What Is a Biblical Theology of Resurrection?

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By Jason S. DeRouchie
in 40 Questions About Biblical Theology
by Jason S. DeRouchie, Oren R. Martin, and Andrew David Naselli

Resurrection in the New Testament

To highlight that Jesus fulfills what the OT anticipates (cf. Luke 24:46–47; Acts 10:43; 26:22–23; Rom. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:3–4; 1 Peter 1:10–11), each of the four Gospels concludes with stories of Jesus’s bodily resurrection from the dead (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10), and the rest of the NT portrays this as the watershed event that alters the course of world history.[1] Jesus’s resurrection happens on the first day of the week (John 20:1, 19), thus symbolizing the inauguration of the new creation (1 Cor. 15:20, 23; 2 Cor. 5:17). It establishes Jesus Christ as the Righteous One (1 Tim. 3:16; cf. Isa. 50:8; 53:11; 1 John 2:1) and the Lord and Judge of the universe (Matt. 28:18; Acts 2:36; 10:42; 17:31; Rom. 1:4; 14:9). It secures justification for all who believe (Rom. 4:25; 6:8–11; 1 Cor. 15:17), initiates the spread of the good news (Rom. 1:16–17; Gal. 1:11–12) and a Spirit-empowered global mission of salvation (Matt. 28:19–20; John 20:19–22; Acts 1:8), and supplies the necessary lens for understanding the OT (John 2:20–22; 12:13–16; 20:9). Jesus’s resurrection creates for all in him a living hope for “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:3–5), and it provides hope for the entire created order that it will be renewed (Rom. 8:18–25; cf. Col. 1:20)—“Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:23). In his resurrected body, at least prior to his ascension, Jesus retained physical signs of his execution so as to validate his identity (Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 25, 27; Acts 1:3), but he could remain unrecognized until he chose to disclose himself (Luke 24:16, 31; John 20:14, 16; 21:4, 12). He could walk and dialogue with others (Luke 24:15–17; John 20:15), vanish and appear at will (Luke 24:31, 36–37; John 20:19, 26), be touched (Luke 24:39; John 20:17, 27), and eat and drink (Luke 24:30, 42–43; Acts 10:41). He was rightfully worshipped, and he visibly ascended to heaven (Luke 24:51–52; Acts 1:9).

Jesus compared God’s power to raise the dead (e.g., Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6; 2 Kings 5:7) with his power to overcome spiritual death by presently giving people eternal life (John 3:16; 5:21, 24–26); such initial “resurrection” gives certainty of consummate resurrection following physical death, first spiritually and then bodily (5:28–29; 11:25–26; 14:2–3). Paul, too, notes that, although “we were dead in our trespasses,” God has already “made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:5–7). Believers are, thus, already experiencing a spiritual resurrection, and Christians who die before Christ’s second appearing enter into a state of conscious rest in the presence of Jesus (Luke 23:43; John 14:2–3; 2 Cor. 4:14; Phil. 1:23). But when Christ does return, those who already experienced initial spiritual resurrection will then be given new supernatural bodies that will never wear out (Rom. 8:11; Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Thess. 4:16–17).

As noted above, Scripture anticipates “a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15; cf. Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:46; John 5:28–29). This is what Revelation 20:12 refers to when it asserts, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was open, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (cf. Matt. 25:31–32; 2 Cor. 5:10). Scholars continue to disagree on the meaning and proper temporal referents of Revelation 20:1–6, which mentions “the first resurrection” and “the second death” (20:5–6). While the text is not explicit, the ordinals “first” and “second” imply at least a “second” and “first” for both resurrection and death. Furthermore, “the first resurrection” likely applies only to believers (“blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection!” 20:6) and refers to the spiritual life already enjoyed by believers who die (cf. Luke 23:43; Phil. 1:23).[2] In contrast, “the second death” will apply only to nonbelievers (“over such [i.e., those who experience the first resurrection] the second death has no power,” Rev. 20:6) and relates to the eternal state of the unregenerate in the lake of fire (20:14).[3] The note that “the rest of the dead did not come to life” (20:5) refers to the unbelievers who, after physical death, remain “dead in [their]trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) but who will rise at the final judgment.[4] See figure 30.1.

First resurrectionSpiritual (immediate)
First deathPhysicalPhysical
Second resurrectionPhysicalPhysical
Second deathSpiritual (eternal)

Fig. 30.1. Death and Resurrection in Revelation 20

Christ’s resurrection impacts the Christian’s present ethics and future hope. Paul says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). Similarly, the apostle notes, “We were buried . . . with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. . . . So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ” and must not let “sin therefore reign in your mortal body” (Rom. 6:4, 11–12; cf. 1 Cor. 6:12–20; 2 Cor. 5:15). Our identification with Christ in his resurrection demands that we live as part of the new creation.

Related to this, God’s reconciling us should move us to help others be reconciled with God (2 Cor. 5:17–19), for Christ’s resurrection now gives our preaching, faith, and labors eternal purpose (1 Cor. 15:14, 58). Jesus’s resurrection awakens confidence in the life to come (15:23), and what we hope for tomorrow changes who we are today (2 Peter 1:4). We are empowered to radical mission and radical joy amid a world of chaos and suffering because we know that when Christ returns, our new body will be raised in glory and power and will bear the very image of the man of heaven, the divine Son (1 Cor. 15:43–44, 49; cf. Phil. 3:20–21). Come, Lord Jesus!

[1].   See esp. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 3 (London: SPCK, 2003). For a brief synthesis of his view, see N. T. Wright, “Resurrection Narratives,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 675–76; N. T. Wright, “Resurrection of the Dead,” in Vanhoozer, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 676–78. For more on the doctrine of resurrection, see the entire issue of SBJT 18, no. 4 (Winter 2014).

[2].   See Meredith G. Kline, “The First Resurrection,” WTJ 37 (1975): 366–75; and Meredith G. Kline, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation,” WTJ 39 (1976): 110–19. As noted above, both John and Paul identify that the “first resurrection” is actually inaugurated at conversion (John 5:21, 24; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1) and consummated when, following physical death, persons presently exiled enter their heavenly citizenship (Luke 23:43; John 14:2–3; 2 Cor. 4:14; Phil. 1:23), awaiting the reunion with their bodies at the “second resurrection” (John 5:28–29; Phil. 3:20–21).

[3].   See G. K. Beale, “The Millennium in Revelation 20:1–10: An Amillennial Perspective,” CTR 11, no. 1 (2013): 29–62.

[4].   Both John and Paul identify that physical death is merely the consummation of the “first death” that was already inaugurated at conception through a person’s identification with Adam (Rom. 5:12, 18–19) and the spiritual death lived out in the land of the living (John 3:18, 36; 4:24–26; Eph. 2:1, 5).

This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Biblical Theology by Gary V. Smith and Timothy D. Sprankle. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

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