What is the First Resurrection?

In Scripture, the first resurrection refers to the resurrection to celestial and immortal life of Jesus’ anointed followers.  We believe that this is the little flock which he spoke of at Luke 12:32.  We believe their number is a literal 144,000 as described at Revelation 7:4.  It is also our belief that those of this group who have died since the first century down to our day are now all in heaven, having experienced their resurrection from1918 onward.

“Therefore, anointed Christians who died before Christ’s presence were raised to heavenly life ahead of those who were still alive during Christ’s presence. This means that the first resurrection must have begun early in Christ’s presence, and it continues “during his presence.” (1 Corinthians 15:23) Rather than occurring all at once, the first resurrection takes place over a period of time.”  (w07 1/1 p. 28 par. 13 “The First Resurrection”—Now Under Way)

All this is predicated on the belief that Jesus’ presence as the Messianic king began in 1914.  There is reason to dispute that position as explained in the post Was 1914 the Start of Christ’s Presence?, and the Scriptures that refer to the first resurrection actually add to the weight of that argument.

Can We Determine When It Occurs From Scripture?

There are three scriptures that speak of the timing of the first resurrection:

(Matthew 24:30-31) And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in lamentation, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send forth his angels with a great trumpet sound, and they will gather his chosen ones together from the four winds, from one extremity of the heavens to their other extremity.

(1 Corinthians 15:51-52) Look! I tell YOU a sacred secret: We shall not all fall asleep [in death], but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised up incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

(1 Thessalonians 4:14-17) For if our faith is that Jesus died and rose again, so, too, those who have fallen asleep [in death] through Jesus God will bring with him. 15 For this is what we tell YOU by Jehovah’s word, that we the living who survive to the presence of the Lord shall in no way precede those who have fallen asleep [in death]; 16 because the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a commanding call, with an archangel’s voice and with God’s trumpet, and those who are dead in union with Christ will rise first. 17 Afterward we the living who are surviving will, together with them, be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall always be with [the] Lord.

Matthew links the sign of the Son of man which occurs just prior to Armageddon with the gathering of the chosen ones.  Now this may refer to all Christians, but our official understanding is that ‘chosen’ here refers to the anointed.  What Matthew relates appears to refer to the same event described in Thessalonians where the surviving anointed will “be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air”.  1 Corinthians says these do not die at all, but are changed “in the twinkling of an eye”.

There can be no argument that all this occurs just before Armageddon, because we have not witnessed it occurring yet.  The anointed are still with us.

This is not the first resurrection technically, since they are not resurrected, but transformed, or “changed” as the Bible says.  The first resurrection consists of all those anointed from the first century onward who have died.  So when are they resurrected?  According to 1 Corinthians, during the “last trumpet”.  And when does the last trumpet sound?  According to Matthew, after the sign of the Son of man appears in the heavens.

So the first resurrection appears to be a future event.

Let’s review.

  1. Matthew 24:30, 31 – The sign of the Son of man appears.  A trumpet is sounded.  The chosen are gathered.  This happens just before Armageddon starts.
  2. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 – The living are transformed and the [anointed] dead are raised at the same time during the last trumpet.
  3. 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 – During Jesus’ presence a trumpet is blown, the [anointed] dead are raised and “together with them” or “at the same time” (footnote, Reference Bible) the surviving anointed are transformed.

Notice that all three accounts have one common element: a trumpet.  Matthew makes it clear that the trumpet is sounded just before the outbreak of Armageddon.  This is during Christ’s presence—even if that presence started in 1914, this would still be during it.  The trumpet sounds and the surviving anointed are transformed.  This happens “at the same time” the dead are resurrected.  Therefore, the first resurrection is yet to occur.

Let’s look at it logically and explore whether this new understanding is more consistent with the rest of Scripture.

The anointed are said to come to life and rule for a thousand years.  (Rev. 20:4)  If they were resurrected in 1918, then the vast majority of the anointed have been alive and ruling for almost a century.  Yet the thousand years have not yet begun.  Their rule is restricted to a thousand years, not eleven hundred, or more.  If Christ’s presence as the Messianic king begins just prior to Armageddon and the anointed are resurrected then, we have no problem with the application and consistency of Rev. 20:4.

What about 1918?

So what is our basis for ignoring all the foregoing and fixing on 1918 as the year the first resurrection is said to begin?

The January 1, 2007 Watchtower gives the answer on p. 27, par. 9-13.  Notice that the belief is based on the interpretation that the 24 elders of Rev. 7:9-15 represent the anointed in heaven.  We can’t prove that, of course, but even supposing it to be true, how does that lead to 1918 as the year the first resurrection started?

w07 1/1 p. 28 par. 11 says, “What, then, can we deduce from the fact that one of the 24 elders identifies the great crowd to John? It seems that resurrected ones of the 24-elders group may be involved in the communicating of divine truths today.” (Italics ours)

“Deduce”, “seems”, “may”?  Counting the unproven interpretation that the 24 elders are the resurrected anointed, that makes four conditions to build our argument on.  If even one of them is wrong, our reasoning collapses.

There is also the incongruity that while John is said to represent the anointed on earth and the 24 elders the anointed in heaven, there were, in fact, no anointed in heaven at the time this vision was given.  John got a direct communication of divine truth from heaven in his day and it was not given by the anointed, yet this vision is supposed to represent such an arrangement today, even though the anointed today do not get direct communication of divine truth either by vision or dreams.

Based on this reasoning, we believe that in 1935 the resurrected anointed communicated with the anointed remnant on earth and revealed the true role of the other sheep. This was not done by holy spirit.  If such revelations are the result of the anointed in heaven ‘communicating divine truths today’, then how can we explain the many faux pas of the past such as 1925, 1975 and the eight times we have flip-flopped on whether or not the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are to be resurrected.[i]  (The reasoning that these are merely refinements or examples of advancing light cannot apply to a position that is repeatedly reversed.)

Let’s be clear.  The foregoing is not stated so as to be unnecessarily critical, nor as an exercise in faultfinding.  These are simply historical facts that have an impact on our argument.  The date of 1918 is predicated on the belief that the resurrected anointed are communicating divine truths to the remnant of anointed on earth today.  If so, then it is become difficult to explain the errors we have made.   If, however, the anointed are being guided by holy spirit as they rove about in the Scriptures—something the Bible actually teaches—then such errors are attributable to our human condition; nothing more.  However, accepting as the way things happen removes the only basis—albeit a highly speculative one—for our belief that the first resurrection has already occurred.

Just to further illustrate how very speculative is our belief in 1918 as the date of the first resurrection, we arrive at this year  assuming a parallel between Jesus being anointed in 29 C.E. and enthroned in 1914.  He was resurrected 3 ½ years later, so “could it, then, be reasoned that…the resurrection of his faithful anointed followers began three and a half years later, in the spring of 1918?”

Based on 1 Thess. 4:15-17, that would mean God’s trumpet sounded in the spring of 1918, but how does that jibe with the trumpet linked to these same events described in Mt. 24:30,31 and 1 Cor. 15:51, 52?  Particular difficulty arises in trying to equate 1918 with the events described in 1 Corinthians.  According to 1 Corinthinans, it is during the “last trumpet” that the dead are resurrected and the living are changed.  Has the “last trumpet” been sounding since 1918; almost a century?  If so, then since it is the last trumpet, how can there be another, yet future trumpet blast to fulfill Mt. 24:30, 31?  Does that make sense?

‘Let the reader use discernment.’ (Mt. 24:15)

[i] 7/1879 p. 8; 6/1/1952 p.338; 8/1/1965 p. 479; 6/1/1988 p. 31; pe p. 179 early vs. later editions; is vol. 2 p. 985; re p. 273