrection. This can be seen even in the Old Testament, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).
In 1 Cor. 15:12-17 Paul talks about the implications of denying the resurrection of the dead, or as some have translated it, “the dead ones.” Either translation is fine, and even though the latter obviously brings out my point that there were specific individuals Paul had in mind, I think the former is still to be preferred. That Paul can be discussing the resurrection of the dead in general is no problem as long as we see why he’s discussing it, which is to bolster confidence in the ministers and ministry of the gospel–that what they were testifying about was true regardless of what happens to them personally. It was the gospel and its teaching of the resurrection that motivated these testifiers to go through their appointed persecutions for the sake of the Church. Or else, “Why are we [apostles] in danger every hour?” (1 Cor. 15:30).
Again, that Paul can be discussing the resurrection of the dead in general poses absolutely no problem. The only problem is not seeing when Paul makes the application as in verse 51-52, “I tell you a mystery, we [apostles] shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed… at the last trump, for the dead [apostles] in Christ [or "the dead ones in Christ"] will be raised imperishable, and we [living apostles] shall be changed.” Of course this may sound like two groups within the universal Church (the living and the dead), but in context it seems Paul is staying on message about the living and the dead testifiers. This is even clearer when we combine every mention of the sleepers:
“After that he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep… and if Christ has not been raised, your faith [from the apostolic gospel] is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those [apostles] also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we [apostles] have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those [apostles] who are asleep…Behold I tell you a mystery, we [apostles] shall not all sleep, but we [apostles] shall all be changed.”
This vindication of the apostles is said to be at the last trump, a clear reference to the parousia or “second coming.” As Paul says, “for the trumpet will sound, and the dead [apostles, i.e. "dead ones"] will be raised imperishable, and we [living apostles] shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:52). If Paul were talking about the whole Church, this would do nothing for his point, which was to justify the ministry of the apostles, and demonstrate that those that were alive and remained until the coming of Christ would not take precedence over those apostles who had fallen asleep. Moreover, Paul’s teaching is in perfect agreement with John’s description of a first resurrection limited to testifiers of Jesus:
“But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at his coming, then comes the end, when he delivers up the kingdom to God the Father, when he has abolished all rule, and all authority and power. For he must reign until He has put all His enemies under his feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” (1 Cor. 15:23-26)
There are at least three stages mentioned in the reign of Christ: Christ’s resurrection, those who are his at his coming, then the end when first-death is finally eradicated for all. But, this will bring up two objections, the first being Paul’s use of “those who are his” and the other being a resurrection coming before the defeat of death.
The latter has never been a problem, for the Church has always seen the defeat of death in stages. Those who would claim that resurrection is impossible apart from the final defeat of death at the second resurrection ought to read about a man named Jesus who was resurrected in 30A.D. Of him the saying was also fulfilled “death is swallowed up in victory,” as this is true in every instance of resurrection. Moreover, John in the Revelation places the first resurrection “a thousand years” before the final judgment of Death itself. To be clear, resurrection is not only possible before the final destruction of Death itself, but is necessary in the case of Christ, and we would add the apostles who reign with him during the millennium.
The second issue some might have is that Paul says, “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end…” Again, apart from the context, the phrase, “those who are Christ’s at his coming,” certainly sounds like every Christian that’s ever lived in history. But, aside from having resurrections still occurring before “the end” when Christ abolishes death (which I have no problem with, but goes along with the previous objection), this fails to recognize the special place the apostles had in the Church. Indeed, every Christian is Christ’s in one way, but not in another. The apostles were Christ’s in a particular way: as ambassadors.
Christ’s ministers are spoken of in this way in Christ’s high-priestly prayer in the seventeenth chapter of John, where he prays among other things:
“I manifested Thy name to the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me, and they have kept Thy word… for the words which Thou gavest Me I have given to them… As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world…”
Sometimes the distinction is made between apostles who are Christ’s and those who are not, or are false apostles. Although, Paul does not say, “those who are Christ’s apostles,” he does indeed mention in this discourse regarding the apostles that if there were no resurrection of the dead, they would all be found to be “false witnesses” (1 Cor. 15:15). Given the context I believe that, “those who are Christ’s” must be the appointed testifiers of the resurrection.
In the interest of brevity, we will proceed with the next important passage. Enough has been said about 1 Cor. 15 to get the ball rolling. There is good indication in this passage that although Paul teaches about the concept of resurrection for all people in general, the application is the raising of the apostles (lowercase) at the parousia.
All preterists see Mt. 24 as fulfilled in 70 A.D., and as we’ve seen, there is good reason to see the millennium and first resurrection occurring at that point as well. We have also seen that 1 Cor. 15 fits perfectly with John’s timeline and description of a “martyr”/”testifier” physical resurrection, leaving the “rest of the dead” for the second resurrection to come. However, there is still one passage that is probably the most contentious between preterist and full-preterists, which is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Typically the “full”-preterist will state that the preterist is being inconsistent for applying Mt. 24 to 70 A.D. while pushing off 1 Thes. 4 to a future-to-us event. Relying on the work of James Stuart Russell and the same hermeneutic preterists use for Mt. 24, as well as some of the similar descriptions in both passages, the full-preterist states that 1 Thes. 4 had to occur in 70 A.D. Borrowing from the Amillennial belief that the first resurrection was in 30A.D. they also conclude that the universal resurrection in 1 Thes. 4 must be the second resurrection after the battle of Gog and Magog. It’s at this point that the orthodox definition of “resurrection” must be abandoned for “covenantal” or “spiritual” theories.
We have already shown why 70 A.D. and the battle of Gog and Magog cannot be the same event, moreover, we’ve shown that first resurrection must have taken place in 70A.D. and not 30A.D., and that this is a flesh resurrection just like the second. Also, we have shown from Rev. 20 and 1 Cor. 15 that only “testifiers” are raised at this time, not the entire Church. Therefore, it would seem that for all our time and work 1 Thes. 4 has at last put up an impenetrable road block if it is speaking of the universal Church.
The debate between the two preterist camps has centered on what Paul means when he says in verse seventeen, “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.” We’ve already discussed what “thus” means in this passage (“in this manner” not “therefore”) so it seems that the participants remain in this raptured state with the Lord forever. But who are these people?
Full-preterists are right to borrow Russell’s view that the “we” indicates Paul’s contemporaries. If Paul had hypothetical Christians in some distant time, he would no doubt have said “those who are alive and remain.” This is the same argument preterists use when saying Christ would have said in Mt. 24 “that generation” instead of “this generation” if he meant some a group other than his contemporaries. In saying “we who are alive” Paul puts himself in the group who has the very real possibility of being around at the parousia. However, I believe all views are wrong to draw from this “we” that Paul meant the universal Church. Again, the pronouns in the text alone are enough to call this into question:
“We do not want you to be ignorant… This we say to you by the word of the Lord… we who are alive and remain will not precede those who have fallen asleep in Jesus… we who are alive and shall be caught up together with them…”
The astute reader will notice I left out verse fourteen. This was done to highlight it now. It says, “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” I single this out because even in this verse Paul is talking about what he and the other apostles believe and therefore teach. He is making a confession of the apostolic faith, bolstering the Thessalonians confidence in the doctrine. Moreover, these apostles are not brought with Christ to earth, no, the opposite is true; God brings the saints along with Christ back to heaven after he “descends from heaven” into the air (not onto the ground) to snatch them up to glory.
Another point of interest is that this is not the first time Paul’s used phrases like this. If you’ll recall, in 1 Cor. 15 Paul mentions the Apostles and the five-hundred and says of them, “After that he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep… then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we [apostles] have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of most men most to be pitied… Behold I tell you a mystery; we [apostles] shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” Some testifiers slept in Christ, some were alive and remained ’til that day, but all of them would be raised at the Parousia to receive the reward for their work in God’s Vineyard.
But, why would some Thessalonians think that the living apostles would have precedence over the dead ones at the Parousia, as though the dead laborers would somehow be short changed for having given their lives for the gospel. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching on the latter vineyard workers receiving the same wage as those called to work earlier, and that the “first will be last and the last shall be first.” (Mt. 19:27-20:16).
This is only speculation, for we weren’t there, but clearly Paul is addressing the idea of the living apostles having an advantage over the dead ones. Paul corrects this, and says on the contrary, the dead ones in Christ will rise first. And to be sure “the dead in Christ” though sounding very universal is a further commendation of these ministers. They were just as joined to the Messiah as the living. This, and Paul’s use of the term “sleep” points his flock to the resurrection and the New Covenant’s extension even to the after-life. As Christ said of all these workers, none who had sacrificed their lives would fail to be rewarded at the resurrection (Mt. 19:29), and the living would not take precedence over the beloved ones sleeping in Christ.
Is there anything more in 1 Thes. 4 that would recommend this view to us? Yes. For at the end of this passage Paul tells the Thessalonians to “comfort one another with these words” (1 Thes. 4:18). But, surely this proves Paul is speaking universally about all dead Christians, particularly of the Thessalonians’ loved ones. Not exactly. Yes, Paul is speaking of people they loved or were concerned for, but the particular loved ones they were concerned about were their dead mentors, those who had brought to them the gospel. If they had perished or were somehow less worthy than the living, then what did that say about the message they had brought? Would they not be “less blessed” than the living ones, would they not appear to be “second-rate” apostles? Or perhaps they were just concerned that these men made it to heaven alright? That is also part of the truth.
It seems odd to us that Christians would be so concerned with the fate of their ministers, even to such a degree that they would feel a measure of discomfort, and to such a point that Paul had to straighten out their beliefs about the resurrection. If it were us, we no doubt would have been more concerned with our fate and whether or not we would be raptured too. Indeed, a simple look around us today shows that we are the foremost thought in our minds when it comes to the rapture, not those who minister to us. However, the Thessalonians were concerned for their mentors and expressed it, leading Paul throughout the letter to offer them encouragement that the trials he, Silvanus, and Timothy endured were not in vain, nor were the prayers offered up for them by the Thessalonians.
The feelings were mutual, for just as the Thessalonians desired comfort from the well-being of the apostles, the apostles were comforted by the faith and endurance of the Thessalonians. Paul says, “in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith” (1 Thes. 3:7). It is not hard to see, then, the meaning of 4:13-18 when we at last arrive there, nor how it would be of comfort to the Thessalonians to hear that the dead apostles were not “dead” but “sleeping” and would not be at a disadvantage for it when Christ came to bestow upon his laborers their hard-earned wages on behalf of the Church.
In attempting to be brief, I’ve no doubt left out other support for this “martyr resurrection” as well as objections, but if the world doesn’t end soon there is plenty of time for better minds to hash this view out, including possible implications of the reign of testifiers alongside Christ during our own time–the millennium. At the very least, the first resurrection and rapture includes the twelve Apostles, and at the most the Twelve, their appointed companion apostles, the Seventy, the Five Hundred, the Evangelists, and perhaps New Testament prophets. Likely anyone who was specifically commissioned or inspired by Jesus Christ himself or appointed by his Apostles to help in the Great Commission would be included, while those with “ordinary” offices such as elders, and deacons would remain to nurture the Church with the testimony they received.
There are quite a few implications from this view, but a very practical one is a greater unity in the Church on the issue of eschatology. I believe every view has an element of truth in it that makes impossible the system of the others, and yet when taking the best arguments from each view we find a picture that not only bolsters the essential orthodox teachings of all of them, but glorifies Christ and honors the place of his dearly beloved appointed witnesses and the promises made to them for their labor. The workers received their wages, and now sit with Christ on high as he is and as we shall be one day.