Thursday, March 29, 2007

Jumping into the Eschatological Fray: Revelation and "the Rest of the Dead"

No one has done more to agitate the Christian blogosphere lately than John MacArthur. He opened the 2007 Shepherd's Conference earlier this month with a scathing little speech on the subject of "sovereign election, Israel, and eschatology," in which he implied that those who don't subscribe to premillennialism are somehow denying the doctrine of election. (For an analysis of that speech, check out Jason Robertson's Fide-O post.)

James Kime of Lion Crest Inn is one blogger who is fired up by what happened at the conference. He sees MacArthur's speech as a preemptive strike against amillennialism--a theological "shock and awe" campaign, if you will, against the doctrinally challenged.

It is clear that Mr. Kime doesn't like amillennialists. "Amillennialists should be ashamed of themselves for the reckless manner in which they treat so many biblical texts," he writes. And he thinks he has found the silver bullet capable of stopping these heretical monsters dead in their tracks.

Take a look at his March 25 post. He addresses Revelation 20:4-5 and its reference to "the rest of the dead." According to Kime, "This text presents a problem for amillennialists, but they do not seem to grasp why. Each time I engage them on this point, the conversation takes a different turn. Basically, they stop the conversation."

So, it would seem that Revelation 20:4-5 is the secret weapon in the premillennial arsenal. It is the argument to end all arguments. Let's take a look at that passage (using the NKJV as quoted on Kime's blog):
    4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
Kime argues:
    According to amillennialism, when a person becomes saved he immediately starts reigning with Christ is this kingdom. Further, they assert that the coming to life in verse 4 is a spiritual resurrection.

    Verse 5 says that another group of people will not live again until after the thousand years. If the second group (the rest of the dead) is supposed to be believers, then you have a group of believers who DO NOT immediately start reigning with Christ. If they are unbelievers, you have them given life at the end of the thousand years, thus teaching universalism.

    There is nothing within the context to say that the coming to life in verse 4 is spiritual. Further, there is nothing within the context to say that verse 4 is spiritual and verse 5 is a physical resurrection.

    The fact is, the resurrection in verse 4 is described as happening when Christ returns. To make that into a spiritual resurrection does much harm on the status of believers between their death and physical resurrection.
Kime goes on to state emphatically, "The identity of 'the rest of the dead' can only be unbelievers. Believers are already reigning with Christ. There is NO OTHER group." He is assuming, of course, that this reign takes place when Christ returns physically to earth and establishes his millennial kingdom. He is correct about one thing, however: "the rest of the dead" does refer to unbelievers.

But note his insistence that the resurrection in question can only be a physical one. Is it? If the believing dead have already been raised physically in verse 4, John could have just said that he saw "those who had been beheaded." He didn't. He wrote about seeing "the souls of those who had been beheaded."

Now, one could argue that the word "soul," as used elsewhere in scripture, means "person" or "life," but that doesn't fit the context. Is the author suggesting that he saw "the people of those who had been beheaded" or "the lives of those who had been beheaded"? No. If John's use of the word "soul" meant "person" or "life," then it would have made much more sense for John to simply refer to "the souls who had been beheaded," but that isn't what the text says. What John is witnessing in his vision in verse 4 can only be in the spiritual realm.

Before moving on, perhaps we should take a look at verse 6: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years."

From this we know that unbelievers do not have a part in the first resurrection. After all, verse 6 says that those who take part in it are "blessed and holy." So, if the first resurrection John is talking about in verses 4 and 5 can only be physical, we must therefore conclude that when John mentions "the rest of the dead" living again at some point after the thousand years, he is referring to a second physical resurrection. However, support for two physical resurrections cannot be found anywhere in scripture. In fact, that view is refuted quite soundly.

One reason we know that the first resurrection is spiritual can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:50. Here, the Apostle Paul writes that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." The physical resurrection comes later. When? Paul tells us in verse 52 that it will be "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet."

In Acts 24:15, we learn "there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust." This is referring to a single, final bodily resurrection.

Jesus himself spoke in terms of one spiritual resurrection and one physical resurrection: "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live" (John 5:24-25, emphasis added). This is the first, or spiritual, resurrection. Jesus then goes on to say in verses 28 and 29 that "all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth--those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." This is the physical resurrection.

That is reiterated in Revelation 20:11-13, when all of the dead at once are raised physically to stand before God in judgment. Those whose names are not found in the Book of Life will be cast into the lake of fire, which is the second death. And as we saw in verse 6, the second death has no hold on those who experienced the first (i.e., spiritual) resurrection.

The reigning of the saints with Christ in Revelation 20:4 is the realization of the promise made earlier in 3:21: "To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne." This is in direct contrast to "the rest of the dead" (i.e., the unbelieving dead) in 20:5 who are not allowed to live or reign during the thousand-year period. They are raised--that is, their souls are reunited with their bodies and they "live again"--for the final judgment (20:11-13) before suffering the second death in the lake of fire.

I am neither a scholar nor a theologian. I am nothing more than a sinner saved by grace. But I think I have read and studied enough to see that Revelation 20:4-5 can hardly be considered a refutation of amillennialism. Naturally, men like James Kime think that makes me reckless. However, I would argue that premillennialists are the ones who "should be ashamed of themselves for the reckless manner in which they treat so many biblical texts." Ripping passages out of context and rendering them inconsistent with the rest of scripture in order to justify our own preconceived notions is never a good thing.

1 comment:

Seth said...

Thanks, Lee, for a well-written response. Much of your account described my reaction as I listened to this speech this past weekend while on a road trip. I haven't had a chance to react yet, and after reading your piece, plus FIDE-O's, I may not feel such a compulsion.

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