So my argument is that the best way to make sense of Paul’s teaching about the parousia of Christ is to identify the apocalyptic event with the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world through the faithful witness of the persecuted churches. Paul told the story looking forward, drawing on the largely symbolic language of Old Testament prophecy; we tell the story looking backward, using historical methods; and it seems to me that the two accounts line up pretty well. But how does the resurrection of the martyrs (1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 20:4) fit into this bi-narratival arrangement? Does it belong to the symbolic discourse of prophecy or to history? Or to both?
The affirmation that “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16) is dependent, I think, on Daniel 12:2-3:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Dan. 12:2–3)
This is a limited resurrection, in connection with the deliverance of Israel from pagan oppression (Dan. 12:1), in order that both righteous and unrighteous dead Jews might receive justice. I think Paul maps it on to a new future, centred on the acclamation of Jesus as Lord by the pagan nations. This article suggests why he drops the resurrection of the unrighteous.
On the face of it, Daniel imagined the resurrected dead living in a restored Israel: the resurrected righteous would be held in high esteem, the unrighteous would be shamed.
Paul’s assumption, I think, is that Jesus would rule over the nations not from an earthly Jerusalem (the city would have been destroyed), but from heaven, from his seat at the right hand of God. So the resurrected martyrs would have to be united with the Lord and return to heaven with him to reign throughout the coming ages (cf. Rev. 20:4). Hence the rather elaborate parousia trope in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: Jesus comes from heaven as the triumphant king to be met outside the gates of the city by his faithful citizens. Arguably, Paul also hoped that the living witnesses would be bodily transformed and go with them (Phil. 3:20-21)—just to complicate matters further.
So the whole little story is constructed in order to confirm that the persecuted churches would receive justice, would be vindicated, for their faithful endurance. Since Christ received justice, was vindicated, by his resurrection and transformation, so too the “saints” would receive justice and be vindicated by resurrection and transformation.
Did Paul imagine that the dead in Christ would literally emerge from their tombs, in the manner of the “saints who had fallen asleep”, who came out of their tombs after the resurrection of Jesus and entered Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52-53)? I don’t know. But if the point is that they must take on a heavenly existence, their resurrection may have something of the ambiguity of Christ’s resurrection. Many did not see the resurrected Jesus, and many who did were not sure what or whom they had seen. More importantly, Paul only ever “saw”—or had revealed to him—the exalted Jesus, the Son at the right hand of God.
The eschatological point is that, in conjunction with the triumph of Christ and the deliverance of the churches from their enemies, the dead in Christ, the martyrs principally, would be really rewarded for their faithfulness. In Jesus’ language, they would be repaid for what they had done when the Son of Man came in his glory (cf. Matt. 16:27)—though, of course, Jesus’ perspective and chronology were different.