Did Paul Make a Mistake Regarding the Resurrection?
Near the close of his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, the apostle Paul addressed the subject of Christ’s Second Coming. He indicated that “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God” (4:16). The Christians in Thessalonica were not to be concerned with what would happen to Christians who had passed from this life prior to Jesus’ return. Departed Christians were not going to miss the Second Coming; God would take care of them. Paul noted that those “who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep” (vs. 15). “[T]he dead in Christ will rise first” (vs. 16). Some have asked, however, if 1 Thessalonians 4:16 contradicts what Paul wrote just two verses previously where he indicated that “God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (vs. 14). How can those who will be the first to rise also be brought with Jesus? Did Paul make a blunder?
Skeptics have no proof of errancy on the part of the inspired Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:15; Galatians 1:12) in this passage or any other. There are at least two possible, logical, scriptural interpretations to 1 Thessalonians 4:14,16. First, it is very likely that verse 14 is not a reference to Jesus’ coming with those “who sleep in Jesus,” but rather an allusion to Christ taking the once-dead-but-now-resurrected saints “with Him” to be with God the Father forever. Such an interpretation coincides with other references Paul made to Christ taking (or bringing) the saints before God. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote: “He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you” (4:14, emp. added). What’s more, when the end comes, “He [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father” (1 Corinthians 15:24, emp. added). Thus, 1 Thessalonians 4:14 may simply mean that “the Christians who are to be resurrected as Christ was, will be acted upon by ‘God’ who will cause Christ to ‘bring’ these resurrected Christians ‘with Him,’ that is, with Christ” (Edwards, 2000).
Second, even if Paul was alluding to the same individuals in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 and 16, skeptics still would not be justified in asserting that the passages are contradictory. The fact is, the Bible indicates that when God’s faithful servants pass away (i.e., “fall asleep” in Jesus), their spirits are taken to “paradise” or “the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 23:43; 16:19-31). When Christ returns to raise the dead and judge the world, God will cause the dwellers of paradise to reunite with their bodies, which will then be raised and changed “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.... [T]he trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). Thus, 1 Thessalonians 4:14 may refer to the moment when “Jesus will bring the faithful departed with him when he comes back” (Morris, 1991, p. 140).
Regardless of which interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:14 is correct, both views are scriptural beliefs based upon other Bible passages (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22-24; Luke 23:43; 16:19-31; etc.) Also, either explanation dispels any notion of a contradiction.
Edwards, Earl (2000), First, Second Thessalonians and Philippians Lecture Notes (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University).
Morris, Leon (1991), The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).