Add to this the variety of theological positions available today. There are pre-millenialists, post-millenialists, a-millenialists, pre-tribulation pre-millennialists, post-tribulation pre-millennialists, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Is it any wonder people are confused?
I remember growing up with a sense of dread and foreboding about the return of Jesus. I was raised on tracts like The Day Christ Came (Again), Wild Oats and Harvest, and Hell-fire and Damnation sermons leaving me feeling like I was hanging on a precipice over pits of sulfur and fire.
Yes sir, I was confused and afraid of Jesus' final coming and the end of the world.
Would you be surprised to find out that the first century Christ-followers were equally confused about the end times? For those at Thessalonica, there seemed to be some consternation about the fate of loved ones who had already died. We need to realize most modern depictions of life after death are based, not on Christianity or Judaism, but upon Greek Platonic thought: body is bad, spirit is good. But for the early Christians, Jesus' final coming marked a new heaven and a new earth: a very physical thing. Jesus would return and everything would be made new. But wait: what about those who had previously died? Do they get to experience the new existence? And furthermore, do we have anything to be afraid of, ourselves? Judgment by a perfect God is a frightening concept! We're not perfect. There's no way we are worthy of his love! What are the ramifications for us?
For Paul, the time of the end is not a time for negativity and anxiety. It is a time for encouragement. Twice in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 Paul tells his readers to encourage or to be encouraged by the message of Jesus' return. Look at Paul's description of the End Times. I think you might be surprised at how simple it sounds:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words. Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
Paul wants his readers to understand those who have died in Christ are not going to miss out on the new heaven and new earth. They are not going to be disembodied spirits floating around forever! In fact, he says those spirits are going to accompany Jesus as he descends. Then what happens? The dead in Christ will rise first! This makes no sense apart from the literal physical-bodily resurrection of the believer. Bodies will be raised--changed, never to die again! And then we will meet Jesus with them in the air. I don't know exactly what will take place after this. Peter says the heavens and earth will melt with a fervent heat and there will be a new heaven and a new earth. I'm not certain if Peter is speaking metaphorically, using the language of cataclysm to make a point or if he literally means everything will melt away. It doesn't really matter. What matters is verse 17b: And so we will be with the Lord forever. Pay special attention to the next sentence: Therefore encourage each other with these words! Paul says: are you worried about your loved ones who have already died? Don't worry! They will not miss out! The all powerful Jesus, Lord of Heaven and Earth, will take care of all arrangements! Grieving is not a problem--just don't grieve like those who see no hope beyond the grave--or beyond a ghostly existence! There is going to be newness! We and our loved ones will see Jesus in the flesh and guess what? There will be total healing! All sin, all the emotional and physical damage sin has placed on us will be removed! Paul develops this in more detail in 1 Corinthians 15:51-57.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul doesn't stop here, he wants the Thessalonians to experience hope not only for their deceased relatives, but for themselves, too! He explains how speculation is futile. Jesus will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. There will be those who say "Peace and safety" but they will experience the judgment of God visited upon them. But, Paul writes: this isn't your fate! You have nothing to fear! Why? Because you are children of the Light! Judgment will not take you by surprise--and you have nothing to fear from judgment. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation! Jesus came the first time to deal with sin--to offer redemption. He will come the second time to bring complete salvation to those who accepted his offer of redemption. And there will be healing.
Have you been marred by abuse? Have you scars from self-destructive behavior? Do you still experience pain from past sin, and are you still struggling trying to overcome destructive behavior? Read this carefully: in this life, none of us will attain perfection. In this life, none of us will escape the destructive forces of sin--either sins others have committed against us or sins we have committed. But when he returns he brings salvation! He brings healing!
So, how do we live as a result? Paul says, live differently. Since we have our eyes wide open, let's exercise self-control. Let's live in hope of a bright new future. We put on faith and love as a breastplate: in other words we trust God's provision--we dedicate ourselves to living pure and loving each other and we put on the hope of salvation as a helmet. Our protection is God's action to save us. Even though we've messed up and are terribly flawed, he will rescue us. And so, we encourage each other with these words. We come alongside each other and support each other and say: Don't quit! Keep living for him! He loves you and will bring salvation!
Have you ever wondered what the end time will be like? Don't get caught up in end time speculation and prophecies! Don't speculate and debate. Paul tells us plainly: it iss going to be a lot simpler than we think. It isn't so important as to how: the only thing that will matter is we will see him and be with him forever.
So may you live in hope of Christ's final return. May you take comfort and encouragement from God's desire to bring salvation to you. May he preserve you body, soul and spirit until the coming of Jesus Christ.