Today in Protestant circles we still hear a lot about the immortality of the soul, despite this doctrine being passionately rejected by Martin Luther 500 years ago.1 But we rarely hear of the immortality of the body, an important feature of resurrection, nor do we even hear that much about resurrection in general!2 Will all rise physically from the dead, like Jesus did—or only the saved? And if all rise in physical bodies, will the bodies of all be fitted with immortality, never to die again—or only those of the saved?
These kinds of questions are essential for assessing any doctrine of salvation and damnation, and yet they are often absent from the hell debate, and from broader discussion. Both heaven and hell are widely seen as ethereal destinations, to be arrived at immediately upon dying. But this truncated version of the biblical schedule of events renders resurrection and final judgment superfluous, even incoherent. Why were the unsaved sent straight to hell before Judgment Day, the very point at which they will be sentenced to hell? And if the saved and the unsaved already reside in the place where they’ll spend eternity, why bring them out? If they are brought out in resurrection, only to be shortly sent back there but this time in a physical form, how can those realms be suited to both physical and nonphysical habitation?
This whole model is deeply concerning, since it minimizes or tacitly rejects the bodily resurrection, a belief that is supposed to be integral to Christian orthodoxy. In justifying this concern historically we could look at various important creeds and statements, but in the interests of space it will suffice to quote the early church fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyon:
Some who are reckoned among the orthodox go beyond the prearranged plan for the exaltation of the just . . . and entertain heretical opinions. For the heretics, not admitting the salvation of their flesh, affirm that immediately upon their death they shall pass above the heavens. Those persons, therefore, who reject a resurrection affecting the whole man, and do their best to remove it from the Christian scheme, know nothing as to the plan of resurrection.3
For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this truth, and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians.4
Preserving the biblical teaching on resurrection helps us to avoid such errors. It helps orient our thinking toward coming back to embodied life, and the important earthly frame that will continue in the time of a “new earth” (Rev 21:1; Isa 66:22). Resurrection is the centerpiece of the gospel message, and its importance cannot be overstated. Jesus rose from the dead because he had overcome it. All other resurrections in the Bible have been miraculous, to be sure, but only as brief, temporary extensions of life. By contrast, the resurrection of Jesus was unique because he came back to life forever, as he proclaimed: “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!” (Rev 1:18).
Thus, Christians believe that we too might rise again to eternal life. We long for the day when “what is mortal [will] be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor 5:4). This future hope is necessarily connected to our present bodies, in that one day “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to [our] mortal bodies” (Rom 8:11). So believers eagerly await “the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved” (Rom 8:23-24). If the Christian hope in resurrection turns out to be false, our entire “faith is futile . . . we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19).
Also of great importance is the resurrection of the unsaved. It is clearly taught in Daniel 12:2-3, John 5:29, and Acts 24:15, so should not be forgotten or rejected. As noted, the unsaved face final judgment and condemnation only after they are resurrected. We should therefore resist the popular notion that people go to final punishment merely as disembodied souls. As Jesus taught, whole persons will be cast into hell (Gehenna) for destruction—“both soul and body” (Matt 10:28).
Given all of this, let us now turn to the biblical data on the subject, to ascertain what we ought to believe about the difference between the resurrection of the saved and the unsaved.
|Believer’s Resurrection||Unbeliever’s Resurrection||Biblical Text|
|“to everlasting life” and “shall shine like the brightness of the sky [and] the stars forever and ever.”||“to shame and everlasting contempt”||Daniel 12:2-3|
|“the resurrection of life”||“the resurrection of judgment”||John 5:29|
|“a resurrection of . . . the just”5||“a resurrection of . . . the unjust”||Acts 24:15|
|“are considered worthy to attain to that age [to come] and to the resurrection from the dead . . . they cannot die anymore . . . and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”||“sons of this age” are not “considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead,” and can still “die,” for they are not “sons of God” or “sons of the resurrection.”||Luke 20:34-36|
|“united with [Jesus] in a resurrection like his” . . . “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”||A resurrection not “like his” and not free from the “dominion of death” so as to “never die again”||Rom 6:5, 9|
|“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”||Whoever doesn’t believe in him who is “the resurrection and the life” ultimately shall neither “live” nor “never die.”||John 11:25-26|
|A “better resurrection (kreittōn anastasis)” than when in the past “women received back their dead by resurrection (anastasis).”||A resurrection not “better” than what occurred in the past when “women received back their dead by resurrection”—i.e., a temporary one (sometimes called “resuscitation”).||Hebrews 11:35|
The table above summarizes the biblical data on the two different kinds of resurrection. On the one hand, the resurrection of believers is a unique resurrection “of the just,” “of life,” and “to everlasting life,” (Acts 24:15; John 5:29; Dan 12:2) for all the “sons of God [and] sons of the resurrection” who are “considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead” (Luke 20:34-36). It is a “better resurrection” (Heb 11:35) that they are looking forward to (compared to all that have been only temporary), in which they “shall never die,” (John 11:26) and “never die again,” because it is “a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5, 9). On the other hand, the raising of unbelievers is seen as the resurrection “of the unjust” and “of judgment,” “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Acts 24:15; John 5:29; Dan 12:2), for all the “sons of this age” who will be deemed unworthy “to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead.” They can in fact still “die,” for they are neither “sons of God” nor “sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34-36), nor do they participate in a “better resurrection” (Heb 11:35) like that of Jesus Christ.
The following table extends the above data with a focus on specifically how bodies will be transformed in believer’s resurrection. Whatever aspect is changed in their particular case only, must logically remain unchanged in the case of unbelievers.
|“to everlasting life” and “shall shine like the brightness of the sky [and] the stars forever and ever.”||“to shame and everlasting contempt”||Daniel 12:2-3||still physical||still physical||Luke 24:39; Dan 12:2|
|transformed||not transformed||Phil 3:21; 1 Cor 15:51-52|
|“like his glorious body”||lowly||Phil 3:21|
|imperishable||perishable||1 Cor 15:42, 50-54|
|glorious||dishonorable||1 Cor 15:43|
|powerful||weak||1 Cor 15:43|
|1 Cor 15:44|
|“of heaven”||“of the dust”||1 Cor 15:48|
|Not mere “flesh and blood”||mere “flesh and blood”||1 Cor 15:50|
|immortal||mortal||Rom 8:11; 2 Cor 5:4;
1 Cor 15:53-54
|victorious over death||not victorious over death||1 Cor 15:54-55|
While all resurrection bodies will still be physical (Luke 24:39; Dan 12:2), the bodies of believers will be redeemed and dramatically transformed, making resurrection a victory over death (Rom 8:23; Phil 3:21; 1 Cor 15:51-55). They will be “glorious,” “imperishable,” “powerful,” “spiritual,” “of heaven,” not merely “flesh and blood,” and “immortal” (Phil 3:21; 1 Cor 15:42-54; Rom 8:11; 2 Cor 5:4). The bodies of everyone else, however, will remain as they were beforehand, and are now: “lowly” (Phil 3:21), “perishable” (1 Cor 15:42, 50-54), “dishonorable” (1 Cor 15:43), “weak” (1 Cor 15:43), “soulish” (1 Cor 15:44, often translated “natural” in contrast to “spiritual”), “of the dust” (1 Cor 15:48, like Adam’s earthly body), mere “flesh and blood” (1 Cor 15:50), and “mortal” (Rom 8:11; 2 Cor 5:4; 1 Cor 15:53-54). To be mortal means to be liable to death, such that to be raised mortal still leaves one liable to a second death. To be raised in the mortal condition, which results from sin, while others are raised to “glory, honor and immortality” (Rom 2:7), will be a most shameful and shocking experience.
The Redemption of Our Bodies
It is important to appreciate the context and impetus for the transformation of believer’s bodies. Philippians 3:21 summarizes the promise this way: “He will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” At Christ’s return, the dramatic event known as the Parousia, his glorious form—which was glimpsed at the Transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-18 cf. Matt 17:1-8)—will be publicly disclosed. It will be in splendour and “flaming fire,” and he will “be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thess 1:8, 10). Faithful believers eagerly await “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:13). All “who have longed for his appearing” will be presented spotless before him (2 Tim 4:8), when he “present[s] the church to himself in splendor” (Eph 5:27 cf. 2 Cor 4:16).
But not all will be found “blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:13). Believers will each stand “holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col 1:22)—but only if we “abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming . . . what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 2:28-3:3). Here we have a connection to the reciprocity of Philippians 3:21; to be holy and pure like the Lord, is to appear visibly glorious like the Lord, and to be welcomed into his presence to see him truly, face-to-face. But the impure will not enter God’s glorious presence, nor will they share in Christ’s glorious form (their bodies will not be transformed and redeemed in resurrection). Nothing impure and unholy can enter God’s presence, so corrupt and sinful mortals can only cower in shame and dreadful anticipation of the encounter.
Many Old Testament passages stand behind this priestly motif about the necessity of purity in God’s glorious presence. For example, Zechariah 3 describes a vision of Joshua the high priest wearing filthy robes and being accused by Satan, but then being graciously clothed with “pure vestments” and given “the right of access” in God’s courts (Zech 3:4, 7). In Isaiah’s vision, God’s voice shook the temple foundations, and when Isaiah’s eyes saw God he immediately despaired of his own unclean speech (Isa 6:4-5). In Leviticus 9, Aaron’s sons approached the Lord in an “unauthorized” manner, “and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them” (Lev 9:1-2). In Numbers 16, the rebellion of Korah led to fire coming out from the Lord to consume 250 men offering incense, based on the principle that “the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him,” with the resulting lesson being that “no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near” (Num 16:5, 40).
This important theme is picked up in Hebrews 10, which is worth quoting here at length for the context it supplies to the necessity of transformation:6
. . . those who draw near [to God] . . . have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. . . . Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope . . . as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. . . . For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. . . . But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
The destruction of those who shrink back corresponds to “the removal of things that are shaken” in Hebrews 12:27, while the preservation of the souls/lives of the righteous relates to “that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” The reader is encouraged to study Hebrews 12:18-29 in light of the above passage, for further detail about what God is going to do as “a consuming fire” on the day of judgment, and also 2 Peter 3, which describes the operations and extent of the destructive fire on “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet 3:7). In addition, my article Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence discusses an important piece of biblical data showing that “eternal destruction” is inflicted by God’s presence.
Lest the future realities of Hebrews 9 be dismissed as merely typological, notice how the descriptions of confidence to approach God versus recoiling from his presence (i.e. “shrink back”) dovetail with those of 1 John 2:28–3:3, quoted earlier, which speaks clearly of a literal encounter. Such a judgment crisis for each individual signals the necessity of ethical purity and of likeness to God in glory: “what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
This visible, somatic correspondence between Christ and future Christians clarifies what’s being affirmed in the saying, “He will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:21). Likeness in appearance is representative of the broader transformation into Christ-likeness, Christ being “the image of the invisible God,” with believers destined “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Col 1:15; Rom 8:29). Likeness in form and appearance is what Paul means by “bear the image of the man of heaven” in 1 Corinthians 15:49, in fact, given the juxtaposition with bearing the image of the “man of dust” (Adam), and the context of the passage, which is talking about the resurrection body of believers. In “the twinkling of an eye,” believers “will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:52).
Participation in Christ’s Life, Death, and Resurrection
In order to fully appreciate New Testament theology as it pertains to conformity to the image of Christ and to the full outworking of his redemptive work, we need to be familiar with participation. When the apostle Paul speaks of being “in Christ,” for example, this means roughly that a person belongs to and is identified with Christ, and receives the benefits of salvation conferred by that relationship. He asks of the Corinthians, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). In such symbolic ways we are identified with Christ and included with him in the meaning of his literal sacrifice of death, as if we ourselves had also died.
Such strong identification allows for the application of his benefit to us: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:3, 4). The apostle Peter speaks similarly of when believers will “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), where the idea is that God has certain “communicable attributes” which will be conferred upon believers as participants in God’s own nature (including that of immortality; see 1 Tim 1:17 cf. 2 Tim 1:10).
The arrangements of participation are in a sense “spiritual,” however using this term risks reducing those correspondences (the thing participated in, and the benefits or results conferred) to the single relationship between them. Where the scriptures say things like “alive to God” and “died to sin,” this means more than simply being spiritually alive or dead. Thinking in terms of participation helps us to preserve the explicit identification (here, God and sin respectively) and the implicit benefits conferred by that saving relationship.
To say that one is “alive to God” or has “died to sin” is to say something qualitatively good. But participation may also indicate something negative, as in the contrastive use of image-bearing in 1 Corinthians 5:48-49—
As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
In the larger context, this is saying that to be merely human and share in the dust-bound form of Adam, is to be mortal and corruptible, while to participate in Christ will result in the heavenly benefits of his immortal, incorruptible form. The concept of image-bearing is one of participation, which reminds us to always include what is at both ends of that relation. Let’s now look at some important passages where this is in play.
Participation in Romans 6:1-14
The passage of Romans 6:1-14 is especially significant concerning participation and resurrection. Verse 5 is most direct in that regard: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” As the context makes clear, we are united with Christ’s death by being “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:3). It’s very easy to read verse 5 as saying no more than that our baptism spiritually represents Christ’s dying and rising, but in fact it is saying that we will actually undergo a resurrection like his own. This is confirmed in verses 8-10, which also gives an elaboration:
Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
In this we see that Christ’s particular kind of resurrection results in the kind of life in which there is no more dying (i.e. eternal life). He will never die again, Paul explains, because when he died, he died to sin, making his resurrected life to God. Extraordinarily, if we participate in Christ through baptism (an outward indication of our faith), we too will receive that benefit. Clearly, it’s Christ’s work that essentially saves us, but as a proxy for that work, “baptism . . . now saves you . . . as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:21). In baptism, we participate in Christ’s saving work, dying to sin with him, living to God with him, and participating in his saving resurrection.
Now, there is more going on in the Romans passage, but certainly not less. The more is that Paul uses this model to admonish Christians to start living this new kind of life even now. We should not obey sin’s passions, but should live as those who’ve been “brought from death to life” (Rom 6:13 cf. 7:4-6). This makes sense in light of inaugurated eschatology, where “our old self was crucified with him” and “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:6, 17). God has already made us “alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,” so in a spiritual sense we are considered “raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead,” and also “seated . . . with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Col 2:12-13; Eph 2:6).
And yet, to be alive in this new way doesn’t complete the salvation process, since “the dead in Christ” still need to be literally raised to life (1 Thess 4:16). Their participation “in Christ” keeps them in saving relationship with him even in death. Since we have “faith in the powerful working of God, who raised [Jesus] from the dead” (Col 2:12), we may trust him to complete the full outworking of salvation. It is significant that Romans 6:8 contains the word for saving faith, because it points ahead to our own “resurrection like his” (v5). As Paul moves toward explaining the future “redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23), he identifies the indwelling Holy Spirit as the resurrecting power of God, which unites us to Jesus in the mode of participation (v11):
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
In this one verse, we have a concise explanation for how believers united to Jesus really will participate in the same resurrection as him, transformative from the inside out, making theirs a categorically different resurrection to that of the unsaved.
Participation and Resurrection 1 Corinthians 15:20-23
The actual resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:22 is often missed. It says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” If this were all we had to go by, rather than taking it plainly we might take it to be speaking of a kind of spiritual death and life, as many of us have been taught to assume. We might even conclude that it’s saying that all human beings first die in Adam, and then come alive in Christ, an interpretation that can swiftly lead to universalism. But as always, the context is very important. It continues on: “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (v23). Not all belong to Christ at his coming, so it is extra clear that “in Christ” in verse 22 carries the usual Pauline meaning of a saving participation in Christ.
The reference here to “firstfruits” (another Pauline soteriological term) calls our attention to the prior context: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15:20-21). When Christ died and rose again, his resurrection overcame his death, making it unique and victorious. In this way, Christ solves the problem of death that Adam introduced, by conquering sin and its terrible consequence: death. Adam “was a type of the one who was to come,” namely, Jesus, “the last Adam” (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:45).
Resurrection in this chapter is described as being “from the dead” (1 Cor 15:12, 20), with “the dead” repeatedly referring to those who are to be raised (vv 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, 29, 32, 35, 42, 52)—also referred to as those who have “fallen asleep in Christ” (1 Cor 15:18 cf. vv 6, 20).
Given the full context, 1 Corinthians 15:22 should not be spiritualized or universalized. Paul is talking about the particular resurrection of believers “in Christ,” a fact that must be kept in mind throughout the whole chapter. As it moves into its climax about immortality as a victory over death, the text of 1 Corinthians 15 emerges as a detailed explanation of the outworking of Christ’s accomplishment for us, when he powerfully “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10).
Participation and Life Eternal in Romans 5:10-21
Since Paul is speaking about the ordinary sense of life, death, and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:22, we are able to use that passage to shed light on Romans 5:17 and its context, where he says much the same thing. As with Romans 6 (which flows on from this passage), at times Paul may be doing more than speaking of these things in their ordinary sense. But he’s not doing less, so we should be especially attentive to tracking with his use of participation. Let’s first remind ourselves of 1 Corinthians 15:22.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
As we saw, this is referring to the resurrection of the saved, out of death. Now compare this to the similar statement in Romans 5:17.
. . . death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
This is not universalism. Death is the universal problem, but the solution is applied to “those who receive” Christ’s grace. In chapter 4, Paul had identified these as the ones “who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had . . . his faith was counted to him as righteousness . . . It will [also] be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (Rom 4:12, 24). In fact, Abraham’s exemplary faith included the hope of resurrection, though it is easy to miss this connection. Here, Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Abraham’s ultimate test of faith, the call to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise—although he speaks of the promise and Abraham’s unwavering faith in a God “who gives life to the dead” (v17). But Hebrews 11:9 does connect those dots for us, saying that Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead.”
In seeking to understand what it means to be saved from death by being raised in resurrection, we are specifically interested in the death that “came into the world” and “spread to all men” as it “reigned through that one man,” for “as in Adam all die” (Rom 5:12, 17; 1 Cor 15:22). This refers to the account of Adam’s disobedience in Genesis, and its resulting mortality, which I discuss in another article: Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23.
Paul continues in Chapter 5 with this great statement of participation: “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand,” a relation soon made more explicit: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:2, 10). It is faith here that qualifies participation, which Paul will cache out in the next chapter via the symbol of baptism, as we saw above.
So when we come to parse the rest of the chapter, verses 12-21, we should preserve the idea of faithful believers being the ones to participate in Christ, and therefore receive the benefits of this saving relationship. Just as in 1 Corinthians 15:22 the phrase “in Christ shall all be made alive” turned out to be speaking not of all people, but of all people in Christ, so should we also read Romans 5:18’s universalist-sounding phrase “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” as a reference to all people who are in Christ (and also read it in light of the parallel statement to follow in verse 19 regarding the “many,” a word that does not literally mean all, for example in “many tespasses,” v16).
In Romans 5, Christ’s death overcomes the problem of human death, and results in believers being “saved by his life” (v10), in their “reign in life” (v17), in “life for all” who are in Christ (v18), and in a righteous reign “leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v21). While there is no clear reference to resurrection here, the implication is still there, especially when the passage is read in light of 1 Corinthians 15:22. Resurrection is necessary for life to “reign” and become eternal life, despite the barrier of death (see also John 12:25).
Participation and Resurrection in John 5:21-29
John 5:21-29 describes two distinct kinds of resurrection, and outlines how the Father’s declarative authority to judge and resurrect has been given to Jesus. The passage is rich with explanation, and is most fully appreciated through the lenses of participation and inaugurated eschatology, as we’ll see.
The teaching is Jesus’ response to the Jews who wanted to kill him for healing on the Sabbath, and for “making himself equal with God” (v18). Behind these issues was the matter of authority to speak for God, which Jesus had been doing. Chapter 4 closes with the account of him remotely healing an official’s dying son, by simply declaring “Your son will live” (John 4:53). This is reminiscent of the remote healing of the Centurion’s servant, in which Jesus’ authority to speak miraculous change into existence is explicitly noted (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:2-10). Chapter 5 begins with him healing the lame man on the Sabbath, likewise through a verbal command (John 5:8).
God’s voice, or word of command, is authoritative in both creation and redemption; He “who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). And it is authoritative in resurrection. When Jesus raised Lazarus, he called forth Lazarus with an authoritative command (John 11:43). To the deceased daughter of the ruler of the synagogue he said “Arise!”—and she did (Mark 5:41). When Jesus comes again to raise “the dead in Christ,” it will be “with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess 4:16). Our God is a God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17).
With this context in mind, let us consider Jesus’ teaching. It begins: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will . . . whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:21, 24).
Here, a believer is a hearer of God’s word through Jesus Christ. Compare this passage to Jesus’ subsequent charge to the Jews: “His voice you have never heard . . . you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:37-40).
In both sayings, we find Jesus using “life” and “eternal life” interchangeably. The first statement speaks of the life that the Son gives to his hearers (even eternal life), as being just like the Father bringing the dead back to life in resurrection. His hearers therefore avoid future judgment, having already passed judicially from death to life. This is a second, judicial usage, which depends on participation. In verse 37, to believe is to hear God’s voice and have his word indwelling us (in our hearts, as it were; Psa 119:11). This is related to the “life in himself” that is passed from Father to Son (v26), which sheds light on verse 21. The Creator possesses and originates life itself; the Son participates in this, and believers in the Son participate in it too. The logic here is also expressed in a sequence of truths from the pen of the apostle Paul: “God alone has immortality,” but Jesus has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,” and therefore to those who seek “glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (1 Tim 6:16; 2 Tim 1:10; Rom 2:7). But in order to receive this gift, we must participate “in Christ,” and be “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:23 cf. John 3:6-7; 6:63).
We are now in a better position to parse the rest of Jesus’ teaching (John 5:25-29):
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
It is important to notice the contrast between “an hour is coming, and is now here” and “an hour is coming.” This is the “now and not yet” of inaugurated eschatology. Right now, the judicially “dead” may hear and heed the voice of Jesus, and so live (now and always) because they receive the grant of life. This is occurring now because a time is coming later in which everyone who is in the tombs will hear his authoritative command to rise, either to judgment for those who did not heed his voice beforehand, or to life for those who did. The entire scheme makes perfect sense if the resurrection of judgment leads to a permanent death (destruction or annihilation), while those who have already received eternal life do not come into judgment.
Death and Salvation in Hebrews
Hebrews 5:7 refers to Jesus’ intense prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying: “to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard . . .” This is surprising to some, who interpret those prayers as a plea to avoid the extreme pains of the cross, which necessarily means that those requests weren’t heard. But this verse clearly says they were heard, and tells us that Jesus was therefore saved from death by a God he believed was able. Careful attention to Jesus’ supplications will help. At first, he prayed for the “cup” of the cross to be taken away from him, if at all possible, so that he might avoid it altogether (Matt 26:39). But Jesus had already prophesied his own death, knowing the Father’s will, so he continued on: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (v42). So he had to drink the cup of death first, before it could be taken away from him in resurrection.
According to Hebrews 5:7-10, not only was Jesus himself saved from death, but he also became the source of eternal salvation for us. As our “great high priest” (Heb 4:14), he was not “prevented by death from continuing in office,” but received his “priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Heb 7:23-25).
As Hebrews 2:14-16 puts it, Jesus took on flesh and blood in order that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” It is “through death”—the particular death of Jesus Christ—that we are able to be saved from death, just as Jesus himself was saved (Heb 2:14 cf. 5:7). We should never forget this correspondence.
The question might then arise: from which death are we saved? Now that we understand how Jesus was saved from death after dying, by means of a permanent resurrection, we can see how believers are saved from death the same way. It’s not that we are saved from “the first death,” or from so-called “physical death”—that is a case of adding our own unnecessary terms and assumptions. Rather, we are saved from the judicial penalty of death, which can have ongoing “power” and “dominion” (Heb 2:14; Rom 6:9). When this is annulled, a person “cannot die again” (Rom 6:9). But so long as it is still in effect, they must, which from a biblical-judicial standpoint, simply resumes their earlier death. Believers avoid the second death, not because we are saved from it per se, but because we are already saved from death in resurrection, when our mortal condition is “swallowed up” in immortal victory (1 Cor 15:54; 2 Cor 5:4).7
Conclusion—The Gospel of Conditional Immortality
The Bible clearly has a lot to say about future resurrection and bodily transformation. And it has a lot to say about Christ’s resurrection as a victory over death—the very heart of the good news. To our short list of the most cherished Bible verses about the gospel, like John 3:16 and Romans 6:23, we should add 2 Timothy 1:10, which states that “our Savior Christ Jesus [has] abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” He himself was saved from death, so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 5:7; 2:14).
This, in a nutshell, is conditional immortality, in which salvation is understood to be rescue from the mortal condition that results from sin. This paradigm makes the best sense of the biblical data. It explains why Christ’s resurrection is so unique and profound, and how if we are to receive eternal life and immortality, it is necessary for us to participate in “a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). To a dying world, the fact that Jesus died and conquered death for us is very good news indeed.
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- Martin Luther, “Assertio Omnium Articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. Novissimam Damnatorum,” article 27, Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, Vol. 7, pp. 131,132.
- For example, the otherwise commendable Reforming Catholic Confession fails to include the resurrection of the unsaved, and only alludes to a resurrection of the saved by mentioning “glorified bodies” (even this much requires additional understanding to link the two concepts).
- Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies,” Book V, Chapter 31.
- Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho,” Chapter 80.
- In context, Paul is casting his trial in terms of his view of resurrection, and wants it to be clear that like the Pharisees, he affirms the Law and the Prophets (unlike the Sadducees who rejected the Prophets)—given that Daniel 12:2 decided the whole controversy about resurrection between the two groups (see Acts 23:6-8 cf. 24:14, 15, 21). For this reason, we may take Paul’s statement in Acts 24:15 to be an affirmation of Daniel 12:2, with his terms “the just” and “the unjust” giving its distinctions further character.
- Hebrews 10:1, 10-13, 19-27, 30-31, 39.
- Believers who are alive when Christ returns don’t need to be resurrected, and will avoid death altogether. But they will still be transformed out of the mortal condition (1 Cor 15:51).