What We Believe

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 3, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation” (1976)

Danny E. Olinger

Meredith Kline’s 1975 “First Resurrection” article triggered a published response in the Westminster Theological Journal by his fellow Gordon Seminary faculty colleague J. Ramsey Michaels. In “The First Resurrection: A Response,” Michaels first praised Kline’s contribution. He declared that Kline’s “excellent study” had raised the discussion of the millennium and “the first resurrection” in Revelation 20 to a higher plane, beyond the usual charges and counter charges of “spiritualizing” and “unwarranted liberalism.”[1]

Michaels then summarized that which he believed stood at the heart of Kline’s article. According to Michaels, Kline’s main points were: 1) “first” and “second” in Revelation 20 denote a difference of kind, not mere sequence; 2) a double binary pattern, the complex interweaving of “first” resurrection and “second” death in Rev. 20:5 and following, presupposes in the text a second resurrection and a first death. The announced members of this pattern, first resurrection and second death, are to be understood metaphorically. The silent members of this pattern, second resurrection and first death, are to be understood literally; 3) living and reigning with Christ for a thousand years in Revelation 20 is to be identified with the immediate state.

Michaels’s Questions of Exegesis and Logic

From this summary, Michaels presented five questions/observations—which he believed flowed from exegesis, logic, and a “rather conventional” premillennial view—that opposed Kline’s argumentation.[2] Michaels first argued that, although Kline was correct in saying that the first death is literal, it did not follow that the second death is metaphorical. According to Michaels, in Revelation 20:11–15, the close connection between the second death and the second resurrection is such that “it is hard to understand how [Kline] can at the same time refer to the former as ‘metaphysical’ and the latter as ‘literal.’ Both represent realities beyond the scope of human experience.”[3] Believing that he had proven that both deaths are in some sense literal, Michaels asked “why not both resurrections?”[4]

In his second question/observation, Michaels stated that Kline could not be faulted for his basic assertion that a parallelism exists between the use of “first” and “second” in Revelation 20, and that of “first” and “new” in Revelation 21. Michaels also acknowledged that in Revelation 20 and 21, 1 Corinthians 15, and Hebrews, the binary patterns of “first” and “second,” “first” and “new,” and “first” and “last,” refer not to sequence but to realities that are qualitatively different. What Michaels objected to was Kline’s belief that the contrast in Revelation 20 of “first resurrection” and “second death” is a double binary pattern. He wrote, “It is true that Kline can point to the use of the word ‘death’ in 20:13f. and 21:4 as evidence that the concept, though not the term, ‘first death’ is present in the context. But is this an adequate basis for reconstructing a ‘double binary pattern?’”[5] 

In Michaels’s opinion, what Kline had done was to supply “phantom” elements not found explicitly in the text. The first resurrection is set in contrast to the second death in Revelation 20, but there is no basis in this text for speaking of two different kinds of resurrection or two different kinds of death.

Michaels, in his third question/observation, maintained that Kline, in much the same manner as G. B. Caird,[6] had applied a form of Kantianism in arguing that what is called “resurrection” in Revelation 20:5 and following is the physical death of the believer. For Michaels, Kline had created a paradox. On the one hand, Kline argued the “first resurrection” is first because it is passing away, and thus, making it antithetical to consummation. On the other hand, Kline stated that it can be called a resurrection because it leads to the eternal state for the dying Christian.

In his fourth question/observation, Michaels continued to press what he believed was Kline’s use of paradox. If the “first resurrection” is not the traditional New Testament hope, Michaels asked, “Where then does the common hope of a bodily resurrection for Christians come to expression in chapter 20? The only alternative to Kline’s answer is the traditional premillennial one: in the phrase, “the first resurrection.”[7]

In his final objection, Michaels noted that Kline referred to Revelation 6:9–11 “only in passing,” although in Michaels’s judgment it comes the closest to the language of Revelation 20:4–6. Both texts refer to Christian martyrs, but in Revelation 6 the number of martyrs is not complete as it refers to the immediate state. Revelation 20 refers to a subsequent stage for martyrs, which Michaels asserted could only be the bodily resurrection at the coming of Christ.

Michaels concluded, “In spirt of being informed and challenged by Professor Kline’s article, I remain unconvinced that the ‘first resurrection” is a paradoxical expression for the death of the saints.”[8]

The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation

Kline’s “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation” appeared immediately after Michaels’s “Response” in the same issue of the Westminster Theological Journal. In a revealing self-confession, Kline said that he admired the courtesy Michaels demonstrated, but “as one notably deficient in irenic grace I could almost wish he had set a less noble example! Despairing of matching it, I tender my apologies beforehand, ere the ardor of offensive defensiveness has quite carried me away.”[9]

In the paragraphs that follow, Kline’s language let the reader know why he had extended his apologies beforehand. For Kline, the questions of exegesis regarding Revelation 20 that Michaels raised were not so much a criticism of Kline’s article, but “a novel proposal of his own setting himself against the commentators of all millennial schools on what has been a point of fundamental, if formal, agreement among them.”[10]

Michaels might have characterized his approach as “conventional premillennial,” but Kline believed that Michaels had implicated all commentators who see a double pair of first and second death and first and second resurrection in the interpretation of Revelation 20:4–6 as having erred. Kline steamed, “In spite of the bold manner in which this proposal is introduced as being ‘of course’ what John says, it must strike most readers of the Book of Revelation as a strained exegesis, unnatural to the extreme.”[11]

How Michaels Came to His Position

Kline believed that it was clear enough to see how Michaels had arrived at his position. Once Michaels acknowledged with Kline that “first” and “second” in Revelation 20 and 21 denote a qualitative difference and not mere sequence, then the traditional double binary pattern interpretation accepted by all sides spells the end of premillennial exegesis.

The decisive issue in pinpointing this in Michaels’s “Response” was his assertion that, in Revelation 20:4–6, John only presents one death experience and one resurrection experience. Michaels followed this with the unfounded assumption, in Kline’s judgment, that if first death and second resurrection are not present explicitly in the text then they are not present either in the thought of the text.

The reality, however, is that when the concept or experience of first death appears in Revelation 20:4–6 and 20:13, 14, it is brought in immediate juxtaposition to the term “second death.”[12] The concept of a second resurrection appears in the context of Revelation 20:12 and following where the term “first resurrection” is used. This flatly contradicts the contention of Michaels.

Furthermore, Michaels’s belief that John never pairs “first” with “death” is contradicted by Revelation 21:4. Kline noted, “Revelation 21:4 says that death and the related phenomena of sorrow, crying, and pain will be no more in the new world and explains this absence of death by the statement: ‘for the first things are passed away.’ The death in view here is identified as one of the ‘first things’ (i.e., as belonging to the pre-consummation order).”[13] Accordingly, Michaels’s argument in his second question is unfounded, contradicted by the textual evidence, and quite pointless.

But Kline also believed that Michaels’s positive exegetical proposal was also flawed. Although Michaels agreed that a qualitative contrast is denoted by the first-second pair in Revelation 20 and 21, he disregarded the nature of the contrast as being a contrast of two orders, one old and pre-consummate and the other new and consummative. The result is a bare notion of difference in understanding the meaning of “first” in first resurrection and “second” in second death. John uses “first” and “second,” however, to contrast the old and new varieties of one entity, specifically death or resurrection. Michaels wanted to contrast totally different entities, specifically death and resurrection.[14]

The trouble with Michaels’s explanation was that it led to the conclusion that “first” and “second” expressed similarity and not difference. If, as Michaels claimed, the “first resurrection” is so named because it is the only one to deserve the name, then “first” apparently means the real thing. Likewise, if “second death” is so designated because it has finality, then “second” apparently means final. Kline observed, however, that if “real” and “final” are comparable at all, they are synonymous, not antonymic. He concluded, “It is a question, therefore, whether the exegetical proposal of the Response is intelligible, let alone credible.”[15]

Revelation 20:4–6 and Premillennialism

For Kline, it was not only Michaels but also premillennial exegesis that had been backed into an exegetical corner. Rightly understood, Revelation 20:4–6 contains two kinds of death experiences and two kinds of resurrection experiences. That leaves “no options in sight that would salvage the premillennial exegesis.”[16]

Kline explained that, if the “second death” simply finalizes physical death, then there would be no resurrection of the wicked—something Michaels knew needed retaining—because man’s disembodied condition would be perpetuated. Michaels’s solution is to say that the resurrection of the wicked is paradoxically called the “second death,” since it is only formally a resurrection. Kline reckoned, “Certainly a death that consists in disembodiment differs in kind from death as re-embodiment to suffer eternal perdition.”[17]

Kline believed that Revelation 20:14, with its picture of the death of the grave and intermediate state as being terminated in the lake of fire, proved this point. The lake of fire brings about a new kind of death, a re-embodiment to suffer eternal punishment, a second death.

If the term “metaphysical” brings about the belief that the second death is not an actual event, that is, a spiritual death that is not the experience of the total person raised from the grave, then that is a serious disadvantage. “But whatever adjectival term we use to distinguish them, we are dealing here with two very distinct kinds of death.”[18]

According to Kline, what was true regarding the two kinds of death in Revelation 20 and 21 was also true of the two kinds of resurrection there. Further, the two support and really demand each other as the resurrection of the wicked is paradoxically designated the “second death” and the death of believers is paradoxically called the “first resurrection.” In order to preserve a premillennial exegesis, Michaels accepts the first pairing but rejects the second pairing as a contradiction of terms if “first” is understood as pre-consummative. 

Kant and Van Til

Kline then turned from the exegetical to the philosophical in his unraveling of Michaels’s Response. In Kline’s opinion, the only matter in which Michaels had succeeded was in showing “how seriously he has been influenced by the Kantian dialectic, to which as a matter of fact he refers with approval.”[19] In Michaels’s Kantian hands, the resurrection cannot be spoken of as belonging to the present order in an intrusive sense and at the same time as being consummative. That is, the resurrection is an ideal abstraction of the noumenal realm that cannot enter the phenomenal realm and participate in history. Thus, for Michaels time with its chronological distinctions of earlier and later has no significance for the resurrection. Kline said, “Set in that framework, the already and the not yet ceases to be the biblical structure when it is reinterpreted within the Kantian system; they cannot come together as coordinate dimensions of individual historical experiences.”[20] The result of “this profoundly unbiblical approach” is that it denies that “there is a difference in kind between the ‘resurrection’ which the Christian experiences when he passes into the immediate state at death, absent from the body though at home with the Lord, and the resurrection he experiences at the day of the redemption of his body and glorification.”[21]

After making clear his opposition to Michaels’s Kantian dialectic in regard to the resurrection, Kline indicated that he had taken offense in Michaels’s assertion that Kline had approached Revelation 20 in the same philosophical manner. Kline said,

Regrettably, a personal note must be intruded here. For in this connection the Response links my hermeneutics with the Kantian world view, and I may not let my Christian witness be thus compromised. To dispel any false impression that might exist, let me say that there is no later Kline, only an older version of the Van Tilian, Reformed, Covenantal, garden variety of Christian he was in the 1948–1965 Westminster period. I still reprobate the Kantian dialectic that comes to expression in Barthian hermeneutics, exemplified in a commentary like that of Caird on Revelation, and I can only deplore its insidious influence within evangelical circles.[22]

Revelation 20 and 21

Kline stated that although he had covered the decisive issues that would be determinative of one’s judgment of the exegetical issues raised, the remainder of Michaels’s Response called for comment. He next objected to Michaels’s separation of Revelation 20 from Revelation 21, which, according to Kline, led to a false identification of Revelation 20 as the climactic vision of Christian hope and an arbitrary insistence that the bodily resurrection of believers be found within these literary confines lest a gnostic reading contaminate the text. The larger question for Kline here involved the structure of Revelation and how Revelation 20 fits within that structure, a matter of great importance. Revelation 20 was one part of an extensive division where all the major figures in the book are brought back and dealt with in finality. Satan’s turn comes in Revelation 20, which explains why it should be no surprise that the chapter does not feature the final resurrection of believers. The more appropriate section for the final resurrection of believers is Revelation 21:1–8, the last part of the “final judgments” division. Likewise, the more appropriate section for the climactic vision of Christian hope is Rev. 21:9–22:5 where there is the revelation of the bride of the Lamb dwelling in the eternal city.

In response to Michaels’s fifth point, Kline pointed out Michaels’s faulty reasoning when comparing Rev. 6:9–11 and Rev. 20:4–6. Citing a difference in the number of believers in the two texts, Michaels argued on the principle of continuity that 20:4–6 “must refer” to a subsequent stage that could only be the bodily resurrection beyond the intermediate state.

Kline agreed with Michaels that there was a progression in the movement from Revelation 6 to Revelation 20 from incompleteness to completeness, but Michaels erred in not seeing that both passages refer to the intermediate state. Revelation 6:9–11 views the church at an earlier distinct point in the intermediate state than Revelation 20:4–6, which views the entire period of the church in the intermediate state, but both share the same eschatological position. Judgment, attested by the bestowal of the white priestly robes, has already been rendered in favor of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9–11. They share in Christ’s sabbatical session on the heavenly throne like the saints in Revelation 20. The believers in both passages are vindicated, but awaiting God’s punitive vengeance upon the wicked. Kline stated, “This full and striking parallelism between 20:4–6 and the vision of Rev. 6:9–11, which admittedly refers to the intermediate state, is a powerful confirmation that ‘the first resurrection’ of Rev. 20 refers to the experience of death through which the Christian enters that blessed and holy state.”[23]

Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Common Grace

Having finished his response to Michaels, Kline offered what he labelled “an appendix” to offer some additional comments on the millennial question. Kline first questioned the wisdom of some Reformed churches in allowing confessional latitude on the subject of the millennium.[24] In allowing the latitude, he believed that the churches were suggesting that how one interpreted the millennium is an isolable exegetical question, not affected by the general body of Reformed doctrine and not necessarily affecting the latter in any confessionally significant way. But, according to Kline, that stance might well stand some rethinking. Of special interest is the way the doctrine of common grace fares in different millennial reconstructions, for that doctrine is a cornerstone of the Reformed view of history.[25]

Kline raised the question because he believed that premillennialism conflicted with the doctrine of common grace. Covenantally formalized in Genesis 8:15–9:17, there was the promise from God that all on earth, the just and the unjust, would be granted a measure of the blessings of earthly life until the termination of the present world. Until the consummation, the order of common grace is open to penetration by the world to come, but it is not subject to eclipse. Premillennialism, however, features “a theocracy on earth before the consummation, a universal kingdom of Christ in which those blessings hitherto received in common by all men and often in greater measure by the unjust than the just are no longer apportioned according to the principle of common grace but according to a policy of special favor to the people of God.”[26] Short of the consummation, then, the redeemed in premillennialism are already in possession of glorified natures and experience their public vindication over against the wicked, a contradiction of God’s covenantal guarantee in Genesis 8 and 9.

Kline admitted that the cogency of his argument might be questioned on the grounds that Israel was in the Old Testament an earthly theocracy established by divine appointment. But, he countered, theocratic Israel under the old covenant was a limited, local kingdom where other nations coexisted with Israel and the common grace order continued uninterrupted. In classic premillennialism, however, the theocracy is a universal world order where there would be suppression of the common grace principle with its judicial order of the state.

Postmillennialism also has its difficulties in reconciling with the covenant of common grace. In premillennialism, “the millennial kingdom is a church-kingdom ruled over by Christ, who, on this view, had returned before the millennium”[27] In postmillennialism, “Christ does not return with the glorified church until after the millennium and meanwhile the millennial kingdom is a state-kingdom.”[28] But, like premillennialism, postmillennialism is in conflict with the doctrine of common grace when it locates the messianic kingdom prophecies in an earthly millennial kingdom where the universal ideal of old covenant law is realized. Consequently, consistent postmillennialists interpret the Mosaic covenant that God gave Israel as the constitution for the Old Testament theocratic kingdom as the constitution for an ordinary state kingdom. “What was meant to apply to the special redemptive institution of the theocracy—the demand to confess God, the guarantee that obedience to the covenant stipulations will be rewarded with earthly prosperity and power, etc.—must all be regarded by the postmillennialist as normative for the state, any state.”[29]

The result of such a conception is the undue mixing of the biblical concepts of the common and the holy. That is, what common grace makes secular is sacralized, and what the old covenant theocracy makes sacred is secularized. Kline concluded, “It appears then that certain varieties at least of premillennialism and postmillennialism are not compatible with the biblical doctrine of common grace, so important in Reformed theology. The amillennial position, on the other hand, is altogether consistent with it.”[30]

Kline admitted in the closing paragraph that the time had not yet come for such a radical proposal in changing ecclesiastical policy regarding confessional liberty as to a millennial position. Nevertheless, he believed that through encounters such as his with Michaels that the church was being drawn indirectly into a more complete integration of eschatology into the Reformed system of theology.


[1] J. Ramsey Michaels, “The First Resurrection: A Response,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (Fall 1976): 100.

[2] Ibid., 101.

[3] Ibid., 101.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1966).

[7] Michaels, “First Resurrection: A Response,” 106.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Meredith G. Kline, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (Fall 1976): 110.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kline observed that the same was also true in Revelation 2:10, 11.

[13] Ibid., 111–112.

[14] Italicized emphasis of “or” and “and” is Kline’s.

[15] Ibid., 113.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 114.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 114–115.

[22] Ibid., 115.

[23] Ibid., 116–117.

[24] Kline probably had the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, in mind. In 1975, the year prior to the publication of the article, Kline’s own OPC and the RPCES had attempted to merge. In the negotiations between the two churches, a statement on eschatological freedom was put forth by the RPCES in 1974 but was rejected by the OPC. When the actual vote took place on the campus of Geneva College during the simultaneous meetings of the two churches in June 1975, the OPC voted to merge but the RPCES declined.

[25] Kline, “First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation,” 117.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 118.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 118–119.

[30] Ibid., 119.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the General Secretary of Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2021.

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Ordained Servant: August 2021

Our Adult Children

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