There are three kinds of resurrection. These are: resurrection in this age, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and resurrection in the age to come. Each can be distinguished by (i) the presence or absence of human mediation, (ii) the decomposition, or relative lack thereof, of the resurrected body, and (iii) the susceptibility or insusceptibility of the resurrected person to future death.
(1) Resurrection in this age. Into this category fall all the resurrections which have taken place so far, save the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead, which is a foretaste and pledge of resurrection in the age to come. These raisings are typically characterized by three things.
First, they usually take place by human mediation of God’s life-giving power (e.g., 1 Kgs. 17:17-24; 2 Kgs. 4:8-37), even where the mediator of divine power is no longer alive (see the unusual case of Elisha’s bones in 2 Kgs. 13:20-21). The miraculous raisings from the dead performed by Jesus in his earthly ministry also fall into this category (e.g., Mt. 9:18-26; Lk. 7:11-17; Jn. 11:1-45), as do those performed by the apostles (e.g., Acts 9:36-42, 20:9-12) and the contemporary Church. However, the mediation of these raisings by human persons is not the defining mark of this kind of resurrection. Some resurrections have taken place without any human mediation, as we see in Mt. 27:51-53.
Second, resurrections in this age are of those who are recently deceased. For this reason, they can be termed resipiscentia (‘coming back to one’s senses’) as much as resurrectio (‘standing up again’). Those raised in this age have not suffered severe or total decomposition of their bodies. Yet, there is nothing that prevents God from exercising his power to raise someone severely or totally decomposed back to life in this age, though we see no example of it in Scripture (cf. the vision of Ez. 37:1-14), or, as far as I am aware, in the history of the Church.
Rather, third, resurrections in this age are defined by the fact that the one raised will die again. This kind of resurrection is temporary. Those who are brought back from death in this age are raised again into a world where death still has power.
(2) The resurrection of Jesus Christ. The distinctive mark of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by contrast, is that “death no longer has dominion over him (αὐτοῦ οὐκέτι κυριεύει)” (Rom. 6:9b). The raising of Jesus, unlike all the resurrections that preceded or have yet followed, was a resurrection to eternal life. “Christ, raised from the dead, will die no more” (Rom. 6:9a). He lives and reigns in victory over death. “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18).
It is also distinguished from the great majority of resurrections in this age in that it was not accomplished by any human mediation; no disciple was sent to raise Christ from the dead. Rather, Scripture tells us that each of the Trinity raised Christ. With equal truth, one can say that the Father raised Christ (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 1:1), Christ took up his own life again (Jn. 10:17-18), and the Spirit raised him from the dead (Rom. 8:11). The resurrection of Jesus Christ was a singular divine action of the triune God, unmediated by human activity.
Again, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was similar to resurrections in this age in that Christ was raised as one recently deceased, after only three days. (Lazarus, note, was dead for four days before his resurrection: Jn. 11:17, 39.) Thus, his body was not subject to severe decomposition. This, along with their insusceptibility to future death, is the distinctive mark of all those resurrected in the age to come.
(3) Resurrection in the age to come. This is the great hope of Christian faith, enshrined as an article of faith in the Apostle’s Creed. It is this final victory of Christ that we await with longing: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26). When Christ returns, death will be finally vanquished and all humanity will be raised to life: “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:13). I hold it an open question whether this is a resurrection that will take place by human mediation; Christ will raise us, but whether this is in virtue of his humanity or his divinity is difficult to discern. It will certainly not take place through any human person other than Jesus Christ.
This kind of resurrection is unique in that involves all humanity, including many millions who have long since died, their bodies being severely or totally decomposed–even reduced to ash. It is an essential tenet of Christian faith that this poses no obstacle to divine power. As Augustine writes, “The earthly material, then, from which the flesh of mortals is created does not perish to God, but into whatever dust or ash it is released, into whatever vapours or breezes it is dispersed, into whatever substance of other bodies, or the elements themselves, it is turned, even into whatever flesh of animals or, it may be, human food it is changed–in an instant of time it returns to that human soul which at first animated it, that it may become, may grow, may live as a human being” (Enchiridion 23.88).
The great joy of this resurrection in the age to come is its finality. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Those resurrected to life, unlike those resurrected to judgment (Jn. 5:28-29), will then share in the eternal life of Christ. Like the Son of God, death will no longer have any dominion over them and they will die no more. Instead, they will share in the life of the Living One forever, their resurrection a mirror and image of Christ’s glorious resurrection and an incontrovertible, powerful work of God the Saviour.