What Happens When Christ Returns?

by J. Ligon Duncan

The Resurrection of Christ and the Resurrection of the Body

In the death of Christ, we see God's condemnation of sin, but in the resurrection, we see God's acquittal of sinners.

Herman Ridderbos

Does the resurrection really matter, or is it merely a secondary issue of the Christian faith? After all, there were many in Jesus's day and in the days of Paul that thought there was no such thing as a resurrection. So is the resurrection really a matter of importance? Do we really have to understand the resurrection if we are going to understand death?

The Importance of the Resurrection

In Corinthians 15, Paul gives four reasons why the resurrection is of the utmost importance as he corrects the church at Corinth's misunderstandings. The apostle Paul clearly shows that the resurrection is anything but a secondary issue in this life or in the life to come.

1. The resurrection is part of the gospel and necessary for our salvation (1-2).

In verses 1 and 2, Paul makes it clear that the resurrection is part of the gospel, and therefore it is necessary for salvation. As far as the apostle Paul is concerned, the physical, bodily resurrection is an indispensable element of our faith.6 Paul says that if we are not raised again in the flesh, then we are of all people most miserable. Paul is deadly serious about the bodily resurrection, not only Christ's resurrection, but of the believer's resurrection too.

The resurrection is an essential part of the gospel, and so you cannot have one without the other. There is no gospel apart from bodily resurrection.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. (1 Cor. 15:1-2)

The message that Paul preached was of first importance – the message by which we are saved. Part of this infinitely important message is that Christ was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:4). Thus, the apostle Paul in effect is saying, “Believers should believe in the resurrection because it is part of the gospel and thus necessary for our salvation.”

2. The resurrection was not a doctrine Paul made up; instead, he “received” it just as we should.

Secondly, Paul makes it clear to us that he did not invent the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. Instead, he received the doctrine of the resurrection from the Lord Jesus Christ. Verses 3 and 4 say:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

The apostle Paul is saying in effect to these Corinthian Christians and to the church through the ages, “I am not the originator of the Christian idea of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the resurrection was delivered to me, and I am delivering it to you. I received it firsthand when I became a Christian.”

When the apostle Paul was converted, the resurrected Jesus Christ met him on the road to Damascus. From this time on he did not need complex arguments to convince him about the reality of the resurrection of Christ.7

Paul was a firm believer in that resurrection, and so he is stressing, “Look, I didn't invent this. This was something I received and then delivered to you.” The apostle wants to make sure that Christians know that the resurrection is not something he made up; instead, he received it from the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we should receive it as well.

3. The resurrection is copiously attested as an historical event by people of the highest integrity.

Thirdly, Paul goes out of his way to point out that the resurrection is copiously attested as an historical event by people of the highest integrity (1 Cor. 15:5-10). He names people who had personally seen the resurrected Christ, many of whom were known to the Corinthians.

Paul not only points out that Jesus appeared to Cephas (Peter), to James, and to all the rest of the apostles, but he also says that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, “most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep” (v. 6). Do you realize what an astounding claim that is? If Paul were lying, he was giving five hundred people – most of whom were still alive – the opportunity to refute his

assertion that Jesus had been resurrected. In other words, “Corinthians, most of these five hundred that He appeared to are still alive. Ask them if you do not believe me.” Paul is in effect saying, “Look, Corinthians. This is not mere wishful thinking. This is not the crazy idea of one man, or two men, or even three. This is something copiously attested to by people of integrity.”

4. The resurrection is part of the core teaching of the apostles and the apostolic church.

Fourthly, in verse 11, Paul says that this resurrection is part of the core teaching of the apostles, and thus characterizes any church that is truly apostolic. When Paul uses the word, apostolic, he means a church that is in accord with the teaching of the apostles. Paul knows that the apostles’ teaching is normative for Christians. This is a concept that a number of Christians – especially who have lived in the English-speaking world over the last two hundred years – could well afford to learn more about. This is because there are a lot of Christians, even professors of theology and ministers, who think that they have the right to invent Christianity in their own imaginations, to essentially make it up as they go along. But as far as the apostle Paul is concerned, a truly Christian church follows the teachings of the apostles. In verse 11, he says, “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” He is essentially saying, “I, and all the apostles, preached the resurrection – the physical, bodily resurrection – of Jesus Christ, and we have preached it as essential to the gospel of grace.” So the resurrection is part of the core teaching of the apostles and any truly apostolic church.

The Implications of the Resurrection

Paul makes this argument as to why we ought to believe the resurrection, but what difference does that make?

In 1 Corinthians 15:12ff, Romans, and in other places throughout his writings, Paul tells us why the resurrection is so vitally important. It would be beyond the scope of this present work to exhaustively deal with each of the implications Paul offers in his letters, so I will limit myself to five crucial implications of the resurrection.

1. Paul stresses that the resurrection bears witness to the veracity or truthfulness of the claims made by the church regarding the person and work of Christ.

In other words, the resurrection vindicates the claims that the church has made about who Jesus is, what He came to do, and what he has accomplished in His life, ministry, and death. The resurrection validates the claims that the church in its preaching makes about the person and work of Christ.

In Romans 1, Paul says that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God with power “by his resurrection from the dead.” Jesus was publicly declared and vindicated as the Son of God by the resurrection.

Jesus Himself also explicitly declared that He is the Son of God, and the apostles attested to this reality. When the disciples were at Caesarea Philippi talking amongst themselves about what people were saying about Jesus, He asks them, “So, what are people saying about me?” And the disciples reply something like this, “Well, Lord, some of them say You are John the Baptist, risen again from the dead. Some people say that You are Elijah.” Then Jesus says, “Well, I want to know who you think I am.” Peter blurts out, in typical Peter fashion, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus responds by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt.16:17).

The disciples recognized the true nature of Jesus, and Jesus Himself declared that He was the Son of God, but the resurrection was a demonstration of His nature. Death could not hold Him, and His resurrection vindicates His claim to be the very Son of God. So the resurrection is evidential. It is part of the proof of Jesus's person and the effectiveness of His atoning work. The resurrection distinguishes Jesus from all the other leaders of the world's religions, and naturally gives us great confidence to receive His teaching.

2. The apostle Paul says the resurrection is important because it is at the heart of the apostolic preaching and connected to the gospel of redemption and justification.

“Jesus our Lord … was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Rom. 4:24-25). The apostle Paul is saying that our justification – our being declared right with God, forgiven of our sins, and accepted as righteous in God's sight not for anything in us, but for Jesus Christ's blood alone – is something that Christ's resurrection has accomplished. He was raised for our justification, so the resurrection is part and parcel of the gospel, the good news.

The gospel preached by the apostles included testimony to the resurrection as one of its characteristic features. If you do a study of the preaching of the apostles in Romans, Acts, 1 Corinthians, and in other places, you will find that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is repeatedly emphasized. The resurrection gives assurance to us that Christ's work is complete, and our redemption is accomplished.

3. The resurrection is the source of the new life of the believer, and it is the fountainhead of our growing in grace and godliness, or what theologians call sanctification.

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)

We have been raised with Christ to walk in newness of life. Christ's resurrection is the source of the Christian life from beginning to end. The resurrection gives new life to the believer and is the very fountainhead of our growth in grace and godly living.

4. The resurrection is the source, example, and guarantee of our future resurrection.

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom. 8:11)

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is of tremendous importance to believers as we anticipate the future, because it is not only the guarantee, but it is also the model of our resurrection.

On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, there were many believers who were also resurrected and appeared in Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52). They came up out of the tombs, went into Jerusalem and knocked on the doors of their family members. Jesus's resurrection accomplishes the resurrection foretold in Ezekiel 37, the story of the valley of the dry bones.8 Additionally, the believers who were actually raised out of their tombs are a foretaste of our resurrection on the last day. As Jesus's body was quickened, so will ours be. As His body was glorified, so will ours be. These truths are important to the believer's expectation of rising from the dead.

5. The resurrection is the vindication of Christ.

The resurrection proved that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus had offered the perfect sacrifice for sin, was found spotless, and was declared by God to be righteous in full. In that sense, it is impossible for the resurrectionnot to have happened. If the resurrection had not happened, the universe would have ceased to exist because, on the cross, God had poured out the fullness of His wrath on His sinless Son – the wrath that ought to have justly rested on a multitude of men and women, boys and girls because of their sin.

Perhaps we have heard this so often during our lives that we have ceased to feel the wonder of it. But how can a just God pour out His wrath against sin on someone who is sinless? There are many answers to this question offered in the New Testament, one of which is that Jesus voluntarily became the substitute for sinners. He essentially said, “Lord, I'll stand in the place of My people. That is what I want to do, for Your glory and for their everlasting good. I want to stand in the place of the people that You have given to Me” (cf. John 10:7-18). Those beautiful phrases for usin our place, which are found throughout the New Testament, are part of the way that the New Testament explains the wrath of God against sin being laid upon the sinless Son of God.

The New Testament also addresses this issue by saying that the Father vindicated Jesus by raising Him up from the dead; thus demonstrating to the watching world that Jesus did not deserve to die, because He was perfect in every way. Although Jesus did not deserve to die, He did deserve to be raised again from the dead. In fact, had God not raised Him from the dead, His justice would have been compromised.

Since God's justice would have been compromised had He not raised Jesus from the dead, then God's justice would also be compromised if He did not raise from the dead all those who have trusted in Jesus Christ, because Jesus died in their place. As a Christian, part of your firm and certain hope in the future resurrection is that it would be just as impossible for you not to be raised from the dead as it was for Jesus not to be raised from the dead, because He died in your stead. These truths about the resurrection are very comforting to us as believers.

What does Christ's resurrection mean for us when He returns?

A new question arises, about what Christ's resurrection will mean for us when He returns. Number 38 of The Shorter Catechism has such a beautiful outline of this that I thought we would start there:

Q. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?
A. At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the Day of Judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.

The Shorter Catechism lists four benefits that belong to the believer upon death that are simply a summary of the Bible's teaching about what the resurrection of Jesus means for the believer on the last day.

1. Changed to glory.

First, at the final resurrection every believer will be raised, or changed, in glory. The Catechism puts it this way: “At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory….” This comforting truth comes from a number of different places, but one place in particular is 1 Corinthians 15:42-43:

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.

The apostle Paul is saying two very important things.

First, he is saying that just as you are buried in your body, so you will also be raised in your body. As Job would say, “Yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26b). When that flesh – as weak and decaying as it is in this world – is raised, it will not be raised in weakness. The bodies of believers will be raised in beauty, immortality, and perfection. As we experience oppression in the flesh, it is comforting to know that we will see God in the flesh. Not only is that truth comforting, but as Thomas Vincent said, when we are raised, our bodies will be most healthful, strong, spiritual, incorruptible, immortal; they will be most beautiful, and glorious.

This is a very comforting reality. When I am watching dear saints who have trusted in Jesus Christ all their lives going through their final battle with some debilitating illness that has robbed them of the once robust capacities of their bodies, I love to remember that the next time I see those saints (in glory), not even a hint of that physical incapacity or infirmity will be present. The next time I see those saints, I will see them in heaven in the fullness of what it is and means to be created in the image of God.

When I see the children of believers who have been born with congenital and permanent disabilities of mind or of body, it is deeply comforting to know that when I see that child in glory, I will see her in the fullness of what a human being can be: no limitations, no incapacity, only glorified perfection.

Secondly, it is heartening to realize that our bodies will be perfected in the resurrection. When Christ comes again, and we are raised, our bodies will be raised in perfection – totally perfect, even as Jesus's body was glorified. You will not have one single physical deformity. You'll never struggle with being fat again – boy, am I looking forward to that! Your shoulder will never again give you trouble. Your lower back pain, your arthritis, your cancer will be no more. Your bodies will be like Jesus's glorious resurrected body.

Although there will not be a scintilla of imperfection in you, it is interesting that we are told in the Scriptures that there will be one mark that you will still see upon the body of your glorified Lord: the wounds that He bore for you. Jesus has kept the wounds in His glorified body, the wounds He received on our behalf. So for all eternity in your perfected body, you will be able to look at the body which the Lord has chosen to bear for everlasting time. You will gaze at the marks that He bore for you, so that you could inhabit a perfected body. It is a glorious thought, my friends, to think of what your Savior has done for you in that regard.

2. Acknowledged by Christ.

Every believer will in the final resurrection be acknowledged by Jesus Christ. Again, as The Catechism says: “At the resurrection, believers … shall be openly acknowledged … in the Day of Judgment….”

In Matthew 25:34, Jesus is telling His disciples what it is going to be like on that great day, and he says: “The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

On the last day Jesus is going to stand up and acknowledge His people publicly and personally as His friends, as His joint heirs, as His brothers or sisters. He is going to stand up before the nations and say, “These are My friends. I died for them. Everything that is Mine belongs to them.” If you are a believer, then you will be publicly acknowledged, publicly embraced, publicly recognized, publicly owned, and publicly acquitted by Jesus Christ.

The blessing of this will be several-fold. We are told in the Bible that believers will be gathered from all the corners of the earth by angels (cf. Matt. 24:31). Won't that be a sight to see? After having been gathered by the angels (cf. Matt. 24:31), you will be placed at the right hand of Jesus Christ (cf. Matt. 25:33). At that point, we are told that Jesus Christ will openly acknowledge you as belonging to Him (cf. Matt. 10:32). You will then be entertained by Christ (cf. Luke 12:37) and invited by Him to take possession of His Father's inheritance, which He has purchased for you and given to you freely in His love (Matt. 25:34).

The apostle Paul adds that the Lord Jesus Christ will invite you to join Him in judging the world. In 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, Paul says that you will sit with Christ in judgment over wicked angels and human beings, and you will administer judgment with Him. Can you imagine that? Imagine the Lord Jesus saying, in effect, “What will be the just judgment that is meted out on this angel who rebelled against My Father eons ago? What will be the punishment that we mete out on these who so wickedly abused and oppressed people in this world? What does the judgment and justice of God call for?” In glory, you will administer justice with Christ and be publicly acknowledged by Him, acquitted by Him, owned by Him, embraced by Him, and recognized by Him.

3. Acquitted by Christ.

You will be pardoned and acquitted by Christ. Every believer will be in the final resurrection exonerated by Christ. The Catechism answers the question: “At the resurrection, believers … shall be openly … acquitted in the Day of Judgment.”

Matthew 10:32 tells us that Jesus promises that “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in Heaven.”

Before the watching world, on the Day of Judgment, there will be a public, absolute, universal, eternal acquittal of all those who rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Believers will be acquitted from false aspersions, which had been cast upon them in this life, but not only from all false accusations. They will also be acquitted from the actual guilt of the sins that have been committed by them in this life – acquitted because of the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Jesus Christ alone. In glory, you will be exonerated from every false charge that has ever been made against you, or that ever will be made against you in this life. But not only that, you will also be exonerated from every true charge that has been or ever will be brought against you in this life. Jesus Christ will publicly avow you as His.

Think of the eternal peace of conscience that will flow from this. Have you ever been so burdened by a false charge brought against you that you began to wonder whether it was true or not? You could not get it out of your heart or your mind. Or have you ever been so burdened by the reality of the guilt of what you actually have done, and the reality that there is nothing you can do to fix it? You can begin to wonder if you will ever get out from under such guilt. But the Bible teaches that if you rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, on the last day Jesus will deal with both of those things definitively, so that you will never ever again lack peace of conscience.

4. Complete Happiness.

The Catechism says: “At the resurrection, believers … shall be … perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.” There are a number of beautiful Bible passages that speak of this, but three in particular stand out in my mind. The apostle John says,

Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

John in Revelation 21:4 reveals:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

1 Thessalonians 4:17 affirms, “So we will always be with the Lord.”

At the final resurrection, every believer will be made completely happy in fellowship with God. This blessing of happiness and fellowship with God has two parts to it. First, we will be in perfect and final immunity from evil. In this world, there is no immunity from evil. Even the most precious of God's children suffers pain, trials, tribulations, and torments, but not then. This is precisely what John is saying in Revelation 21:4. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will no longer be any death, no longer any mourning, no longer any crying, no longer any pain. All these things will have passed away. So the blessedness that we enjoy in

fellowship with God is because all of the things that mar blessedness in this life are to be taken away permanently, finally, irreversibly.

Have you ever had one of those days that was so good that you began to fear it was never going to be like that again? You knew that something was going to happen, something was going to change. And it did. But never again will you face that in heaven. It will be perfection following perfection … following perfection … following perfection … forever.

There will not only be an immunity from that which mars our blessedness and happiness, but also a perfect enjoyment of God. John captures this thought beautifully in 1 John 3:2: “But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

For the first time in our lives, we shall see Jesus as He really is, and it will take our breath away. And our breath will continue to be taken away for all eternity, because on earth we have seen through a mirror dimly, but there face to face (cf. 1 Cor. 13). John Owen eloquently captures this idea when he writes:

The queen of Sheba had heard much of Solomon and framed many great thoughts of his magnificence in her mind thereupon; but when she came and saw his glory, she was forced to confess that the one half of the truth had not been told her. We may suppose that we have here attained great knowledge, clear and high thoughts of God, but alas! When He shall bring us into his presence we shall cry out, “We never knew him as he is, the thousandth part of his glory, and perfection, and blessedness, never entered our hearts.”9

Here we have known Him through His word, but we still wait to be transformed; we still live in this fallen, sinful world. But in heaven we will see Him as He is and so become like Him.

Don't you love how the apostle exhorts those Christians at the end of the first century by saying that “you love Him, though you have not seen Him”? On the Day of Judgment, that reality will completely pass away. Every last one of Jesus's children will have seen Him as He is. Even the disciples will have their breath taken away at the sight of Jesus when they see His glorified body, because they will be transformed into His likeness.

In that great day, there will be no one that we love more than Him. William Guthrie, the great Scottish pastor, said of Christ and the believer's sight of Him: “Less would not satisfy, but more could not be desired.” Nothing less than Christ in His fullness can satisfy our God-given desires. After all, He made us to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Nothing less than beholding Him in all His fullness can enable us to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. When we behold Him in the fullness of His beauty, our minds will not be able to conceive a thought of something greater to desire.

One of the old, Christian arguments for the existence of God was that “God is that than which nothing greater could be conceived.”10 It is a complex argument that I cannot fully address here, but the point is simply this: When we see Christ, all of us together will say, “There is nothing greater that I could conceive than Him. Nothing greater to delight. Nothing greater to satisfy.” And so we will have a perfect enjoyment of God in Christ because we will see Him just as He is. That is what the resurrection means for us as believers.

What will the resurrected body be like?

The resurrected body of believers will be like Christ's body, glorious, perfect, and beautiful in every way.

When will the resurrection of our bodies occur?

When Jesus comes again, the resurrection of our bodies will occur.

Will non-believers be resurrected?

Yes, they most certainly will. Everyone will be resurrected. Those who have been resurrected trusting in Christ will be resurrected to be like Him and with Him forever. But those who do not believe in Him will be resurrected never to be like Him and never to be with Him for all eternity.

Our heavenly Father, it is hard for us to comprehend what Christ's grave-robbing, hell-defeating conquest of the death that we deserve and His life-giving resurrection mean for us, for it is so glorious. Grant that we would appreciate the fullness of the implications of His resurrection for us now, and then; and that we would live in light of that reality, day by day anticipating it, tasting it as the sweetest nectar that our lips could ever touch. Grant, O God, that You would give us a corresponding burden for those who do not love our Lord Jesus Christ, and who have grieved His heart of love. O God, we would have Paul's heart for his own people to the extent that he would have wished himself accursed if they could only taste and see that the Lord is good, if they could only trust in Jesus Christ. Give us that kind of love for those who don't know Jesus and do not love Him. Remind us that the resurrection is essential, necessary, part and parcel to the gospel, for without it we are of all men most miserable, and we ask these things in Jesus's name, Amen.

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links