I am teaching tonight on 1 Thessalonians. One of the passages that we will look at is Paul’s response to some questions he had received about why certain people had died when Christ’s return was supposed to happen at any moment. This response comes at 4:13-18:
13 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. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul and his readers clearly thought that they would be “caught up in the clouds” to meet Jesus when he returned. Their expectations were never met. As a novice historian of Christianity, I think I can safely say that people in every generation since Paul’s also thought that they would experience the “return of Christ.” Every generation speaks of events in their lifetime as “signs of the end.” Every generation since Paul’s has been disappointed as Paul was.
What, then, are we to do as Christians today when we read this passage and the numerous other passages where Paul (1 Cor 7:29-31) and Jesus (Mt 16:27-28, 24:30-31; Jn 14:18) speak of the end of the age? How do you handle these texts? Do you assume that your generation is somehow markedly different from every generation that has gone before? Do you dare say that Paul was wrong? That Jesus was wrong?