Read 1 Thessalonians 4:14. What hope does Paul offer regarding those who have died?
In verse 14 Paul offers the solution to the problem of hopeless grief. In the original language he describes the believers who have died as having “fallen asleep through Jesus.” While falling asleep is a common metaphor for death in New Testament times, the normal expression for a believer’s death is “fallen asleep in Jesus” or “in Christ.” A good example of this is the “dead in Christ” of verse 16.
A second issue with the text is the idea that God will “bring with him” those who have fallen asleep. Some read this phrase as meaning that those who have died in Christ (and, they presumed, went to heaven at death) will return with Jesus when He comes. But this interpretation contradicts Paul’s own teaching in verse 16, that the resurrection of dead believers occurs at the Second Coming, not before.
We can know what he’s saying if we pay careful attention to Paul’s main point. He is drawing a parallel between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the death and resurrection of the believer. For Paul, the recent resurrection of Jesus from death was the guarantee that all believers would also be resurrected at the Second Coming (see also 1 Cor. 15:20-23). Paul’s theology is consistent. “If we believe” (1 Thess. 4:14) in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we should also believe in the resurrection of those who have died as true followers of Jesus.
So, Paul is using “through Jesus” in the same way as “in Christ” in verse 16. The point he was making to the Thessalonians was that their dead brothers and sisters would not remain on earth when the living believers ascend to heaven. All will ascend to heaven together (see also John 14:1-3). God does not “bring” the resurrected Christians down to earth when Jesus comes; instead (as He did with Jesus), He “brings” them up from the grave and, together with the living ones, to heaven. Just as the resurrection of Jesus preceded His ascension to heaven, so it will be with His faithful followers.