What may be fairly obvious we must yet plainly state to grasp the problem and response in this passage from Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica (in ancient Macedonia, around 51 A.D.)
Jesus had died. Yet God had raised Jesus from death to new life. In death and resurrection, Jesus ultimately vanquished the power of death over him and the world. Therefore, Paul lived in an Easter world. So did the followers of Jesus in Thessalonica. Paul and the Thessalonians staked their lives on Easter life, on the risen Jesus.
Yet, when Paul wrote, some of those Thessalonian Christians had died. How could that happen in an Easter world? What did it mean? The living Thessalonians wondered – deeply, intensely, and even misguidedly – about the “what” and the “why” of death for followers of Jesus. Had not Jesus overcome death and given new life? What did it mean that some brothers and sisters in Jesus had succumbed to death, to what appeared to be death’s continuing power? What did this mean for the dead and the living?
We have the same questions, I imagine. I know I do. If we do not face them now, we will some day.
Paul responded to but did not exactly answer the questions. That is, he did not answer in the sense of explaining it all comprehensively with no uncertainties and no unknowns remaining. Rather, he encouraged the Thessalonians to focus on two fundamental truths, truths that encourage us as well.
1. We truly live in an Easter world, in the power of Jesus’ victory over death. Yes, we still experience physical death. This is the “already but not yet” character of life between the first and second comings of Jesus. However, when we physically die we “fall asleep” in Jesus. We are not dead dead. Somehow at rest in Jesus, we will, in God’s good time, “wake” in Jesus to a transformed life where death is at most a vague phantom long past.
2. Therefore, we have hope! We have hope as, in Jesus, we face death. We need not grieve nor fear as those who do not know him. Rather, we take and give courage as the Spirit strengthens our hearts with “sure and certain hope” in the love and life of the risen Jesus. And this is good news beyond any we could have counted on in our merely mortal frame!