I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is one of those places where it seems that we often impose our agenda onto a text, instead of simply allowing the Scripture to speak for itself. It is subtitled in many Bibles as, “The Coming of the Lord.” It would appear, then, that what Paul is addressing in this part of his letter to the church in Thessalonica is the Coming of the Lord. That is how this text is usually employed – as a “rapture” proof-text, a description of how the saints are going to be taken up into the air on the day of the Lord’s return. And of course the Apostle Paul does speak about the Coming of the Lord and does describe it in a way that is curious. But, if we allow this letter to the church in Thessalonica to speak for itself, the question at hand is not “What will the rapture look like?” That’s a question that we have imposed on this letter. By setting it aside, we can let the Scripture speak for itself.
Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica is probably the earliest New Testament document that we have. In this letter, Paul speaks of the Thessalonians’ inspiring faith, his love for them, how he misses them and how he longs to be with them again. It is a very affectionate letter, filled with relief. Paul’s companion Timothy has just returned from the church to Paul, assuring him that in his absence and amid some controversies and persecutions that followed his stay with them, the church in Thessalonica continued to be supportive of him and his ministry. It was a tremendous relief for Paul, because not all churches had remained faithful in their friendship toward him. And so, the letter has a tone of relief and encouragement, thankful for their faithfulness and urging the church to be stronger still. The motivation that Paul turns to – again and again – is that the Lord is coming again soon. Because of that, the church can live with a very loose attachment to the kinds of things that typically cause anxiety. By living toward the soon coming of the Lord, the church can leave off repaying evil for evil and always try to do good to one another as well as outsiders. So, the coming of the Lord is indeed part of this whole letter and an important part of Paul’s theology.
There is another question, however, that seems to be troubling the church in Thessalonica: Some of their members have already died. And that is troubling to them, because death has always been the awful, looming problem for human life. So many foibles, mistakes, acts of aggression, wars, theft, deceit, and pain are motivated by what Martin Heidegger called “the anxiety of having to die.” This anxiety is so deeply embedded in the human psyche because it pushes us to wonder: If we die and our life is over, what is the meaning of it all? Is it all just a striving in vain, if this is as good as it gets? Do we bear our claws and fight it out for all that we can get now, if this is all there is? Do we stave off death, even if it means the death of others? The idea that our lives might end and simply be over, brings a host of anxious, despairing questions about the purpose and meaning of living today.
The expectation that the Lord would return was a tremendous motivation for the church in Thessalonica to live purposeful and even sacrificial lives. That God may come, as unexpectedly as a thief in the night, filled each day with hope instead of despair. But, in time, the Lord did not return and some of the church folk died. With each death came not only the reminder that others, too, may still have to die; it also raised the question of whether those lives had been spent meaninglessly, since they were not going to be present at that moment when the Lord would return. In some ways, this is the first of many questions that would arise among the early church over the delay of the Lord’s return. Life went on and, with it, death happened. So, this church was beginning to wonder whether death trumped their hope in the Lord’s return.
That is the question that I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is addressing. It is not the question of whether the Lord will return, but the age-old question of whether death is so final that it makes life itself meaningless. And while Paul is still convinced that the Lord’s return will be immediate (he seems less driven by the possibility in later letters), his answer to the problem of death is not “rapture,” but resurrection. Because Christ is risen, life has meaning. Because Christ is risen, we have hope. Because Christ is risen, it is not in vain to return good for evil, to live with integrity and good will. Unlike “rapture theology”, which sees the Lord’s return as a way of escaping the despair of the world, “resurrection theology” gives hope that nothing – not even death itself – can take away life’s meaning.
It is true that Paul expects an immediate return of the Lord. He describes what might be a “rapture,” where the Lord will descend with the blast of trumpet, and the dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive will be caught up in the clouds together to meet him in the air. And that’s where Paul leaves it. Whether we then go back up to heaven with the Lord or whether we accompany him back down to earth is not answered here. There is no certainty here: We are left “up in the air,” so to speak. What is certain is that the resurrection. However we envision the resurrection of Christ, it is a proclamation that there is something more powerful and final than death itself. And that gives life meaning.