Light for our path: Rising to the East at the resurrection

Where in the Bible do I find that we rise to the east at the resurrection? 

James F. Pope

Addressing your question provides an opportunity to look at cemetery layouts, worship spaces, and the Last Day. 

Rising to a direction 

There is no passage in the Bible that states definitively that the dead will rise to the east, but over the years Christians have used various Bible passages as a reason for burying the dead with an eastward orientation: facing the east. Matthew 24:27 is one of those passages. Jesus said about his appearance on the Last Day: “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The thrust of Jesus’ words is that his visible return on the Last Day will be evident to all at once—like a flash of lightning. Other Bible passages with an eastward orientation include Genesis 2:8; Isaiah 63:1; Ezekiel 43:1,2; and, Zechariah 14:4. 

A fascinating and unusual variation is that sometimes pastors were buried facing west. Why the difference? The thinking was that the resurrected pastors would be in a position, literally, to minister to people around them.  

Christians have used the Bible passages cited—and others—for guidance in serving the dead and the living. The thought that the Lord will return visibly from the east led to church floorplans that positioned individuals, standing or sitting, facing eastward when they worshiped. The rising sun that lit up the stained-glass windows before their eyes reminded worshipers of the returning Son.  

Rising to a division 

Rather than emphasizing which direction will be the starting point of the Lord’s return on the Last Day, the Bible points our attention to the division of humanity that will take place on that day. Jesus said, “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28,29).  

At death, when body and soul separate, judgment takes place, and souls go immediately to heaven or hell (Hebrews 9:27). On the Last Day, God will raise the bodies of all people and reunite bodies and souls. There will be a public proclamation of the private judgment that took place at people’s deaths, as well as a judgment of those who are alive on the earth on the Last Day (Matthew 25:31-46). Those with saving faith, evidenced by “doing good,” will “rise to live.” Those without saving faith, shown by “doing evil,” will “rise to be condemned.” The dead will be raised to go, body and soul, in different directions: to heaven or hell. 

A few years ago, I stood in Kensal Green Cemetery in London, England, marveling at a mausoleum. While the crypt had an aged and weathered look about it, the confident claim atop one of the walls was still very much legible: “I shall arise.” That statement applies to everyone who dies. God will raise all the dead on the Last Day. There is no question about that. The only questions are what will happen after that and where will people—body and soul—spend eternity. As Christians, what a blessing to know and believe God’s promise that we “will rise to live.” 

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to [email protected].



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 11
Issue: November 2018

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