The Dead in Christ Rise First!

Last Sunday morning in our adult Sunday school class (remember those?) some of the folks were asking about the phrase, ‘the dead in Christ rise first’ in conjunction with what will happen to all of the Christian bodies that are buried or cremated at the Rapture.  The question was specifically asked, ‘What happens to the physical bodies of all the Christians who are alive at the Rapture and what happens to the bodies of all of the Christians who are buried in graves or are stored as ashes in urns?’  You would think that a simple answer would suffice for such a question, but this crowd is tough, they are scholarly Pentecostals who well versed in scripture and very much in love with the Lord.  The truth be told, it’s a great question that offers some conflictious perspectives that lead to the formation of varying doctrines and degrees of understanding to this question.

While I have my opinion, I want to say that this is NOT a salvation issue.  However, some people feel the need to absolutely know for sure what is to happen with the remains of their dead loves ones.  It is for this reason that I am addressing this issue.  You may have a different opinion than mine and that’s fine; just know that I am doing my best answer this question scripturally and with the sensitivity that it deserves.

The Apostle Paul describes the Rapture like this, “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”                                                                                     – 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

  • Apparently some of the Thessalonian believers were concerned about their loved ones who had passed away in Christ (as believers).  Some of these believers were unsure as to how their dead loved ones would be resurrected when the Lord returned for His Church.  Paul answers their question and thus, provides us with some good doctrine regarding the Rapture/Resurrection.

He said that ‘the dead in Christ rise first,’ which implies that our deceased loved ones who died in Christ will be resurrected.  What is further implied is that it will be a bodily resurrection, from the grave, because that is where their bodies are; however,  Paul didn’t say they would be resurrected from their graves, he just said that ‘the dead in Christ will rise first.’

Paul also referenced the resurrection of the dead when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church. “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery (hidden truth): We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”              – 1 Corinthians 15:50-53

  • The phrase, ‘the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we (who are still alive) shall be changed.’  This implies a bodily resurrection of dead bodies and a metamorphosis of all living Christians at the moment the Rapture occurs.

The word used for incorruption implies that the body of a believer is ‘not liable to corruption or decay.’  The problem is that when a person dies, believer or not, their body does decay, this is the way of things.  Millions of believers around the world have died in Christ and their bodies have already decayed, many have been cremated, and still others are just gone, eaten by fish or other creatures or just not around anywhere in any form.  I have heard preaches say that there are microscopic particles of people everywhere on the planet and God knows where they are and will resurrect them at the Rapture. While this may sound good, it’s just not scriptural.

Paul says that ‘the dead will be raised incorruptible’ which implies a bodily resurrection from the grave, but which grave and which body?  Is it the one decaying in the grave or the one that will be given them in the kingdom, an incorruptible, immortal body? Is the grave that is referenced here in the dirt, or in paradise, in the presence of the Lord, where all the former saints will be resurrected from?   One must define what the grave is before they can create a doctrine supporting a bodily resurrection of a dead NT saint from their physical grave.

Some would argue that since Jesus raised from the grave in a bodily resurrection, we will also.  Jesus was dead less than three days, His body didn’t see corruption in that short amount of time, thus fulfilling the psalm,

‘Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will rest (dwell securely) in hope. 10 For You will not leave my soul in Sheol (the abode of the dead, Abraham’s Bosom), nor will You allow Your Holy One to see (undergo) corruption.’            – Psalm 16:9,10 

  • While the psalmist is referencing Jesus and His death, temporary burial, and ultimate resurrection, it doesn’t necessarily imply that all dead bodies of the saints will be resurrected from their physical graves at the Rapture, or even when Jesus rose from the grave after being dead for three days.

Today we can go to Jerusalem, Israel and visit the grave of King David.  It’s secured in a coffin vault covered in blue fabric with Jewish stitchery embroidered on it.   If we were to get permission from the powers that be to pry open this vault and look inside, would we see the bones of David, or would the vault be empty because of Jesus’ ascension from Abraham’s Bosom at His resurrection?  While nobody would dare desecrate David’s tomb, it does beg the question, are there any remains inside that vault, or tomb, or urn, or grave of any OT saint?  If they are still in there (and I believe that they are), then why weren’t they resurrected from their graves when Jesus rose from the grave.  More importantly, what is going to happen to all of the dead NT saints decayed bodies in their graves when the Rapture occurs? Will they remain in their graves or be resurrected?

People who adhere to the theory (doctrine) of a dead body resurrection of all NT saints will use the passage in Matthew 27 to support it. 

“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”                              – Matthew 27:50-53

  • At the moment the Lord died on the cross, the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom, the earth quaked and the rocks were split.  Then there is a three-day pause between verse 51 and 52 where Matthew further testifies (in verse 52) that ‘the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep (died) were raised, coming out of the graves after Christ’ resurrection.’ 

When Jesus died on the cross, His spirit descended into the lower parts of the earth, to Abraham’s Bosom, where the spirits of all the OT believers were sequestered.  Abraham’s Bosom is situated across from Gehenna, the place of the dammed (Luke 16:19-31).  There Christ ministered to them and on the third day, He ascended, taking all of those OT saints with Him into Paradise, in the presence of the Lord (aka the third heaven).  Many of those people who had died prior to Christ’ crucifixion and were buried came back to life, that is, their disembodied spirits were re-inserted into their dead bodies and then they were resurrected from their graves and went to Jerusalem to be seen by many people there.  This is an astonishing passage of scripture that is both creepy and exciting at the same time. Can you imagine what that must have been like for the resurrected saints as well the many people who were reunited with them in Jerusalem?!  The working theory we have here is that the dead saints who were resurrected had not been dead for very long. While there is no biblical evidence for this (other than Jesus being dead for three days), it is a theory.  Lazarus being dead for four days in the grave is another example of a recent death and resurrection.  The idea of a person recently dying and then coming back to life has more of an impact than a person who has been dead for years, at lead in this case.  We won’t know for sure till be get to heaven; it’s a working theory.

The argument here has more to do with what happens to a believer’s dead body at the Rapture.  Does it disappear or rematerialize (if decomposed or cremated) and then resurrect?  Does it become physical and pop out of the grave like a daisy?  Does the grave itself pop open, leaving a hole in the ground with an empty coffin or urn?  All of these scenarios have been preached by well meaning and very well studied pastors in leu of the phrase, ‘the dead in Christ rise first.’   While I will agree that a Christian who is alive will instantly disappear (be transformed) when caught up in the Rapture, I would also argue that a believer’s dead body will remain in their grave or urn, because that is not where they are being resurrected from.

The question being asked here has more to do with what happens with the remains of a believer’s dead body.  Some say it will disappear just like those who are raptured. Others, like me, say that they (it) will remain in the grave; and still others feel that even though the believer’s body is already decayed, it will rematerialize and then be resurrected.  If this is true, then all of those saints in paradise, at the moment Jesus returns for His Church, will be put back into their dead bodies, and then resurrected from them.  It’s a far stretch for the phrase, ‘the dead in Christ will rise first.  I believe that this phrase means that the dead will rise from Paradise, in the third heaven, and they will meet the Lord in the air, already in their glorified bodies, not from their graves, or urns, or wherever their microscopic particles exist.  Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with the Lord, meaning that we will be changed into our immortal bodies and snatched away in an instant.  While this may seem like a trivial argument, it does render some perspective on the matter, which is not a salvation issue, so much, as it is one of perspective.  The best part about this working theory is that we will not know for sure on this side of the Rapture what really happens to the physical dead bodies of all NT saints.  If a person who was left behind after the Rapture were to get a shovel and go to the grave of a believing loved one and dig them up, what would they find?  An empty casket or a decayed body?  This is the argument. 

Here is another thought; if two believers are walking together and one has a heart attack and dies and a few moments later the Rapture happens, does the living believer disappear while the dead believer’s body remain; even though both were saved.  This is the manifestation of this argument in a practical sense.   Me thinks that the idea of a believer’s body still being in their grave, after the Rapture, is a bit much for some Christians.  For them, that would be like God not raising them because their physical, decaying body is still in the grave.  For them, it goes against many preaching narratives that claim a bodily resurrection for all dead saints. 

Another way of looking at this would be to ask the question, what happened to all of the decaying bodies of the OT saints.  If righteous uncle Bill, who died in 100 BC, was resurrected from Abraham’s Bosom with all the other OT saints when Jesus resurrected and he went with them into Paradise, did his decayed body disappear from its tomb or shoebox?  If it did, along with all of the others, then that would be consistent (and support) with the theory that the physical bodies of all the NT saints would also disappear at the Rapture. However, if they remained in their OT graves after the resurrection of Jesus, what does this say about what might happen with the NT saints’ decayed bodies at Rapture? This is the kind of rhetoric that believers must disseminate when addressing this phrase, ‘the dead in Christ rise first.’

The greater issue here has more to do with how this affects a believer’s view of where their deceased loved ones in Christ are.  Are they still in the grave or are they in Paradise, in the presence of the Lord?

Paul reminds us that for the believer, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. He said it this way,  “For we know that if our earthly house (physical body), this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation (dwelling) which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (down payment). So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.”                                                                                         – 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 

One thing is for sure, everyone who dies in Christ will be raised up again and given a new, eternal body.  Whether or not it will come from an old dead body decaying in a grave or deposited in an urn or wherever, they will rise again.  We don’t need to get hung up on whether their resurrection is coming from the grave or from paradise, rather, we can appreciate the varying viewpoints and look forward to discovering the real answer when the result manifests at the Rapture/resurrection; which should happen any minute now.

It is my prayer that you are ready, studied up, and occupying as the Lord has instructed all of us to be doing in these last days.  We are very close to some very big things happening very soon and each of us, as believers in Jesus, need to be in a state of readiness for Christ’s return and in a place of doing the Lord’s work by being productive and a good witness of Him.  Until then, let’s keep looking up, the Master is at the doors.


Encouragemen is a blog written by Pastor Rob Lee, recently relocated to Northwest Missouri.  He lives with his wife of 32-years, near their three adult children, their spouses, and children (their grandchildren).  Pastor Rob is an Ordained Assemblies of God minister, a former Lead Pastor (25 years), police chaplain, and community advocate.  He continues to serve, consult, and disciple men of God, including those who are in the ministry. 

One thought on “The Dead in Christ Rise First!

  1. Brother Rob, I’m ready for what ever body I get. I know it will be better than the one I’ve beaten a pulp. Thanks for the blog.


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