Q: In a workbook that parallels our ELS Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism the statement is made, “So far as the future is concerned the resurrection of Christ is the guarantee that everyone, Christians and unbelievers, will rise again, since the power of death has been broken.” My question is: Even though all will rise, believers to eternal life and unbelievers to eternal damnation, can it be said that Christ’s own resurrection guarantees the rising of all?
A: Strictly speaking, Christ’s resurrection from the dead is listed in Scripture as reason and proof that the believers will arise bodily to everlasting life in heaven. Think of the remark by the apostle Paul” “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). Although the final verse may appear to be talking about all people in general, the context shows that Paul refers to believers. Only those who have died as believers are spoken of as “having fallen asleep,” and the expression “in Christ” informs us that Paul is referring to the dead who trusted in the Savior. Paul makes the point that, while their connection to Adam’s sin brings the consequence of temporal death, the believer’s physical resurrection to life is assured by virtue of their close connection to Christ’s own rising from the dead.
Early Lutheran theologians gave attention to the question as to whether or not the godless will rise at the final day as a result of the merit of Jesus (e.g., His resurrection). One of them, Johann Gerhard, wrote the following: “The virtue whereby Christ will raise the godless, properly speaking does not belong to the merit of Christ, but to the divine power; communicated to His human nature by means of the personal union and exaltation to the right hand of God. . . . The resurrection of the godless pertains to His functions as Judge, rather than as Mediator and Savior; as may be inferred from the end of the resurrection” (Loci Theologici, XIX, 13).
In one sense, however, the resurrection of Christ does in fact “guarantee” that all will be brought out of the grave upon the day of judgment. Since His rising on the third day proves His absolute divinity and therefore gives evidence of tile power behind His voice as the final Judge, there will be no exceptions to what Christ predicted: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28, 29). Any who think that there is only annihilation of the wicked, or who think only the souls of unbelievers but not their bodies go to hell, must reckon with Jesus when He speaks of the destruction of “both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
His bringing His own body from the tomb certainly demonstrates His ability to bring the bodies of all, whether believers or unbelievers, out of the ground and assign them to the two specific locations where their souls already have gone previously. One of the most tragic aspects to the punishment of unbelievers is that they all—without exception—will be forced to acknowledge that the One they shunned is indeed the risen and exalted Lord of heaven and earth (Philippians 2:10,11). This kind of acknowledgment will be far different from the eager and embracing observance of Christ by the believers.
Should the workbook statement be corrected? Probably some clarification is in order. In a future edition the sentence might read: “So far as the future is concerned the resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that all Christians will rise to eternal life, while it is also true that all unbelievers will rise to eternal damnation.”
May we pray that the hearts of our unbelieving acquaintances be turned to repentance before such a dreadful day is experienced by them. But may we rejoice that through faith in Christ, our risen Savior our bodies will one day be raised imperishable—just like Christ’s glorified body (Philippians 3:21)!