What about the resurrection of the martyrs? When was that supposed to have happened?

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So my argument is that the best way to make sense of Paul’s teaching about the parousia of Christ is to identify the apocalyptic event with the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world through the faithful witness of the persecuted churches. Paul told the story looking forward, drawing on the largely symbolic language of Old Testament prophecy; we tell the story looking backward, using historical methods; and it seems to me that the two accounts line up pretty well. But how does the resurrection of the martyrs (1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 20:4) fit into this bi-narratival arrangement? Does it belong to the symbolic discourse of prophecy or to history? Or to both?

The affirmation that “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16) is dependent, I think, on Daniel 12:2-3:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Dan. 12:2–3)

This is a limited resurrection, in connection with the deliverance of Israel from pagan oppression (Dan. 12:1), in order that both righteous and unrighteous dead Jews might receive justice. I think Paul maps it on to a new future, centred on the acclamation of Jesus as Lord by the pagan nations. This article suggests why he drops the resurrection of the unrighteous.

On the face of it, Daniel imagined the resurrected dead living in a restored Israel: the resurrected righteous would be held in high esteem, the unrighteous would be shamed.

Paul’s assumption, I think, is that Jesus would rule over the nations not from an earthly Jerusalem (the city would have been destroyed), but from heaven, from his seat at the right hand of God. So the resurrected martyrs would have to be united with the Lord and return to heaven with him to reign throughout the coming ages (cf. Rev. 20:4). Hence the rather elaborate parousia trope in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: Jesus comes from heaven as the triumphant king to be met outside the gates of the city by his faithful citizens. Arguably, Paul also hoped that the living witnesses would be bodily transformed and go with them (Phil. 3:20-21)—just to complicate matters further.

So the whole little story is constructed in order to confirm that the persecuted churches would receive justice, would be vindicated, for their faithful endurance. Since Christ received justice, was vindicated, by his resurrection and transformation, so too the “saints” would receive justice and be vindicated by resurrection and transformation.

Did Paul imagine that the dead in Christ would literally emerge from their tombs, in the manner of the “saints who had fallen asleep”, who came out of their tombs after the resurrection of Jesus and entered Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52-53)? I don’t know. But if the point is that they must take on a heavenly existence, their resurrection may have something of the ambiguity of Christ’s resurrection. Many did not see the resurrected Jesus, and many who did were not sure what or whom they had seen. More importantly, Paul only ever “saw”—or had revealed to him—the exalted Jesus, the Son at the right hand of God.

The eschatological point is that, in conjunction with the triumph of Christ and the deliverance of the churches from their enemies, the dead in Christ, the martyrs principally, would be really rewarded for their faithfulness. In Jesus’ language, they would be repaid for what they had done when the Son of Man came in his glory (cf. Matt. 16:27)—though, of course, Jesus’ perspective and chronology were different.

Andrew | Fri, 10/25/2019 - 18:34 | Permalink

That’s really interesting! I commented on the previous post about what it meant to crush satan. More scholars are starting to see Paul’s eschatology less about the Genesis and more about Psalms 110 and 8 (although some combine all three). I think we forget as westerners that Jesus didn’t seem super interested in a physical war with Rome during his time on earth. He said to pray for enemies not go to war with Rome which threw people off. Even if there was a future eschatological battle to happen in Revelations Jesus taught to love enemies and pray for people who persecute us. 


You can see what I think of Genesis 3:15, if that’s what you’re referring to, here.

I don’t think Jesus had in mind any sort of successful war against Rome, only the disaster of AD 66-70. I don’t think he has in view the second horizon of divine judgment against pagan empire.

Yeah Genesis 3:15 was the verse I was thinking of. Some scholars have pointed out that linguistically Paul’s writings don’t match up with Genesis 3:15 but more likely his eschatology matches up with Psalms 110 and/or Psalms 8 but I can’t think of the ones off the top of my head. 

peter wilkinson | Sat, 10/26/2019 - 16:47 | Permalink

You provide a link to your immediately preceding item in the opening sentence of this post. I was trawling through this and older posts with a view to working up into a fuller argument some ideas on God’s violence (or not, from my point of view) in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and addressing texts you listed to the contrary in an earlier post. Then this post got in the way!

The martyrs of Rev. 20:4 — there’s a whole argument here. Leaving that aside, you argue for their premature ‘resurrection’ to reign with Christ from a heavenly jurisdiction. You anticipate the obvious question. If it was a physical resurrection, why was the removal of their bodies not noticed? So it could have been a non-physical resurrection — a spiritual resurrection. But this seems to be diluting the meaning of resurrection as 1st century Jews would have understood it. The possibility of a separate resurrection of the martyrs being the meaning of Rev.20:4 is considerably diminished.

You link a separate martyr’s resurrection in Rev. 20:4 with 1 Thess. 4:16-17, which you also understand to have a 1st century fulfilment. The fulfilment at the destruction of Jerusalem (which I assume you understand to be its meaning through the use of parousia in 1 Thes. 4:15) is stretching the apocalyptic metaphor, but also requires that those who are alive at the time do not experience resurrection, either as suggested in 1 Thess. 4:17 or, as you have pointed out, Phil. 3:20-21.

All this makes Paul’s prophetic accuracy very unreliable. Unless the parousia (of Matthew 24 and 1 Thess. 4:15-17), and the resurrection of all the saints, martyrs and non-martyrs, are still future. Maybe the ‘first resurrection’ of Rev. 20:5/6 means something different, as I have argued it does, though you have disputed this. From this perspective, Paul’s predictions have not been disproved, or failed so far to have found an adequate explanation. 

So it could have been a non-physical resurrection - a spiritual resurrection. But this seems to be diluting the meaning of resurrection as 1st century Jews would have understood it.

The resurrection body, according to Paul, is not “natural” (psychikon), but it is “spiritual” (pneumatikon) (1 Cor. 15:44; cf. Rom. 1:4). We can’t say that the resurrection of the martyrs was immaterial or non-bodily, but we can say that it was unseen. I suggested that Paul may have had in mind his own encounter with the resurrected Jesus.

In any case, whatever we make of it in retrospect, it seems plain that Paul foresaw a resurrection of a limited category of the dead (those in Christ) at the parousia, when the persecuted churches in the Greek-Roman world would be delivered from their enemies. I don’t see any difficulty in lining that up with John’s resurrection of the martyrs following the overthrow of Babylon the great.

The fulfilment at the destruction of Jerusalem…

Paul doesn’t appear to be much interested in the destruction of Jerusalem. In 1 and 2 Thessalonians the parousia brings judgment on the satanically inspired “man of lawlessness”, who appears to be a supremely blasphemous pagan king.

All this makes Paul’s prophetic accuracy very unreliable.

Here we come back to the question of how propheticapocalyptic language works. It seems to me that Paul has constructed a peculiar type of narrative to encapsulate the idea that both the living and the dead would be vindicated and rewarded at the inauguration of the new age. I’m not sure conceptions of resurrection and renewal were quite as clear cut for the Jewish mind as we might now imagine them to be. Perhaps he took it all very literally, but there seems to be considerable latitude on this point in the biblical testimony.

In the end, I think Paul is much clearer, much less ambiguous, about the historical context and timing of the parousia and associated events than he is about the personal transformation that might take place. We have to give priority to the chronology and work with whatever difficulties that may present.

We can’t say that the resurrection of the martyrs was immaterial or non-bodily, but we can say that it was unseen

On what grounds can you say that it was unseen?

it seems plain that Paul foresaw a limited resurrection of the dead (those in Christ) at the parousia

Where does this seem plain?

at the parousia, when the churches in the Greek-Roman world would be delivered from their enemies

In 1 & 2 Thessalonians the parousia brings judgment on the Satanically inspired “man of lawlessness”

Is this a different parousia from the one in Matthew 24?

On what grounds can you say that it was unseen?

Duh! No one saw it!

Where does this seem plain?

I think the limited resurrection is plain from the reliance on Daniel 12:1-3, the function of resurrection more broadly in Jewish tradition, the qualification “dead in Christ” and the argument of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the three-part argument of 1 Corinthians 15:23-24, Paul’s statements about his own suffering and death, the demands of the historical-eschatological context, the correspondence with Revelation 20:4, and the contrast with the resurrection of all the dead in Revelation 20:13-14.

Is this a different parousia from the one in Matthew 24?

Difficult. I think in effect, yes. Parousia language is applied both to wrath against the Jew and wrath against the Greek/Rome. I don’t think that at any point these are presented as one event. Matthew 25:31-32 comes close perhaps.

A resurrection of the dead which no one saw, passages from 1 Thess. 4 and 1 Cor. 15 which require meaning to be read into them, two parousias. Isn’t this straining interpretation? 

On what grounds can you say that it was unseen?

Peter, I think if we take Jesus’ resurrection as prototypical for the early Christians as Paul states in 1 Thess 4:14, there is some reason to think that the anticipated resurrection was a resurrection directly to Heaven for heavenly rule. This is the case not only with Jesus but also with the Two Witnesses in Revelation 11 and the martyrs in Revelation 20. Likewise the saints who are raised in Matthew almost certainly ascended to Heaven after they were seen in Jerusalem. 

Alex: you select four passages which do not seem to be directly connected or making any statement together about a resurrection to a heavenly rule. The Matthew resurrections are presented as visible. Thessalonians speaks of a resurrection in which Jesus descends, bringing with him those who have died, to a meeting in the air. The language may be poetic/apocalyptic, but it must have some meaning, which does not directly suggest a heavenly rule. Revelation 11 is clearly not encouraging a literal interpretation, and there is no hint of a resurrection to rule. I do believe in a resurrection to rule, especially in the new creation to come, but don’t understand or deduce that specifically from these passages.

I’m inclined to think that far too much literal meaning is being read into the Revelation 20 passage by yourself and Andrew, and the varied schools of interpretation which stick a variety of prefixes to “millennium” to denote the way they read it and Revelation as a whole. It’s poetry, designed to place the suffering of the saints especially in the grandest of imaginative contexts, assuring them that they are not victims, that those who have unjustly suffered martyr’s deaths have already been given a judicial sentence to execute on their persecutors (though this can hardly be understood totally literally), and that a great reversal is already underway despite appearances to the contrary.

Hi Peter, in my view virtually every discussion of resurrection in the Bible concerns firstly the public vindication of the righteous before their enemies as appears to be the case in Daniel 12:1-3, a central text in this regard. Resurection is essentially a means by which honor and shame can be reversed. So the Lukan and Johannine resurrection accounts notwithstanding, what matters in these discussions of resurrection in my view is the glory and authority bestowed upon those who are raised, moreso than their new bodily existence itself, let alone their new bodily existence on the earth.

So I don’t believe the precise nature of the “spiritual” and “glorious” body that comes “from heaven” was centrally important to the first Christians. What was centrally important to them was that the dead in Christ would be publically honored and politically vindicated. This was the ‘point’ of resurrection, however envisioned (cf. Matthew 12:41-42). 

Since this is the case, it makes sense that explicit mention of bodily resurrection can often be omitted with reference to life in the eschaton. This is particularly the case with Jesus himself (cf. Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 1:1-4, 10:12-13, 12:2, Revelation 5:9-10). Many texts where we’d expect to find mention of Christ’s resurrection simply pass over it, preferring to highlight the heavenly exaltation of Jesus after death. That’s not to say Christ’s resurrection wasn’t important to them, only that its importance was primarily eschatological, having to do with his newfound authority to judge the world on the last day.

It looks to me that in 1 Thess 4:14 Paul is saying the dead in Christ will be “raised up” “in the same way” God raised Jesus up. This would include God bringing the raised to himself in heaven in order to participate in the divine rule. The implication of “God will bring the dead with Jesus…” seems to be that God is bringing the dead to heaven, even if there is an intermission in the clouds. 

In Revelation 11 I see a direct correlation between the exaltation of the Witnesses to heaven in the sight of their persecutors and the divine destruction of the city following immediately after. In heaven the Witnesses participate in God’s judgement and rule over the earth. This parallels the pattern set out in Psalm 110:1 wherein the suffering righteous are exalted by God. 

Thanks for the reply. I’d be interested to understand your position better.

Thanks for your comment Alex. Your first paragraph sets out your position well, which is also how I understand the historical  meaning of resurrection, as far as there is one. My position is that Jesus changed the ground rules in that he was uniquely raised on behalf of all the saints ahead of time, and the resurrection of the saints takes place at his future coming, which is how I read 1 Thess. 4. I realise that this is the traditional understanding, so not held by Andrew or yourself. 

I also think Rev 20 is an anomaly, not supported elsewhere, and probably not to be understood literally,  or used to read meaning into other texts. Even if there was a more literal  interpretation, I wouldn’t choose Andrew’s (yours?). Thanks anyway for the thoughts, and I do understand where you’re coming from.

Did Paul imagine that the dead in Christ would literally emerge from their tombs, in the manner of the “saints who had fallen asleep”, who came out of their tombs after the resurrection of Jesus and entered Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52-53)? I don’t know.

I’m not sure he did… as I understand it, resurrection for Paul was more about Israel’s spiritual, or more properly, covenantal transformation, i.e., renewal, as promised of old (Ezek 37:1-14). Paul along with other believers in that transitional period were undergoing in that age of resurrection transformation as they were putting off the old while simultaneously putting on the new. As part of this resurrection (Phil 3:11-16) Paul writes…

Phil 3:16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.

That which was already in the process of attainment was this covenant renewal, i.e., resurrection. We already know from Romans 6 that their death, burial and resurrection did not require a 1:1 correlation with Christ’s experience for such to be their true reality as occurring. This then fits into the self-same 2 horizons end-time view of John who wrote of the already occurring resurrection in chapter 5…

Jn 5:25 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.

The firstfruits righteous of Israel having ears to hear responding in faith in that now is time were being raised in Christ — the rest of unrighteous Israel who didn’t (vs. 29) came to suffer the condemning consequence of shame in AD70, i.e., death or deportation, as per…

Dan 12:2 OG And many of those asleep in the flat of the earth will arise, some to everlasting life but others to shame and others to dispersion [and contempt] everlasting. NETS translation

Thus as I understand id… both Paul and Jesus were on the self-same page as to the soon coming resurrection of both the just and unjust, as per…

Acts 24:15 “I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there is about to be (μέλλειν) a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.


Your comments here are right on!  The resurrection was a progressive 40 year event (Israel’s second 40 years of wondering in the desert) in the first century — hence the present passives used throughout 1 Cor. 15 and as shown by you.  Not sure how long people can keep turning a blind eye to this structure.  The resurrection has nothing to do with physical bodies being raised at some future event.  In fact, the resurrection has nothing to do with man’s physical body at all!  Thanks for your comments here. 

Not convinced.

Paul and the New Testament generally are more clearly dependent on Daniel 12:1-3 than on Ezekiel 37. In Daniel resurrection is part of national renewal, but individuals are in view.

It looks to me as though in Daniel 12:1-3 we have a distinction between the living, who will be exalted or delivered, and the dead, who will be raised to share in either the life of the coming age or the shame and dispersion of unrighteous Israel.

According to John, Jesus says that those “who are in the tombs” will come out, either for life or for judgment (Jn. 5:28-29). Why should this not be taken literally?

In Isaiah 26:19 LXX we have: “The dead shall rise, and those who are in the tombs shall be raised, and those who are in the earth shall rejoice.” The Hebrew text should probably be understood corporately: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” But I suspect that the LXX reflects the later second century outlook of early apocalyptic and the emerging emphasis on personal resurrection as reward for the martyrs.

In Philippians 3:16 “what we have attained (ephthasamen)” is a reference not to corporate resurrection but to their thinking (3:15). Paul has in mind the degree to which they have understood that their path is one of suffering and vindication. Besides he has just said that he has not obtained (elabon) the resurrection from the dead (3:12).

Paul assumed that if he lost his life for the gospel, he would be raised from the dead in the same personal manner as Jesus was raised from the dead. If Jesus could be raised from the dead, why shouldn’t others, those in him?

According to John, Jesus says that those “who are in the tombs” will come out, either for life or for judgment (Jn. 5:28-29). Why should this not be taken literally?

As to one’s reward that’s what occurred in the parousia of AD70… so, you can take this resurrection literally but that doesn’t necessitate it being a temporal reality. Jesus literally meant what he said to Nicodemus… “you must be born again” — Jesus just didn’t mean it literally. And that was Nicodemus’ problem, i.e., he couldn’t get past his temporal mindset.

Thus as I understand it… those raised as per Jn 5:28-29 were “the rest of the dead who lived again” of Rev 20:5 after the reigning of those having died of Rev 20:4, i.e., “the first resurrection” — none other than those of Jn 5:25 of the now resurrection period reigning with Christ.

Those of Jesus’ now resurrection were not touched by Israel’s “second death” aka ”the lake of fire” aka the destruction of Jerusalem.

If Jesus could be raised from the dead, why shouldn’t others, those in him?

As I said, they were, as per Rom 6:5… it just didn’t take a 1:1 temporal correlation for this to be their vitally and thus true. Jesus’ resurrection was right back into the self-same creation he left — this was not the case for the NT saints. Paul’s new creation is identical to John’s new creation as in both are speaking of covenant realities and NOT some future refashioned time-space universe. Thus NT eschatology was all about the end of the Mosaic world and NOT the end of time — the bible only refers to… “the time of the end” — big difference.

I don’t understand the distinction between “literal” and “temporal”. Jesus didn’t mean that Nicodemus should literally be born again, which would be impossible. But he meant that he should really be transformed or make a new start.

Jesus could have meant the resurrection of some Jews from their tombs as a figure for the renewal of metaphorically “dead” Israel, but we have to have reasons for taking that view. The language does not look corporate, and it appears to echo individualised ideas of resurrection current in first century Judaism (rather than the corporate language of the Hebrew prophets).

As I said, they were, as per Rom 6:5… it just didn’t take a 1:1 temporal correlation for this to be their vitally and thus true.

But why not? You don’t give any reasons for the assertion. Paul seems to equate the future resurrection of those who suffer and die with Christ in the present with the resurrection of Christ “from the dead by the glory of the Father” (Rom. 6:4). And generally, as I have pointed out and you have ignored, Paul seems to speak very realistically of his hope of personally experiencing what Christ experienced, real death and real resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:9-10; Col. 1:24).

Jesus’ resurrection was right back into the self-same creation he left—this was not the case for the NT saints.

But only temporarily so. The resurrection appearances were evidence that God had not abandoned Christ to Hades (Acts 2:31), the testimony of the early believers, not least Paul, was that Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God in heaven. The resurrected Jesus was an ambiguous presence among the disciples. His imperishable new creation body did not belong in the perishable old creation. So it was necessary for him to ascend to the Father (cf. Jn. 20:17).

I don’t understand the distinction between “literal” and “temporal”.

By that I simply meant… like the rebirth, resurrection was actual aka literal, but that didn’t mean it too was like Nicodemus’ perception, i.e., of a bodily aka temporal this-worldly nature — thus the transformation that was occurring in that age of the end; or as you yourself go on to say…

Jesus could have meant the resurrection of some Jews from their tombs as a figure for the renewal of metaphorically “dead” Israel, but we have to have reasons for taking that view. The language does not look corporate,…

As I understand it… Jesus’ expressed words of the now resurrection of Jn 5:25 is inherently both corporate and Hebraic… he was after all Israel’s prophet. That individuals are involved is to be assumed by the very nature of the things.

Me: As I said, they were, as per Rom 6:5… it just didn’t take a 1:1 temporal correlation for this to be their vitally and thus true.

You: But why not? You don’t give any reasons for the assertion.

No-one needed to be physically crucified to attain and be united in Christ’s death… likeness wasn’t about biology — likewise the resurrection.

…Paul seems to speak very realistically of his hope of personally experiencing what Christ experienced, real death and real resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:9-10; Col. 1:24).

He did indeed… but does that necessitate only something of a temporal this-worldly nature? What did Paul say in his service of Christ and others but that… “I die daily” and “for Your sake we are killed all day long” — rhetorical to a degree yes, but in terms of… “the resurrection from the dead-ones” (OC Israel) Paul was following and partaking in Jesus’ firstfruits resurrection.

Paul uses these different words expressing this progressive reality… to attain (katantēsō) not yet obtained (elabon) not yet apprehended (logizomai) to the degree already attained (ephthasamen) — if this is all just physical resurrection then Paul’s audience already by the nature of things knew this, so such wouldn’t need explaining, i.e., he was still very much alive.

Paul then, in conformity to Jesus, was dying daily to the old age of sin and death, i.e., the old covenant, as he says… “death is working in us” with the consequence of… “but life in you” (2Cor 4:12); for as he had just said… “For we who live are always being delivered up for Jesus’ sake…”. They were laying hold of resurrection life in Christ because Paul was dying daily with Christ, and as such to the effect… “That I might know Him and the power of His resurrection … if, by any means, I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

This theory suggests a kind of underlying New Testament metaphysic: 

You can’t reign over the Earth, unless you’re physically in Heaven.

Presumably, this rule gets changed in the future, when death is finally and totally defeated. But it does seem to explain why Jesus doesn’t stick around post-resurrection, why Jesus has to ascend before the Spirit can be poured out, and why there would be no people hanging around after the resurrection of the martyrs.

So…why would this be?

Why can’t God’s people rule from Earth? To be more precise, why would this supposition make sense in New Testament thought?

The rule over earth from Heaven seems less a metaphysical rule than God’s accomedation for those who have died in the faith. It allows for those who have died to share in the inheritance of the kingdom—God’s reign over the nations—that the living churches came to enjoy in history. Whether the resurrection to Heaven is literal or not (it certainly is in the case of Jesus), its purpose is to glorify and vindicate the martyrs before those who scoffed at them (Daniel 12:1-3). Something must happen that proves them right and their enemies wrong.