Donald Andrew Henson II

1 Thessalonians 1

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on May 16, 2012 at 12:12 am
Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece. Site of...

Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece.

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.

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  1. this is a scray view. i suppose it’s human nature, but some of these people seem to delight in the idea that others will burn as much as the idea that they themselves will be spared. i totally agree with your last statement. over a dozen countries have surpassed us in science and math, while we suffer from rediculous arguments that slow our teachers down. i dont wish to change the subject to abortion but would like to borrow an argument from that debate. anti-abortionists like to say “that fetus could have been the person with the cure to cancer”(silly to assume that only one partticular human can stumble upon an idea, but that’s a different arguement). This applies to the topic above though. any child who is forced to believe that the universe was created in 6 days by a supreme dictator for life(all the big questions answered, right?), will have zero incentive to become the next astrophycisist, microbiologist, or discover the next cure or innovation to improve our society……. they will have recieved an “intellectual abortion”.

  2. sorry….”scary view”

  3. Yeah I think the Germans have a word for it – schadenfreude – which means a kind of pleasure you feel when something bad happens to someone else. Not very ‘Christian’. And you’re right about education – think of all the people that could be contributing to the advancement of knowledge – except they were brainwashed in their youth that nothing really matters that much since Jesus is coming back soon.

  4. I’ve always found the formation of the Christian church interesting. Paul’s writing comes between the death of Christ and the Gospels. Like you said, his teachings represent a change from the original disciples because they were illiterate and expecting the return of Jesus in their lifetime, plus they were still part of the Jewish tradition. Paul opens up the teachings to non-Jews, and changes the message. Paul knew the people that knew Jesus, but the writers of the gospels probably didn’t. So Paul is the second generation of the message, and the gospel writers are the third. I’m not a Christian, but I’ve always wanted to know exactly what Jesus actually said as opposed to what Paul heard what he said second hand, or what the Gospel writers imagined what he said.

    I tend to believe we’ve lost most of what Jesus actually said, meant and intended, and Christianity is based on 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation reinventions of his message.

    • Thanks for reading! I agree – we may never know what Jesus really said, although some Bible scholars argue for the existence of a ‘Q source’, a document that is lost but that the synoptic gospels all seem to draw from. If it ever existed, this record of the sayings of Jesus would be an interesting read. Keep in mind that there were tons of other gospels floating around when the NT canon was finally established, and all of them had Jesus saying very different things as well.

  5. Hello! I’m just catching up with your blog. Thanks for continuing to visit mine 🙂
    I find your approach to reading the Bible extremely refreshing. It’s good to see some healthy questioning of the “backbone” of Christian teachings, and some expostulating on how this might negatively effect our society. Particularly because the general view of Christianity is one of goodliness, Christian kindness, brother helping brother, and that kind of thing. I’m an atheist, but I’ve never seen a problem with people having a theological system in place to reinforce the need for basic human kindness (the fact that it doesn’t always turn out that way is another can of worms). This is an eye-opening perspective, for sure.

    I’d also like to say that, as an atheist, your reading of the Bible is extremely helpful from an historical viewpoint. I’m sure that Jesus and his cohorts did exist (my “belief” issues are with the supernatural aspects of religious myth), but it is difficult to find information on their place in human history that doesn’t take too much of the gospels as fact. I think, like the commenter above mentioned, we need to remember that we are reading, at best, 4th hand here-say by the time we read the bible (not to mention errors made in translation throughout the centuries). We’ve all played the telephone game as kids, I’m sure. We know how well that works out. Hilarious, but probably not very accurate…

    If you have time for extracurricular reading theses days–the Bible is a feat in itself–see if you can find a copy of “Lamb” by Christopher Moore, and “Grass” by Sheri S. Tepper. “Lamb” is a kind of religious satire, the life of Jesus Christ as told by his best friend Biff. I found it extremely funny. A look at what the “real” Jesus might have been like.

    “Grass” is interesting because it is set a few hundred years in the future, Christianity is still alive and well but it is interesting to see Tepper’s hypothesis as to how it might evolve. The most pertinent part to your article is that the rapture still hasn’t happened, and there is an extremist group who is trying to hasten the process through biological warfare. There’s a review for “Grass” on my blog if you’re interested.

    Anyways, thanks for doing this. I’ll keep you posted as I read more!

  6. […] fatalistic attitude towards the future – if God has already ordained the way events will play out, there’s no need for government to […]

  7. […] 1 Thessalonians 1 (americansecularist.com) […]

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