Leading Question: How can the Christian’s hope be seen as a hope, not just a fear?
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul has given us one of the most specific and pointed promises of Jesus’ return to take his family with him to glory. That was important in the first century and it still is in the twenty-first century.
1. Something new, not just a reminder of something you already know. Many of Paul’s admonitions fall under the heading of “reminder.” But here, with reference to the second coming, he is apparently telling the Thessalonians something new. And that raises an interesting question: What are the similarities and differences in method when one is reminding the believers of something they know, but are inclined to neglect, and when one is teaching something new?
2. Just an ancient misconception or a modern one as well? Reading between the lines in 1Thessalonians, one can conclude that the church was in turmoil over the idea that the dead in Christ would not be treated the same as those who were still alive when Jesus returned. The official guide suggests that perhaps some believed that the dead would be resurrected to live on earth, but would not join the living to be with the Lord. Is that a distortion that haunts our world today, or would there be other distortions that we have to face that might not be the same ones faced in the first century?
A) Among evangelicals, the dispensationalist “Left Behind” theology probably represents the most notable Christian departure from what Adventists believe is the teaching of Scripture. What are the dangers in such a theology?
B) A quite different threat is posed by a secular culture that has no eschatological hope at all. Here are three samples of modern writers who make this world their goal:
Stephen Mitchell: “The mind in harmony with the way things are sees that this is a good world, that life is good and death is good.” (A Book of Psalms, Harper, 1993, p. xiii)
Deepak Chopra, as quoted in Time, June 24, 1996, p. 68: “Ultimately, Chopra claims, we could undo the effects of aging, happily and healthily attaining a life of 130. Death should hold little fear, since we understand that in our essential identity – as parts of that universal field – we are immortal.”
Wallace Stegner. In his novel, Crossing to Safety (1987), Stegner’s optimistic non-believer’s view of death finds expression in the voice of Charity, who is facing her own imminent death. Stegner’s reflects further through the thoughts of Larry, the narrator, who also refers to Charity’s husband Sid.
[Charity]: “It’s as natural as being born,” she said. “And even if we stop being the individuals we once were, there’s an immortality of organic molecules that’s absolutely certain. Don’t you find that a wonderful comfort? I do. To think that we’ll become part of the grass and trees and animals, that we’ll stay right here where we loved it while we were alive. People will drink us with their morning milk and pour us as maple syrup over their breakfast pancakes. So I say we should be happy and grateful and make the most of it. I’ve had a wonderful life, I’ve loved every minute.”
[Larry]: “A monarch butterfly caught in the draft was lifted twenty feet over our heads. I saw Sid look away from Charity’s unsteadily insistent glance to follow the Monarch’s movement. Perhaps he was fantasizing, as I was, that there went part of what had once been the mortal substance of Aunt Emily or George Barnwell or Uncle Dwight, absorbed by the root of a beech tree in the village cemetery, incorporated into a beechnut, eaten by a squirrel, dropped as a pellet in a meadow, converted into a milkweed stalk, nibbled and taken in by this butterfly, destined to be carried south on a long, unlikely, interrupted migration, to be picked off by a flycatcher, brought back north in the spring as other flesh, laid in an egg, eaten by a robbing jay and laid as another kind of egg, blown out of a tree in a windstorm, soaked up by the earth, extruded as grass, eaten by a freshening heifer, some of it foreordained to be drunk as Charity said, by its own descendants with their breakfasts, some of it deposited in cowpads, to melt into the earth yet again, and thrust upward again, immortal, in another milkweed stalk preparing itself to feed more Monarch butterflies.” – Crossing to Safety, 292-93
In such a world, how does one speak effectively about the hope of Jesus’ return? Would we shape our approaches differently, depending on the audience?