QUESTION: Why does the Watchtower teach that the resurrection takes place during the 1,000-year reign of Christ, when Revelation 20:5 says it takes place after the 1,000 years have ended?
ANSWER: Actually, the verse in question is not referring to the timing of the resurrection. The passage is contrasting the fundamental difference between the first resurrection and the second resurrection. Here is the context:
“And I saw thrones, and those who sat on them were given authority to judge. Yes, I saw the souls of those executed for the witness they gave about Jesus and for speaking about God, and those who had not worshipped the wild beast or its image and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand. And they came to life and ruled as kings with the Christ for 1,000 years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Happy and holy is anyone having part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no authority, but they will be priests of God and of the Christ, and they will rule as kings with him for the 1,000 years.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the second death to be an expression that means permanent death, a condition from which no one will return to life. It can also mean total destruction. If you read on in that 20th chapter of Revelation it becomes apparent.
At the end of the 1,000 years Satan is let loose for a little while. Why? In order to test those then living on the earth in paradise conditions. Then, shortly thereafter the Devil himself is hurled into the lake of fire, where the wild beast and the false prophet already are at that point. Also, anyone whose name is not written in the book of life is hurled into the lake of fire. Then, even death and the Grave wind up in the lake of fire. And verse 14 explains that the lake of fire is a symbol for the second death. (Lake of fire – Insight on the Scriptures)
The reason it is called the second death is because some people will literally die twice. They die the death brought about from Adam’s sin that we all inherited, but those who do not obey the Kingdom and who join the Devil in rebellion at the end of the 1,000 years will die again and will never return to life.
Since death and the Grave are not abolished until the 1,000 years have ended, does that mean people will be dying during the 1,000 years? No. It simply means that the human race will not be absolutely sin-free until the end of the millennium. Keep in mind that Adam and many of his immediate offspring lived for several hundred years – some even close to one thousand years, even in their sinful state.
How are those who experience the first resurrection not under authority of the second death? Because they are the new creation, of which Jesus was the first. The new creation that Jehovah brought into being with the anointing of Jesus is intended to be composed of Jesus and 144,000 who are bought from the earth and who will ultimately be bequeathed with incorruptibility and immortality – as was Christ upon his resurrection. That means they will become like Jehovah in the sense that it will be impossible for them to ever become corrupt or even to die. And that is why the second death has no authority over them, just as it has no power over Jehovah.
But, obviously, even mighty spirit angels can die the second death if they choose to rebel against God. And humans – even in sin-free perfection – will not be incorruptible. If any choose to rebel for whatever reason, they will be subject to death – permanent death.
So, in what sense do the rest of the dead come to life at the end of the 1,000 years?
To better understand this passage consider what Jesus once told a man who begged off from immediately following him by requesting to bury his father. (Apparently, he was not asking for permission to attend a funeral, but to attend to an aging father facing death.) Jesus told him: “Let the dead bury their dead.”
If we take Jesus’ word at face value we might imagine a macabre zombie scene from night of the living dead, or something. But Jesus was simply pointing out the obvious fact that all of humankind are in a dying condition and he was extending the unspeakable privilege to this unnamed Jew of becoming part of the immortal new creation who are to have life in themselves.
But the point is, since God intended mankind to have eternal life, from his perspective we are all dead – yes, even though from a clinical standpoint we are alive, we are under the condemnation of death. And the reason that is our present state is because we are riddled with sin.
The purpose of the Kingdom ruling for 1,000 years is to uplift mankind out of the sinful state we find ourselves in now. So, at the end of the 1,000 years there will be no trace of inherited, compulsory sin. Thus, death and the Grave being thrown into the lake of fire means that the death Adam inflicted upon his offspring will be forever abolished. Paradise will not be marred with cemeteries and mausoleums.
The 20th chapter of Revelation harmonizes with what Jesus stated in the 5th chapter of John. There Jesus stated: “Do not be amazed at this, for the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, and those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment.”
Notice that Jesus referred to a resurrection of judgment. That is exactly what is described in the 20th chapter of Revelation. The dead are resurrected and made to stand before the great white throne and judged on the basis of what is written in the new scrolls.
In that sense the dead will not come to life until the end of the 1,000 years, in that, only then will they be completely free from slavery to the sin and the judgment of death that began in the Garden of Eden. And finally, as sinless, perfect humans, they will be required to pass the final test when the Devil is let loose for a little while.
Related article in the September, 2014 Watchtower Study Edition