Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The first resurrection

St. Augustine made a classic case for the amil interpretation of Rev 20 in The City of God, book 20:

The details of Augustine’s argument are easy to criticize. Premils are fond of quoting Dean Alford’s damning verdict:

On one point I have ventured to speak strongly, because my conviction on it is strong, founded on the rules of fair and consistent interpretation.  I mean, the necessity of accepting literally the first resurrection, and the millennial reign. It seems to me that if in a sentence where two resurrections are spoken of with no mark of distinction between them (it is otherwise in John 5:28, which is commonly alleged for the view which I am combating),--in a sentence where, one resurrection having been related, "the rest of the dead" are afterwards mentioned, --we are at liberty to understand the former one figuratively and spiritually, and the latter literally and materially, then there is an end of all definite meaning in plain words, and the Apocalypse, or any other book, may mean any thing we please.

As regards the text itself, no legitimate treatment of it will extort what is known as the spiritual interpretation now in fashion.  If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain "souls lived" at the first, and the rest of the "dead lived” 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 any thing.  If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardly enough to maintain:  but if the second is literal, then so is the first, which in common with the whole primitive Church and many of the best modern expositors, I do maintain, and receive as an article of faith and hope.

Meredith Kline responded to premil criticism by offering a chiasmic analysis of how the first death, second death, first resurrection, and second resurrection were related:

Kline’s analysis was adopted by Gregory Beale and Vern Poythress in their commentaries. Here’s how Vern Poythress summarizes the argument:

The mention of the first resurrection in 20:5, 6 is often seen as counterevidence. The argument runs as follows. The first resurrection must be bodily resurrection. If so, it follows the Second Coming and therefore places all the events of 20:1-10 subsequent to the Second Coming.

But in fact the issue is more complex. The language of the first resurrection obviously implies that there is a second. In this context, the first and second resurrections have a suggestive relation to the first and second death. The mention of the second death in 20:6 clearly implies a first. And we know from the general teaching of Scripture what both of these are. The first death is bodily death. The second death is consignment to hell, the final abode of the wicked (20:14-15). The second death is spiritual in character, and accompanies bodily resurrection (John 5:29). The first death is preliminary, while the second death is final and irreversible. It is last. As there is a first heaven and earth and a second or last (Rev. 21:1), so there is a first and last death. Moreover, the first death, in its curse character, is a sign of the coming of the more terrible second death (cf. Gen. 3:19).

These facts provide the decisive clues for understanding the first and the second resurrection. The first resurrection is preliminary, while the second resurrection is final and last. The second resurrection is clearly bodily resurrection. It is clearly the remedy for the first death, bodily death. Conversely, the first resurrection is a kind of remedy for the second death, according to 20:6. The first resurrection guarantees freedom from the second death. The various symmetries suggest that the first resurrection, like the second death, is paradoxical in character. As the second death implicitly includes and accompanies an act of bodily resurrection, so the first resurrection implicitly includes and accompanies bodily death. We find an allusion to just this bodily death in 20:4, the souls of those who had been beheaded. The phrase refers to those who have suffered martyrdom for not worshiping the Beast. These are now disembodied souls living in the presence of God and of Christ, as represented in 6:9-10. The important thing to see is that these souls are living, triumphant, because of their union with Christ and victory through his blood (12:11). The assertion and enjoyment of their triumph is not simply postponed until the Second Coming. They enjoy victory even at the moment of the death, for God places them in positions of authority and judgment in the heavenly realms (thrones, v. 4). The judges and earthly authorities who condemned them to death are already beaten by this greater authority that the saints exercise in heaven.

I think this analysis has a lot of merit. However, I’d like to quote a scholar who proposes an alternative interpretation. Prigent is rehabilitating the Augustinian interpretation–minus baptismal regeneration. Giving that a more contextual grounding. I will quote some representative excerpts, then comment:

Those who participate in the one also participate in the other. As a result they are even made to be priests of God (5:9-10) to whom they render the worship that is asked of all men. In fact this is affirmed as of 1:5-6, where it constitutes a proclamation that is valid as of now, and not a promise that looks to the future: the author will in fact soon point out that he participates along with the addressees in the tribulation, the reign and the perseverance in Jesus (1:9).

To summarize, ever since Easter, the reign of God and of his Christ has been made manifest. Faithful Christians are associated with this royal function; they are the priestly people of God, the premonitory signs of the last judgment. This implies that participation in the reign and judgment of Christ, as well as constitution as priests, are far from being promises reserved for an awaited future; on the contrary, they are presented in Revelation as present-day characteristics of the life of faithful Christians. We therefore should not exclude the possibility that this is also the case in chap. 20.

Given these conditions, how should one understand the first resurrection? Most of the Fathers concluded that there would be a resurrection in two stages: that of the faithful, then a second, general resurrection. They neglected to notice the total absence of a second resurrection in the book of Revelation. This silence is far from being fortuitous: it corresponds perfectly to a theological intention. The book of Revelation affirms, as we have seen, that the faithful receive their eternal salvation as of now. Their fate is guaranteed; judgment has been pronounced. They therefore have nothing to fear from the second death (2:11; 20:6). They already live a life that is stronger than physical death and already find themselves to be beyond judgment. This is true life, the life that is spoken of in the fourth Gospel (Jn 5:25; 11:25ff.), a resurrected, eternal life.

In reality our author feels that it is more important to emphasize the life that they experience (life that is true, new, eternal…) than their resurrection from the dead. The pairing of the two verbs here [20:4] is revealing: they live and reign as Christ himself lives (1:18, etc.) and reigns (cf. 19:16). This is the life that is beyond death, life that is communion with the life of Jesus.

Only the duration of a thousand years seems irreconcilable with this interpretation. But we have seen in the introduction to chap. 20 that this figure serves only to describe, in traditional symbolic language, the present era as the marvelous restoration of the conditions reserved by God for the first man and woman in paradise, before the fall.

Another interpretation is possible…the first resurrection is present and spiritual; the second will be bodily and universal. For as Swete points out, there is a series of pairs in the book of Revelation (first earth, first heaven, new earth and new heaven; second death, which presupposes a first one; first resurrection which implies second one). In these pairs the first item relates to the present order, and the second item to the future.

This line of reasoning is not satisfying because it does not take into account the constant imbalance of the pairs. To the first elements of the world (earth and heaven), are opposed not to second ones, which would be an indication of chronological succession, but new ones…

…We might add that if one cannot speak of the second death without presupposing the first one, the fact that such a first one is never named (nor is a second resurrection) seems to be highly meaningful. It is because the first death is not necessarily prior in time, nor is the second resurrection necessarily second in sequence with respect to the first. These are realities of another order. In speaking about them our author has used temporal categories indicating succession. But he has recourse to the categories with a casualness that shows his intention to express something quite different. The first resurrection is a reality as of now. A few faithful Christians live as of today the eternal life which has nothing to fear from judgment, nor from perdition. This is the true resurrection. Should it be described a spiritual? Yes, on the condition that we understand quite clearly that it is lived in an incarnate existence. The time will come when all creatures will experience this renewal which will place them in the sight of God for another life. This will take place under the impulsion of the same divine power: there is but one resurrection.

P. Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John (Mohr Siebeck 2004), 556-57; 570-71.

I think there are weaker and stronger elements to his argument. I’ll highlight the stronger points:

i) He doesn’t think the rhetorical omission of a first death or second resurrection is an implicit lacuna waiting to be filled in. Rather, he regards that as a calculated omission. John is leaving that incomplete for emphasis. We should probably respect John’s omission. Those are significant omissions. If John wanted to round the pairings, he could have done so. He left them dangling for a reason.

ii) Apropos (ii), here’s the thrust of the analysis. On the one hand, John doesn’t mention a second, physical resurrection, because the first “resurrection” (i.e. regeneration) guarantees the second. If you participate in the first resurrection, then your participation in the second resurrection is assured.

Eternal life begins now, before you die. Eternal life carries you through death into the afterlife. Carries you all the way through to the resurrection of the body. Regeneration is the all-important event, not because the resurrection is unimportant, or less important, but because regeneration is the gateway experience. Physical resurrection is included in the package.

On the other hand, John doesn’t mention the first death because that’s trivial compared to the second death. Both believers and unbelievers will die physically. That’s unavoidable. What matters is what happens to you after you die. What awaits you after death.

So this is John’s way of prioritizing the issues. On the one hand, if you’ve been born again, if you’ve passed from spiritual death into spiritual life, then you have nothing to worry about when you die. The world can do its worst, but it can’t rob you of what counts in the long run. Death is not for keeps.

On the other hand, if you exit this life without eternal life, then physical death is the least of your worries. It is now or never. If you wait until you die, you waited too long. Death is the gateway to your eternal doom. 

iii) Prigent’s interpretation is very appealing. And from the standpoint of John’s Gospel, his interpretation is theologically correct.

Problem is, while John’s Gospel clearly synchronizes eternal life with the new birth, Revelation does not. This doesn’t mean Revelation denies that relationship. But in the narrative of Revelation, there’s not much reason to synchronize the first resurrection with regeneration.

In John’s Gospel, the entrance to eternal life is found in this life. In the here and now–not the hereafter. That’s also implicit in 1 John’s metaphor about divine seed implanted in the Christian (1 Jn 3:9). But although that’s theologically consistent with Revelation, Revelation has its own metaphors and narrative structure.

Moreover, if we define the first resurrection in reference to the intermediate state (a la Warfield, Beale, Poythress), that’s still consistent with the rhetorical omission of the second resurrection or the first death.

Revelation has a realized eschatology in the sense that Christians enter into glory at the moment of death. In that respect the “first resurrection” is concomitant with the present, for that’s a present experience of Christians who’ve departed this life. And it’s concomitant with life on earth, even though it doesn’t take place here below.

Revelation also has a futuristic eschatology. Because believers and unbelievers die at different times, throughout history, eschatology tracks the reality. The dead have a foretaste of the final state.

But by the same token, there’s a final tally at the end of the church age. After Christ returns, after everyone who will die has died, then there’s corporate judgment–which complements individual judgment. There’s the general resurrection. New Eden for the saints, and eternal banishment for the damned. 

1 comment:

  1. Well Done Steve,

    Got me to thinking of what Jesus said-

    And as for the resurrection of the dead,have you not read what was said to you by God:
    I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. (Mat 22:32 ESV)

    I don't see a second resurrection being implied here. I don't see an "implicit lacuna" here. Seems Jesus is telling those Sadducees (who say there is NO resurrection) that, 'Even if YOU get resurrected- you will not be getting married in that lesser sense... but you will be married in a much greater sense'.

    I also lean towards your "concomitant eschatology".
    And I would agree with you- that the operative question is, 'When does God become the God of the living?'
    Indeed He is currently the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? They did not have to die before He became their God... though they may be anxious for a more realized corporate eschatology at present.

    High Regards,