A lot of biblical scholars today say that St. Paul expected Jesus to come again in his own lifetime. In fact, most of them also contend that Jesus himself said he would return within about a generation or so, and they argue that all the early Christians believed it too. Now, that obviously didn’t happen, so according to these scholars, the entire early Church must have been wrong. And if this is true, we have a big problem. If Jesus and his first followers were all wrong about when he would return, then the alleged revelation that our beliefs are based on isn’t quite as divine as we thought.
For a lot of Christianity’s critics, this is clear proof that our faith is misguided, so we need to know how to respond to it. Admittedly, one article is obviously not enough to go through every New Testament passage these people cite, but I want to take a look at one of the most commonly used texts. Check out these words from St. Paul:
“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, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
On the surface, this passage seems pretty decisive. By saying “we who are alive” (and twice, no less!), Paul was clearly implying that he expected to still be alive when Jesus returned. Case closed….right?
No Reason Why
Well, not quite. See, that is not the only way to take these words. Some people suggest that Paul was simply including himself among those “who are alive” because he was alive at that moment, but he didn’t mean to imply that he would necessarily live to see Jesus’ second coming.
So which is correct? Did St. Paul really think he would still be alive when Jesus returned, or was he including himself among the living simply because he wasn’t dead yet? I would suggest that the second interpretation is right, and there are three reasons why.
First, when Paul wrote this letter, Christians had already been dying. In fact, the whole point of the passage was to console the Thessalonians because they had lost some members of their congregation. So if other Christians had already begun to die, there is no reason why Paul wouldn’t have thought that he might one day die as well.
He Could’ve Died
Secondly, there is another passage later on in this same later where Paul seems to imply that he very well could die before Jesus’ second coming:
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)
In this text, Paul says that when Jesus comes again, faithful Christians will live with him forever whether they’ve died or they’re still alive (“wake or sleep” is a euphemism), and significantly, he uses the word “we” here as well. He includes himself among those who may or may not die, so it seems that he was very aware of the possibility of dying before Jesus’ return.
Thirdly (and this is the most decisive reason), if we read Paul’s words carefully, they actually can’t mean that he would definitely live to see Jesus’ second coming. Remember, he was consoling his readers because some members of their congregation had died, so the point of the passage was not just to talk about the living and the dead in general. Rather, Paul was applying that general principle to the living and dead members of the the Thessalonian church, so when he said that “we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them [those who have died] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air,” he was including his readers in the “we.” He was telling them that they would “be caught up together” with their deceased loved ones, and all would receive the same eternal reward.
Now, if Paul’s use of the word “we” implied that he thought he would still be alive when Jesus returned, it must also have implied that his Thessalonian readers would all be alive too, but that cannot be right. Some of them had already died, so there was no reason why others couldn’t die too. As a result, he clearly included them in “we who are alive” simply because they were not dead yet, not because he believed they would all survive to see Jesus’ second coming. And if that is the case, then he must have included himself in that group for the same reason. He must have included himself among the living because he was still alive, not because he thought he would definitely survive until Jesus’ return.
Admittedly, there is a lot more to say about this question. There are several other passages scattered throughout the New Testament that allegedly say Jesus should’ve come back by now, so we have not completely diffused the argument. But it is a start. Like I said before, this passage from 1 Thessalonians is one of the most popular among critics of Christianity, so knowing how to properly interpret it goes a long way towards defending the truth of our faith.