Where I would like to start is with a quick overview of time related texts which non-premillennialists claim teach Christ’s second coming climaxes in one, final general resurrection of all humanity, the final judgment of the righteous and wicked, and the ushering in of the New Heaven and New Earth.
Now, in contrast, premillennialism teaches that the millennial kingdom exists between Christ’s Second Coming and the final judgment and the New Heaven and New Earth. Additionally, the millennium separates the resurrection of the righteous from the wicked. According to Revelation 20:4-6, the righteous experience their resurrection at the beginning of the millennium, where as according to Revelation 20:12, the resurrection of the wicked takes place after the millennium is complete. [Exegesis demonstrating the first resurrection taught in Revelation 20:4-6 is a physical resurrection and not a spiritual, new birth as taught by non-premillennialists, can be located HERE].
Non-premillennialists, however, argue that when a number of other eschatological passages are considered, particularly in didactic portions of the NT, those texts specifically teach there is only one, general resurrection of all humanity, one judgment, and then the coming of the New Heavens and New Earth. They further argue that Revelation 20 is unique, and because it is a unique chapter found in a highly symbolic, apocalyptic book, it is improper to interpret the millennium in a “literal” fashion. Specifically, to suggest the resurrection of the righteous and wicked are separated by a period of a thousand years.
Some of the passages non-premillennialists appeal to include Daniel 12:2 which states,
And as many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake. Some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.
John 5:28, 29 states,
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which 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.
2 Thessalonians 1:6-10
since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed.
At first glance and without prior knowledge of Revelation 20, these texts would seem to suggest there is only one, general resurrection of all mankind at the end of the age. But I believe when the entire teaching on eschatology is considered these passages do not preclude the premillennial view in which the resurrection of the righteous is separated by a thousand years from the resurrection of the wicked.
In order to explain these passages it would be helpful to back up and discuss a phenomenon with biblical prophecy called the telescoping of fulfillment. J. Barton Payne provides a technical definition when he writes,
Prophetic Telescoping is when biblical prophecy may leap from one prominent peak in predictive topography to another, without notice of the valley between which may involve no inconsiderable lapse in chronology [Payne, 137]
Basically, the idea of telescoping of fulfillment is when the time relationship of the events are compressed or “telescoped” into what the original context makes to look like a group of closely related events [Wright, 2]. In other words, the prophet will be conveying a divine oracle describing prophetic events in which the fulfillment may in fact be separated by many years. When these events are predicted by the prophet, he presents them all together in rapid succession. As to their fulfillment, however, these events are divided by long periods of time. Generally, later revelation given by other prophets of God may fill in the details.
There are many examples of this phenomenon in scripture, but the most familiar to all Christians is the prophecy related to Christ’s coming. When we read the Old Testament, two kinds of prophecies of the “Coming One” are predicted. One is of a suffering servant Messiah like what we find in Isaiah 52-53, where as other prophecy speaks to a coming Messiah who will establish the Kingdom of God, restore the nation of Israel to the land, and all the nations will be brought into submission to the Messiah. This is seen in passages like Daniel 7, Micah 4, and Zechariah 14, and Zechariah 9:9, 10 has both the idea of a lowly servant and a victorious king together in two verses that follow each other.
Historian, Emil Schurer, writes how 1 century B.C. messianic expectations among the Jews believed the Messiah’s coming was near and would end Jewish tribulation at the hands of other nations and establish the Davidic Kingdom. This was the expectation of even the disciples of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:6 for instance). First century messianic expectations included:
1. A season of extreme tribulation would prevail prior to Messiah’s arrival.
2. Elijah would arrive as fore runner and announcer of Messiah.
3. Messiah would come to earth.
4. Nations would rise against Him.
5. Nations would be defeated and destroyed.
6. Jerusalem would be rebuilt and occupied.
7. The Jewish diaspora would return to Jerusalem.
8. Israel would become the capitol of the world.
9. A time of peace and prosperity would be inaugurated.
These basic points highlight the main positions of premillennialism. What was missed by those first century Jews, however, is how the OT prophets spoke of two comings of the Messiah. The first coming was to be as a humble servant who would bring eternal salvation to men, where as His second coming would be one of triumph over Israel’s enemies and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. It was so certain among the Jewish people that their Messiah was coming to set up a victorious Kingdom of God, that some Jews thought two different Messiah’s would come: A servant Messiah and a conquering Messiah. It is not until Jesus reveals to us in the NT that the same Messiah would have two different comings separated by a long period of time.
The prophetic oracles regarding the coming of the Messiah were often “telescoped” or compressed and without later revelation explaining how those prophecies are telling of two different comings of the Messiah, there would be confusion as to the timing and purpose of the Messiah’s coming.
A similar phenomena happens with those passages highlighted by non-premillennialists as teaching there exists only one, general resurrection of all people at one time with no millennium separating the resurrection of the righteous from wicked. The biblical writers compress the events together without notice of the intervening time period between the two groups of humanity. Revelation 20, however, reveals that there is a period of intervening time; a thousand years of time to be exact.
Of course, as I have already pointed out, non-premillennialists reject that view of the resurrection because only Revelation 20 specifically tells us about the length of that intervening time period, and it is located in a book of the Bible known for its heavy symbolism. In other words, Revelation 20 doesn’t really count as adding any true clarity to those resurrection passages.
But is that true? Like I stated above, when considered, none of those passages preclude a millennium taking place between the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked. In other words, nothing with in the grammar of the individual passages eliminates a millennium separating those two groups.
For instance, in John 5:28, 29, Jesus just says a day is coming when those in their graves will hear God’s voice and rise from the dead with some going to the resurrection of life while others who have acted wickedly into the resurrection of condemnation. Nothing Christ says precludes the millennium as dividing the two groups. He merely makes a statement about the judgment of all men and women who ever have lived and will live. He provides no details whatsoever as to the timing of those events. One could also attempt to argue that Jesus is teaching a works oriented salvation, because nothing is relayed to us in this passage as to what it is that declares a person righteous or wicked. Revelation from other passages makes such a view an obvious mistake, however.
There is a similar idea of “telescoping” with 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 as Paul describes a final judgment that will come upon those individuals who had been persecuting the Thessalonians. Just like Christ’s words in John 5, Paul is making a general comment about the end by compressing the main events of judgment into one brief statement. He does that because he is not meaning to provide a comprehensive overview of Christian eschatology. Paul is writing to offer comfort and hope to a group of believers who had been suffering persecution by reminding them that God will personally judge their enemies. One of the main reasons Paul’s words here are not meant to be a comprehensive doctrinal statement about all eschatological events is the fact he doesn’t even mention the resurrection. A resurrection is just assumed because of the use by Paul of eschatological language of judgment particularly with the phrase “everlasting destruction.” But the absence of even mentioning the resurrection shows that this passage isn’t precluding the reality of these events being separated by a millennium.
Daniel 12:2 is probably one of the clearest declarations in the OT of a bodily resurrection from the dead, along with being one of the better examples of the “telescoping” phenomenon of prophetic fulfillment. Contrary to the non-premillennialists’ claim that it presents only a general resurrection, when the language of the text is examined, it favors a selective or limited resurrection rather than a general resurrection. The first clause in the verse begins with the Hebrew word, rabbim, meaning “many” as in “many from a larger group of all” [Culver, 174]. This would certainly favor the premillennial view of Revelation 20 where the righteous are resurrected first at the beginning of the millennium (the “many” of Daniel 12:2) and the wicked at the close of the millennium before the coming of eternity.
Robert Duncan Culver [Culver, 175] notes two Jewish commentators, Saadia Haggaon in the 10th century and Aben Ezra in the 12th century, who suggested the translation of Daniel 12:2 as, And as many from among the sleepers of the dust of the earth shall awake; these shall be unto everlasting life; but those the rest of the sleepers, those who do not awake at this time, shall be unto shame and everlasting contempt.
Culver notes a couple of grammatical factors that support this translation. The first being the use of rabbim translated as “many” rather than the Hebrew kal which would mean “All.” The word “many” implies a selected resurrection. Second, Culver points out, is the demonstrative ‘elleh that is translated in our English Bibles as “some.” One possible use of the two demonstratives can be a comparison, “these….those” which would distinguish a first group who will awake at one point in time from a second group who will awake at a later point in time. But, even if one is to argue that such a translation of Daniel 12:2 is strained; again, there is nothing precluding the existence of a millennium of time between the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked.
I will be returning to the subject of the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked and the millennium in a later article, but at this point, nothing found in the proposed non-premillennial texts demands that a millennium of time cannot take place between the righteous and the wicked. The only reason really is that a particular eschatological system insists there can’t be.
Robert Duncan Culver, Daniel and the Latter-days
Richard Mayhue, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians: Triumphs and Trials of a Consecrated Church
R. K. McGregor-Wright, Bible Prophecy and the “Telescoping” of Fulfillment
J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy
Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, 2:514-47