Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which some would argue was his second (Wanamaker), or his first and second combined (Murphy-O’Connor), was written to encourage a novice community of mostly Gentile believers to stand firm in the face of persecution until the parousia of the Lord, when the wrath of God would come against the world and they would be delivered from their suffering and united with their Lord. This is the narrative—or eschatological—frame of the letter, and it controls Paul’s argument at every point.
The same can be said of his first letter to the Corinthians. They “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7–8). The rulers of the present age are doomed to pass away (2:6). The quality of the apostles’ work will be revealed when a day of fire comes (3:13). The Lord is coming to “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and… disclose the purposes of the heart”, when everyone will receive his or her commendation from God (4:5). A “day of the Lord” is coming, when “the saints will judge the world”, and the righteous will inherit the kingdom of God (5:5; 6:2, 9). A time of distress is approaching; the “present form of this world is passing away” (7:26, 31). In the Lord’s supper they proclaim his death “until he comes” (11:26). The world will be condemned (11:32). The dead in Christ will be raised at his coming and will inherit the kingdom (15:23, 50-56). Paul prays that the Lord will come (16:22).
In fact, with the exception of Philemon, the same can be said of every one of Paul’s letters—even Romans. They are all written explicitly and intentionally in the light of an impending day of the Lord, a day of God’s wrath, which will entail severe affliction for the churches but also deliverance and vindication. Paul’s churches faced a more or less imminent “end”.
How are we supposed to deal with this, given that the world did not end imminently? We have the same problem, of course, with Jesus. [pullquote]There are two basic interpretive strategies open to us: we can reinterpret “imminent” or we can reinterpret “end”.[/pullquote]
We could say that the traditional understanding of the “end” is correct but that Paul got the timing wrong. He expected the world to come to an abrupt end in the foreseeable future—perhaps even before he himself died—but he was wrong about that because in fact one day is as a thousand years with the Lord, even the Son was kept in the dark about the timing, etc. That would allow us to keep our traditional “end” intact—the whole package of second coming, rapture, resurrection, final judgment, inheritance of the kingdom, new heaven and new earth, lake of fire. But it can be postponed indefinitely.
Or we could say that Paul was more or less right about the timing but that we have misunderstood his “end”. We could argue that he shared a Jewish-apocalyptic narrative in which YHWH, as creator of the whole earth, asserts his right to judge and rule over the idolatrous pagan nations, which have for so long refused to acknowledge him and oppressed his people. We would then suppose—once we have understood how apocalyptic discourse works—that his eschatology mostly addresses the historical crisis that would mark the transition from an old age of pagan hegemony to a new age in which Jesus is confessed as Lord by the Gentiles. I have developed this argument in [amazon:978-1620324592:inline].
This approach would mean that Paul has much less to say about our eschatological circumstances. The coming storm fills his horizon and he cannot see what lies beyond—except that he is certain that the creator God will have the final victory over the evil that has corrupted his creation (1 Cor. 15:24-28; Rom. 8:20-22). But it would mean that he has much more to say about the historical experience of the communities under his care. That makes him a much more responsible prophet and apostle. And I’m sure we can learn something from that.