I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Christians, at least some Christians, have changed the way they think about dying and going to heaven.
Now days, when someone dies, it is often said that they have gone to be with their Lord or their Savior or Jesus or God–or that they are in a much better or happier place. This is said as we talk to each other about the deceased; by the preacher or other speakers at the funeral or memorial service; even in the obituary. When I was younger, it seemed that the general thinking was that the dead would rise at the time of Christ’s Second Coming. And there’s scripture to support this latter view.
In I Thessalonians 4:14-17, Paul wrote: “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
Paul was undoubtedly addressing the Thessalonians’ concern about the Second Coming–a concern a lot of Christians in the first century were having. Jesus had said he would come again soon after his death and resurrection. Paul had underscored the imminence of the Second Coming. But the Second Coming had not occurred. It’s unlikely that early Christians had any notion that it would take 100 years for Jesus to come a second time. Perhaps they were also concerned about ever seeing again those who had already died. The gap between Christ’s resurrection and his Second Coming was growing wider and wider. Goodness knows what they would think about a gap that has widened to over 2,000 years.
To assuage the early Christians’ concerns, Paul sets forth in detail the logistics of the Second Coming. According to Paul, the dead in Christ would rise first. Then those still alive would be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air to be with him forever. Paul then gave more than a hint as to why he was writing this to the Thessalonians. “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Some Christians still speak often about the Second Coming being imminent. Maybe so. Or maybe when one dies, there is a Second Coming for him or her immediately. Maybe Paul’s words in I Corinthians were symbolic, not to be taken as literally as used to be the case and still is the case for some. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I may be wrong.