(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
One of the cruelties of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that a significant number of patients hospitalized with the disease died without loved ones present. It wasn’t that family and friends didn’t want to be there, but that many hospitals kept visitors away — including family members and spouses — to fight the spread of the virus. Even priests had no choice but to administer last rites over the telephone. One doctor called the isolation “the medical version of solitary confinement.” In some cases, medical personnel kept a vigil with the dying, but that, of course, is not the same as having people in attendance who have been important in the dying person’s life.
Sad as that is, we have no way of knowing what the experience of dying alone is like for the one going through it, although some pastors, chaplains and hospice workers say being alone at that time may matter less to the one dying than to those left behind. Former hospice chaplain Kerry Egan says that in a sense, we all die alone, even if we are surrounded by people we love. Often, as we die, our bodies are breaking down and our minds are elsewhere. The conscious experience of death is, by nature, solitary. As Egan puts it, “Many people are not responsive at the end. Their bodies are busy doing something else.”
That may be true, but it’s not much comfort to the surviving loved ones. The forced absence during their family member’s last moments can feel like a lack of closure, or even a betrayal on their part. The survivors may be racked with guilt, even though their absence at the dying person’s beside was not their fault. Psychologists suggest that their feelings may be further complicated by a fear that they, too, will one day die alone.
And it may go deeper, with the survivors feeling that they have lost the departed forever.
Some of this helps us understand today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians. This passage from Paul is often read as a blow-by-blow description of how Jesus’ return will take place — first this will happen and then that, etc. — as if God had given the apostle an advance copy of that day’s order of events. But to read it that way misses Paul’s real concern, which he states in the first verse of the passage: “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.”
After Jesus’ ascension, angels had told those who witnessed the event that He would return (Acts 1:11), and most of His then disciples assumed that meant Jesus was coming back soon. But as decades passed and some believing brothers and sisters died, the surviving believers worried that the deceased would be excluded from the benefits of their Lord’s return. Some may even have had survivor’s guilt about that, as well as the worry that they, too, would die before Christ came back and be likewise excluded from eternity with Jesus. And they likely had other questions similar to ours such as: Why does death still seem to have such a sting, if Christ has won the victory?
But as Paul here writes, they shouldn’t “grieve as others do who have no hope.” He wants all who are followers of Jesus to know that God’s provision for deceased believers in the future is an assurance of God’s care for all believers in the present. Thus, resurrection hope — the confident expectation that what God has promised for the future will comes to pass — enables us who follow Jesus to have a different attitude about death than those who don’t follow Him. Christians know full well the pain of death, even death on a cross. Grieving with hope will always mean acknowledging our loss (and taking seriously the sadness of others around us), while trusting that a larger epic is unfolding. We’ll still grieve when a loved one dies, and we’ll still feel gutted when a loved one must die alone, but we are not without hope, for them or for ourselves.
To further this point, Paul reminds his readers “that Jesus died and rose again,” and thus they can count on the fact that when Jesus returns, “God will bring with him those who have died.” In other words, as God had done for Jesus, so he will do for those who die in Christ.
Paul is writing out of pastoral concern for his readers. He wants them to remain confident that both they and their friends and loved ones who had been “in Christ” (v. 16) when they died would be reunited with Jesus when He returned.
Hope, as commonly used in everyday parlance, means a wish, and is rooted in human desire. Biblical hope, by contrast, is rooted in God’s love for us, which is quite different. Biblical hope presents us with a view of life beyond the end of this one. While we can’t see that ourselves, we trust that God can, and thus we base our hope on that eternal perspective. That view enables us to count on the kingdom of God eventually coming in all its fullness, and our having a place in it. Hope says to us, “This is how you will understand it when this life is over and the new one has begun.” This view is of supreme importance to a life of faith because without it, we have nothing to look forward to beyond whatever we ourselves can make of this life before it ends.
It’s not possible for us today to know how literally Paul intended the details he gives of Christ’s return to be taken. At a minimum, Paul likely meant the rendezvous in the sky as an image to help his readers conceptualize Jesus returning and bringing the now-resurrected dead in Christ with Him. Paul almost certainly had in mind the entry (Greek parousia) of a victorious king into a city, coupled with some Jewish apocalyptic motifs, including “clouds,” which Paul identifies as the place where Jesus’ living followers and the dead in Christ come together to meet their Lord.
Paul did not designate clouds as the rendezvous location simply because they are phenomenon of the sky, but rather because clouds had long been used in Hebrew Scriptures to signify the presence of God, as in these examples:
Exodus: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after’” (19:9).
Psalms: “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (97:2).
Ezekiel: “Then the glory of the Lord rose up …; the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory of the Lord” (10:4).
The book of Daniel also pictures the Messiah coming in a cloud: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (7:13, NIV), a verse that Jesus himself quotes twice in Matthew (24:30 and 26:64).
In the New Testament, a cloud serves to signify the presence of God at the transfiguration, where God speaks out of a “bright cloud” to call Jesus the “Beloved” and to tell the disciples to listen to Him (Matthew 17:5). At Jesus’ ascension, it was a cloud that took Jesus “out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).
Thus, when Paul tells his readers that they will meet Christ in the clouds, he is saying that they will be in the presence of God the Father as well.
That said, if Paul were writing to us today about our grief over our dead, he’d probably look for some other image besides clouds to denote the presence of God. We have adopted “clouds” as shorthand for troubles and worries, so much so that we sometimes speak of looking for silver linings behind them — some kind of compensation for having to exist under clouds of trouble.
So today, if Paul wanted to keep his up-in-the-sky image but make it convey the same assurance and hope it did for the first-century Thessalonians, he might try to reorient our thinking about clouds the way the 18th-century poet William Cowper did in his hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” with its stanza:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Or, Paul might choose some other sky-related phenomenon instead of clouds — maybe “sunshine,” which is a modern metaphor for release from or absence of troubles. And surely an end-of-time meeting with Jesus for those who are in Christ would be a release from and absence of troubles. So to borrow the title of a pop song, when Christ comes, we’ll be “walking on sunshine”!
With that in mind, here’s how The Message paraphrases our passage (with a couple of substituted words in italics):
“And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don’t want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.
“And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence — we have the Master’s word on it — that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they’ll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God’s trumpet blast! He’ll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise — they’ll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the sky to meet the Master. Oh, we’ll be walking on sunshine! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master.
“So reassure one another with these words.”
We live in the shadow of death, but we wait for the dawn. We grieve, but not as others do, for we are the people of hope.