Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians has had little theological significance in Christian history. His reminiscences and gratitude, over half of the letter, have not often been grist for theological mills. The letter does, however, contain “nuggets” that are central to Christianity. Twice Paul refers to the famous triad of faith, hope and love. But when Christians think of these words, they are more likely to think of them as the climax of first Corinthians 13, often called the “great love chapter.”
There is, however, one text in this first letter that has been important to two very different groups of Christians. For millions of Christians, mostly in independent Protestant churches, the text is one of the foundations of what is called rapture theology. This is the belief that true believers will be raptured from the earth seven years before the second coming of Jesus. They will be spared the suffering – the trials and tribulations, plagues and wars and amines – that will engulf those left behind. The rapture is the premise of the recent best-selling novel series Left Behind.
Rapture theology is almost always accompanied by the claim that the second coming of Jesus will be soon. Polls suggest that around 40 percent of American Christians believe that it will happen in the next fifty years. Most do so because they belong to churches that teach this.
The text (Thessalonians 4: 13-18) is also important for mainstream biblical scholars. It is one of the reasons for the conclusion that Paul (and many early followers of Jesus) expected the second coming of Jesus to be soon. This expectation was obviously wrong – it didn’t happen. People serious about understanding their faith and how other Christians understand the faith, do well to pick up a New Testament and read the referenced text. The text is about the second coming of Jesus and modern scholarship agrees about this. The imagery is vivid: the cry of the archangel, the sound of God’s trumpet, the Lord Himself descending from heaven, the raising of the dead, gathering them together with those still alive, meeting the Lord in the air, and being with the Lord forever.
Rapture theology and other future second-coming-of-Jesus scenarios begin with the premise that all of this will someday happen, for the obvious reason that it hasn’t happened yet. Modern historical scholarship begins with a different premise, namely, that this text tells us what Paul wrote to the Christ-community in Thessalonica around the year 50. In that context, as best as we can discern, what did this text mean for Paul and those who heard it read in the community?
In the next issue I will take up what this meant for Paul and others!