“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
Hard work, minding our own affairs, obeying the biblical sexual ethic—these things, Paul has argued, show love to other people and make for a good witness to the unbelieving world (1 Thess. 4:1–12). But there is more that we should think about with respect to our witness to non-Christians. Paul lets us know this in today’s passage when he exhorts us not to “grieve as others do who have no hope” (v. 13). The reference here is to unbelievers, who have no hope of life after death and thus can fall into despair when a loved one dies.
The Apostle is now dealing with eschatology—the doctrine of the last things, including death, eternal life, and the final resurrection of the dead. He speaks of “those who are asleep,” which is a reference to those Thessalonian Christians who had already died when Paul wrote the epistle. Scripture commonly uses sleep as a metaphor for death (e.g., 2 Kings 8:24; 2 Chron. 32:33), but the ancient pagans did so as well. Given that the pagans and the believers in the God of Israel had very different conceptions of the afterlife, we should not press the metaphor of sleep too literally and think that at death we lose consciousness until the resurrection. The metaphor was simply a common way to refer to death—after all, a dead body looks as if it is sleeping. In light of the full biblical witness, the metaphor of death as sleep implies the bodily resurrection, for then the body will “wake up,” but it does not demand a belief in soul sleep, the notion that our state between death and the final resurrection of the body is a state of personal unconsciousness. Today, soul sleep is taught by sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and by heterodox groups such as the Seventh-day Adventists, but it has been rejected by orthodox Christians throughout church history. Rightly so, for the Bible is clear that personal consciousness continues after death as the spirits of the departed await the resurrection of the body (Acts 7:55–60; Phil. 1:18b–24).
Today’s passage shows us that the Thessalonian church had a misunderstanding regarding the state of the departed, but it is difficult to know what the misunderstanding was. Some have suggested that they believed that those who had already died would not be resurrected or that they would not see Christ when He returned. Whatever the case, Paul will tell us in the upcoming verses that because of Christ, we need not despair when believers die.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Grief when a loved one dies is not wrong. Even Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death (John 11:35). But we should not despair or respond to death as non-Christians do, for we know that those who die in Christ will live forever. If you are mourning the death of a loved one or facing your own death or the death of someone you love, know that there is hope, for all who trust in Jesus will enjoy eternal life (John 3:16).