As we step into the church in Thessalonica, let's look at what we know, what we don't know, and maybe make a few assumptions about things we might be able to guess.
What we know from the book of Acts.*
- The church lives among Jews, what Luke calls God-fearers and Pagans.
- The church is in fact comprised of people who came from these communities.
- Paul was with the church personally (unlike the church in Rome), but left earlier than intended.
- Paul had communication with the church via Timothy and perhaps other messengers.
- The church, like the early church in most places, had a strong sense of the imminent return of Jesus.
- The early church generally had it rough from every direction. They were hated by some people among Jews, Romans, idol-industries, clairvoyance marketeers, magicians, etc.
What we don't know:
- What, exactly, the Thessalonian church thought about the afterlife.
- What, exactly, the Thessalonian church thought about the second coming.
What we might reasonable guess:
- The church didn't want their family or friends to die any more than any of us do.
- The church had a variety of understandings about the afterlife. (After all, there were varieties of understandings about the afterlife within Judaism and Paganism. Some Jews, like the Saducces, didn't believe in a resurrection. They were the fundamentalists of their day because that was a rather novel belief in Judaism and probably was influenced by Greek philosophy.)
- The church wanted some assurance and certainty, like any of us do.
So, when Paul writes his letter to the Thessalonians, he is writing to a church that had his belief system generally, but perhaps needed some clarification on particulars. They were also experiencing a crisis of a sort- some of the believers among them had died. (We don't know if these were natural deaths- aging and so forth- or persecuted deaths (although the language about the persecution of the church in Thessalonica does not explicitly mention death), or just death in general. Whatever the occasion, the theological question was this: Did the dearly departed just miss out on the second coming of Christ because s/he died before it happened?
That's the question that Paul is addressing in I Thessalonians and it is HUGE question for the early church. Again, because we cannot assume that there is a carefully worked out and agreed upon set of teachings about the afterlife that have been drilled into everyone's heads since childbirth, we probably can assume that there were varieties of expectation about what happens beyond the grace (including some who might have answered, "Well, nothing.").
I gotta go. Tomorrow we'll see what Paul says, but today we've taken the important steps of establishing some context and sympathy for the question that Paul is addressing in I Thessalonians. See you tomorrow.
*I realize that Jon Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed make a case- in In Search of Paul- that Luke's story in Acts is not very dependable on several points. I do not find Crossan's and Reed's case to be very persuasive in that book for a number of reasons and I felt that the reliability issue with Luke was something they felt they needed to do to make their own argument even when Luke stands in contrast to them. I continue to find Luke's account both reliable and generally in keeping with what we find in Paul's letters. (So there.)