You may have noticed that I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about this whole neo pseudo gnosticism business. It’s not obvious at all, is it? Well, this week, my multi-part tirade is going to intersect with another pet peeve of mine. But before I get to that, I want to be up front with all of you about one of my ardently held beliefs: I am a dyed-in-the-wool amillennialist. To put it bluntly, I cringe when I see rows of Left Behind books in libraries or bookstores. I do not agree with most of what those books teach about the end times, especially when it comes to one belief in particular.
With that said, let’s get back to our discussion about neo pseudo gnosticism (you’ll see why this is important in a second).
Like I said last week, Paul’s understanding of what happens to a Christian after he or she dies is focused primarily around the concept of resurrection. We will rise, the same way that Jesus did on Easter morning. His resurrection is the firstfruits of a much larger event. Our eventual resurrection is an extension of His. And he’s pretty clear that this is the beating heart of Christianity. Lose the resurrection, and you’ve lost it all.
But 1 Corinthians 15 isn’t the only place where Paul talks about resurrection being the hope that Christians have for the future. It also comes up in one of the earliest letters that Paul wrote, namely 1 Thessalonians.
Apparently Paul liked telling people about his belief that Jesus would return soon. If you read the book of 1 Thessalonians, he’s always pointing to that event, reminding his friends and readers that Jesus will return. But apparently that emphasis on Jesus’ return had an unexpected consequence, namely that it freaked out some of his friends when their loved ones passed away.
Take a peek at this little snippet from 1 Thessalonians 4:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Reading between the lines, it would seem that what happened is this: Paul’s friends in Thessalonica were convinced that Jesus was going to come back at any moment. They were looking forward to this event and then the unthinkable happened: some of their friends or family members died. And that sent them into a bit of a theological panic. What would happen to those who died? Were they going to miss out on Jesus’ return? Were they gone and forgotten? What would happen to them?
That’s why Paul writes to them. He doesn’t want them to be uninformed of the hope that they have. They can grieve their loss (remember, death isn’t natural. It hurts!), but not without that hope. And what’s the hope?
To me, 1 Thessalonians 4 isn’t about the rapture. That’s not the point that Paul is trying to make. It’s an incidental detail that all too often gets in the way (and is often completely misunderstood) of a much more important point. Paul wants to address the loss that his friends are feeling, to restore their hope and point them to what really matters: those they have lost won’t remain dead. They won’t remain separated from their bodies for all eternity. Paul doesn’t say, “Well, they’re in heaven, which is where they were going to wind up anyway.” No, his message is: “They will live again. They will return to life. Look to the resurrection and find your hope!”
I mean, look at that last verse. “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” When we’re faced with loss, we don’t point people to heaven. Paul didn’t do that. Neither should we. Instead, he pointed to the resurrection. He understood that the physical world mattered. It was always God’s intention that we remain together, soul and body together. The point of life is not to have those two integral parts of a human being torn apart. So that’s why, when Jesus returns, He’ll put us back together the way we once were.
Maybe you don’t totally buy it. That’s okay. But we’ll leave Paul behind next week and focus on something a little more illuminating: what happens when Jesus conducts a funeral?Paul comforted people who mourned with the resurrection. Click To Tweet
Wow, it’s striking that witnessing death is what caused the Thessalonicans’ theological panic! When you realize not only that you must be prepared to die every day because you could die any moment, but also that God allows many people to die in horror with no closure, you can’t shake off the existential darkness. Death is intensely personal! I can’t get a grip on life.
Sorry for the dark outlook. Reading the reasons for your theological positions is valuable to me as a non-theologian looking for authentic doctrine to address the real Christian hope, rather than platitudes.