Friday, April 27, 2012

The first resurrection

Historically, amils interpret the first resurrection in Rev 20:4 as a “spiritual resurrection” (i.e. regeneration). More recently, some amils interpret the first resurrection as the intermediate state for the saints.

Dispensationalists are critical of both interpretations. For now I’m not going to defend the amil interpretation. Rather, I’m going to discuss the dispensational alternative. Are dispensationalists more literal, more faithful to the “plain sense” or “face-value” meaning of the verse than amils? I’m going to quote and comment on the interpretations offered by two leading dispensational scholars.

In conclusion it is best to kook at the first resurrection as a physical resurrection of the believers who will be killed in the Tribulation (Rev 6-18) and who will reign with Christ for 1,000 years in the future. After the Millennium the unbelieving dead will be resurrected and this could be the implied second resurrection. Walvoord states that the first resurrection “is not first in the sense of something that had never occurred before but first in the sense of being before the later resurrection.”

H. Hoehner, “Evidence From Revelation,” D. Campbell & J. Townsend, eds. A Case for Premillennialism (Moody 1992), 256.

i) This interpretation papers over a point of tension. If the scope of the first resurrection is confined to the Tribulation martyrs while the second resurrection is the resurrection of the unjust, then most Christians never participate in the resurrection of the just. Only the Tribulation martyrs participate in the resurrection of the just. Only the Tribulation martyrs will be glorified.

This means all other Christians won’t receive glorified bodies. Won’t have corporeal immortality. Won’t live on the new Eden.

ii) Sensing the problem, Walvoord tries to get around the problem by stipulating that the first resurrection “is not first in the sense of something that had never occurred before but first in the sense of being before the later resurrection.”

But the difficulty with this interpretation is that it’s hard to see how he derived that understanding from the text of Revelation. In Revelation we simply have a contrast between two resurrections–first and second. To say there are other resurrections before the “first” resurrection makes the “first” resurrection the third resurrection (depending on how many prior resurrections Walvoord has in mind), while that, in turn, pushes the “second” resurrection into fourth place (or whatever).

If amils practiced that legerdemain that with the “plain sense” of Revelation, dispensationalists who give them a roasting.

Turning to the standard commentary by a classical dispensationalist, we read:

Beheading was the ancient Roman method of capital punishment, but the word may be just a periphrasis for “put to death.”

R. Thomas, Revelation 8-22 (Moody 1995), 415.

It’s striking to see how casually a dispensationalist cancels out the Roman setting of this passage. That’s hardly literal or grammatico-historical. Of course, Thomas has to do that because he backloads the entire Tribulation to the end of the church age. So he says this in spite of the text, not because of the text.

The better option is to limit “the rest of the dead” to the wicked who are physically dead (the rest of the righteous dead, besides the martyrs, having been raised earlier to join in reigning with Christ) (419).

But if the “first resurrection” covers the Tribulation martyrs, while the “rest of the righteous dead” were raised earlier, then the “first resurrection” isn’t the first resurrection, but a subsequent resurrection.

Not only does that tamper with the plain sense of the ordinal enumeration, but Revelation never mentions an earlier resurrection of Christians. Indeed, that would make a hash of the “first resurrection.”

The more satisfactory delineation of “the first resurrection” equates it to the resurrection of all the just. This allows for the sequence of resurrection indicated in 1 Cor 15:23, for the resurrection of members of Christ’s body in 1 Thes 4:16 (Johnson), and for the resurrection of OT saints at the time of Christ’s return to earth (Dan 12:2) as well as the resurrection of the martyrs here. So the first resurrection must have at least two earlier phases than that phase which comes in conjunction with the establishment of the millennial kingdom (421).

Several problems:

i) On this interpretation, the “first resurrection” is really the third resurrection. For someone who takes other numbers (e.g. “1000 years”) so literally, that’s pretty makeshift.

ii) He stipulates two earlier “phases,” but Revelation itself doesn’t subdivide the “first resurrection” into multiple stages.

iii) He says the first resurrection “must have” at least two earlier phases. But that’s not a textual requirement. The text of Revelation doesn’t demand that.

iv) Instead, he’s squeezing other passages into the timeline of Revelation. But in that case, this isn’t an interpretation of Revelation. The timeline of Revelation doesn’t have these extra slots just waiting to be filled in by other parts of the Bible. Rather, Thomas is first interpolating gaps in the timeline of Revelation so that he can then fill the interpolated gaps with interpolated resurrections. So the whole exercise is an imposition on the text.

v) Indeed, it's a face-saving interpretation to make room for dispensational eschatology. 

vi) If he can filter Rev 20:4-5 through Dan 12:2, 1 Cor 15:23, and 1 Thes 4:16, then why can’t amils filter 20:1-3 through Mt 12:27-29 and Lk 10:18 or 20:4 through Jn 5:24?

I’m actually sympathetic to dispensationalists who think it’s a reach for amils to interpret Rev 20:1-4 in light of these extraneous passages–but by the same token, Thomas is guilty of doing the same thing by going outside of Revelation to make his case. For the first question we need to ask is what John meant by what he wrote, not what Paul or Daniel meant.

vii) Not to mention that Thomas takes for granted the dispensational interpretation of Paul and Daniel. But that’s hardly a given–unless you happen to already agree with his approach.

viii) Another problem is that Thomas is using a dispensational chronology to frame Rev 20:4-5. But where does that framework come from in the first place? It must be pieced together from various passages of Scripture. And those passages must be interpreted individually, on their own terms, before they can be arranged. Otherwise, the framework is viciously circular. You can’t use the framework to piece together the eschatological passages of Scripture if you must piece together the framework from eschatological passages of Scripture to have a framework in the first place. 

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