Relevant Biblical Passages: 1 Thess. 4:13-18
Ultimate Things. When it comes to describing the second coming, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is evidence enough that we are clearly in a world which knows no parallel in human experience. Indeed, it doesn’t require much imagination to discover that we can scarcely imagine how the advent will take place and how God will shape a perfect world. Everything we know about this world is associated with death. How can God make an “organic” world in which there is no death? The answers simply are not readily forthcoming for us. We have to leave some things as mysteries.
Within Christianity some voices (e.g. Rudoph Bultmann) reject the palpable doctrines of resurrection and return; but other thoughtful voices (e.g. C. S. Lewis) retain the vivid hope while revealing sensitivity to the “problem” of imagining a perfect world. Two quotes illustrate the position of each:
Rudolph Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology” (1941) cited from Kerygma and Myth, Hans Werner Bartsch, ed. (Harper Torchbook, 1961), p. 5:
“It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. We may think we can manage it in our own lives, but to expect others to do so is to make the Christian faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world.
“The mythical eschatology is untenable for the simple reason that the parousia of Christ never took place as the New Testament expected. History did not come to an end, and, as every schoolboy knows, it will continue to run its course. Even if we believe that the world as we know it will come to an end in time, we expect the end to take the form of a natural catastrophe, not of a mythical event such as the New Testament expects. And if we explain the parousia in terms of modern scientific theory, we are applying criticism to the New Testament, albeit unconsciously.”
C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (pp. 121, 124)
“What the soul cries out for is the resurrection of the senses….” (p. 121).
“Then the new earth and sky, the same yet not the same as these, will rise in us as we have risen in Christ. And once again, after who knows what aeons of the silence and the dark, the birds will sing and the waters flow, and light and shadows move across the hills, and the faces of our friends laugh upon us with amazed recognition.
Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be. For ‘we know that we shall be made like Him, for we shall see Him as He is’ [1 Jn. 3:2].” (p. 124).
In the light of pervasive modern impulses, it is important to preserve the tangible realities of the Christian faith, even if we recognize that our imaginations are scarcely able to bridge the gap. The crucial points preserved in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 are as follows:
- Christians who live in hope of the resurrection have a hope which others do not share. Paul states that we may not grieve as others grieve. Does that leave room for any kind of grieving at all when a loved one dies in the “blessed hope”?
- We will be caught up together with the Lord. The only people we have ever known are tangible people. That’s why the resurrection and second coming are described in such “concrete” terms. It is language we can understand. Can we preserve the concrete realities while still allowing some aspects of “metaphor” to be at work?
- With the Lord forever. The Christian hope is an enduring one: We will be with the Lord forever.
- Encourage one another. The hope is indeed intended to be a hope and an encouragement. Some may require a “warning”; but who ever heard of being “warned” of a hope? The paradox is not easily solved.