What Does The Bible Say?
The promise of Jesus' coming is a great blessing to believers who are living on that day. But what about the dead? One might live one hundred years, and die the day before the Lord comes, and miss that blessing. But those believers who have died aren't left out in the cold. The Lord promises them a blessing all their own. Resurrection!
The resurrection is plainly is described as necessarily preceding the catching up (rapture) of the saints in Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica.
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (NKJV)
13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 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. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
In this passage we're told of a single resurrection. Paul's purpose here was to remind this church that those who they had lost in death were in a way would not be short changed in the least at Jesus' coming. In fact, they take precedence over living saints in order of rapture. While the passage defines order, it doesn't speak directly to when on the larger scale.
However among the Jews, those who had not been led astray by the Sadducees, there was indeed believe in a coming resurrection. And they did have an idea when it would occur. They expected it on the last day. Consider Jesus' conversation with Martha concerning the resurrection.
John 11:20–24 (NKJV)
20 Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house. 21 Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Martha only seems concerned with a single resurrection. And she is confident that Lazarus will rise on the last day. Why did she thing that? Likely because the books of Isaiah and Daniel both prophesied of a time of great stress on God's people to be consummated with the resurrection of the dead.
Isaiah 26:16–19 (NKJV)
16 Lord, in trouble they have visited You,
They poured out a prayer when Your chastening was upon them.
17 As a woman with child
Is in pain and cries out in her pangs,
When she draws near the time of her delivery,
So have we been in Your sight, O Lord.
18 We have been with child, we have been in pain;
We have, as it were, brought forth wind;
We have not accomplished any deliverance in the earth,
Nor have the inhabitants of the world fallen.
19 Your dead shall live;
Together with my dead body they shall arise.
Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust;
For your dew is like the dew of herbs,
And the earth shall cast out the dead.
Daniel 12:1–3 (NKJV)
1 “At that time Michael shall stand up,
The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people;
And there shall be a time of trouble,
Such as never was since there was a nation,
Even to that time.
And at that time your people shall be delivered,
Every one who is found written in the book.
2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,
Some to everlasting life,
Some to shame and everlasting contempt.
3 Those who are wise shall shine
Like the brightness of the firmament,
And those who turn many to righteousness
Like the stars forever and ever.
So, Isaiah and Daniel both describe a time of trouble, both using language of Jesus' discourse in Matthew 24 in referencing birth pangs and a time of trouble like has never been before. What follows in Isaiah is the Lord coming "...out of His place To punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity" followed by the restoration of Israel. Daniel is actually given some time frames.
Daniel 12:12–13 (NKJV)
12 Blessed is he who waits, and comes to the one thousand three hundred and thirty-five days.
13 “But you, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days.
Both Isaiah and Daniel were expecting to be resurrected at the end of this period right before the Lord came to fight for them. For them, it was the last day. So its quite understandable why when the Jews spoke of the resurrection, they looked to the last day. Jesus didn't correct Martha's understanding of the resurrection coming on the last day. In fact, he reaffirmed it.
John 6:38–40 (NKJV)
38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. 40 And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Jesus' teaching on resurrection also expands on what Daniel had said about two resurrections, one to everlasting life, and the other to shame and everlasting contempt.
John 5:28–29 (NKJV)
28 Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29 and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
Luke 14:14 (NKJV)
14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
At this point, there really hasn't been put any sort of time gap between these two resurrections. If these were the only passages to study, one might easily conclude a single "general resurrection", whose outcome was different for different people. But it has been divided into two ideas. A resurrection to life and a resurrection to condemnation.
Paul speaks of the resurrection this way and gives this sequence: Christ's resurrection, those who belong to Jesus' resurrection, the Kingdom which he identifies with the end. What do you call the day of the end? The last day?
1 Corinthians 15:22–24 (NKJV)
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.
We find the greatest clarity of these two resurrections being separated in time in the book of Revelation.
Revelation 20:4–6 (NKJV)
4 And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.
If one accepts these words literally, then the gap of time between resurrections becomes clear. These souls, who at least some of which had gone through the tribulation, live! And everyone else, the rest of the dead, won't be resurrected for a thousand years. Then John says, this is the first resurrection. Are there any resurrections before the first resurrection?
Which brings the beginning passage back into view. The rapture is no doubt described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, since the catching up there is the very source of its usage in English. But the catching up can not happen, except something else happen first. Resurrection. Does the resurrection described here happen before the first resurrection of Revelation 20? How many resurrections does the Bible speak of? A resurrection unto life and one unto condemnation would be two resurrections. Is the resurrection in Revelation 20 a latter phase of a previous, truly first resurrection? How many phases are there?
Its something to think about. What does the Bible say? How many resurrections are there?