Monday, July 10, 2017

The First Resurrection Part 2

The Ordinal First

It is contended by premillennialists that the ordinal “first” is used with the word “resurrection” to convey the idea that the “first resurrection” is the first in a series of resurrections of the same kind. It is alleged that a “consistently literal” hermeneutics does not allow any other interpretation of the phrase “first resurrection.”

But even the pretribulational, premillennial schema does not fit into this understanding using a strictly literal hermeneutics. If, indeed, the first resurrection is the first in a series of bodily resurrections, the “first resurrection” according to historical chronology must be the pretribulation rapture. If dispensational hermeneutics is correct, what will be the final destiny of saints saved during the tribulation, or during the earthly millennium? According to the dispensational schema, the tribulation and millennial saints will be resurrected after the pretribulation rapture. These are chronologically the second, third, or even fourth resurrection! If we were to understand Revelation 20:6 literally, we would have to conclude that the second death will in fact have power over those saints who do not resurrect at the first resurrection, that is, during the pretribulation rapture.

We mentioned above that the usage of the ordinal first with “resurrection” does not occur elsewhere in the New or Old Testament. There are good exegetical reasons to believe that John had in mind two different kinds of resurrection in 20:4-6, especially when we consider his employment of the ordinal “first.” This is due to his use of contrast between the “first resurrection” and the “second death (20:6).” This contrast and the use of “first” (Prōtos) are dealt with in detail by Meredith Kline.

It is Kline’s contention that the first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection, which is contrasted with the bodily resurrection in verse 5. Kline writes:

“One of the critical points in the exegesis of Revelation 20 is the interpretation of prōtos in the phrase, “the first resurrection” (v. 5). Premillennarians understand it in the purely sequential sense of first in a series of items of the same kind. They interpret both “the first resurrection” and the resurrection event described in verses 12 and 13 of this chapter as bodily resurrections. The contextual usage of Prōtos, however, does not support such an exegesis; it rather points compellingly to an interpretation of “the first resurrection” found in (so-called) amillennial exegesis.”[1]

The usage of the word “first,” according to Kline, suggests a difference in kind rather than a sequential order. He begins his exegesis by turning to the usage of the word “first” in Revelation 21. Revelation 21:1ff provides us with a good starting point of how the Apostle John uses the ordinal “first.” In this passage of Scripture, the word “first” is obviously contrasted with the word “new.” The old or the “first heaven and the first earth (21:1)” is being superseded by the “second” or the “new heaven and a new earth (21:1).” All “the former things (21:4)” are passed away, and God creates “all things new (21:5).” 

Kline explains, 

“In this passage to be “first” means to belong to the order of the present world which is passing away. Prōtos does not merely mark the present world as the first in a series of worlds and certainly not as the first in a series of worlds all of the same kind. On the contrary, it characterizes this world as different in kind from the “new” world. It signifies that the present world stands in contrast to the new world order of the consummation which will abide forever.”[2]

Thus, in Revelation 21, “first” (Prōtos) heaven or the first earth does not mean the first in a series of the same kind. The “old” fallen world and creation is contrasted with the “second” or the new, redeemed heaven and earth. The “first” order of things is passed away, and the “second” order is ushered in. Redeemed creation is contrasted with the corrupted, fallen world. They are clearly not of the same kind. 

The same contrast is seen in Revelation 20:4-6. The “second death (20:6)” is not physical death in the same sense as the bodily death we encounter on earth. The “first death,” which is implied by the term “second death,” is what we commonly call death in a secular, non-spiritual sense. The “second death,” however, is eternal destruction in the lake of fire (20:14-15). Again, the two deaths are not of the same kind. 

In Revelation 21:1ff, the term “second” is used as an alternative to “new,” while the “old” or “former things (21:4)” are referred to as “first.” The contrast is obvious: the “second” or “new” serves as an antithesis to the “first” or “old.” Likewise, the second death in 20:6 is distinguished from the first death, which belongs to the order of first things. It is also the first death that leads to the first resurrection for the saints, but the second death leads to eternal destruction for unbelievers. “Whatever accounts for the preference for “first” over “old” in describing the present world, the use of “first” naturally led to the use of “second” alongside “new” for the future world, particularly for the future reality of eternal death for which the term “new” with its positive redemptive overtones would be inappropriate.”[3] Evidently, the terms “first” and “second” do not refer to sequence but contrast. 

The weakness in premillennial exegesis becomes apparent when we consider the contrast between “first” and “second.” Kline elaborates: 

“In this antithetical pairing of first death (an expression virtually contained in verse 4) and “second death” (v. 8), Revelation 21 confronts us with the same idiom that we find in Revelation 20 in “the first resurrection” (vss. 5, 6) and the second resurrection (an expression implicit in this chapter). The arbitrariness of the customary premillennial insistence that “the first resurrection” must be a bodily rising from the grave if the second resurrection is such is exposed by the inconsistent recognition by premillennial exegesis that, although the first death is the loss of physical life, “the second death” is death of a different kind, death in a metaphorical rather than literal, physical sense.”[4]

Although premillennialists insist that the two resurrections (20:4, 5) are bodily resurrections, they are forced to concede that the two deaths are not the same kind of death. The “first death” is bodily, physical death, while the “second death” is a metaphorical description of eternal torment.

Kline then proceeds to examine similar usages of the ordinal “first” in the New Testament, and how it serves to distinguish between the old and the new. Kline proposes that “in the Book of Hebrews the terms “first” and “new” are used to distinguish the Mosaic and the Messianic administrations of God’s redemptive covenant (cf. 8:7, 8, 13; 9:1, 15, 18; 10:9).”[5]

In Hebrews 10:9, the new covenant is also called the “second.” Within the context of Hebrews, the Mosaic economy of God’s redemptive covenant is contrasted with the Messianic administration of the same covenant of grace via the terms “first” and “second.” This usage of “first” in the Book of Hebrews, which refers to the old covenant, does not constitute a sequential chronology, but rather serves as a contrast to the second or new covenant. In the context of Hebrews, Kline explains that “although the term “second” appears along with “new,” it is “new” that predominates as the counterpart to “first.” Accordingly, the significance of “first” in this context is not so much priority in a series but opposition to the idea of “new.” Prōtos thus functions here as an equivalent for “old,” our traditional designation for the Mosaic covenant.”[6]

In both Revelation 21 and Hebrews, the term “first” denotes the order of things which passes away. “In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away (Heb. 8:13).” Kline points out that “in Hebrews as in Revelation 21 prōtos is used for the provisional and transient stage in contrast to that which is consummative, final, and enduring.”[7]

Paul’s usage of the word “first” in 1 Corinthians 15:45-50 on the theme of resurrection provides another example of such a contrast. The “first man Adam (1 Cor. 15:45)” is contrasted with “the last Adam.” “The “first man Adam” (v. 45; cf. vv. 46f) is not first in the sense of heading an indefinite series of Adams but first in the antithetically qualitative sense of being counterpart to the “last Adam” (v. 45).”[8]

The last Adam, likewise, is not the last in a series of similar “Adams.” The first Adam is earthly, the second Adam is Christ from heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). Adam stands at the head of the human race, while Christ is the head of all the redeemed. In Adam we die, but in Christ we live. Thus, the first Adam does not mean the first in a series of Adams. The ordinal “first (prōtos),” in the context of 1 Corinthians 15, is used to provide a contrast between two different kinds of Adams: the first Adam and the last Adam, who is Christ. “By eliminating the thought of any intermediate Adams between the “first” and “last” Adams, the term “second” here, as in the Hebrews and Revelation 21 passages, underscores the binary (as over against indefinitely seriatim) framework within which prōtos is functioning and derives its specific meaning.”[9]

From our study of the word “first” in Revelation 21, the Book of Hebrews, and 1 Corinthians 15, it becomes apparent that prōtos does not convey an idea of priority or preeminence, but rather provides a contrast and antithesis. The antithetical function of prōtos highlights the difference in kinds, rather than having any sequential connotations. Kline writes, “Like Revelation 21, Hebrews uses “first” for an historical stage that passes away. Like Revelation 21, Paul uses “first” and its opposite in 1 Cor 15 for a two-fold structure comprehensive of cosmic history. In none of these passages does prōtos function as a mere ordinal in a simple process of counting objects identical in kind. In fact, precisely the reverse is true in all three passages; in each case it is a matter of different kinds, indeed, of polar opposites.”[10]

With this meaning of prōtos in mind, and considering the overarching thematic continuity between Revelation 20 and 21, it is essential that exegetes interpret the ordinal first in 20:4-6 according to its usage in chapter 21. We must also consider the contrast between the “first resurrection” and the “second death” found in verses 5b and 6a: “This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power.” Kline further suggests that “the usage of prōtos in the first-(second) resurrection pattern must be the same as the usage of prōtos in the intertwined (first)-second death pattern.”[11]

In light of the aforementioned exegetical considerations, Kline elucidates:

“‘The first resurrection” is not, therefore, the earliest in a series of resurrections of the same kind, not the first of two (or more) bodily resurrections. The antithetical usage of prōtos in this context requires a conclusion diametrically opposite to the customary premillennial assumption. If the second resurrection is a bodily resurrection, the first resurrection must be a non-bodily resurrection.”[12]

Kline continues, “What then is meant by “the first resurrection”? The answer must certainly be sought in terms of the striking paradoxical schema of which the expression is an integral part. In this arrangement two binary patterns are combined into a complex double pattern with antithesis between the parts within each pair (i.e., the first-new contrast) and also between the two pairs themselves, the one having to do with death and the other with resurrection.”[13]

Thus, two binary patterns are presented by John in his vision (20:4-6): the first-(second) resurrection pattern and the (first)-second death pattern. This double pattern provides an antithesis within itself, illustrating the fact that the just shall receive the first resurrection, and that the unjust shall ultimately be condemned to the second death. Within each binary pattern, the spiritual and physical realities are contrasted further. The (first)-second death pattern provides contrast between physical death and eternal, spiritual death. In like manner, we expect the first-(second) resurrection pattern to present a similar contrast.

Kline’s exegesis leads to an inevitable conclusion - the first resurrection refers not to a bodily resurrection, but a spiritual one. He writes:

“The proper decipherment of “the first resurrection” in the interlocking schema of first-(second) resurrection and (first)-second death is now obvious enough. Just as the resurrection of the unjust is paradoxically identified as “the second death” so the death of the Christian is paradoxically identified as “the first resurrection.” John sees the Christian dead (v. 4). The real meaning of their passage from earthly life is to be found in the state to which it leads them. And John sees the Christian dead living and reigning with Christ (vv. 4, 6); unveiled before the seer is the royal-priestly life on the heavenly side of the Christian’s earthly death. Hence the use of the paradoxical metaphor of “the first resurrection” (vv. 5f) for the death of the faithful believer. What for others is the first death is for the Christian a veritable resurrection!”[14]

In summary, the “first resurrection” of Revelation 20:4-6 is a spiritual resurrection. When believers die physically, they are translated to heaven in their intermediate state. There, they will reign with Christ for a thousand years, which is symbolic for a complete, yet indeterminate period of time. “The believing dead shall worship God and Christ as priests and shall reign with Christ as kings” during the entire millennium.[15] There in heaven, the believing dead shall await the Second Advent of Christ, the physical resurrection of their bodies (i.e. the second resurrection), and the final judgment of the living and the dead.


The transition from physical death to blessedness and life with Christ in heaven is termed the “first resurrection.” “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years (20:6).”

Therefore, those who experience the first resurrection shall not suffer the second death. They shall be raised in the second (bodily) resurrection unto glory and eternal life. However, unbelievers who die (first death) shall be condemned to the second death. They shall be resurrected at the end of the age unto eternal damnation and torment in the lake of fire.

Referring to the first and second resurrection of the saints as two stages of blessedness, Ernst Hengstenberg comments:

“The Apocalypse invariably points to a double stage of blessedness - the one awaiting believers immediately after their departure out of this life; the other, what they are to receive when they enter the new Jerusalem. . . . There can be no doubt, that by the first resurrection we are here primarily to understand that first stage of blessedness. In so understanding it, we abide in unison with the Apocalypse and the whole of the other books of the New Testament. On the other hand, if we understand by the first resurrection a resurrection in the literal sense - if, accordingly, we suppose that the first resurrection has respect to one part of men, the second to another - we then arrive at a doctrine which in no other part of Scripture finds a ground of support, which, on the contrary, is everywhere explicitly opposed. Now, the only thing which can raise any doubt regarding the most natural and obvious view, is that the resurrection is here spoken of. This expression appears only to suit the heavenly state of blessedness. But when John denotes the two stages by the same name in order to make them known as the component parts of the same salvation, and only distinguishes them, the one as the first, the other as the second resurrection, there must of necessity in the one case attach to the term a certain want of literality. This want is all but expressly indicated by the phrase “first resurrection.” Two resurrections, in the proper sense, are not conceivable - if we would not abandon the ground of Scripture, which nowhere knows of anything but a general resurrection.”[16]

The amillennial understanding of the “first resurrection” negates any apparent contradiction with the rest of New Testament eschatology. Consistent with the teaching of a general resurrection and a final judgment associated with the Parousia of Christ, such an understanding of Revelation 20:4-6 supports the eschatological schema laid out in antecedent Scripture. It takes into account the Reformed principle of the analogy of faith, the genre of John’s apocalypse, and the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20. Finally, the amillennial understanding provides great comfort for those who have lost their loved ones in the Lord. For their reign with Christ begins with the “first resurrection,” for “blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth (Rev. 14:13).”[17]


[1] Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection,Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (1975): 366.
[2] Ibid., 366-367.
[3] Ibid., 367.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 368.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 369.
[11] Ibid., 370.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 371.
[15] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 237.
[16] Hengstenberg, The Revelation of St. John, 281-282.
[17] For further study, see Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (1976): 110-119; Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes, “The First Resurrection: Another Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 2 (1977): 316-319; Norman Shepherd, “The Resurrections of Revelation 20,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 1 (1974): 35-45; James Hughes, “Revelation 20:1-6 and the Question of the Millennium,” Westminster Theological Journal 35, no. 3 (1973): 282-303; Paul A. Rainbow, “Millennium as Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse,” Westminster Theological Journal 58, no. 2 (1996): 210-221.

Friday, June 09, 2017

The First Resurrection Part 1


The key to interpreting Revelation 20:4-6 lies in two highly debated areas. Firstly, exegetes are divided as to the nature of the first resurrection (20:5, 6); secondly, the meaning of the verb ezesan (ἔζησαν) translated by the phrase “and they lived” is highly disputed. This verb is the aorist active indicative form of the primary verb zao (ζάω), and occurs twice in this passage, once in verse 4, and once in verse 5. The meaning of the verb ezesan in verse 4 determines the nature of the first resurrection (20:5).

Premillennialists, including Bible Presbyterians, contend that both occurrences of the verb (ezesan) refer to a bodily resurrection. Accordingly, premillennialists – historic and dispensational - see at least a two-phase resurrection in Revelation 20:4-6. George Eldon Ladd is correct to say that “this is the most important word in the entire passage. The exegete must decide whether or not it means resurrection; and upon this decision will be determined how he interprets the entire passage.”[1]

We recall that according to the premillennial understanding of Revelation 20:1-6, this passage necessarily follows Revelation 19 chronologically. This interpretation ignores the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20. Premillennialism requires both occurrences of the verb (ezesan) to mean a physical, bodily resurrection. In other words, Premillennialism necessitates two bodily resurrections in Revelation 20:4-6. If this point can be contested and repudiated by exegetes, then premillennialism will not stand. Stanley Grenz, expressing the thoughts of Millard Erickson, perceptively notes that “the linchpin of premillennialism is the doctrine of two bodily resurrections. The first will occur at the Lord’s return. The righteous of all ages will rise in order to share in the millennial reign of Christ. Only after the golden age will the rest of the dead come forth from their graves, an event that, however, will place the wicked in the presence of the judge who will consign them to their eternal destiny.”[2]

Thus, premillennialists find in this passage (20:4-6) two separate physical resurrections: the resurrection of the saints, and the resurrection of the wicked, both of which are separated by the millennium. Premillennialists, such as Ladd, find no other resurrection mentioned in this passage other than two physical resurrections. Ladd writes,

“In Rev. 20:4-6, there is no such contextual clue for a similar variation of interpretation. The language of the passage is quite clear and unambiguous. There is no necessity to interpret either word spiritually in order to introduce meaning to the passage. At the beginning of the millennial period, part of the dead come to life; at its conclusion, the rest of the dead come to life. There is no evident play upon words. The passage makes perfectly good sense when interpreted literally.”[3]

In his commentary on Revelation, Ladd quotes Henry Alford’s well-known words:

“If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain psychai ezesan at the first, and the rest of the nekroi ezesan only at the end of a specified period after that first, - if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave; - then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.”[4]

Premillennialists understand the second resurrection as a resurrection of the wicked, which is followed chronologically by the Great White Throne judgment. They reason that, if the second resurrection is a physical resurrection, then what John describes as the first resurrection must also be a bodily resurrection.

In contrast to the premillennial understanding of ezesan (ἔζησαν), amillennialists do not interpret the first resurrection to mean a physical resurrection. The general teaching of the New Testament elucidates a final, general resurrection (Rev. 20:11-15) of both the just and the unjust. This theological understanding, coupled with the analogy of faith, undergird the amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6.

Furthermore, we recall that the scene (20:4-6) is set in heaven. The first resurrection, considering the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20, occurs prior to the Second Coming of Christ. Taken collectively, all these factors point to the conclusion that a physical resurrection in Revelation 20:4 is very unlikely. But only an exposition of Revelation 20:4-6 will confirm our suspicion.

Amillennialists have, in general, understood the phrase “and they lived and reigned with Christ” to mean either the believer’s spiritual resurrection during conversion, or the believer’s death and subsequent reign with Christ in the intermediate state. The later position is taken by William Hendricksen,[5] Gregory Beale,[6] Anthony Hoekema,[7] Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg,[8] and Meredith Kline.[9] In both cases, the first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection, and occurs prior to the Second Advent of Christ.

The First Resurrection and Hermeneutics

There are serious hermeneutical differences between dispensational and Reformed exegetes. With regard to eschatology, the primary dissimilarity lies in how these scholars interpret Revelation 20:1-6. Reformed expositors tend to apply the analogy of faith, that is, they study Revelation 20 in the light of the teachings of the entire New Testament. The premillennialist, however, finds a two-phase physical resurrection in 20:4-6, and applies this understanding retrogradely into antecedent Scripture. But the entire New Testament is unanimous on the doctrine of the general resurrection. Instead of interpreting the highly symbolical passage of 20:4-6 using clear New Testament passages, the premillennialists insist on imposing a literal reading of 20:4-6 onto plain, New Testament eschatological teachings. George Murray laments:

“The anomaly confronting us here is that one can read the whole Bible without discovering an inkling of this doctrine [the doctrine of two resurrections separated by one thousand years] until he arrives at its third from the last chapter. If, on coming to that chapter, he shall give a literal interpretation to one sentence of a highly symbolical passage, he will then find it necessary to retrace his steps and interpret all the eschatological teachings of the Bible in a manner agreeable to this one sentence. The recognized rule of exegesis is to interpret an obscure passage of Scripture in the light of a clear statement. In this case, clear statements are being interpreted to agree with the literal interpretation of one sentence from a context replete with symbolism, the true meaning of which is highly debatable.”[10]

We have previously discussed the genre of Revelation, as well as the hermeneutical considerations of interpreting such symbolical passages. In the proper interpretation of John’s Apocalypse, we must consider four levels of communication in 20:1-6. “The linguistic level consists of the text of 20:1–6. The visionary level consists of John’s actual visions of a descending angel, a dragon, a pit, the seizing of the dragon, the sealing of the pit, the thrones, and so on. The referential level consists of the historical referents of the dragon, the pit, the thousand years, and the first resurrection. The symbolic level consists of the symbolic significances of the various figures and events depicted.”[11]

Premillennialists, in general, agree that the plain reading of 20:4-6 would support a two-phase resurrection sequence. They contend that a literal rendering of the text will inevitably limit the meaning of the “first resurrection” to a bodily resurrection. Thus, the premillennial exegete finds two physical resurrections in 20:4-6, one in verse 4b, and one in verse 5a. But such a literal approach to this highly symbolical passage does not do justice to the full meaning of the text.

In the previous chapters, it was reiterated that when we consider apocalyptic passages such as the vision of John in 20:1-6, we must not disregard the visionary and symbolical meaning of the text. Poythress correctly perceives that “many premillennialists . . . neglect the possibility of the presence of a visionary and a symbolic level. Instead they move almost immediately from the linguistic level to the referential level. The language of “living” and “first resurrection” is understood in a literal sense. Anastasis (“resurrection”) elsewhere in the NT is always used of bodily resurrection. And, it is claimed, the context of Revelation 20 does not point away from this normal understanding. Hence “resurrection” must here mean bodily resurrection. Hence the first resurrection refers to the bodily resurrection of believers at the second coming.”[12]

Poythress explains that in the communication of the vision to John, the apostle had to see the resurrection of actual bodies. This is an essential element in order for the information to be conveyed to John in visionary format. But the imagery of bodies rising does not in itself determine the referential and the symbolic meaning. What the apostle sees at the visionary stage does not immediately determine the meaning of the vision at the referential or symbolic levels.

Poythress argues,

“What took place on the visionary level? John saw saints come to life and reign (v. 4). In the context of a vision, one could hardly imagine that John’s experience was anything other than seeing a bodily resurrection and its results. John had to see bodies in order for any information concerning people to be conveyed in a visionary format. The visionary level thus includes bodily resurrection and its results. On the symbolic level the text pictures new life and vindication. And what takes place on the referential level? The referent is some kind of new life, but the exact form remains to be determined. The mere fact that the visionary level involves concrete physical representation does not by itself determine the nature of the referential level.”[13]

Therefore, what is perceived at the visionary level must not be extrapolated immediately to the referential and symbolic levels. If the visions of John’s Apocalypse were to be understood literally, specifically the vision of 20:4-6, then that would be a gross misunderstanding of the genre and worse, to misinterpret the meaning of those texts. Poythress recognizes that the crux of the entire controversy is hermeneutical in nature. The disparity between premillennial, particularly dispensational, hermeneutics and Reformed hermeneutics ultimately constitutes the exegetical differences with regard to the text in question.[14]

With regard to Revelation 20:4-6, Poythress summarizes the weaknesses inherent in premillennial hermeneutics:

“Many premillennialists have thus skirted some key issues when appealing to the supposed literalness of the first resurrection. They have neglected the visionary and symbolic levels of the discourse. In fact premillennial interpreters have often applied a similar literalistic interpretive strategy to the rest of Revelation and to much of OT prophecy as well. In such a strategy, the visionary level and symbolic level are virtually collapsed into the referential level. Throughout Revelation the visions are then understood to be direct transcriptions of future history. Partly for this reason most premillennialists are futurist in their interpretation of Revelation.”[15]

The Meaning of the Resurrection

It is often adduced by Premillennialists that, since ezesan (ἔζησαν) in verse 5a refers to a physical resurrection – and few expositors would ever dispute this point – then ezesan in verse 4b must also mean a physical resurrection.[16] But there are several considerations which are apparently neglected when one attempts to understand this verb too literally.

Gregory Beale writes,

“In contrast to this literal approach, it is important to recognize that ἀνάστασις (“resurrection”) is found in Revelation only in 20:5-6. Moreover, the ordinal “first” (πρῶτος) with “resurrection” occurs nowhere else in the OT or the NT. This is a hint that lexical study of words expressing the ideas of “first” and “second” needs to be conducted in order to comprehend the full meaning of “resurrection” in the present context.”[17]

Therefore, it is paramount that the contextual usage of “first” (Prōtos) must be explored in our interpretation of the phrase “first resurrection.”

Beale argues that “ζάω (“live”) has a more fluid of range of meaning in the Apocalypse and elsewhere (for the sense of physical resurrection outside Revelation cf. Matt. 9:18; Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 13:4). In the Apocalypse it sometimes refers to physical resurrection (1:18; 2:8) or more generally to some form of physical existence (l6:3; 19:20), but more often it has a figurative connotation of spiritual existence, especially with respect to God’s attribute of timeless existence (six occurrences). In 3:1 the verb refers to spiritual life (and the uses in 7:17 and 13:14 are probably also figurative).”[18] The Apostle John could very well have intended to convey a spiritual resurrection as opposed to a physical one expounded by premillennialists.

However, according to Beale, the “most striking is the observation that elsewhere in the NT ἀνάστασις and ζάω (or the cognate noun ζωή, “life”) and synonyms are used interchangeably of both spiritual and physical resurrection within the same immediate contexts.”[19] Beale provides Romans 6:4-13 and John 5:24-29 as instances whereby the words “life” and “resurrection” are used together within the same context to convey spiritual and physical realities. “These observations do not demonstrate that the same words are used in Rev. 20:4 and 6 of both spiritual and physical resurrection, but only that they can have that dual meaning elsewhere in the same context.”[20]

The premillennialist’s insistence that the same word cannot possess different meanings within the same context is consequently weakened.


[1] Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 265.
[2] Stanley J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 128-129. Cf. Millard Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), 97. In a later edition of the same book, Erickson notes, “The premillennialist insists that the two resurrections mentioned in Revelation 20:4-6 are both bodily in nature. Because this point forms the linchpin of the premillennial position, it deserves close scrutiny.” See Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium, 97.
[3] Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 266.
[4] Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (Boston: Lee and Shepard. 1872), IV, 732, quoted in Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 267.
[5] See Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 192.
[6] See Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1002-1007.
[7] See Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 232-238.
[8] See Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, The Revelation of St. John: Expounded for Those Who Search the Scriptures (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1852; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005), 281-282.
[9] See Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection,Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (1975): 366-375.
[10] George L. Murray, Millennial Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1948), 153-154.
[11] Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 1 (1993): 45-46.
[12] Ibid., 46.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Reformed hermeneutics refers to the “historical-grammatical-literary-theological” method of interpretation.
[15] Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” 48.
[16] See Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation: New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 366. Mounce writes, “The strong presumption is that the verb in v. 4 should be taken in the same sense as it is in v. 5. In the second case the statement, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended,” certainly refers to a bodily resurrection at the close of the millennial period. If “they came to life” in v. 4 means a spiritual resurrection to new life in Christ, then we are faced with the problem of discovering within the context some persuasive reason to interpret the same verb differently within one concise unit. No such reason can be found.”
[17] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1004.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 1005.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Thoughts on Theosis: An Intermezzo

Note: During a group discussion regarding Christian sanctification within the context of the book of Hebrews in Sunday school, a relatively new term – “theosis” – was thrown out. As the concept of theosis is more complex than it seems, I have reserved my judgment and deferred my sentence concerning this. But here and now, I shall proffer you a brief treatment of the subject in the following article.

The concept of theosis (θέωσις) is originally an Eastern Orthodox doctrine, and because it is often misunderstood, it is generally frowned upon by scholars from the western tradition. Within Orthodoxy, the terms “deification,” “divinization” and “theosis” are commonly interchangeable, and mean the same thing. Orthodoxy would argue that this is an early patristic doctrine, clearly enunciated by certain early church fathers like Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and Anastasius of Sinai. In fact, Athanasius memorably condensed the entire concept of theosis into an aphorism, “[God] was made man so that we might be made God” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 54.3).
We now turn to the definition of theosis within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. According to Reuschling, “Theōsis is a theological concept denoting the goal of salvation to be union with God made possible through a process of deification, or becoming like God or being made divine.”[1]

Here we encounter the elusive phrase “goal of salvation.” Is this “salvation” justification, or is it “salvation” as in sanctification and subsequently glorification? It seems difficult to tease out a distinction between justification and sanctification with the terse phrase.

We ought to ask ourselves, “Are we united to God at justification, or are we being justified by a process of deification?” Furthermore, how are we united with God? The Western Church has no problem with the concept of Christians being “in Christ” or united with Christ at the new birth. As Paul wrote in the epistle to the Ephesians, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses … In him we have obtained an inheritance … In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (ESV, Ephesians 1:7–14).
Perusing the Westminster Larger Catechism question 69:

Q. 69. What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?
A. The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him. (emphasis mine)

It becomes apparent that the Reformed tradition likewise propounds the concept of “union with Christ,” the details of which goes beyond the scope of this brief discourse. But the notion of theosis is more than that. It means that we are being made more divine, hence the term “divinization.”
We must inquire, “Does theosis involve a confounding of ontology between Creator and creature, or some form of absorption into the being of God?” What does Orthodoxy mean when they say that Christians are being deified? The Orthodox Study Bible describes theosis as follows:

“This does not mean we become divine by nature. If we participated in God’s essence, the distinction between God and man would be abolished. What this does mean is that we participate in God’s energy, described by a number of terms in scripture such as glory, love, virtue, and power. We are to become like God by His grace, and truly be His adopted children, but never become like God by nature. … When we are joined to Christ, our humanity is interpenetrated with the energies of God through Christ’s glorified flesh. Nourished by the Blood and Body of Christ, we partake of the grace of God—His strength, His righteousness, His love—and are enabled to serve Him and glorify Him. Thus we, being human, are being deified.”[2]
In other words, theosis in Orthodoxy does not mean that man become gods in any ontological sense. Rather, it refers to a process whereby Christians via the participation in God’s “energies,” acquire godly characteristics such as “love, virtue and power,” thereby experiencing communion with God and eventually gaining immortality. These can be identified as what evangelicals describe as sanctification and glorification.

Theosis is a central tenet of Eastern Orthodoxy. This doctrine permeates all of Orthodoxy’s teachings on salvation. This terminology has traditionally been repulsive to the Western Church as it may be misconstrued as the assimilation of man’s essence with God’s essence, thereby confounding foundational doctrines such as divine simplicity and the Creator-creature distinction. This is partially due to the fact that the Western Church has never distinguished God’s essence from His energies.
Bartos elucidates, “Yet Eastern theology says very clearly that “becoming god” does not mean an identification with God’s divine nature (essence) but rather something experienced by adoption, by grace, and by imitation. Generally, the theology of the Orthodox Church understands deification as “the religious ideal of Orthodoxy,” and “the central dogma of Orthodoxy.’”[3]

Problems with Theosis
Would I therefore be correct to say that the concept of theosis is innocuously palatable for Reformed theology? Not quite.

Contrariwise, there seems to be some apparently insurmountable difficulties between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism concerning the concept of theosis. Kärkkäinen agrees, “According to the typical textbook wisdom, the main dividing issue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans is the differing interpretation of the doctrine of justification by faith, and the issue between Western and Eastern churches is the irreconcilable breach between understanding salvation in terms of justification and theosis, respectively. Historically, especially Eastern and Western traditions have been considered to be diametrically opposed to each other.”[4]
Allow us to look at these differences in some details. The most serious of these is the lack of emphasis on the distinction between justification and sanctification within Orthodoxy’s doctrine of salvation and theosis. As Fairbairn rightly observes that, “Orthodoxy’s emphasis on deification or sanctification to the virtual exclusion of justification creates serious problems for Western evangelicals.”[5]

The paramount evangelical doctrine of forensic justification of the believer by faith alone arguably distinguishes heterodoxy from mainstream evangelicalism. For Evangelicals, justification is already accomplished for the believer, and is not a status that the believer is in a process of acquiring. In A.D. 1672, the Synod of Jerusalem was convened, which issued the Confession of Dositheus directed against Calvinism and her teachings. The confession clearly repudiated the Protestant formulation of sola fide in Article XIII, which states that, “Man is justified, not by faith alone, but also by works.” It becomes evident why Orthodoxy’s doctrinal formulation on salvation deliberately avoids a distinction between justification and sanctification, with a de-emphasis on forensic justification. What the Eastern Orthodox Church needs to cogitate upon is the doctrine of justification.
Fairbairn is correct when he states that, “Orthodoxy’s failure to distinguish adequately between justification and sanctification and its lack of emphasis on the former is related to its understanding of grace. We have noticed that Eastern Christendom regards grace as the energies of God which are communicated to people and which deify them.”[6]

Eastern Orthodoxy’s understanding of “grace” is a good example of how theology proper (doctrine of God) affects and permeates all of one’s systematic theology, including soteriology. In Eastern Orthodoxy, there is a distinction between God’s essence and energies. The concept of God’s energies is foreign to the Western Church. Therefore, when Orthodoxy preaches that, in theosis, man becomes more divine, it refers to the infusion of God’s energies into man, and not His essence.
So according to Orthodoxy, grace is God’s energy that is continually infused into the believer as a process, which results in man’s eventual divinization. But Protestantism teaches that God’s grace is His unmerited favour in a salvific sense, which is understood as a one-time legal declaration of the sinner as justified. Fairbairn astutely laments that, “The lack of emphasis in Orthodox theology on this aspect of grace contributes to the Eastern failure to stress the nature of salvation as a free gift. This in turn leads to a failure to distinguish between justification as God’s free acceptance of unworthy sinners when we begin to believe, and sanctification as the process of becoming righteous, a process which involves human effort. While the emphasis on the process of deification itself is appropriate, the lack of stress on the event which begins that process results in a significantly distorted view of Christian life.”[7]

Michael Horton highlights an essential dissimilarity between Eastern and Western theology proper, “Crucial to Orthodoxy is the distinction between God’s essence and energies. The West has traditionally acknowledged only uncreated essence (God) and created essence (creatures), so that union with God would mean union with God’s essence. Yet for the East, there is only union with the energies—which are God, but in God’s activity rather than in God’s being. This marks the crucial difference between pagan Greek henōsis (absorption into deity) and theōsis.”[8]
In other words, “Western theology operates with two categories: whatever is not created is divine. The Eastern church added a third category: divine energies.”[9] This difference in the understanding of God’s essence and energies led to a cautious rejection of theosis by the Western Church. But the recent resurgence in interest in the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis has led to a re-interpretation of Luther’s understanding of deification. Indeed, the dialogue between Finnish-Lutheran and Russian Orthodoxy has culminated in an influential document on the doctrine of salvation entitled, “Salvation as Justification and Deification.” “The New Interpretation of Luther’s theology, as advanced by the so-called Mannermaa school at the University of Helsinki, has challenged the prevailing German Old School approach,” notes Finnish theologian Kärkkäinen.[10]

But such misinterpretation of Luther’s deification theory is nothing new. The “new interpretation” that justification is deification by the Mannermaa school bears an uncanny resemblance to Osiander’s error. Historically, “Andreas Osiander (1498–1552) thought that he was merely extending Luther’s logic when he argued that, in Christ, the believer participates in the deity of God.”[11]
The errors of Osiander have been thoroughly refuted by Philip Melanchthon, Matthias Flacius and John Calvin. According to Calvin, “[Osiander’s] view that Christ is our righteousness solely by his divine nature, whereby he imparts to us “essential righteousness,” was regarded as invalidating the Reformation doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice in the agony of the cross.”[12]

He continues, “That gentleman [Osiander] had conceived something bordering on Manichaeism, in his desire to transfuse the essence of God into men. … He says that we are one with Christ. We agree. But we deny that Christ’s essence is mixed with our own. Then we say that this principle is wrongly applied to these deceptions of his: that Christ is our righteousness because he is God eternal, the source of righteousness, and the very righteousness of God. … Although he [Osiander] may make the excuse that by the term “essential righteousness” he means nothing else but to meet the opinion that we are considered righteous for Christ’s sake, yet he has clearly expressed himself as not content with that righteousness which has been acquired for us by Christ’s obedience and sacrificial death, but pretends that we are substantially righteous in God by the infusion both of his essence and of his quality.”[13]
Similar to Eastern Orthodoxy’s teaching on theosis, Osiander alleges “that we are not justified by the grace of the Mediator alone, nor is righteousness simply or completely offered to us in his person, but that we are made partakers in God’s righteousness when God is united to us in essence.”[14]

Hence, the teaching that righteousness is infused denies the Reformation’s clarion call for forensic justification by faith alone, in Christ alone. Similar to Orthodoxy’s salvation by theosis, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer as a single, particular occurrence is repudiated by Osiander. He asserts “that to be justified is not only to be reconciled to God through free pardon but also to be made righteous, and righteousness is not a free imputation but the holiness and uprightness that the essence of God, dwelling in us, inspires.”[15]
Michael Bird justly conclude that, “Calvin’s Christology will not actually allow God’s essential life to be communicated to believers (and rightly so, to avoid the error of Andreas Osiander that we share in God’s essential righteousness in justification).”[16]

He perceives that, “For Calvin, the believer participates only in the human nature of Christ. Moreover, since there can be no interpenetration of the natures in Christ, participation in the human nature of Christ cannot result in a participation in the divine nature. The upshot is that one simply cannot find the ontological purchase needed for a deification theory in Calvin’s Christology. In my mind, Calvin is at best an advocate of a soft form of deification (i.e., participation), but not in the fully orbed Eastern sense.”[17]

For those who understand salvation as a deification process or theosis, the primary message from Protestantism is that Christ has purchased believers with His blood, and through His lifelong obedience in the fulfilment of the Law and His Passion, His perfect righteousness is imputed to believers by faith alone, and in Him alone. Thus, God pronounces believers righteous in Christ, and justified, not via a process of divinization or infusion of grace, but by forensic justification as a legal declaration.

Lastly, it would be prudent for us to give heed to McGowan’s advice that “there are certain key theological affirmations which must be maintained. First, the Creator-creature distinction; second, the ontological difference between God’s being and human being; and third, the doctrine of the two distinct natures of Christ under the one Person of the Logos. The affirmation of these doctrines will distinguish Reformed theology from various forms of deification theology.”[18]


[1] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, “The Means and End in 2 Peter 1:3–11: The Theological and Moral Significance of Theōsis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8, no. 2 (2014): 276.
[2] The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World (Nashville: Nelson, 2008), 1691–92.
[3] Emil Bartos, Deification in Eastern Orthodox Theology (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 7.
[4] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Deification View,” in Justification: Five Views, ed. Paul Rhodes Eddy, James K. Beilby, and Steven E. Enderlein, Spectrum Multiview Book Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 219–220.
[5] Don Fairbairn, “Salvation as Theosis: The Teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy,” Themelios 23, no. 3 (1998): 47.
[6] Ibid., 49.
[7] Ibid., 50.
[8] Michael S. Horton, “Traditional Reformed Response,” in Justification: Five Views, ed. Paul Rhodes Eddy, James K. Beilby, and Steven E. Enderlein, Spectrum Multiview Book Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 245.
[9] Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 328.
[10] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Deification View,” 220.
[11] Michael S. Horton, “Traditional Reformed Response,” 244.
[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 3.11.5, 730.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 731.
[15] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.6, 731.
[16] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 578.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Andrew McGowan, “Colossians 3: Deification, Theosis, Participation, or Union with Christ?,” in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives, ed. R. Michael Allen (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 170.