What About Daniel’s Prophecy of the General Resurrection?

By Wayne Jackson

“Is Daniel’s prophecy, in chapter 12, verse 2, a symbolic reference to Israel’s deliverance from Babylonian captivity, as some claim, or does it refer to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time?”

Some five centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, the prophet Daniel, from captivity in Babylon, uttered a remarkable prophecy that has echoed reverberations both of joy and terror down the corridors of time.

“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).

Due to the clarity of its language, this passage is troubling to those who are repelled by the consequences suggested. As noted in the question cited above, some critics have contended that the thrust of the text is merely temporal, i.e., it is but a figurative reflection of Israel’s deliverance from the seventy-year captivity period under the oppressive hand of pagan Babylon. Others suggest that perhaps the allusion is to a “resurrection” of the Jews from a state of apathy during the time of the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-163 B.C.).

Some scholars have contended that the primary application of the prophecy was temporal, but that in a secondary sense Daniel clearly foretold a future, universal resurrection from the dead.

Occasionally it is the case that the image of a “resurrection” can have a symbolic thrust, as in the case of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, wherein Judah’s restoration from Chaldean captivity is envisioned (Ezek. 37:1-14). Too, Paul describes the deliverance of the Christian from the guilt of sin as a “resurrection” from a state of spiritual death (Col. 2:12). John represents the triumph of the persecuted church over its enemies as that of a “resurrection” (Rev. 20:5-6).

However, no “figurative” sense of a temporal resurrection fits the setting of Daniel 12:2. A symbolic interpretation is not mandated either by the immediate context or related information elsewhere in scripture. A consideration of this remarkable text may well be studied from a three-fold vantage point.

The Event

The event foretold by Daniel is that which shall occur when those who “sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” The expression “in the dust of the earth” is an obvious allusion to the physical curse placed upon humanity as a result of Adam’s transgression, namely a return to the dust from which man initially was taken (Gen. 3:19; cf. Job 34:15; Ps. 104:29; Eccl. 3:20; 12:7). The disassociation of physical death (as well as spiritual death) from the consequence of sin (as attempted by Smith, pp. 15ff) is an exercise in irresponsible Bible exegesis.

“Sleep” is a description of the disposition of the body that is planted in the ground upon death. The deceased body is figuratively depicted as “sleeping” due to “the similarity in appearance between a sleeping body and a dead body.” The most common NT word representing death as a “sleep” is the Greek koimaomai, meaning “to lie down.” The term is related to koimeterion, a “rest-house” for travelers, from which is derived our English “cemetery” – a place for sleeping bodies! Koimaomai is found 18 times in the NT, and only 4 of these refer to literal sleep. The rest allude to the sleep of the body in death. W.E. Vine has clearly shown that only the “body” is in view in these metaphorical references (see: ASLEEP, p. 51). The soul or spirit of man is never said to “sleep” in death (contra Smith, pp. 92ff).

The phraseology of Daniel 12:2 thus speaks of the “waking” of the human body, i.e., the resurrection of the body (cf. Jn. 11:11; 1 Cor. 15) at the time of Christ’s return. It constitutes a woeful misuse of this passage to cite it as a proof-text for “soul-sleeping” between the event of one’s death and the resurrection of his body.

The Scope

Some Bible students are troubled by the use of Daniel’s modifier, “many,” as if a considerable portion would be raised from the dead, but not all. Such apprehension is needless, for it fails to recognize the use of the common figure known as synecdoche, by which a part stands for the whole. Note several examples of the idiom.

When he instituted the Lord’s supper, Christ said that his blood was to be shed for “many” (Mt. 26:28), yet later Paul makes it clear that the Lord “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). In his epistle to the Roman saints, the apostle observed that as a consequence of Adam’s sin, “death passed unto all men” (5:12); three verses later he expresses the same idea by suggesting that “the many” died as a result of Adam’s trespass (v. 15).

That the term “many” is so used in Daniel 12:2 is apparent from the fact that elsewhere scripture is emphatic that “all that are in the tombs” will come forth when the divine edict is issued (Jn. 5:28). Some scholars believe that Christ’s statement, in this passage in John’s Gospel, is an allusion to Daniel’s prophecy.

The Eternal Results

Daniel declares that the resurrection will consist of two classes. “Some” will be raised to enjoy “everlasting life,” and “some” are destined for “shame and everlasting contempt.” The dual use of the demonstrative pronoun, 'eleh,(rendered “some” KJV; ASV; ESV) argues for a single resurrection consisting of two groups (cf. Acts 24:15), not two resurrections separated by 1,000 years, as taught by millennialists. The notion of two resurrections results from a misunderstanding of the symbolism of Revelation 20:5.

It is difficult to miss the point that the term “everlasting” (Heb. olam) qualifies the duration of the reward of the righteous, and the torment of the wicked. A similar construction obtains in the New Testament. The Greek term, aionios, is employed of unending nature of the punishment of those who are lost, as well as the “life” of those who are redeemed (Mt. 25:46).

A word should be said regarding the use of the term “life,” in Daniel’s phrase, “everlasting life.” “Life” does not connote mere existence, for, as noted already, even the rebellious will exist eternally. Rather, “life” suggests the opposite of “death” (cf. Rom. 6:23), which, in an eternal, spiritual sense, indicates a final and permanent separation from God (cf. Mt. 25:41; 2 Thes. 1:9). “Life,” therefore, is an eternal, perfectly blissful relationship with God. Little wonder, then, that the opposite of everlasting life is portrayed as an eternal “blackness” of desolation from the presence of Deity (Jude 13; cf. Mt. 22:13; 25:30).

Let us briefly consider the terms “shame” and “contempt,” as applied to those destined for punishment. “Shame” suggests that which is the object of “reproach.” Here the term is plural, “reproaches,” likely for emphasis sake. “Contempt” denotes that which is the focus of “aversion” or “abhorrence” (Brown, et al. pp. 358,201). Clearly these terms, combined with the modifier “everlasting,” reveal the abiding conscious torment of those being punished. This is not an existence that is to fade into eventual nothingness, as the annihilationists allege (see our brief discussion of “annihilation” elsewhere; Jackson, p. 7).

Daniel’s prophecy is a marvelous depiction of one aspect of the final day of earth’s history.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Brown, F., Driver, S.R., Briggs, C.A. (1907), Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.).
  • Jackson, Wayne (2002), Bible Words and Theological Terms Made Easy (Stockton, CA: Courier Publications).
  • Smith, F. LaGard (2003), After Life — A Glimpse of Eternity Beyond Death’s Door (Nashville: Cotswold).
  • Vine, W.E. (1991), Vine’s Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls: World).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.