Richard W. Coffen  |  4 December 2018  |

Paul’s claim that during the Second Advent “God will bring with him” those “which sleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14) has been the proverbial fly in our state-of-the-dead doctrinal ointment. If we take the text just as it reads, then dead Christians are presently in heaven but will accompany Jesus’ when he returns!

Commentators I consulted fall across a spectrum of exegetical insights. Some read the passage literally; others regard it in the context of death as an unconscious state; still others, while agreeing that the soul or spirit goes to heaven upon death, insist that isn’t what Paul intends here. Little wonder the Greek text “is unusual”![1]

The Greek

A plain reading of the Greek offers scarce help. Paul uses axei (ἄξει—future tense of the verb agō) followed by the preposition syn. The verb, according to the lexicon by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, means “to lead,” “to bring.” However, the actual nuance derives from the accompanying preposition. Because syn means “with,” the obvious sense is that those who’d fallen asleep in Jesus will be with him when he returns.


A better explanation might lie partially (1) in recognizing that Paul uses a metaphor and (2) in decrypting select details of a metaphor. Metaphors consist of vehicle and tenor. The vehicle, the word picture itself, conveys the tenor (the meaning) the author wishes to get across.

A metaphorical vehicle, like my motor vehicle, generally has superfluous elements. The color of paint on my LaCrosse has nothing to do with its operation. The car would run equally as well sans radio, cruise control, blind spot monitor, electric windows, etc. Readers encountering metaphors must decide (1) which details of the vehicle are critical to the tenor and (2) which merely provide verisimilitude.

We now turn to Paul’s metaphor of parousia (vehicle), by which he assures his readers that deceased Christians aren’t hopelessly lost simply because Jesus’ personal reappearance (tenor) hasn’t occurred.

The Metaphor of Parousia

The senate elevated Claudius to emperorship on January 25 in the year 41 AD. Two years into his administration, he accompanied the army to Britannia, conquering it. After he’d returned to Rome, the Senate granted him a Triumph. Part of a Triumph could include an itinerary, during which the celebrant would make a parousia in selected cities. Assuming Claudius’ Triumph included a parousia to important cities, here’s what would transpire.

In a town somewhere in the empire, citizens sweep up trash and scrub storefronts. Yard goods merchants gloat over increased profits. A goldsmith crafts a crown while a gemologist cuts and polishes gems. Food dealers chortle upon imposing inflated prices for flour, fruit, vegetables, and meat sold to gourmet chefs. Barkeeps dicker with peripatetic vintners over prices.

Inside the amphitheater, carpenters erect a dais, janitors rake the dirt floor, custodians dust marble seats, and decorators hang banners. Gladiators hone their skills and weapons; musicians perfect their abilities; speechmakers craft orations. Minters strike commemorative coins, and scribes ink messages on banners.

One morning, rumor races. Claudius and his enormous entourage are encamped a few miles distant. Days pass . . . no emperor! Then, almost unexpectedly, town criers announce that Claudius will arrive shortly. People don their choicest attire. Rivulets of citizens swell into flash floods of humanity rushing through the city gate. A herald and a trumpeter proclaim the imminence of his eminence.

Praetorian Guards appear on the horizon. They wear white tunics offset with lion-skin capes. Black or white horsehair plumes flex atop their helmets. Each brandishes an oval shield in one hand and a javelin in the other. A gladius dangles by the side.

Next come members of the imperial household—slaves who fulfill various functions. Then the emperor’s immediate family march—each sporting purple garments and eye-catching jewelry.

Claudius’ chariot, pulled by four horses, materializes. A herald announces: “IMPERATOR TIBERIUS CLAUDIUS CAESAR AUGUSTUS GERMANICUS!” The crowd roars repeatedly, “Ave!” Claudius has donned a white woolen tunic embroidered with gold palm fronds. He also wears a toga dyed with Tyrian purpura and glistening with a hem of gold. A golden crown balances atop his head.

Among those in the parade walk celebrities from other cities already visited on the itinerary. Finally, more Praetorian Guards take up the rear. After the last of the retinue passes, the elated citizens fall in behind, accompanying Claudius into the city.

Inside the city limits, additional ceremonies fête Claudius. He proffers presents to the municipal leaders. The city fathers bestow gifts upon him, including the crown recently crafted. The emperor lingers for several days, and the people relish his presence.

All this celebration costs dearly. However, the townspeople feel it’s worth the expense. Claudius has granted them a parousia. From that time forward, they refer to “the third [or fourth or . . .] year after the parousia of Emperor Claudius . . .”[2]

What Jesus’ Forthcoming Parousia Implied

Paul not only had convinced the Thessalonian Christians that God had provided salvation through a crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended Jesus of Nazareth but also that the world hadn’t seen the end of Jesus. He, whom they had not seen, would presently appear and would deliver them physically—just as he’d previously delivered them spiritually. Sadly, some faithful Thessalonian believers had died. Jesus’ personal return wouldn’t do them any good, right?

Having learned of their bewilderment, Paul sets about to put their minds at ease. He chooses the metaphor of parousia. Remember, their minds were troubled not because they’d abandoned hope that Jesus would appear . . . again. They continued to believe that he would arrive soon. Instead, they feared that their deceased fellow Christians would miss out on Jesus’ return.

Understanding a parousia helps us—as it did the Thessalonian believers—to understand why their concern was ill-founded. However, in attempting to grasp the point of Paul’s metaphor of parousia, we must perceive that which constituted the tenor of the vehicle and separate that from details inherent in the vehicle which merely add verisimilitude. Such differentiation requires discernment on our part, we who must keep in focus the precise purpose for which Paul uses that specific vehicle.

We can reasonably deduce from the vehicle of parousia that Jesus’ return will be personal on his part and an occasion of rejoicing on their part. Furthermore, one of the events associated with Jesus’ parousia will be the priority of the return to life of those Christian decedents. Paul emphasizes that those Christians living at the time of Jesus’ parousia will have no precedence over the deceased believers. “We who are still alive for the Lord’s coming [parousia] will not have any advantage over those who have fallen asleep. . . . Those who have died in Christ will be the first to rise” (4:15, 16, NJB[3]).

A Closer Reading of the Text

It’s appropriate to analyze briefly Paul’s puzzling affirmation: “Them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him” (4:14).

First, here and in 1 Corinthians 15:18, Paul uses sleep as a euphemism for death. Jesus referred to deceased Lazarus as sleeping (John 11:11, 13) and also pronounced the terminally ill daughter of a synagogue ruler as asleep (Matthew 9:24; Mark 5:39). Jesus, Luke (Acts 7:60), and Paul are the only New Testament personages who use the term sleep as a cypher for death.

Second, Paul’s terminology is perplexing. He writes: “koimēthentas dia tou Iēsou.” If we take the Greek just as it reads, as some commentators do, then it makes sense that Paul holds Jesus responsible for the Christians’ demise. The death-sleep came (Paul uses the aorist [past] tense) through (dia—“by means of,” hence, “through” or “via”) Jesus. According to Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, “the same Hand that shall raise them is that which laid them to sleep.”[4] Other commentators, such as Abraham J. Malherbe, reason that dia tou Iēsou should be attached to the verb axei (“will bring”) instead of koimēthentas (“were sleeping”). Accordingly, God will bring about resurrection by means of Jesus.[5]

Third, “him” refers to whom? In the King James and other translations, “God” is the closest proper noun prior to “him.” However, in Paul’s Greek, the closest antecedent is “Jesus.” It’s wise to let Paul’s original word order tip the scales. The “him” refers to Jesus.

Paul chooses his syntax with precision. It appears he doesn’t want those former polytheists to conflate Jesus and God and, thereby, return to polytheism. Paul demonstrates that he hasn’t abandoned monotheism, and neither should they. Accordingly, “God is in charge; Jesus is [his] intermediary.”[6] Jesus carries out the assignment allotted him by his heavenly Father.

Fourth, as we queried at the outset: What did Paul intend when he wrote that “God will bring with him” those “which sleep in Jesus”? It’s tempting to take the text just as it reads, but to do so means inferring that the dead in Christ (souls? spirits?) live in heaven and will join Jesus’ retinue at the Second Advent! John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible affirms that at Jesus’ parousia God will “unite them [the bodies of the deceased Thessalonian believers] to their souls, or spirits, [which] he will bring with him.”[7]

If that’s the meaning of the text, then what about our fundamental belief number 26? “. . . Death is an unconscious state for all people” until the resurrection. Without doing violence to Paul’s Greek, is there a different way to understand his intention when he writes that “them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him”?

A Possible Solution That Supports Fundamental Belief Number 26

First, it’s possible, maybe probable, that the idea of those Christians who’d died but whom “God [will] bring with him [Jesus]” during Jesus’ parousia simply constitutes part of the “color” adding verisimilitude to the vehicle. If so, it shouldn’t lend weight to the tenor of the metaphor.

Second, we can assume that a parousia could result in an accretion of attendees drawn from cities just visited. Such celebrants might swell the entourage. Think, for instance, of those who accompanied Paul throughout his entire missionary journeys (such as Barnabas, Luke, Silas) or who escorted him as far as a nearby city before they turned back for home (such as the Caesarean believers and the Roman Christians).

Third, taking the metaphor more literally, it would be in keeping with the credibility of the vehicle of a parousia that the decedents in question do not accompany Jesus from heaven, his primary source of departure, but are those who’d been resurrected and had joined his entourage after he’d made his personal appearances to other cities.


Assuming the correctness of this perspective, it not only resolves a crux interpretum but is also compatible with serially experiencing Jesus’ parousia on a spheroid planet.[8]


  • Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers cited in
  • For the events accompanying a parousia, see Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, pp. 49, 50.
  • Texts credited to NJB are from The New Jerusalem Bible, copyright © 1985 by Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd., and Doubleday & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
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  • Anchor Bible, vol. 32B, The Letters to the Thessalonians, p. 266.
  • Malina and Pilch, p. 49.
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  • It’s only intellectually fair to end with this footnote. A rumor among former SDA book editors had it that LeRoy Froom, when researching for his monumental works, such as Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers, would destroy evidence that didn’t support the position he wanted to defend. We must not do that when it comes to understanding what happens to people when they die. A friend of mine, an SDA pastor, feels convinced that his deceased godly loved one is, indeed, presently enjoying eternal life with Jesus in heaven. If there weren’t biblical passages capable of such an interpretation, then no rational scholar would believe that. Truth is that the biblical evidence is ambivalent. The scant information we have about Pharisees is that although they believed in the resurrection, they didn’t understand it exactly as we do. Allegedly, having been influenced by Greek thought, they believed that at the resurrection in the age to come, God would reinfuse the soul/spirit into the body of the decedent. Paul, having been an ultra-Pharisee by his own admission, may likewise have held a similar perspective. Some of his statements about death, including his own demise, can be understood that way. Nevertheless, there have been first-class scholars who have understood the overwhelming biblical evidence to support our understanding of the state of the dead—or something close to it. These include such luminaries as Harvey W. Scott, Oscar Cullmann, Krister Stendahl, Clark Pinnock, John Goldingay, among others of various intellectual bents.

Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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