Read 1 Thessalonians and follow along.
Most Bible scholars believe this to be the oldest of the New Testament books (although James has its supporters as well). It was written to the people of Thessaloniki, a city that exists to this day in northern Greece. In Paul’s day, it was a key trading city that lay on an important overland route from Rome to the gateway of Asia. Paul, Silas, and Timothy started a church here around 50 CE, but were forced leave in a hurry, as their lives were in danger. Later, Timothy returned to find the church doing well, and Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonians upon hearing the good news. So, this letter would have been written 54-56 CE, making it the very first Christian writing that we know of today.
Now you might ask why the earliest known Christian writing occurs a full 25 years or so after the death of Christ. Well, this dating is not the work of some liberal scholar trying to convince us that the whole of Christianity is a myth created long after Jesus’ death. In fact, conservative scholars pretty much agree with this date as well. There are a couple of reasons why the early church leaders waited so long to write anything down.
We have to remember that Jesus and his disciples were pretty much a rough and tumble bunch of carpenters, fishermen, tax collectors, and the like, which means they may not have known how to write – we do have the story of Jesus writing something in the sand, but we don’t have any information other than that. Remember that Palestine at the time of Christ was the backwater of the Roman empire, not a bastion of learning and education – sort of the Alabama of the empire. Paul of Tarsus, on the other hand, was educated in both the Hebrew and Classical forms of education, according to tradition, which made him well-qualified to present the ideas of a religion steeped in Jewish history to the masses of the Roman state. But why wait so long?
The consensus seems to be that the original followers of Jesus were so sure that he was coming back any day, that they didn’t see any need to make any written records of their ideas. All of Jesus’ followers were fervently preaching the ‘good news’ as hard and fast as they could – before Jesus returned. If Jesus was coming back within their lifetimes, there wasn’t much time to worry about all the intricacies of doctrine – they simply wanted as many converts as possible. Only after time had passed – and the prospect that Jesus may not return as soon as they hoped began to loom large in their minds – only then did his followers began to feel the need to write down a few important ideas for the faithful who might outlive them. We’ll see the writers of the NT address some of these concerns as we move through the different letters and gospels.
Looking at 1 Thessalonians 1, there isn’t anything that will surprise you if you’ve ever attended a church service. Believers already refer to each other as brothers and sisters, even at this early date. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead by is also mentioned in this chapter; from a Christian point of view, I think it’s critical to see this belief as evident from the very first Christian writing in existence.
In verse 10, however, there is an idea that causes me some real concern – waiting for Jesus to return from heaven and save believers from some sort of ‘coming wrath’. I can try to understand why Paul and others living in the first century might expect Jesus to come back from heaven; nearly 2000 years later, I don’t understand why many folks are still waiting. Why can’t we admit, after all these years and hundreds of calamities from which Christians have not been spared, that perhaps Paul was mistaken? He never met Jesus face to face, having only encountered him in a powerful vision. Is it possible – just for the sake of argument – that the church is incorrect in this aspect?
I remember listening to sermons about the rapture when I was a teenager, and feeling a little bit guilty that I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want it to happen right away. I wanted to go to heaven, for sure, and missing out on any future calamity seemed pretty good too. I just wanted God to wait and let me enjoy life here for at least a little while first. I wanted to fall in love, get married, see some of the world, maybe enjoy a few earthly luxuries – then it would be alright for him to come back. The fear of the ‘coming calamity’ certainly kept me on my toes, but inside, I hoped it wasn’t true.
Whether or not you believe in the imminent return of Christ, the rapture of the church, or other related pre-determined futures, take a minute to at least see the dangers these ideas present to our current society. Many churches preach that the world is going to get worse and worse until Jesus comes back to fix everything himself. Don’t worry if you’re a Christian – you won’t be subjected to the worst of it. In fact, you’ll live a happy, healthy and wealthy life until just before all hell breaks loose (literally), at which time you’ll be snatched away to heaven.
I’d say this ideology does a lot of damage to our democracy. If Jesus is coming back any day now, what need do we have to try to make sure American society continues to progress 20-30 years into the future? No need to cooperate with anyone else to make the world a better place – Jesus is coming back to fix all that anyway. Peak oil? Not a problem – Jesus will come back before we run out of oil; in fact, maybe a global war for oil is just what is needed to hasten his appearance! The world’s political systems have to be broken so that Jesus can reign as king on Earth. Scary stuff, unless you think you’re going to be raptured – what’s to worry about?
Here’s where a strong dose of secularism is needed. I’m not going to ask you to surrender your faith, but as an American, it is your civic duty prepare for our future as if Jesus were not coming back, soon or otherwise. It is your duty to elect officials that will strive to improve our lives – not morally, that’s the work of the pastor, teacher, or philosopher – but in real, measurable and observable ways.
We Americans must stop pretending there will be no tomorrow, or that someone or something other than our own intellect can make a better tomorrow – or start preparing to be servants to those not hindered by such ideas.