In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul starts the chapter by discussing a life lived that’s pleasing to God. Toward the end of the chapter, he transitions to the fate of the living and the dead at the second coming of Christ. Apparently there was concern that Christ had returned and somehow the believing living and dead had missed His coming.
The verse of focus in this study will be 1 Thessalonians 4:16. It says:
What is interesting in this verse is that Paul uses the phrase, “dead in Christ.” The vast majority of people, pastors and scholars I’ve talked to and studied think this is referring to deceased believers. Of course, this is understandable and does make some sense (especially in relation to certain [eschatological] systems, see below).
But in the context of the surrounding verses, Paul’s writings, and the Bible in general, the phrase “dead in Christ” is odd. This will be examined in this study.
Think about it. Are deceased believers dead in Christ? No, they are not. They are more alive in and with Him today than we who are alive. In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul says,
This speaks of life for the deceased. And in Philippians 1:23, Paul says,
This also speaks of life, eternal life.
So we know that our spirit is in good standing with God once we become believers, once we are saved. Our believing spirits don’t need to be resurrected after we are saved, only before. God requires this new life to be present with Him. Believers are one with Christ in spirit… we are in Him and He is in us.
Our bodies, however, are not in good standing with God. We don’t yet have glorified, resurrected physical bodies. There are, of course, cemeteries full of dead bodies of believers that are still in the grave that attest to this. Though after His resurrection, Jesus had a body and ate fish (Luke 24:39-43). And the Bible says when He appears, we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2). Eventually every believer will have a sinless, glorified body to match the redeemed spirit. It would seem our fully functioning new bodies would have to be equally adept in the heavenly realm as the earthly realm, since the Bible also says that we will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3).
Let’s examine the core verses of this chapter, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17:
1 Thessalonians 4:13… Paul is encouraging fellow believers not to be without hope regarding those who are “asleep.” Asleep can refer to either someone who is actually sleeping, or someone who is actually dead. It’s the act of lying down. For example, when Jesus was discussing Lazarus with the disciples in John 11:11, He said he was asleep when in fact he was dead as we know dead.
1 Thessalonians 4:14… God, through Jesus, will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep, based on the dead and resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus is going to bring deceased believers with Him at His second coming, from heaven to earth, then our earlier referenced 2 Corinthians 5:8 and Philippians 1:23 verses validate this thought. Currently, dead believers are with Christ in the spirit realm… in “heaven” as we would say today. Again Paul is using the term asleep versus dead… it’s worth noting the difference. And how can Jesus bring with him those who have fallen asleep/deceased if they haven’t first gone to be with him? The term sleep in Jesus will be further examined below.
1 Thessalonians 4:15… Based on God’s word, folks who are alive will not precede those who have fallen asleep. How is that? As noted above, deceased believers (who are asleep), are already with God. The term remain or left distinguishes the alive, terrestrial believers from the “asleep,” spiritual believers who have gone to be with Christ.
1 Thessalonians 4:16… The Lord will descend from heaven (with deceased, spiritually ascended, “asleep” believers and the host of heaven… the entirety of the family of God… compare Revelation 19:14) and will resurrect, “the dead in Christ.” Are the dead in Christ deceased believers? Let’s examine the thought. If you are dead in Christ, you are not alive in Christ. Similarly, if you are alive in sin, are you dead in Christ? Yes, you are. This is why Paul earlier uses the term asleep instead of dead, to distinguish between believers and unbelievers. Otherwise, why would Paul switch from his repeated use of the term asleep to dead (see definitions below)? Don’t forget that the unbelieving dead get resurrected. There are several verses that discuss their resurrection (unto judgment)… Daniel 12:2, John 5:28-29, and Revelation 20:12-13. So our answer to the question, Are the dead in Christ deceased believers? would seem to be no.
1 Thessalonians 4:17… Now, finally, the alive believers get, “caught up together with them in the clouds and the Lord in the air.” The big question here is, who is “them”? Again, the most common thought I’ve experienced is that them is the dead in Christ. But upon further review it would appear that the them Paul is talking about is the host of heaven that will accompany Christ upon His return. The main subject of this section is those who are asleep, and again, it’s these deceased believers who are with Christ that follow Him when He returns. Alive believers will come together with them in the clouds… while the dead in Christ will arise to judgment and thus eternal condemnation for rejecting their Savior.
Elsewhere, Paul speaks of being dead in trespasses yet alive with Him. See Colossians 2:13 and Ephesians 2:5. In 1 Corinthians 15:6, Paul says that Jesus appeared to believers after His resurrection, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. It’s believers that are termed to have, “fallen asleep”; they are not dead in context.
Paul used a different phrase, “died with Christ,” relative to a new life for believers away from sin, but it is a metaphor and not literal. Only Christ died, yet He was resurrected to life as a pathway for those who follow Him in “sleep.”
It’s important to note that nowhere in any of Paul’s epistles does he speak of believers dying… only sleeping. He only references Jesus or Christ dying. He’s very precise in this way. It’s remarkable to think about. Again, he’s making the point that Christ died and resurrected so believers who pass from this life to the next don’t die, they fall asleep, so to speak. But either way, we live with Him:
It’s important to examine the meaning of the words sleep/asleep and die/death to get a fuller view of what’s being said in these passages.
- To sleep or be asleep means to be lying down, at rest, and is used for either an alive or deceased person. Vine’s Expository Dictionary says, “A metaphorical use of the word sleep is appropriate, because of the similarity in appearance between a sleeping body and a dead body; restfulness and peace normally characterize both.” Vine’s also says of sleep, “of the death of the body, but only of such as are Christ’s; yet never of Christ Himself, though He is the firstfruits of them that have fallen asleep” (1Corinthians 15:20). According to J. Vernon McGee, early Christians called the burying place for bodies a cemetery, derived from the Greek koimeterion, which means rest house for strangers, a sleeping place.
- To be dead, as in verse 16, means one that is lifeless, one who is spiritually dead. Vine’s define it as the actual spiritual condition of unsaved men (see Matthew 8:22, John 5:25, Ephesians 2:1, 5; 5:14, Philippians 3:11, Colossians 2:13); the ideal spiritual condition of believers in regard to sin (Romans 6:11); a church in moral deterioration, inasmuch as in that state it is inactive and barren (Revelation 3:1). It is separation; it is being apart from life and the living. It is regularly used as a figure of speech for a person in relation to sin, the world, your flesh, etc.
It should be made clear that believers who die (using modern vernacular) do not soul sleep. As we’ve outlined, believers who pass away from this life to the next go into the presence of God immediately, according to the Scriptures. Soul sleep is out of tune within the scope of the biblical text, and is used as an errant solution to fulfill certain (eschatological) traditions.
Certain eschatological systems require particular viewpoints for them to be considered true, or the system fails. A seven-year Tribulation and a three and a half year mid-point broken covenant are examples needed in a pre-tribulation Rapture system. In this system, when considering our core of verse 16, the phrase, dead in Christ will rise, has to be referring to believers since, in the popular and traditional pre-tribulation system, the unbelieving dead will not be resurrected until the “Great White Throne Judgment,” which occurs long after a seven-year tribulation. Unfortunately, established periphery biblical doctrine and systems, while generally beneficial, can at times prevent readers of the Bible from seeing texts without preconceptions and thus influence them away from plausible, alternate possibilities. This dead in Christ text may be an example of that. Before considering this possibility, I’d always assumed the dead in Christ meant deceased believers since most people believe and teach this. But when reading this verse afresh, the words dead and Christ being joined as a means of fellowship and good standing appeared to be out-of-phase with more foundational biblical concepts. This article’s proposal of the meaning of the dead in Christ is specifically in line with many of Paul’s thoughts and allows for a different, more concise, and plausible end-times scenario.
In summary, believers aren’t dead when they, “die.” They fall asleep and go into the presence of the Lord. The unbelieving dead… the dead in Christ, will approach judgment first, followed by believers. See a tandem verse in Matthew 13:30, the parable of the wheat and tares, where the tares/unbelievers are cast into the fire (hell) before the wheat/believers are brought into the barn (heaven).