There are times when teaching moves beyond facts and data and reveals the depth of human longing. These are times when students connect the material they are studying to their own lives and the questions they ask are unencumbered by shyness, fear of embarrassment, worry or concern about lack of knowledge or proper beliefs; what arises then is the pursuit of truth not grades. Currently I am teaching courses in apocalyptic literature and introductory theology and this past week coalesced to create classes of students yearning to make sense of the afterlife. They went beyond the texts which set off the questioning – The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas; 4 Ezra; and a number of passages from the Gospels, Paul’s letters and 1 Peter – to the deep places of their souls. It is the best time to be a teacher, for there is so little to do but allow their questions to arise and guide them to the answers for which there is some definite evidence and others for which there are opinions, thoughts and ideas.
What is heaven? Is it a place? How do we know anything about heaven? What is hell? Is it eternal? What is purgatory? What is the difference? Is purgatory a place or a process? What is limbo? What about people who lived before Jesus was born? What about children who have died before baptism? What is the soul? How is the immortality of the soul different than resurrection? Are the dead resurrected now? Then where are they?
These are only some of the questions, the ones that I can recall immediately, from classes this week, but they do not capture the gravity and longing with which these questions were asked and considered. This is because they are the questions of the human heart, from age to age, and I suspect that these same questions – at least some of them – lie behind the answers Paul gave in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Death looms for all of us and the mysteries of the grave and beyond have tormented, comforted and challenged human beings from the beginning.
The Thessalonians had no particular “Christian” teaching but what Paul, Timothy and Silvanus had given them during their sojourn in Thessalonica. There was no “Christian” history on which they could raw but his oral tradition and, beyond the letter which Paul sent, no written tradition on which they could mull. They clearly had questions, though, and Paul’s letter responds to these questions:
Question: Paul, Timothy and Silvanus, what about the Christians in Thessalonica who have died? Where are they now?
Answer: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
Question: But since they have died, will they not be resurrected with us? Will we enter heaven first? Will they go somewhere else? Will we see them?
Answer: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
All of these answers, revealed as they are, wrapped in mythical imagery and language, we accept even to this day. They leave unanswered mystery upon mystery, many more questions arising, but these final things speak to us in our bones about one thing of which we can be assured: we have hope that through Christ we might live forever with the Lord.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens