What is “the resurrection of life” and “the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28-29)?

“[A]ll that are in the grave 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

Giotto, Last Judgment in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua

From D.P. Livermore’s Proof Texts of Endless Punishment, Examined and Explained (1862).

“Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the grave 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

It is supposed by many that this passage of Scripture is descriptive of scenes and events which are to take place at the resurrection of man from the dead, when, it is thought, the whole universe of intelligent beings will be raised bodily and be brought to judgment. Here, it is said, we are expressly informed that a portion of the human race will be raised from the dead to immortal life and blessedness; and another portion of the intelligent creation will be raised bodily, and consigned to the regions of dark despair, to wail and writhe in ceaseless anguish! It is affirmed, that the resurrection of life spoken of, has direct reference to the felicity which awaits the righteous in heaven; and that the resurrection of damnation refers to the awful misery which will be inflicted on such as die impenitent and sinful. Hence, it is said, that this Scripture teaches the doctrine of rewards and punishments in the immortal world—for the good and evil deeds of this life. Such, in brief, is the popular interpretation of this language of the Savior. We regard it as unwarrantable and objectionable for the following reasons:


It is based entirely upon assumption, and takes for granted the very thing to be proved! It assumes that a time is coming in the divine economy, when there will be a general resurrection of man, bodily, from the grave. But does this scripture furnish the least proof of such a sentiment? Far from it. This is taken for granted. Many suppose and conscientiously believe, that it teaches such a doctrine; but the language employed will not justify such a conclusion. It does not say that the material body is to be raised from the dead; nor that all men are to be judged in the future world; nor that some will be rewarded with eternal life and felicity for their good works, and some punished with eternal misery for their wicked deeds. If these doctrines are true, we think that every unprejudiced mind must acknowledge, that other testimony and evidence must be relied upon to prove them true.

People first believe these doctrines, and then introduce this scripture as furnishing proof of the sentiments embraced. True, it speaks of a resurrection of life and a resurrection of damnation; but it says nothing concerning the resurrection of the body. Such a resurrection is no where spoken of in the Scriptures as applying to mankind. The resurrection of the material body — the same identical particles of matter — appears to be an unphilosophical and unscriptural sentiment. The question is asked, “How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?” Paul, in answer to that query, says, “Thou sowest not that body that shall be… It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. That which is first is natural; afterward, that which is spiritual.” Such is the Scriptural doctrine concerning the immortal resurrection of man from the dead.

Again, this passage does not inform us that the resurrection is simultaneous and general, as popular theology asserts. It speaks of those only who are in their graves. Now, on the supposition that the grave here means the ground, it only proves that such as have been buried in the earth shall be raised. If it is to be understood literally, it is far from embracing all mankind — having no relation to those who shall be upon the earth at the last day—who, instead of seeing corruption, it is said, will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we see that what should be proved in relation to this scripture, is assumed and taken for granted without proof.


The popular exposition of this text is logically untrue, and hence it is objectionable. In making it teach endless rewards and punishments, it proves too much, and hence logically proves nothing! It would prove, universal salvation and universal damnation! It is affirmed that the resurrection of life spoken of, means ceaseless happiness in heaven; and the resurrection of damnation means ceaseless misery. Bearing this interpretation in mind, let us attend to the language employed: “They that have done good shall come forth to the resurrection of life;” that is, to eternal bliss in heaven. Now, who have done good? All certainly have done some good in their life-time; then all will be rewarded with eternal life, if the passage has a universal application; for all have done good. No particular kind of goodness is here specified; but simply, that they have done good shall come forth to the resurrection of life. Every human being, though never so depraved, has done some good; hence, all shall be blessed with immortal life, if the popular exposition of this passage be correct! So on the other hand, universal damnation is as easily and as logically proved true: “For they that have done evil, shall come forth to the resurrection of damnation.” If damnation here means endless wretchedness and pain, then all men must be eternally lost, for all men have done evil. If any deny that all have done good, it will be readily and universally admitted, that all have done evil. And the broad declaration is, that they have done evil shall come forth to the resurrection of damnation! Thus we see that the argument logically proves too much, and consequently proves nothing.

The objector cannot extricate himself from this dilemma, by affirming that some repent before they die; for this text does not pay, that all shall come forth to the resurrection of damnation, who do not repent before they die; but they that have done evil shall thus come forth; and as all have done evil, so all must be damned, according to the popular interpretation.


The common exposition of this scripture makes immortal blessedness depend upon good works; and this sentiment receives no support from the word of God. According to the passage under consideration, some were to come forth to the resurrection of life, because they had done something that was good; not because they had embraced the true faith, nor on account of the abundant mercy of God; but on account of their good deeds: “They that have done good,” etc. This is not only opposed to the Scriptures, but opposed to the sentiments advocated by the dominant sects themselves. They have long made doctrine the test of a man’s Christianity; if he has not had an evangelical faith, he has been denounced an infidel. This is the method employed by all the popular churches to ascertain whether a man is a Christian or not. If he does not believe a creed, and certain established doctrines, he is hurled out of the church as unworthy of Christian membership, and consequently is regarded as unworthy of heaven, and only fit for hell! Such, it is said, will come forth to the resurrection of damnation. Thus faith is made the standard, and not good works. It matters not how kind and benevolent and good a man is, if he have not the true faith, he must be lost. All his morality will only sink him lower into perdition. Thus we see that if this scripture relate to immortal blessedness, it is to be merited by good works. But this is opposed to the Bible doctrine of a heavenly immortality. Heaven is spoken of as the gift of God; and is not to be attained by good works, but by the abundant mercy of the Infinite Father. We are nowhere informed that man is to be blessed with a resurrection to immortal life, because he has done good; neither that he is to be sent to an endless hell of suffering because he has done evil.


The last objection we now present against the popular view of the passage under examination, is, that it does not harmonize with other portions of the Scriptures which describes the immortal resurrection of man from the dead. It does not agree with the state and condition of man in the resurrection world, as set forth by the Savior and the apostle Paul, who was divinely instructed in relation to the doctrines he taught.

Christ, speaking of the condition of men in the resurrection world, says that they shall be equal unto the angels in heaven; (Luke 20:35, 36); and Paul declares that in Christ shall all be made alive; (1 Cor. 15:22); and that there is no condemnation to such as are in Christ. (Rom. 8:1).

Now, if all who died in Adam shall be made alive in Christ, and made equal unto the angels of God in heaven, as the Bible teaches, how can such as have done evil be made endlessly wretched? If the common view of the passage we are considering be correct, then the Scriptures contradict themselves; but it evidently has no reference to the immortal resurrection of man.

Paul not only informs us that all shall be made alive in Christ, but he had hope towards God for the resurrection of all. But how could he have hoped for the resurrection of all men, if he believed that a part of the intelligent creation would writhe in ceaseless agony? Could he have hoped for their eternal wretchedness? Never! Had he believed that the resurrection of damnation spoken of, referred to endless woe, he never could have hoped for it. He could have hoped only for such a resurrection as he described in his epistle to the Corinthians:

“It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; it is raised in glory; it is raised in power; it is raised a spiritual body. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.”

Having thus shown that the text furnishes no support to the doctrine which is brought forward to substantiate, we pass to its affirmative consideration, and to present what we believe to be its true meaning.

First of all, we should bear in mind that there are two kinds of resurrection spoken of in the Scriptures—just as there are two kinds of death, natural and moral death As a state of sin is spoken of as a state of moral death, so a deliverance from that state is spoken of as a resurrection from that spiritual death; that is, a spiritual exaltation takes place. And as this moral death may be experienced during the natural life, so may this spiritual resurrection be also experienced during this life. Therefore, when we read in the Bible of “dead” and “death,” we cannot determine simply from the use of these words that the writer designed to teach the absolute extinction of life; because these terms are employed in a figurative sense, as significant of moral death — as being dead in trespasses and in sin. So when we read in the Scriptures of a resurrection, it does not necessarily refer to the immortal resurrection of man; because there is a moral resurrection spoken of in the Bible, which may be experienced in this world — a spiritual quickening of the sinner and deliverance from dead works—morally elevating him—raising him to the true dignity of his nature and to the enjoyments of spiritual life. When we read of a resurrection, we should carefully peruse the context, to ascertain whether the writer refers to the immortal resurrection of man; or to a moral resurrection experienced by the true believer in passing from death unto life. Dr. George Campbell, a learned divine of the orthodox school, in his “Notes” on the Four Gospels, vol. 2, p. 113, says that

“The word anastasin, or rather the phrase anastasis ton nekron, is indeed the common term by which the resurrection, properly so called, is denominated in the New Testament. Yet, this is neither the only nor the primitive import of the word anastasis; it denotes simply being raised from inactivity to action, or from obscurity to eminence, or a return to such a state after an interruption. The verb anistemi, has the like latitude of signification; and both words are used in this extent by the writers of the New Testament, as well as by the LXX. Agreeably, therefore, to the original import, rising from a seat is properly termed anastasis; so in awaking out of sleep, or promotion from an inferior condition.”

According to this learned divine, who should be regarded as good authority upon this subject, the original word, anastasis, translated resurrection, “is indeed the common term by which the resurrection” of man from the dead is denominated—yet he says that this is not the only, nor even the primitive import of the word. It denotes simply being raised from inactivity to action or promotion from an inferior condition. Hence, the mere use of the word in the scripture we are considering, furnishes no proof that it refers to the resurrection of all men—and as we have already shown that it does not refer to the immortal resurrection as described by scripture writers — hence it must have reference to a moral resurrection — a spiritual exaltation enjoyed by the true believer in this world. Such an application harmonizes with the context, and the primitive import of the word.

The context justifies the conclusion, that the phrase, resurrection of life, refers to the moral life which the Christian enjoys—to the spiritual enjoyment and peace consequent on belief, and a reception of Christian truth. At the 24th verse of the context, Jesus says, ” He that heareth my word, [that is, my doctrine, my truth], and believeth on Him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.” Those who believed not were in a state of moral death while in this world; the change wrought in them by belief and adoption of the truth, is spoken of as a resurrection; thus they pass from death unto life eternal, by being brought to the knowledge of God’s truth. The believer was morally raised and elevated — spiritually exalted — enjoyed everlasting life — came forth to the resurrection of life — while the unbeliever was in a state of condemnation and death, or came forth to the resurrection of damnation.

Thus we see that those who believed on Christ, embraced his truth and religion, passed from death unto life. The death alluded to here, was not the death of the body, but death in sin. So the “life” spoken of was a state of mind opposite to death— the life which Christianity brings to the soul by an application of its spirit—spiritual life. The same life and death are referred to by the apostle Paul, in the following language: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1). The wicked unbeliever is said to be dead in sin; while the true, Christian believer, is said to be alive unto God. The same idea is expressed in other phraseology, — “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” (Eph. 5:14).

At the 25th verse of the context, we read thus: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead [spiritually dead] shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.”

The phrase “the dead,” here, did not embrace all who were dead in sin, as we understand the expression, but such only as were soon to embrace Christian truth, and through its quickening power, pass from death into life. This seems evident from the expression, “The hour is coming, and now is,” referring to time and events then near at hand. Those only are referred to, who were to believe on Christ by attending on the personal ministration of his word, by receiving the truth from his own lips. Such were to hear the voice of the Son of God, and be convinced through his own personal labors and preaching. Many thus believed on him, (see John 4:41, and other places), and lived the Christian life.

But few Jews, however, were disposed to receive him as the true Messiah—the Sent of God. They rejected him, would not honor him, and called him an imposter, and ridiculed the idea that God was with him, as he claimed, and had committed all judgment into his hands. The Jews thought it absurd in the extreme, that Jesus should claim to be the Son of God, and to have power to give life unto man! They were astonished that Jesus claimed to teach by divine authority— such a poor, unlettered, uninfluential person! Yet he claimed to have authority to execute judgment—to do God’s will and to have power to give everlasting life to all who should believe on him as the Christ of God! This seemed to excite surprise in the minds of the Jews.

Marvel not at this — surprised though you are, I can tell you of more marvelous things than these, more astonishing things than I have yet told you! The hour is coming when all that are in their graves shall come forth; as much as to say, “you affect surprise that any shall believe on me and have life through a reception of my truth—you need not, for the time is coming, (he does not say, and now is, as before, for he knew the stubbornness of their hearts), when all that are in their graves shall hear his voice, that is, his doctrine, or word. Marvel as you do, surprised though you are, yet I will now tell you what will excite your astonishment still more—you, yourselves will yet come forth to the resurrection of moral life or death, or, in other words, the time is coming when you will see that I am the one to execute judgment, and you will all be judged according to the principles of my religion, and be acquitted or condemned.”

As though Jesus had said, some on hearing my gospel will become my followers and have everlasting life — such will do a good thing by embracing my religion and shall be rewarded with spiritual life and true Christian enjoyment; while such as refuse my teachings and reject my religion and truth shall be condemned as guilty. The meaning seems to be this: The time was nigh at hand, when those dead in sin should be awakened from their lethargy, and be brought forth to judgment, and condemned by Christian principles.

The expression, “all that are in the graves,” at the 28th verse, embraces a much larger number of the same class of individuals that are referred to in verse 25th, by the term “dead.”

In the Scriptures, mankind are frequently represented as being dead, and sometimes as being in their graves. When a people are in a low state of sin and degradation, they are said to be dead, or in the “dust,” or in their “graves.” And when they rose out of that state of moral pollution, they were represented as rising from the dead, or coming forth from their graves, or out of the dust. In the 37th chapter, of Ezekiel, the house of Israel is represented as being dead and in their graves, and their resurrection from the dead, is spoken of in the following language:

“Therefore prophesy and day unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves. And shall put my Spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.” Ezekiel 37:12-14

This has no reference to literal death or literal graves. In the passage under consideration the Jewish people are spoken of as being dead, and those who gave heed to the instructions of Christ, are represented as coming forth to the resurrection of life, though all that were in their “graves” should hear his voice. This language is not used here in a literal sense, but to represent their degraded condition. A state of sin was a state of death. “You hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and in sin.” The gospel quickened man into moral life; then he came forth, out of the dust of the earth—he passed from death into life.

We are sometimes told this interpretation of the Scriptures is forced arid unnatural. But when there is not a particular theory to defend, other religionists than ourselves put the same construction upon similar language.

In one of the hymns of Dr. Watts, we find the following verse, which candid people find no difficulty in understanding. They place the same construction upon it that we do upon similar phraseology when found in the Scriptures. The verse reads as follows:

“But where the Gospel comes, It sheds diviner light, It calls dead sinners from their tombs. And gives the blind their sight.”

The hymn containing this verse is sung in all the pulpits of the land. Thus, “sinners” are represented as being dead and in their tombs! The divine light of the Gospel “calls these dead sinners from their tombs, and gives the blind their sight.” Here sinners are represented as coming forth from their “tombs” — the same as they are in the Scriptures as coming forth from their graves. It represents simply, in both cases, the moral influence of divine truth upon the soul. The gospel of Christ “calls dead sinners from their tombs,” and bringing them out of their tombs,” or “graves,” they come forth to a resurrection of life, joy, and peace, and hence are in possession of everlasting life.

The resurrection of life means the spiritual life which the Christian enjoys—the reward consequent on a reception of the truth— such as embraced Jesus’ religion passed from death unto life. The same idea is expressed in the exhortation of the apostle: “Awake, thou that sleepest, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”

Those who should come forth to damnation, would be aroused from their state of ignorance and sin, and stand forth condemned for rejecting Christian truth. They would not awake till they had filled up the measure of their iniquity; then it would be too late to save them from a merited retribution. Though they should suffer punishment for their sin, yet they should finally be redeemed, for all Israel shall be saved (Rom. 11:20-32)