In order to gauge the precise nature of the "First Resurrection," we must understand exactly what is meant by the term "death." In accordance with the uniform teachings of historic, orthodox Christianity, we unhesitatingly aver that by "death" is meant the departure of the soul from the body. For what is "life," but the conjunction of the soul and body, by which union the body lives? Since, however, there are indications that death enters the soul's domain as well, a more detailed definition is required. But rather than invent some new theory of our own, let us go back to the teachings of the Christian church and try to fetch forth a more explicit definition.
There is really no better synopsis of the matter than that which has already been given by St. Augustine. In his discussion of "what death God intended, when He threatened our first parents with death if they should disobey his commandment," he writes: "When, therefore, it is asked what death it was with which God threatened our first parents if they should transgress the commandment they had received from Him, and should fail to preserve their obedience--whether it was the death of soul, or body, or of the whole man, or that which is called second death, --we must answer, It is all. For the first consists of two; the second is the complete death, which consists of all. For, as the whole earth consists of many lands, and the Church universal of many churches, so death universal consists of all deaths. The first consists of two, one of the body, and another of the soul. So that the first death is a death of the whole man, since the soul without God and without the body suffers punishment for a time; but the second is when the soul, without God but with the body, suffers punishment everlasting. When, therefore, God said to that first man whom he had placed in Paradise, 'In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die,' that threatening included not only the first part of the first death, by which the soul is deprived of God; nor only the subsequent part of the first death, by which the body is deprived of the soul; nor only the whole first death itself, by which the soul is punished in separation from God and from the body;--but it includes whatever of death there is even to that final death which is called second, and to which none is subsequent." (City of God, XIII. xii).
You'll see in Augustine's synopsis a definition of both the first and second deaths. The "first death" involves a separation of God from the soul on account of sin. But it also comprises a separation of the soul from the body. These two component factors are brought forward in Scripture: the first by Paul, who says, "And you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2: 1)-- intimating that the soul became separated from God on account of transgressions of His law-- and the second, in the common account which we often read in passages such as: "And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died" (Gen. 5: 5). Adam "died" when his soul and body were sundered one from the other. This is physical death, as the former is spiritual. And these twin components of the first death are experienced by every member of humanity.
Now, following Augustine's definition, it becomes clear the second death involves a re-union of the body and soul, but in a state of permanent separation from God. It is to this death our Lord has reference when He says: "But rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10: 28). In no uncertain terms Christ is announcing that soul and body will be re-united when this "destruction," or second death, takes place. And John tells is that this will occur during the second, or general, resurrection (Rev. 20: 11-15).
What, then, is the nature of the "first resurrection"? Let us follow logic, and see where it guides us. Whatever the first resurrection may be, it obviously repairs and annuls the first death. But, we read in the sacred texts that it also seals one from the "second death" (Rev. 20: 6): "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years." So, it is the reparation of the first death, the antithesis of the second. The definition, then, is easy to determine. As the second death concerns the reunion of soul and body in permanent separation from God, so the first resurrection involves the reunion of soul and body in God's permanent presence. This is the "First Resurrection."
At one point, St. Augustine apparently followed these truths to their evident conclusions, embracing a Chilast system of Divinity. Alluding to his original view, he makes an interesting remark: "And this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion." (City of God, XX. vii). However, he later dropped Chiliasm in preference to A-Millennialism; and his spiritual interpretation became prominent, insomuch that it has since been the official teachings of the Roman church on the the Millennium.
Nevertheless, Augustine's own definitions of the first and second deaths seem to confute any A-Millennial theory. For, according to that system, the "first resurrection" is simply the restoration of the soul to God, effected in the Divine work of regeneration. But that does not cancel and repair the "first death" entirely, but only partially. And herein it is manifest that A-Millennialism is false. For the saints already enjoy the resurrection of regeneration (Titus 3: 5), but nonetheless are exhorted to await a "better resurrection" (Heb. 11: 35). What must this resurrection be, if not the re-union of soul and body in the presence of God? For the fathers had the anointing of the Holy Spirit, as well as ourselves (Ps. 51: 11-12). And yet we, as well as they, await this "better resurrection" (Heb. 11: 39-40). That is, the entire assembly of Christ's elect await that time when their bodies and souls will be re-united, and they shall enter the kingdom of Jesus Christ when He comes to reign on earth. And in that day we shall stand in His presence, in that exact same condition which Adam enjoyed before he sinned. This is the meaning of the "First Resurrection."
This resurrection was foretold by the prophet Ezekiel in his vision of the raising up of the dry bones. He writes: "The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones. And caused me to pass by them round about: and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and lo, they were very dry. And He aid unto me, son of man, can these bones live? and I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. Again He said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said He unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. Then He said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dry, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my Spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord." (Ezek. 37: 1-14).
Of course, there be some who allegorize these prophecies, and assert that the passages do not at all speak of the raising up of our bodies, but must be understood in a mystical sense. Such an one was Origen, who evidently taught that the raising of the dry bones was figurative of the release of the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity. It is obvious, however, that this view is totally subjective. Tertullian, commenting on such opinions, writes: "Unquestionably, if the people were indulging in figurative murmurs that their bones were become dry, and that their hope had perished--plaintive at the consequences of their dispersion--then might God fairly enough seem to have consoled their figurative despair with a figurative promise. Since, however, no injury had as yet alighted on the people from their dispersion, although the hope of the resurrection had very frequently failed amongst them, it was manifest that it was owing to the perishing condition of their bodies that their faith in the resurrection was shaken. God, therefore, was rebuilding the faith which the people were pulling down." (De Resurrectione Carnis, xxxi).
Tertullian's view, which represents that of the early fathers in general, must be recognized as the correct and orthodox position. In recent years it has been contested and overthrown, and that primarily by men who have little faith in the ability of God to accomplish His own designs (as evidenced by their practical and dogmatic rejection of the Holy Spirit's ministry), but limit everything to according to their own power. Perhaps science has had something to do with this departure from the faith; yet not science as the legitimate pursuit of knowledge, but "oppositions of science falsely so called" (1 Tim. 6: 20); the scientific positivism which reduces all knowledge to that alone which it has already verified. This kind of science is the dry-rot of humanity. It draws a circle about our perceptions of truth, beyond the bounds of which no man is permitted to venture. If he should do so, he is branded as ignorant or superstitious, perhaps both.
But, as all Divine truth lies outside this circle of skepticism, it becomes plain that reason alone can never account for that which it is God's prerogative to fulfill in His own time. God has promised a resurrection, and it shall be fulfilled. Should science deny such a resurrection, this cannot alter God's purpose, nor His ability to effect His will. Therefore, science as a means of "yeaing" or "naying" the dictates of the Almighty, is both vain and futile. But faith is everything.
We've determined that the precise nature of the "First Resurrection" is the re-union of the souls and bodies of the saints, and that such re-union will restore them to those conditions in which Adam stood before he transgressed. Man will no longer be corruptible, but shall be rendered incorruptible. As Gregory of Nyssa defined it, resurrection will be the "re-constitution of our nature in its original form." (On the Soul and the Resurrection). Notwithstanding, there is some distinction to be made between this renewed nature and that which will render us "equal to the angels" (Luke 20: 36). For, Adam was never equal to the angels; but David saith: "Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor" (Psa. 8: 5). Thus, if the "First Resurrection" is tantamount to the "restitution of all things," then the rendering of man equal to the angels must and can only occur after the thousand years have been completed.
And, this view, far from being unacceptable, is advanced by all of the early Chiliasts whose writings I've consulted. In the third article of this series, I made mention of Commodian's belief, that during the thousand years those raised to life would marry and beget children; and this would seem to be countenanced by Ezekiel, when he says: "And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt, and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children's children for ever: and my servant David shall be their Prince for ever" (Ezek. 37: 25). The view, of course, would be somewhat questionable if it were not countenanced by certain Patristic authority. To our regret, Lactantius is not clear whether the saints will bear children or not. He writes: "Then they who shall be alive in their bodies shall not die, but during those thousand years shall produce an infinite multitude, and their offspring shall be holy, and beloved by God; but they who shall be raised from the dead shall preside over the living as judges." (Divine Institutes, VII. xxiv).
Commodian alone makes an implicit statement that the saints of the First Resurrection will marry and beget children. Nevertheless, Irenaeus, Lactantius, and Tertullian, and himself all agree that the First Resurrection is not that which will make us "equal unto the angels," but is rather the resurrection that commences that process. Irenaeus writes that the Millennial kingdom is the commencement of incorruption, by which we are gradually accustomed to partake of the Divine nature. (Against Heresies, V. xxxii. 1). He also says that during this period the saints shall be "disciplined beforehand for incorruption" (Ibid., V. xxv. 2). That is, they shall not be made perfect until the thousand years are complete. Lactantius, too, places the perfection of our resurrection after the Millennium: "But when the thousand years shall be completed, the world shall be renwed by God, and the heavens shall be folded together, and the earth shall be changed, and God shall transform men into the similitude of angels, and they shall be white as snow." (Divine Institutes, VII xxvi).
Tertullian is not very explicit in his statements concerning the Millennium. However, enough may be fetched from his writings to infer that he likewise held that the First Resurrection was only the beginning of the perfection of the saints. He writes: "Not that we indeed claim the kingdom of God for the flesh: all we do is, to assert a resurrection for the substance thereof, as the gate of the kingdom through which it is entered. But the resurrection is one thing, and the kingdom another. The resurrection is first, and afterwards the kingdom. We say, therefore, that the flesh rises again, but that when changed it obtains the kingdom." (Against Marcion, V. x). Referring again to the Millennium, he writes: "After its thousand years are over, within which period is completed the resurrection of the saints, who rise sooner or later according to their deserts, there will ensue the destruction of the world, and the conflagration of all things at the judgment: we shall then be changed in a moment into the substance of angels, even by the investiture of an incorruptible nature, and so be removed to that kingdom in heaven of which we have now been treating." (Ibid., III. xxv).
Of course, Tertullian sees the incorruptibility of the body as being confirmed in the second resurrection-- not the first. But we rather believe that the First Resurrection will render us incorruptible, inasmuch as Adam knew no corruption before he sinned. And our Lord's own resurrection released Him from the bonds of corruption (Acts 2: 31; 13: 30-37); and after forty days among His disciples, He ascended into heaven. But whatever view you choose to adopt, it must be admitted that the bearing of children was something made possible to Adam and Eve before they sinned. For, it is written, "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Gen. 1: 28). In the restitution, therefore, when Paradise is restored to earth, and man once more stands in the presence of God, we must believe that he shall have power, of his own will, and without sinful passion, of begetting children who shall be "holy unto the Lord."
To be continued...