Our generation might be the one to see it: the Messiah invading the skies on the clouds of heaven, flashing like lightning from the east to the west, his feet alighting upon the Mount of Olives.
However—dare I say it—our lives might end like those of our ancestors. We pray, we long, we strive every day for the fulfillment of God’s promises. In the end our children lower us into the earth with that same unsatisfied longing in their hearts.
Consider the fathers and mothers of our faith: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. They pioneered faith in God in an otherwise dark and barbaric world. At every turn of their lives, God repeated his promises to them, and they went to the grave still treasuring those unfulfilled promises.
When we die, our souls depart this world. The Bible promises that at the end of days, the earth will experience a flurry of divine intervention—some frightening, some exhilarating. As terrifying as the apocalypse sounds, there will be something satisfying about it. Imagine experiencing firsthand the culmination of everything and the proof that what you strived for was real and worth it.
God made grand covenants and assurances, and he caused his people to suffer and strive for them. It would not be fair to deny them the satisfaction of seeing it all come together. Accordingly, we have faith that in the afterlife, we will be able to observe God’s plan as it unfolds. Will we be detached observers, peering down from heaven as if watching a baseball game from the grandstands?
The Jewish faith tradition and the New Testament answer this question in one accord. The faithful overcomers of ages past will not be in the nosebleed section; they will have front-row seats. This is because the coming of the kingdom of heaven will include one of the greatest displays of God’s power: the resurrection of the dead.
The Cosmic Timeline
The Jewish sages divided the cosmic timeline into segments based on their reading of Scripture. The life we are currently experiencing is known as “this world” or “this age.” As Jesus said when contrasting our current time with the future, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34).
In a basic sense, everything beyond our current experience can be called “the next world” or “the World to Come.” However, the future holds many changes in store. This means that the phrase “the World to Come” might ambiguously refer to any of the various stages in the future.
Judaism teaches that the soul departs from the body and remains conscious when a person dies. The soul of one who is righteous arrives at a world of blissful rest with other disembodied souls. This world of souls is called “Paradise” or “the garden of Eden.” Jesus used this standard Jewish terminology when he told the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus was speaking about the same place in his story in which a “poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” (Luke 16:22). This is another standard Jewish term for the world of souls.
Humans live and die, and the world goes on. But it won’t go on as it is forever. According to the traditional Jewish timeline, the Messiah’s coming will initiate a series of dramatic changes. Again, Jesus used typical Jewish terminology when he referred to this tumultuous transition as “birth pains” (Matthew 24:8; Mark 13:8). When the dust settles, the earth will experience a time of rest, peace, and prosperity. The whole world will submit to King Messiah, and Israel will finally receive all that God promised to her. Most Jewish sources describe this period as lasting a thousand years, and the New Testament confirms this (Revelation 20:2-7). Jesus referred to this period as “the kingdom of heaven,” but the sages more commonly spoke of it as “the days of Messiah” or “the Messianic Age.”
According to Jewish teaching, after that millennium passes, God will replace the world as we know it with a new heaven and new earth. The new world will be so different from our current experience that it is impossible to imagine or describe in concrete terms. It will last for eternity.
In summary, we have three major “worlds” ahead of us: Paradise, the kingdom of heaven, and the new heavens and new earth. Any of them can be called “the World to Come,” although the term technically fits the final era best.
A Fundamental Principle
Jewish theology speaks more about duty than belief. It leaves ample and inviting space for differences of opinion and interpretation. However, Judaism has some core beliefs, and among them is faith in the resurrection of the dead.
Belief in the resurrection was not unanimous in the time of the Gospels. This was a core tenet that distinguished the Pharisees from the Sadducees. That was why it was Sadducees who hassled Jesus with questions about a woman with seven husbands (Luke 20:27-33). In their view, he represented the Pharisaic position.
According to this fundamental principle of faith, the souls of the departed will return to their physical, human bodies on earth. The same bodies they once had will regenerate from their remains. They will even have the same scars, blemishes, and disabilities they had at first, so they will be easy to identify. (Note how Jesus retained his puncture wounds after his resurrection, making his identity undeniable to Thomas.) Only after raising them from the dead will God also heal their afflictions.
This principle is so essential to the ancient rabbis that they declared that one who does not accept it would not have a share in the future world. Simply believing that the dead will rise again is not enough. The Jewish sages taught that one must believe that the resurrection is hinted at in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the five books of Moses.
Many of the prophets talk about it but often in oblique ways. The book of Daniel is the most explicit: “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” (Daniel 12:2). But in the Torah of Moses, it’s not so clear. The ancient rabbis turned finding these subtle hints into sort of a game.
For example, one rabbi pointed to Deuteronomy 32:39: “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal.” You might object and say that “make alive” refers to newborn children and not the resurrection of the dead. But the parallelism in the verse teaches otherwise. Who does God heal? The same person he wounded. If so, who does he make alive? The same person he put to death.
Another rabbi pointed to the song of redemption in Exodus 15:1. A typical English translation reads, “Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD.” But in Hebrew, the word “sang” sounds like it is in the future tense. This wording suggests that Moses and the people of Israel will sing this song at the time of the ultimate redemption. God will need to resurrect them to do that.
Yet another rabbi cited the blessing Moses gave to the tribe of Reuben: “Let Reuben live, and not die” (Deuteronomy 33:6). Doesn’t that seem a little redundant? Rather, we should understand the verse to mean, “Let Reuben live in this world and not die in the World to Come.”
One witty sage told his fellow with a twinkle in his eye, “Jacob is not dead.” As proof of his claim, he quoted the verse, “Fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the LORD, nor be dismayed, O Israel; for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity” (Jeremiah 30:10). If God told Jacob, “I will save you and your offspring,” it stands to reason that Jacob is still alive.
Jesus participated in this interpretation game when he responded to the Sadducees. “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (Luke 20:37-38).
Heaven for Eternity?
At one point, Paul had to respond harshly to resurrection deniers among the ranks of the believers. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:12). In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is proof of the general resurrection in the future. He is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
The resurrection raises complications for those who expect to spend eternity in heaven. One might suggest that God gives us our resurrection bodies in heaven, but that is not how the Jewish community has ever perceived resurrection. Rather, the same body that dies is the body that comes to life. Paul compared the body to a seed that is planted, dies, and rises from the ground (1 Corinthians 15:36-37). Consistent with Jewish
tradition, he describes the resurrection as happening at the time of the end: “For the trumpet will sound,
and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
Once we accept that there is a physical end-times resurrection of our bodies from the earth, only the Jewish concept of Paradise makes sense. There must be such a temporary holding place for disembodied souls.
Although resurrection itself is a core idea in Jewish thought, not everyone agrees on the details. Some rabbis have insisted that it must occur at the beginning of the Messianic Era. That way, the righteous can enjoy firsthand the promises of God coming to pass. Others have claimed that it must happen at the end of the Messianic Era when God judges the dead. Finally, some rabbis proclaim both ideas are right: The righteous come to life first, and the rest wait until the final judgment.
The book of Revelation confirms the double-resurrection perspective. John speaks of the souls of martyrs and those who stayed faithful to the testimony of Jesus and the Word of God. These souls came to life at the beginning of the Messianic Era. “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection!” (Revelation 20:5-6).
The Didache, an early apostolic text, also maintains the position that the righteous enjoy an early resurrection. In classic rabbinic style, the teaching bases this on the prooftext, “Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him”(Zechariah 14:5).
The two resurrections reflect the two purposes they serve. The resurrection allows God to fulfill his promises to the faithful in every generation who died clutching those promises. It is not just their descendants who will enjoy the fruit of their hope but each generation for themselves.
The resurrection is necessary for the judgment of the wicked since both the body and the soul were accomplices in their wickedness. The rabbis explained this with a parable:
A blind man and a lame man hatched a scheme to steal fruit from the king’s orchard. The blind man set the lame man on his shoulders, and together they filled their baskets. The king caught on to their crime, but they each denied responsibility. How can a blind man see fruit to steal? How can a lame man reach it? The king set the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders and judged the two as one man. So it is with our body and our soul—one cannot sin without the other’s participation. Both are subject to judgment. (Talmud)
The Satisfying Conclusion
The chronology of the resurrection and the end times can be confusing, as we must piece together many small hints and allusions. Fortunately, the Jewish context brings continuity and coherence to many issues like this. To make sense of the redemption era and afterlife, we should start by learning the basic Jewish framework of life after death. We can supplement, correct, and clarify this perspective through the details provided in the New Testament.
This approach does not diminish the New Testament. By plugging it into its source and context, we give
it the power to instruct as it was meant to do.
Knowing that there is a real resurrection of the dead should strike both hope and a holy fear in us. We have hope, knowing that the sacrifices we make in this life are worthwhile. We also gain a sense of fear, knowing that God will hold us accountable for our actions. It is critical that we live our lives in anticipation of the resurrection of the dead. As an added benefit, we get to enjoy the continuity of Scripture and the satisfaction of knowing a God who keeps promises.
Live life today in preparation for the resurrection, and you can rest assured that you will be right in the thick of the action when it comes. You will one day awaken to a trumpet, rub the dirt out of your eyes, and experience the most satisfying conclusion to the greatest story of all time.