Note: November 2, All Souls’ Day, according to the calendar of Western Christendom, is that day of commemoration of all Christians who have died.
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. 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 (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18)
So, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christian community in the city of Thessalonica. He, as I imagine his intent, sought to elaborate on his previous teaching on eschatology (that aspect of theology concerned with death and the final destiny of the created order and of humankind).
Also, as I imagine it, clarification was necessary. Jesus’ return, presumed and preached by the first apostles as imminent, hadn’t happened. And, as some members of the Thessalonian Christian community had died, those still alive wondered, perhaps worried about them. Where had they gone? What had happened to them? Would they, now dead, miss out on that great day when Jesus returned?
In 2019, the second coming of Jesus still hasn’t happened. And what becomes of the dead remains for countless Christians a central issue of belief (or beliefs, for many are the ideas about the afterlife), if not also a critical question. Where have they gone? What has happened to them? Will they, now dead, miss out on that great day when Jesus returns?
Paul doesn’t give what science would avow as definitive proof about the disposition of the dead. Indeed, Paul could not and, more to the point, would not. For what happens to the dead is a matter of faith; a conviction about a promise, which, as promise, is yet to be realized. And, foremost, as a matter of faith, Paul grounds his teaching in hope; the expectation, rooted in faith, of the future fulfillment of the promise.
In this spirit of faith and hope, Paul does not deny the validity or the necessity of grief. As Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus,(1) when loved ones die, sorrow is an unavoidable result, a natural response. However, Christian hope, trusting that as Jesus died and was raised from the dead and trusting in Jesus’ word of promise,(2) declares that this life is not all there is to life and that there is the possibility of abiding reunion with the dear departed.
How will this happen? Paul only can (is able to) say, in effect, that through and with Jesus (which, who is the singularly most important reason, indeed, person who makes it happen): “Somehow!”
Paul then, at his ethereal best, employs all the striking imagery at his disposal, writing of Jesus’ “cry of command” accompanied by “the archangel’s call” and a Divine “trumpet” blast at which time Jesus “will descend from heaven” to meet the dead rising from their graves to be joined by those “who are alive” being “caught up in the clouds…to meet the Lord in the air and…(to) be with the Lord forever.”
This is not the language of fantasy (though fantastical it is!), but rather, again, of faith. Nor is it the language of escapism that seeks to avoid unpleasant realities of death and grief, but rather of encouragement.
In this, if Paul were to have rendered his testimony of reassurance in song, no better words, had they been written in his time, might he have chosen but these:
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er you languish;
come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.(3)
(1) John 11.35
(2) Paul writes, For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord… (1 Thessalonians 4.15a; my emphasis); one of the clearest references of which is Jesus’ word of promise, “They will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13.26-27 and the parallel passage, Matthew 24.30-31).
(3) Words (1816) with my emphasis, by Thomas Moore (1779-1852)
Illustration: The Day of the Dead (1859), William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)