Sometimes it is easy for modern believers to miss the point of Revelation regarding afterlife and resurrection. This often comes about because contemporary Christianity has drifted away from its original teachings in this regard. Whether one agrees with everything written by the British New Testament scholar N. T. Wright (I certainly do not), he is absolutely spot on in his observation that modern Christianity has abandoned the early church’s belief in the resurrection (e.g., Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 2008), and has replaced it with vapid notions about immortality of the soul. The emptiness of the church’s current understanding about the resurrection is evident in the fact that the Nativity and Christmas (which barely qualify as New Testament concepts) eclipse the contemporary church’s celebration of the Easter event. Based upon current practices and emphases an outsider would surely conclude that Jesus’ birth was far more central to the Christian faith than the resurrection.
A major goal of Revelation is to led the reader to embrace the conclusion that “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (11:15). When this final change or metamorphosis occurs death itself will be destroyed. But before the mural of Revelation can illustrate the passing of “the first heaven and the first earth” and the arrival of the “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) this seeming nemesis of God, death, must receive attention by John. As John’s visions make clear, God’s answer to the tyranny of death is not immortality of the soul, but resurrection of the body.
Superficial readings of Revelation might suggest that some one-world ruler at the end of time would be the greatest enemy of God, or perhaps the beast or false prophet would stand at the head of the list of the fiercest opponents of the Lord God Almighty. That is just not the case. In the unfolding of the depiction of God’s history in Revelation, the beast and false prophet are removed from the mural after the “Great Banquet of God” (Rev. 19:17-21) and long before the End. Satan is bound for a millennium, yet even during this suppression of Satan death is still active and challenges the reign of God. In fact, even when Satan is later cast with finality into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10), death still lingers to threaten God’s plans.
It is only in conjunction with the final judgment of the world, a judgment including both saints and sinners, that this seeming nemesis of God’s sovereignty is removed from God’s sight: “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). It is certainly not a coincidence that the same tableau that depicts the final resurrection also depicts the end of death, a truth captured in the poetry of John Donne when he commented about this truth with these words, “death, thou shalt die” (from his poem “Death Be Not Proud”). From this scene John draws the obvious point in the following chapter, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
This prophetic book from John stands as a clarion witness to the early church’s conviction that it is impossible to understand redemptive history without seeing the significance of resurrection as God’s victory over his last enemy, death.