Continuing a conversation from elsewhere, I want briefly to address the question of whether Paul taught that there would be a resurrection of the faithful, within the historical horizon of the early churches, comparable to the “first resurrection” of the martyrs in Revelation 20:4-6. It has been suggested that there is “no explicit statement of a 1st century resurrection” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. I beg to differ.
…the dead in Christ will arise first, then we the living, those remaining, will be caught up together with them… (1 Thess. 4:16-17)
I think that this is clear evidence that Paul expected a first century resurrection of the “dead in Christ” (there is, notice, no reference to all the dead here). The rest of the story in the Letter reinforces the point. They are waiting for Jesus to deliver them from the wrath to come, which can only refer to an impending historical event, not a final judgment (1:10). The day of God’s wrath in the Old Testament is always a day of judgment on Israel or on the enemies of Israel. There is no reason why it should be anything different here.
The believers who are suffering persecution in Thessalonica—not believers who are sitting comfortably in Guildford or Dubai—will be vindicated at the “coming” of Jesus (2:19; 3:13; 5:23). The connection between the suffering of the Thessalonians and the “coming” of Jesus to rescue and punish is even clearer in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8:
if indeed it is just in God’s eyes to repay with afflictions your affliction and to you who are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in a fire of flame, inflicting punishment upon those not knowing God and upon those not obeying the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
The people to whom he writes the Letter—not eavesdroppers two thousand years later—should not be surprised when the day of the Lord comes (5:2-7). But the Roman world, which puts its confidence in the pax et securitas provided by Caesar, faces “sudden destruction” (5:3). The other place in the New Testament where aiphnidios (“sudden”) occurs is Luke 21:34, where it refers to the “sudden” day of God’s judgment on Jerusalem.
Of course, we may hold to a hermeneutic that allows us to reinterpret Paul’s statements at leisure, depending on point of view, the weather, or the mood we’re in, but this is what he says, whether we like it or not. As Ernest Best writes, “Many attempts have been made to evade what appears to be the plain meaning of the phrase” (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, 195); and G.L. Green: “At this point in his ministry, Paul believed that he was going to remain alive until the coming of the Lord” (The Letters to the Thessalonians, 222).
So I am not alone in thinking that Paul taught a resurrection of the dead in the imminent future. The difference is that I think that Paul was more or less right about the timing. The “coming” of Jesus would be an “event” in history whereby the churches persecuted by the pagan world would be delivered and vindicated and their enemies destroyed—that is, an event like the judgment described in Daniel 7.
If Paul shifted his ground later in life (perhaps Phil. 1:21-24; 2:17; 2 Cor. 1:8-9; 5:8), it was not because he had come to the conclusion that it could take forever until Jesus came to deliver the churches from their pagan enemies—in fact, until long after those pagan enemies had disappeared. It was because he realized that his own death was coming very close and he couldn’t count on surviving to see the vindication of those who faithfully confessed Christ.