During the time of Christ there were differing views concerning life after death among the Jews, although the Resurrection of the Dead is one of the basic doctrines of the Bible.
The main religious groups during the time of Christ were the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. These groups had different theologies and philosophies. One of the controversial topics was what happens after death. According to the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, both the Pharisees and Essenes believed in the immortality of the soul, with rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked in a disembodied afterlife (Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chap. 1, secs. 3, 5).
Though they believed in a Resurrection, they were at odds with the Bible in believing humans had an immortal soul. According to Scripture, the soul doesn’t live forever, but that it can and does die (Ezekiel 18:4, Ezekiel 18:20; Matthew 28:10)—and there is no conscious awareness in death (Ecclesiastes 9:5, Ecclesiastes 9:10).
The Sadducees differed from the Essenes and Pharisees in that they believed neither in an immortal soul nor a resurrection (Josephus, sec. 4; Hippolytus, chap. 24). They believed only in the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—as the sole source of divine authority, and it did not specifically mention the resurrection.
The Pharisees were closer to the biblical teaching than the Sadducees, but their views about life after death were incomplete. The Bible speaks of more than one resurrection, and indicates more than one time of judgment. Millions of people live and die without ever knowing anything about the true God or the Bible. What is God’s plan for them?
God must call people to come to know Jesus Christ and receive His gift of eternal life through the resurrection of the dead. When a Christian is called, baptized and receives the Holy Spirit, he enters a time of judgment—of evaluation of his life (1 Peter 4:17), and will be resurrected when Christ returns if he or she has lived a life of obedience and faith. This is plainly called “the first resurrection.” It will occur at the end of “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) when God will deliver His people through the return of Jesus Christ. “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6).
But what about everyone else? Notice this statement in Revelation 20:5: “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” (New International Version). Those resurrected in this group are people who never completely understood the truth of God. Rather than them being condemned to eternal suffering or never awakening from the sleep of death, they will come to life again. This will be a resurrection to physical life, during which they will have the opportunity to repent and receive God’s Holy Spirit and then live forever.
It’s important to understand this isn’t a second chance for people to choose to follow God and Jesus Christ. Many billions of people have lived and died without ever having had an opportunity to truly know and understand Jesus Christ and God’s plan of salvation. For these people, their opportunity to know and submit to God in a day of judgment or evaluation is still coming.
Good News Magazine