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.”
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).”
“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.”
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.” 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.”
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).”
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.”
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.”
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).”
The last Adam, likewise, is not the last in a series of similar “
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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!”
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. 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.”
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).”
 Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection,”
Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (1975): 366. Westminster
 Ibid., 366-367.
 Ibid., 367.
 Ibid., 368.
 Ibid., 369.
 Ibid., 370.
 Ibid., 371.
 Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 237.
 Hengstenberg, The Revelation of
281-282. St. John
 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.