In my first article on the Resurrection, I sought to show that the ‘resurrection’, in the viewpoint of Jesus and Paul, is not a resuscitation of physical bodies which have died. The ‘resurrection body’ is a spiritual body, the ‘inward man’ which is growing and “being renewed” even as the ‘outward man’ (the physical body) is “wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16). And Jesus showed that this resurrection of the dead in spiritual bodies was not something that was still future, to occur as a single once-for-all event when all of the dead would be raised at the same time; rather the fact that God said “I AM the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” showed that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had already been resurrected and were alive to God.
But who are the ones who will be resurrected? Will everyone share in the resurrection, or only certain ones who are ‘righteous’ and ‘worthy’ of the resurrection? This is where there is a difference in the way Luke (20:27-40) records Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection. Matthew (22:23-33) and Mark (12:18-27) don’t give any indication of a restriction in those who share in resurrected life; it is just a general statement. Mark says: “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage”; Matthew says: “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”. There is no further defining of who “they” are. One would assume that it applies to everyone.
But Luke has Jesus say: “those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage”. That would certainly imply that some would not be “counted worthy”. Paul seemed to have the same thought in 2 Thess. 1:5 – “…which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God” (NKJV). But Luke’s account of Jesus’ statement is the only place I can think of where this idea of being ‘counted worthy’ is applied to the resurrection itself.
This would, on the face of it, seem to be a direct contradiction of a number of other references in the New Testament writings which state that all people, both righteous and unrighteous, will be raised from the dead. John reports that Jesus himself said (John 5:28 and 29): “…the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs 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 judgment” (RSV). His parable in Matt. 24:31-46, concerning the judgment of the nations when the ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ are separated and judged by the Son of man when he comes in his glory, would appear to be about this resurrection of life, and resurrection of judgment. The book of Acts reports that Paul, when defending himself before the governor Felix, made this statement: “I have a hope in God – a hope that they themselves [the Jews who accused him before Felix] also accept – that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous” (24:14, NRSV). In 1 Cor. 15: 21 and 22, Paul says that all men will be raised from the dead, made alive in Christ: “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (NRSV).
Putting all of the pieces together is somewhat difficult, and may ultimately not be possible due to variations in the thinking of the Biblical writers, and the way they present the subject. Nevertheless, the general idea seems to be that there is a perfection – a fullness of life – to be attained by all men, and Jesus Christ himself is the one who fully exemplifies this in his resurrection life. He is considered by the Christian writers to be the ‘firstborn’ from the dead, and the example and guarantee of what everyone else will ultimately be. For Jesus, this resurrection life ‘glory’ meant being restored to the ‘glory’ he had in the Father’s presence before the world existed: “So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” (John 17:5, NRSV). Since Jesus is the ‘firstborn among many brethren’ (Romans 8:29), and the “first fruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23), then what has been accomplished in him represents what will be accomplished in the lives of all men, of whom he is the firstborn (“firstborn of all creation”, Col. 1:15); though it doesn’t happen all at once – it’s “each in his own order” (1 Cor. 15:23). But this full restoration to a pretemporal ‘glory’ is not just automatically granted to everyone upon death, regardless of how one has lived. Only those who, through faith in Jesus and his message of love, have “put on Christ” as it were – so that they have become morally and spiritually conformed to his image – can attain to this ‘better resurrection’. For instance, in the ‘letters to the seven churches’ in the book of Revelation, each letter ends with a promise to the one who overcomes, or conquers. An example is Rev. 3:21 – “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (RSV). It is the ‘conqueror’ who is ‘worthy’ to attain to the resurrection, in the fullness of its meaning. This is ‘the resurrection of life’ spoken of by Jesus in John 5:29.
What happens to those who have come short of this complete obedience of faith, those who were not ‘conquerors’ in their lifetimes? They also rise from the dead, but because they are not yet ‘worthy’ of the full blown ‘glory’ of the resurrection of life, they experience the ‘resurrection of judgment’. When their lives are brought into review in the judgment, and their shortcomings are exposed, the verdict is rendered that they still have work to do in order to join the ranks of the overcomers. This is where reincarnation comes into play, and fits so nicely into the Christian doctrine of ‘resurrection’. Another lifetime is planned and provided for those who have “fallen short of the glory of God”. This may be considered ‘punishment’ for wrongdoing, but it is corrective in nature, not vengeful. The ultimate (and assured) goal is that each person will eventually become an ‘overcomer’ and be found worthy of the ‘resurrection of life’. Each lifetime is another opportunity to come to know and experience God, His love, and His life, and every one of us will ultimately be ‘successful’ and ‘worthy’ through the anointing of the life and presence of God within us. That’s good news! That’s the real Christian message, as well as the genuine message of the other great religions. One does not have to renounce Buddha or Krishna in order to “rejoice in Jesus Christ”, for ultimately their messages are one.