Articles and Questions
In John 5.28 Jesus says all who are in the graves shall hear his voice. Then in John 5.29, Jesus says they shall come forth to a resurrection of life or damnation. Who are these ones that come forth from their graves to eternal life or damnation? Is John 5.28-29 describing believers or unbelievers?.
John 5.28-29 is one of Jesus' more difficult sayings to understand. It touches on a lot of poorly understood subjects, including the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead. John 5.28-29 has been interpreted in various ways according to different denominations and beliefs. Little is agreed upon except that Jesus is referring to the resurrection of the dead.
John 5.28-29 reads, "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation" (John 5:28-29 KJV bible).
There are two common ways to understand John 5.28-29. The first, and most popular view is that Jesus is speaking about a resurrection of all people. He is saying that everyone who has ever lived, from the worst sinner to the purest saint, will resurrect. The saints will come forth to a resurrection of life, but the sinners to a resurrection of damnation.
An alternative view is that John 5.28-29 is referring to what's known as the second resurrection. In accordance with Revelation 20.12 and other scriptures, John 5.28-29 is referring to a resurrection of unbelievers that will take place after the resurrection of the saints. In this second resurrection, every unbeliever will be raised up and judged, some to eternal life and some to damnation.
To correctly understand this passage we need to back up, and look at an earlier statement Jesus makes in John 5, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (John 5:24-25 KJV bible).
In this statement Jesus is talking about those who trust and believe in him. He says that the hour has come when the dead shall hear his voice and live. Every "dead" one who hears him will, at this time, pass from death to life by the Spirit.
What's clear is that Jesus is using a metaphor of life and death to describe the difference between unbelievers and believers. All believers are described as alive in him, but all unbelievers are dead to him. Jesus is telling us that the ones who hear him are no longer "dead", but have spiritually passed from death to life.
This imagery of life and death is used throughout the bible to describe the difference between believers and unbelievers. Sinners are described as being dead and trapped in death (Matthew 4.16), but believers are described as being alive and having life (John 10.10, John 6.51). From God's perspective people must have their sins forgiven to be alive to him (Colossians 2.13) (see What does Faith Save us From?).
Now when we look again at John 5.28-29 we can better understand who is being referred to here. The imagery of a person coming forth out of their grave doesn't apply to believers. Believers are never described in scripture as lying in their graves, because they're not held by death. Rather the imagery applies to unbelievers, because they will be released from death in the second resurrection.
So we understand John 5.28-29 to be about the second resurrection, which is the resurrection of unbelievers, "And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Hades] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death" (Revelation 20:13-14 KJV bible).
Revelation 20 describes the second resurrection, and we can see the similarities with John 5.28-29. Like John 5.28-29 the unbelievers are being spit out of death and hell. Some of the unbelievers will enter the Kingdom (Revelation 22.2), which is the resurrection unto life. However, others will receive damnation, which is the resurrection unto damnation.
We have another similar passage to John 5.28-29 in the book of Daniel, "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2 KJV bible).
Again we have a description of people who are being spiritually released from the dust of the earth. The dust of the earth symbolizes the bondage of death. As with John 5.28-29, for some of them it is a resurrection unto eternal life. However for the wicked it's a resurrection unto everlasting contempt.
John 5.28-29 is one of Jesus' more difficult sayings to understand. First, one must realize that there will be a first and second resurrection of the dead. The dead in Christ will rise first, and then later there will be a resurrection of unbelievers. It is this second resurrection that will be the resurrection from the "grave", when all unbelievers are released from the power of death, unto eternal life or damnation.
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