“We believe that Jesus died and rose and that in the same way God will bring with Him those [people] who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Th 4:14). They are the “dead in Christ [who] will rise first” (1 Th 4:16d) – St. Paul of Tarsus
In chapter 4, verse 14a of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, he first proclaims to the Thessalonians the truth of the saving death and resurrection of Christ. For the Crucified and Risen Christ is the source of their salvation. For this reason, in his preaching to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul appeals to their “belief” in Jesus’ saving death and resurrection as the basis for their “hope” of salvation for Christians who have died “in Jesus”. Here Paul does not mean that Jesus raised himself from the dead. On the contrary, what he means is that “God…raised Jesus from the dead” (Gal 1:1; 1 Th 1:9) by the Holy Spirit (Rm 8:11). Sometimes Paul will describe the Holy Spirit as God’s “glory” (Rm 6: 4), or “power” (2 Cor 13:4). As a result, he can preach that Jesus “was raised from the dead by the glory” of God (Rm 6:4); and that “by the power of God, Jesus is alive” (2 Cor 13:4). What he means is that God the Father saved His Son from human death, by raising him to life, through the Holy Spirit. On this basis, if the Thessalonians believe that God saved Jesus from death by raising him to life, through the Spirit, they should also believe that God will save them.
In verse 14b, Paul alludes to salvation in the afterlife at the particular judgment, before the resurrection, for Christians who have died in Christ. For he says in this verse, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Th 4:14b). In this act of bringing with Him those people who have died in Jesus, God saves their souls in the afterlife. According to Paul, God does this by the same Spirit they received from Him in Baptism (1 Th 4:8). This verse (14b) does not concern their resurrection from the dead. Paul will address that later in verse 16d. What he alludes to in 14b is the “state of the righteous” in death, meaning a state of grace for them in the afterlife. As an Israelite, trained in the tradition of the Pharisees, Paul believes that the righteous people of God receive the recompense or blessing of God’s friendship in the afterlife. In his understanding, this is an intermediate state of grace for the dead in Christ in which “God will bring with Him” (1 Th 4:14b) into paradise those dead Christians, who are united “in Jesus” (1 Th 4:14b), through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). For this reason, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that he knows that they “would rather leave the body…to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8) in paradise. In this sense, although the dead in Christ are separated from their body in death, they remain in communion with Christ. As such, in his letter to the Romans he tells them that the love of God has been poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit, which they have received from God as a gift (Rm 5:5). Consequently, not even death (Rm 8:38a) can separate them from that love, which they have in Christ Jesus through the Spirit (Rm 8:39b; 5:5). As a result, Paul says that in death they still “belong to the Lord” (Rm 14:8). Paul’s belief in this intermediate state of union with Christ in the afterlife is also found in his letter to the Philippians in which he reveals to them that he desires “to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Ph 1:23). Indeed, it would be far better for Paul to die in Christ because he would be with Christ forever. In his teaching, this means that those Christians, who die united to Christ in love, will enter into a state of glory with him in death, perhaps not immediately, but eventually. For they may require spiritual purification from venial sin or temporal punishment beforehand. On this basis, Paul can proclaim to the Philippians that “death is a gain” (Ph 1:21), because in death he will be with Jesus Christ.
The later Old Testament scriptures contributed to Paul’s understanding of this intermediate state of grace for the righteous dead in the afterlife. These Scriptures would include the Second Maccabees (2 Mc 15:13-16) and Wisdom. For instance, in Wisdom the author writes that the “souls of the righteous [dead] are in the hand of God” (Ws 3:1) where they “shall remain with him in love” (Ws 3:9) and “peace” (Ws 3:3) “forever” (Ws 5:15).
Furthermore, in the first century A.D. the oral traditions about Jesus that circulated among Christians throughout the Greco-Roman world, also had an influence on Paul’s understanding of the afterlife. In Jesus’ preaching, he reveals his belief that the deceased, who had lived a righteous life on earth, would enter an intermediate state of “paradise” (Lk 23: 43) in the hereafter, which would eventually lead to their resurrection from the dead at the general judgment. This is recorded in Jesus’ discussion with the Sadducees. First of all, he mentions the particular judgment of the righteous dead “who are judged worthy of a place in the other world” (Lk 20:35a); and “in the resurrection of the dead” (Lk 20:35b). Secondly, he proclaims that in their state of death in the afterlife “they can no longer die, because they are like angels” (Lk 20:36a) which means that, like angels, they are alive in Christ through God’s Holy Spirit. As such, they image something of God’s spiritual glory. Thirdly, he also proclaims that the righteous dead “are the children of God, because they are the ones who will rise” in glory (Lk 20: 36b). Finally, he includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, among the righteous dead in paradise, who will rise in glory someday (Lk 20:38). Jesus’ belief in a state of paradise for the righteous in death in the afterlife is also recorded in his parable about the poor man Lazarus. According to Jesus, “when the poor man died, he was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham” (Lk 16:22). This is an intermediate “place” of paradise for the righteous in the afterlife. For this reason, he says that in this paradise Lazarus was “comforted” by God (Lk 16:25). This belief can also be found in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration when “Moses and Elijah” (Lk 9:30), who had passed into the afterlife centuries before, “appeared” to Jesus “in glory” (Lk 9:31) as they “spoke” to him (Lk 9:31).
On this basis, if the Thessalonian Christians believe Paul’s message that God saved Jesus from death by raising him to life through the Spirit, then they should also believe that God will bring with Him into His paradise those Christians who have fallen asleep in Jesus (1 Th 4:14b), by the same Spirit they received from Him (1 Th 4:8). In this sense, their hope for the Christian dead in the afterlife lies in their belief that God saves them through Jesus who died and rose for their salvation.
Furthermore, in chapter 4, verse 16 of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, he proclaims that this salvation for the dead in Christ will also involve their glorious resurrection. As good and blessed the afterlife is for the souls of the dead in Christ, their full salvation in Christ remains incomplete in the intermediate state, inasmuch as God did not create them to be spirits or souls, but spiritual, bodily persons. For this reason, salvation in Christ for them will certainly include not only the salvation of their soul, but also the salvation of their body through the glory of the resurrection. Thus, he says, “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Th 4:16d). As such, in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he teaches in detail that full salvation for the dead in Christ requires the resurrection of their body (1 Cor 15:1-58).
Accordingly, the salvation of Christians involves their full conformity to the Crucified and Risen Christ. For this reason, Jesus himself remains the model for their glorification in death and resurrection. As Jesus died and was raised to a life of glory by the Father in the Spirit, the faithful Thessalonians who have died in Christ will also be glorified by the Father in the Spirit. For they will receive from the Father a life of glory in the paradise of heaven and a glorious resurrection. Thus, Paul instructs the Christians of Thessalonica that the basis of their hope for salvation for their deceased brothers and sisters in Christ is their belief that Christ died and rose to save them. Hence, they will be fully conformed to Christ, first of all, in death through the intermediate state, but later in the resurrection. This is Paul’s basic message in verses 14 and 16 of chapter 4 of his First Letter to the Thessalonians.
This article originally appeared at Preach My Psalter.