First or Second Thessalonians?

I started this blog a couple months ago with the admission that, yes, I had changed. I feel like I still owe a little more explanation concerning both the extent of the change and what’s been driving it. It’s been a hard explanation to formulate for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that the shift has been so big and complicated that it’s hard for me to express my reasons concisely yet adequately. In a way, it’s been a total reconsideration of thirty years’ worth of intensive thought, which makes it difficult to sum up.

 

 

One thing I can say from the beginning, however, is that the linchpin of my prior worldview, and the one simple change that, more than any other, made all the rest possible, involves my understanding of the bible. My presupposed commitment to its inerrancy and perfection demanded a great many perspectives that would never have come to me naturally. But if the all-wise, all-knowing God of Judeo-Christian history had chosen to write the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon and no others, then it must mean that they contain everything necessary to know for my present and eternal happiness, if I only study them well enough. So I studied them as well as I could, never letting myself entertain the slightest notion that one part may be wrong or contradict another part. It wasn’t easy, since lots of parts seemed to contradict lots of other parts, for one thing; and for another, some parts were so disturbingly against humane sentiment, like the divinely commanded rape and genocide passages I’ve mentioned before. But I never doubted that the real problem must lie with my limited perspective and finite intelligence. This passage sure seems unbelievable, I would think, which means that either God is wrong or I’m wrong. And it can’t be God.

I’ve since come to believe that the bible, for all its beauty and complexity, its always intriguing and sometimes inspiring, or disturbing, or comforting tenor, its vast sweep of earthly and heavenly perspectives, its bigness and richness – is nevertheless a very human book susceptible to human mistakes and errors. But because it is in fact such a big and varied book, it’s hard to express my recent doubts over some of its parts in anything like a comprehensive fashion, especially in a venue like this, which doesn’t really seem designed for long arcane disquisitions. But I felt like I should say something on the topic, anyway. So I decided I would start a new series highlighting the different verses or passages I always struggled with, and why I found them hard to believe or reconcile. For the first example, I decided to explain why the New Testament books of First and Second Thessalonians were so difficult for me to reconcile to each other, a problem to which I devoted a fair bit of energy during my college years.

Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians have a lot to do with the doctrine of eschatology – the study of what the bible teaches about last things and the coming end of human history. The problem with the topic is that the bible says quite a lot about it, in many different places – and what it says in some places seems contradictory to other bible passages, or else to what really happened in history.

Let me explain the problem I encountered in these two books. First Thessalonians brings up the topic of early Christians who had died before the return of Christ, which they were expecting to happen very soon, well within their lifetimes. When some of them started dying before the end had come, they weren’t sure what to think. So the apostle Paul wrote them a letter to put them at ease. In it, he says this:

But 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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:4, ESV)

Notice what Paul is pretty plainly saying here: yes, a few believers have started to die, but not to worry. Very soon, the Lord will return for them; and those who died as well as “we who are alive” will all be caught up together with Christ. Paul was apparently so sure that Christ’s coming would be soon that he thought he himself would still be alive at the time. Notice how he’s sure of this because of a “word from the Lord”. Whether or not Paul is referring to a private message here, it’s certainly true that the recorded words of Jesus in the gospels fit his expectation quite well. Jesus himself was certain that the present generation would not pass away before the end had come, with a dramatic fulfillment of all its prophecies (e.g. Matthew 24, especially verse 34). Finally, notice that Paul is emphatic about how well he had taught these believers about the imminent return of Christ that he was expecting – they didn’t need him to write anything on the topic because they already knew that the Day of the Lord would come suddenly and unexpectedly, like “a thief in the night”. They were to be watchful for it, because it was coming very soon, at any time; and because they knew that, they wouldn’t be surprised, like the rest of the world, when it happened.

Now, with that apostolic teaching in your mind, read this passage from Second Thessalonians:

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, ESV)

What seems to be happening in this passage is that these Thessalonian believers are now starting to question what they had believed about the soon and imminent return of Christ. Years had probably passed in the interim, still no glorious return, and they started thinking, maybe we missed it. Maybe it happened and it just wasn’t as final and glorious as we expected. Maybe we need to rethink our expectations. So how does the author of this letter deal with that new perspective? First, he tells them to ignore a previous letter falsely claiming to be written by him; and then, he tells them something that seems the opposite of what was said in First Thessalonians. The second coming is not imminent. It couldn’t be at any time, like a thief in the night. Instead, some pretty major things had to happen first, before that day could come – don’t you remember I told you these things? he asks.

Of course he hadn’t told them those things in First Thessalonians. There, he had told them it would be soon and unexpected. He thought he would see it in his own lifetime. He thought it would come quickly and surprise the unbelieving world. But now, not only does he not say that, he says something different and tells the Thessalonians not to believe any prior writing claiming to be from Paul that doesn’t agree. This would seem to include First Thessalonians itself!

The author of Second Thessalonians warns against being deceived by a written forgery in Paul’s name. Ironically, many scholars believe that First Thessalonians was one of Paul’s genuine letters, but Second Thessalonians is the real forgery. Bart Ehrman helpfully discusses the idea in pages 105-108 of his book, Forged. But whoever’s right or wrong about the authorship of these letters, one thing seems clear: they have a fundamentally different expectation of the end times. This was one apparent discrepancy in the bible that afforded me a lot of befuddlement when I was younger. Throughout this series, I’ll plan on bringing up other problematic passages that I always had a hard time with and that seem much easier now that I’ve admitted to myself that the bible is a human book susceptible to human error.

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4 thoughts on “First or Second Thessalonians?

  1. Billy Howell

    While I would agree with you that it is almost impossible to argue the enerancy of Scripture, I’m not sure if that was it’s purpose. My world-view comes down to the idea that God is good, and because of that, I see most everything from a redemptive perspective. If, as I believe, the Bible was divinely inspired, that means, that a good God has something He wants to communicate to us, even through an imperfect medium. I don’t know that if it was enerrant that man would have been able to either write or understand it in any capacity. Peter says that the meaning of Scripture is not up to an individual’s personal interpretation, and John says that it is the Spirit that teaches and reveals all things to us. Because I am not always (usually) sure of if it is me, the Spirit, or others, my faith does not rest on what I believe.
    That being said, 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 2 fit together in my consciousness. Does the ‘we’ that Paul is referring to necessarily mean that Paul is going to be there at the return of Christ, or could it be referring to all living believers when Christ would return, which Paul would be included in at the time he was writing to the Thessalonians?
    When Jesus refers to this generation, one of the things He mentions is that they are extremely stubborn. As far as mr Strong has shown me, generation can mean a specific race or family of people. Were the Jews living at the time of Christ more spectacularly stubborn than those living in the Old Testament times? All the way back in the times of the judges, they were constantly reported to be doing what they thought was best for themselves and chasing after other gods.
    As far as the Thessalonians not being surprised, wouldn’t that be because Paul had taught them what Jesus had said about what was going to happen before His return. Isn’t that what he says in 2 Thessalonians—that he had told them these things?
    A thief in the night is only a surprise to those who aren’t expecting him. And Paul says in 1 Thessalonians that the world is going to think everything is going good—“There is peace and security.” It kind of makes sense (depending on your understanding of the anti-christ) that if you have a man who unites the world against God, that most people (those Paul refers to as in the darkness) are going to be shouting “peace and security” while those who stand up for God are going to be like “The end is near.”
    I’m not saying this is exactly how they fit together, but just a possibility. I generally avoid eschatology because I’m not sure that it is supposed to be an actual road-map for the end.

    Just some closing thoughts: I believe that it was CS Lewis who said something like—we want to find truth in the middle of two extremes, but it is often that the actual truth is found in those extremes.
    There definitely a few things that I really can’t logically fit together: The eminence of the Lord’s return vs the signs surrounding it; free will of man vs the sovereignty of God; The grace of God that is involved in everything vs my responsibility to do good… these are just a few.
    I wonder if it like light… there is light we can’t see, and we can’t even imagine what it would be like to have colors that are outside of the spectrum that we can see. My faith is not blind, but it does not see everything either.

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  2. exetazon Post author

    Hi Billy, thanks for stopping by. I enjoy hearing your perspective, because it’s so different than my own approach has usually been. It helps to see things from a different vantage. It’s like seeing someone else’s spectrum of light, when it’s a little red-shifted or blue-shifted from what your own eyes see, if I can co-opt your analogy. Like insects who see ultra-violet light and can see patterns in the coloring of flowers that we’re blind to. Anyway, I’ve always had a hard time allowing myself to overlook what I perceive as contradictions. To me, mysteries are one thing — they just mean you only have a couple pieces of the picture and can’t really make sense of it without further revelation. But contradictions (perceived or real) just chafe on my mind. To me, if God really inspired it, why wouldn’t he have done so in a way that doesn’t contain contradictions and that can be understood by normal human minds? After all, he’s writing it to us, not to himself. So it was always a driving compulsion to me to understand everything the bible was saying in all its parts, and then take those various understandings and make sure they weren’t at odds with each other. It was hard.

    Take the Thessalonians problem again. It’s not necessarily that there’s no way to make them fit together — I had an inventive mind that was able to make all sorts of leaps to bridge some pretty good-sized gaps — but after doing it long enough and having to get more and more inventive, it suddenly strikes a person that, you know, if I’m this good at getting past what initially seems the clear, obvious meaning in order to make the passage fit with something else, I could probably just keep getting more and more inventive, and make the bible do anything I want. Like predict the 1969 moon landing (I really heard a preacher do that from a minor prophet once) or pretty much anything else. So yes, I seized on the whole, “you are not of the night, that the day should surprise you,” or that Paul was using a “we” to emphasize the organic unity of the body of Christ from all times, or that he himself thought it likely that Christ would return in his lifetime because he was never granted further revelation and the Lord wanted every generation of Christians to live in constant readiness, etc., etc….But after all that explanation and more, still, when I pause and just read 1 Thes., it sounds like Paul is talking about “the times and the seasons” of human history and saying that they are such that the return of the Lord could be at any time. But when you get to 2 Thes., it sounds like he’s rebuking the believers for saying that the return could be at any time. That other times and seasons must precede that coming — whether or not they’re understood by the world at large. It seems, in other words, that the second Thessalonians Paul is rebuking the attitudes enjoined by the first Thessalonians Paul.

    Eventually, the weight of trying to get too many of these problems to work together just seems too heavy to be plausible, even when you can figure out a technically-not-impossible solution (even if it’s far afield from a normal understanding/reading). For further example, when I was studying all these things in Greek, I always wondered why the Paul of the Pastoral Epistles sounded so different from the Paul of Ephesians/Colossians, who also sounded so different from the Galatians/Romans/Corinthians Paul. When I started reading more liberal scholars, most of whom believe that some of those letters are falsely attributed to Paul whereas some others are genuinely his, it made perfect sense in my mind, because I can feel the weight of a thousand little differences. But of course it’s not the sort of thing that’s easy to prove definitively. In the same way, giving up the quest to make the bible (or even just the NT) have a consistent, non-contradictory eschatology relieves a lot of tension in my mind. The weight of what I saw as the Thessalonian problem is one of quite a few difficulties I worried over until I finally admitted that, by trying to weed out every contradiction, I’m not really letting any text speak straightforwardly. And this weeding out contradictions impulse came from my commitment to inerrancy. Your own perspective of inspired but not necessarily inerrant (if I understand you right) would have saved me a lot of trouble, but I don’t know if my black-and-white mind could have accepted it in my more radical phase.

    I’ve already gone on for way too long. Anyway, thanks for the comment, I enjoy thought-stimulating comments.

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  3. Pingback: Can the Scriptures Be Broken? | exetazon

  4. Pingback: Jesus’ Predictions | exetazon

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