2 Thess. 2, 1-5,13-17. Luke 20, 27-38.
I get the impression people nowadays don’t talk much about life after death, or Heaven and Hell – except to make jokes about them. They are much more concerned about their life in the here and now, and how to make it as rich and satisfying as possible.
We may think about it a bit more at this time of year, when we go through the seasons of All Saints and All Souls and then Remembrance Day, but even so our thoughts tend to be concentrated on those who have died, rather than our own death and what may await us after it.
This wasn’t the case in the Christian community in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, however. The Day of the Lord – the day when Jesus would return in triumph to judge the earth – was expected to occur very soon, and there was constant speculation about what would happen, how the faithful would know when it was approaching, and who would be among the saved.
The Christian community to whom 2 Thessalonians was written were distraught. The Greek original says they were ‘shaken out of their minds’ by people who said the Day of the Lord had already come, and Jesus had returned – perhaps because they had seen nothing of it, so assumed they were not among the saved.
The apocalyptic writings of the time, of which we can see examples in the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew, and in Revelation, predicted a series of events which had to occur before the Lord’s return. Though the details varied, the general tenor of these predictions was that things would get much worse on earth before things got better with the Second Coming.
The writer of the letter first attempts to reassure his readers, by reminding them of this timetable, and assuring them that the predicted events have not taken place. But much more importantly, he reminds them of the character of the God whose judgement they await: that God loves them, and chose them in the earliest days of the Christian mission; and that God’s grace continues to strengthen, encourage and comfort them in the good works they carry out in his name.
Throughout Christian history, different groups have looked at what was happening in the world around them, and thought that Judgement Day was fast approaching. But perhaps the point of those predictions was that there will always be such things happening in the world, so judgement is always close at hand, and always ‘not yet’.
Belief in resurrection of those who were saved was a very new one in the world of first century Judaism. Some of the religious groups – notably the Pharisees – believed in the resurrection of the righteous; but more conservative groups, like the Sadducees, didn’t believe in it at all, because it wasn’t a belief that was found in the Torah.
It wasn’t a belief that was found in the Old Testament much at all. There is a passage in the book of Job which sounds as if it is talking about resurrection; “I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth…. then in my flesh I will see God” but the problem is we read it through Christian spectacles. What is more, when we listen to the words, many of us hear them sung to Handel’s marvellous music from the Messiah – and with the addition that his lyricist put in speaking about the resurrection of Jesus.
Job may be talking about seeing God and being vindicated by him after death – but it is more likely he was saying that he expected God to appear and vindicate him on this earth.
We know that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, which makes it all the more obvious that their question to Jesus, which Luke recounts in chapter 20, was posed in order to trap him, and not for any desire to know what he really thought. It was based on the practise of levirate marriage, ordered in the book of Deuteronomy, which ruled that if a man died without fathering a son, one of his brothers had to marry his widow, in order to father a son for him, to ensure that the family line did not die out. Nobody observed this rule by New Testament times, so the question was wholly specious.
Jesus avoided the trap, and at the same time gave his own teaching about the life of the world to come. His answer taught that there is a difference between life in this world and the next. In this world, the only way to ensure that your legacy lived on was to marry and to have a family; in the world to come, life is eternal. There is no more death, so there is no need for sex and marriage to ensure your line lives on.
But Jesus then goes on to indicate that there is some continuity between this life and the next, with a complicated rabbinic-type argument about the patriarchs. When God spoke to Moses, he proclaimed himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but only living things can have a relationship with God. So Jesus is saying that in some sense, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live on, and gives us hope that we will too. Though there is discontinuity, there is also continuity through God who is the Lord of both this world and the next.
Jesus doesn’t actually tell us much about the life of the world to come. He does indicate that it will be different from life in the flesh – which rather puts paid to all those pictures of Heaven which see it as just like the best of this life, only in abundance; depending on your tastes and circumstances, heaps of good food, wine, nubile maidens, blissful music or just eternal rest!
The lack of detail can be rather frustrating to us humans. We like to know what’s coming, so we can prepare for it properly. We want to know whether we will still survive as individuals; we want to be assured that the relationships which we value in this life, and which have sustained us, will continue in the world to come. Jesus refuses to give us answers about that, as he refused to give a specific timetable for his return.
We don’t have the language or the concepts to depict what resurrection life will be like. Most of the attempts to do so, from the depictions of Paradise and Hell in classical art to images of angels with harps on clouds are profoundly unsatisfying. We have clues from the disciples’ experience of Jesus after his resurrection, but they don’t actually help a great deal. But the details should not be important to those who have faith.
We need to share Job’s confidence that God loves and supports us in this world and the next. We need to hear with the Thessalonians the assurance that God’s grace and comfort and strength will never leave us. We need to concentrate on living the resurrection life in this world, so that we may be judged worthy to share in the life of the world to come.
For some people in our world, this life is more like Hell than Heaven. We see some of those people on the news, day after day, particularly those living in war zones, or fleeing as refugees. If we follow the teaching of Jesus about loving and serving our neighbour, and particularly those who are poor and marginalised and without earthly possessions, then he assures us we are serving him. We are already beginning to live the life of the Kingdom; we are anticipating the resurrection life. If we sincerely try to live that way, then surely we can affirm that “we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”, and wait for whatever that may turn out to be, without fear.