We've already alluded to the passage in John's Apocalypse in which the "First Resurrection" is mentioned. We've also given our own views of what this resurrection is about, and the period of time which it embraces; namely, that it does not speak of any allegorical or spiritual resurrection, nor has it ever occurred in past history: but that it speaks of a resurrection of the body, and is a future event. Now we must get into the exegetical issues involving this view. It is often implied by those who are not themselves Chiliasts, that the New Testament uniformly represents the righteous and wicked as being judged contemporaneously; and that this "general judgment" is what we are to look for--not a specialized resurrection and judgment of the church alone.
Of course, many of us who believe in a thousand year period between the first and second resurrections, and have studied the matter impartially, are aware of the difficulty of harmonizing certain of the sacred texts. Yet while not all the mechanics are clear to our view, we nonetheless hold a firm faith in the doctrines we hold; and this primarily because we believe Chiliasm solves far more discrepancies than it creates. To refer to the common rule, Scriptures cannot contradict themselves. If a contradiction exists, it exists because of the limitations inherent in our own understanding: and therefore we must, to the best of our ability, seek to harmonize any disparities that we find, trusting to the Holy Spirit that He may lead and guide us into a more perfect understanding.
While it is true that certain passages seem to place the two judgments together, it is equally apparent that other texts represent them as separate events. The question then becomes, which view is the more consistent with the theology of the New Testament. Frankly, we believe that Chiliasm presents a system of Divinity more complete, more harmonious than any we've studied. And it is one that has strong historical continuity to give it credence. In fact, it has been around from the very beginning of the church's history; and from patristic testimony we are led to infer that John himself personally believed in a Millennium following Christ's advent. Irenaeus writes: "John, therefore, did distinctly foresee the first 'resurrection of the just,' and the inheritance in the kingdom of the earth; and what the prophets have prophesied concerning it harmonize with his vision." (Against Heresies, V. xxvi. 3).
John's personal belief alone, while not implying any element of Divine assent, shows itself all throughout the Apocalyptic book. And as John was simply the penman who committed what he saw and heard, we must, then, adopt the view that the teachings of Chiliasm represent the system authorized by Christ Himself.
That said, we'll try, as far as we are able, to reconcile any passages that display such inconsistencies as are brought to our view; knowing this, that it is not our prerogative to make any private interpretations of Scripture, but simply to clarify what Scripture teaches. If we are uncertain of anything that presents itself to our view, we shall refer to Patristic testimony. Lacking that, we will simply and honestly suspend our judgment.
We've already stated, that at Christ's coming there will be a general resurrection and judgment of the church. By 'the church' is meant particularly that universal body of God's people which has existed from Adam downwards. We believe that the elect assembly began with Adam, and includes all those in whose hearts the Decalogue is written, and who keep the commandments of God. However, the church also embraces those who are bound to God's covenant by the sacraments which He ordained for admission into the body. For Christians, this signifies water baptism. Thus, all who have been baptized into the church have been grafted into God's covenant; and their subsequent lives must therefore pass before the judicial scrutiny of Christ, that their true relation to Him may be determined.
All are aware that within the visible church there is much good and evil intermixed. It has always been thus, during the times of the Old Testament, and even so to the present day. There has never yet been a visible church that may be called "perfect." St. Augustine writes: "As long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theatres with the godless. [...] In truth, these two cities are so entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation." (City of God, I. xxxv).
Today's Christianity has a tendency to ignore the importance of the sacraments. That Christ ordained baptism for the purpose of ratifying His covenant with those who wish to partake of eternal life, is testified both by Scripture and the apostolic churches. Christ's command to His church was: "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." (Matt. 28: 19). Thus baptism was appointed an ordinance of the church, and those who partake of this ordinance follow Christ's own submission, declaring themselves willing to walk after Him in all things. Now, as baptism formed the commencement of Christ's ministry, it is clear that no one can follow Christ except he be baptized. And for this reason the sacrament is recognized by God.
The Jewish baptism of proselytes, after which John Baptist's was patterned, was an obligation to perform the law (Lightfoot, Heb. et Talm., Matt. iii. 6). John's baptism was an obligation to repent and believe in Him who should come afterwards (Acts 19: 4). Christ's baptism, which followed John's, obliges us not only to repent, but to obey the Gospel. Hence Christ taught that "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24: 47). For as John preached repentance and remission of sins (Mark 1: 4), the church does the same. But as John the Baptist heralded Christ's first advent, so the Christian church heralds Christ's Second Advent. There is, then, only "one baptism" (Eph. 4: 5) which admits one into God's covenant; and this enjoins upon him the obligation of keeping Christ's commandments.
But there be many who, although grafted into the covenant, yet do not obey the Gospel. Instead of following Christ, they follow their own lusts. Instead of cleaving to the gospel of the Good Shepherd, they invent false gospels to lead astray the souls of the simple. What shall be their end? They must be resurrected certainly, and judged, in order that their true relation to Christ may be established. And this will not take place until Christ returns to take account of His servants. That is the teaching of the parable of the talents (Matt. 25: 14-30), as all will readily acknowledge. For how did the "unprofitable servant" ever become a servant at all? He must have obtained some relation to Christ while on earth, inasmuch as only those in covenant will receive a command to "occupy till I come" (Luke 19: 13). The wicked servant, then, is he who entered the covenant through baptism and yet never made any effort to serve Jesus Christ.
The same truth is brought out in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25: 1-13). As the parable of the talents concerns Christian service, so this parable speaks of spiritual preparation and readiness. Those five foolish virgins and five wise virgins had all the same Lord (Matt. 25: 11), and yet the wise virgins followed the Gospel precepts, strengthening their virtues and graces, whereas the foolish virgins made no improvements whatever to their inner condition. But, from the parable it is evident that all the virgins were under the same covenant. Therefore, there must needs be a preliminary judgment of the church, prior to the general judgment of all men. For Peter writes, "The time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God; and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the Gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4: 17).
The "First Resurrection," then, embraces that class of God's people who are accounted worthy to enter into the Kingdom of God, when Christ comes to establish His reign upon the earth. And this is in accordance with uniform New Testament teaching. Those who are not accounted worthy, shall be cast into outer darkness.
This principle, again, is exemplified in the parable of the two debtors (Matt. 18: 23-35). The Lord's teaching here concerns the forgiveness of others. Once again, both debtors own the same Lord and Master. But the wicked servant did not obey Christ's command of brotherly forgiveness; and thus he was "delivered to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto Him" (Matt. 18: 34). Christians who fall into this category will be forced to expiate their crimes in a place of punishment, not to be released until the Second and public resurrection. But a preliminary resurrection and judgment is required for sentencing.
Then there be professing Christians who teach false doctrines, or otherwise trample upon the Lord's commands, deeming themselves above any law whatsoever. It is to these the Lord probably refers when He says, "Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matt. 7: 22-23). It is not certain whether these individuals will receive and reprieve whatsoever. We've met many in our own day who think they are above any requirements of keeping the Lord's commands. Yet Christ says, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 7: 21).
There is thus a judgment necessary in order to separate the professing church into their two respective classes. One class shall enter into the kingdom of God, while the other will be excluded. And it is the former class that shall partake of the "First Resurrection." The remainder of men will not be judged until after the thousand years. As the beloved disciple says: "But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished" (Rev. 20: 5).
Speaking of this preliminary judgment, Lactantius writes: "Not all men, however, shall be judged by God, but only those who have been exercised in the religion of God. For they who have not known God, since sentence cannot be passed upon them for their acquittal, are already judged and condemned, since the Holy Scriptures testify that the wicked shall not arise to judgment [Psa. 1: 5]. Therefore, they who have known God shall be judged, and their deeds, that is, their evil works, shall be compared and weighed against their good ones: so that if those which are good and just are more and weighty, they may be given to a life of blessedness; but if the evil exceed, they may be condemned to punishment." (Divine Institutes, VII. xx).
We believe that this view represents the correct New Testament teaching concerning the judgment of believers. And so, we cannot agree with those systems that ignore the radical importance of works in the process of Divine salvation. For "every tree is known by his own fruit" (Luke 6: 44); and "God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6: 7). Hence we tend to see a first resurrection and judgment of believers, which will be followed by the period of the Millennium. At the time when Christ comes, all men who have known God will be judged according to their works; that those who like Paul, strove for the mastery (1 Cor. 9: 25), may receive an incorruptible crown, and attain unto the "out-resurrection of the dead" (Phil. 3: 11). Then they deemed worthy of the honor shall rule and reign with Christ for a thousand years.
To be continued...