Did Paul believe in an imminent parousia?

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.

Paul writes:

…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.

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donsands | Wed, 02/08/2012 - 17:14 | Permalink

The Apsotle was actually taken to glory, and saw things no man has ever beheld. Did he know the Lord would be  a few centuries in His return, because he went to heaven? I suppose he knew a lot more about Christ's return than most, but he certainly may have thought Jesus would return in his day.

Yet, he may not have as well, if God showed him this, and so Paul tells us he saw things that he can not reveal.


God 'may' have shown Paul many things.  He 'may' have shown Paul that the meaning of life is 42 or that Darth Vader was not in fact Luke Skywalkers father.  But since he 'saw things he cannot reveal' why would we speculate that that would possibly be the case?  Unless of course speculation allows one to hold onto to what they hope to be the truth rather than what is plainly written then 'may' may mean alot.

But then I think that is the whole point of Andrew's post...

Kenton | Wed, 02/08/2012 - 17:21 | Permalink

A question I always had about the words "the dead in Christ will rise" regarding to your comment that "there is, notice, no reference to all the dead here": Is it possible that the phrase "in Christ" modifies the verb "will rise" as opposed to the noun "the dead"? In other words, is is possible that Paul was talking about the means of resurrection and not the subset of humanity that would be resurrected?

Also, your conclusion about a first century fulfilment of 1 Thes 4 (A.D. 70???) seems to me to make the resurrection figurative. Am I missing something there?

What counts against having “in Christ” modify the verb—apart from word order—is that Paul then says that “we the living” will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord. He would not have said that about all he dead.

I don’t think that this resurrection would have to be figurative for the reasons given in this post. I think it is, in any case, important to keep separate the question of what Paul actually said and the question of how we accommodate what Paul actually said to our later perspective on things. What Paul was concerned about was the deliverance and vindication of the churches—to put it in very general terms—within a realistic and relevant time-frame. In light of Jewish hopes, it made perfectly good sense to him to believe that those who had died before that vindication—that is, before the parousia—would be raised to share in it. That is how it looked from his prophetic, forward-looking perspective.

As it turned out, historically speaking, the vindication of the early churches for their belief that God had made Jesus king over the nations did not come until the conversion of the empire—presumably much later than Paul would have imagined. But it was still within that realistic and relevant historical horizon.

Thanks for a great post Andrew. 

This idea makes good sense to me, although this understanding often creates many more questions.

I was explaining this interpretation to a friend of mine today who surprised me with his openness to it. However he wondered what do we make of those who have been martyred since Constantine. He suggested more have been martyred in modern times than all that have gone before. I don’t know if this statistic is correct, but the question still stands.



It’s an obvious question to ask. I would say that from the New Testament’s point of view the fate of those martyred after the defeat of paganism is, strictly speaking, beyond the horizon, out of sight. That does not make it a matter of indifference—it simply recognizes the fact that the New Testament works within a narrative-historical framework. The New Testament is simply oriented towards a one-off victory over pagan empire as the means by which Israel’s God would be glorified amongst the nations. So perhaps that simply means that we cannot have a “definitive” answer to the question. But it could, of course, be argued that the same story of vindication ought to be retold in subsequent analogous situations. I don’t really think we have the licence to do so, but it is a different type of question to the one which primarily interests me, which is, How is the New Testament to be read?

peter wilkinson | Fri, 02/10/2012 - 12:16 | Permalink

I'm just a guilty eavesdropper on the persecuted church at Thessalonica sitting comfortably at leisure in Guildford.

…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 this proves the opposite of what you say, Andrew.

"The dead in Christ will rise arise first" - means all the dead at whichever time that will be, doesn't it? It does not say, for instance, those beheaded for their faith in the 1st century will arise first. As far as I'm concerned, the event is still future.

". . . then we the living, those remaining, will be caught up together with them"  - If "those remaining" were "caught up" with those resurrected, then there would be no believers in Christ left on earth. As this has not yet happened, the event is future.

So why does Paul say: "then we the living  . . . will be caught up together with them"? I think this is evidence that there is no prophetic history to come, as far as Paul is concerned, except he corrects himself slightly in 2 Thessalonians. (The correction strongly suggests that the "man of lawlessness" would come in his own lifetime). So for Paul, as for us, the return of Jesus and the resurrection could come at any moment, and possibly we have a hand in hastening that return by our actions - 2 Peter 3:12.

It was valid for Paul to expect a return of Christ and resurrection, not to be confused with the judgement on Jerusalem, in his lifetime, and to encourage others to do so. As "those remaining", ie every believer in his time who had not already died, had not been "caught up" with those raised from the dead at Christ's return, we can assume Christ has not returned, and that this event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 has not yet happened.

P.S. I don't think "caught up together with" can only be metaphorical. Philip was "caught away" (same word) by the Spirit, and physically relocated. Paul was "caught up" to the third heaven - I think he means literally, not just in a vision. The basic meaning of harpazo seems to be a literal "catching, stealing or carrying off"; being taken by force, caught away, pulled.

I'd rather be in Dubai; it's snowing here at the moment, and cold everywhere.




As for the timing of the Parousia as indicated by Paul, I agree with you.  In fact, I think it is impossible to read the New Testament in an intellectually honest way and come away with anything but the notion that Jesus and His apostles, including Paul of course, all expected the Parousia in what we would call the 1st Century.  Yet the history of Christianity has either been to deny this reality or else say that Jesus and the apostles were wrong on this point.  What we need to consider is that Jesus and the apostles were right about the timing and we've misunderstood was the Parousia was.  In other words, we may have missed it because we didn't rightly and fully comprehend their description of it.

Albert Schweitzer was right about Jesus' prediction, but was wrong when he said it wasn't fulfilled.  

We didn't miss the Parousia because it was smaller than we expected; we missed it because it was larger than we expected.

None of this is to say that no one in that day recognized that the day of the Lord did indeed come - just that we have no testimony of its accomplishment in the New Testament documents.  That's not to say that it didn't occur shortly thereafter - just as promised.  In fact, we have every reason to believe that it happened exactly as promised...because He who promised is faithful.