For this we tell you as the Lord’s word: we who are left alive until the Lord comes shall not forestall those who have died; because … at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet-call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, 4 vv15-17
Suppose for a moment that you genuinely and literally came to believe that sometime within the next few months or perhaps a year or two the world was going to come to an end, and that you personally would still be alive when it did. Such a belief would certainly affect your values and behaviour. What would you do about your savings or your pension? What about the education of your children? What about unborn children? When sects today tell us that the end is nigh and even go on to give us the date on which to expect the end to come, we think they are, at best, misguided. We forget all too easily that when he first wrote to the Thessalonian church in about 52 CE St Paul shared their basic conviction and that it cannot but have helped shape some of the ideas that characterised his new Christian religion.
If you think the world is going to end any minute now, and that when it does you are going to meet your god in the air and accompany him back to heaven, among the things you’d stop worrying about would be your relationships with other people, because those relationships are neither long-term nor particularly important any more. You might think that how you treat other people in the little time that remains might be important because your god has certain expectations about it, but to treat people well it isn’t necessarily to enter into a real relationship with them. And among the relationships that would now seem undesirable would of course be any sexual relationship, not simply because of the power of sex to deepen and enrich now-unimportant human relationships, but also for the added reason that conceiving and nurturing children when the world was about to end would seem to be an irrelevant distraction from what must now surely be life’s focus, namely, how to secure a good life hereafter for yourself. Another thing you’d stop worrying about would be the state of the world. Social injustice, the excesses of rulers, racism, the inferior position of women, slavery – all these problems were about to be definitively solved when the world ended. So while you might have views about such evils, there would be no reason for you to try, in any way however small, to make the world a better place. You could instead rejoice in the belief that they were all soon going to be swept away without any effort on your part. Having no reason to plan for an earthly future, you and your fellow believers might well decide live as primitive communists, giving away unnecessary possessions and sharing what little you needed for survival as you impatiently waited to hear the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet call.
There would however be other things you would feel you needed to get on with, urgently, while there was still time. One of course would be setting to rights your own relationship with God as you understood him to be; part of that would involve trying to learn as much as you could about the nature and will of the God you believed in, so you might well take a great interest in theology. But by extension you might feel that you needed to tell as many other people as possible about your understanding of God so that they would have the chance, in this short interval before the End, to embrace salvation.
certainly did become a missionary, and indeed his teachings reflect many attitudes that naturally accompany a belief that the world is about to end. St Paul
It must have been hard for Paul, as it must be hard for all those who have expected the end of the world to take place before their own natural deaths, to find himself having to slowly come to terms with the fact that the End was failing to arrive as he expected. Some of his converts began to die in the usual way, which gave rise to the doubts in the Thessalonian church that this letter was intended to quell. The problem would not just be that some eagerly anticipated event hadn’t happened; this isn’t about mere disappointed expectation, or even embarrassment at having so confidently predicted what didn’t happen. No: the real problem for Paul would be that the certainty that the event was going to take place as expected had shaped practically every aspect of his life: his beliefs, his interactions, his activities. If this one key certainty was misplaced, how could he set about rebuilding his life on an exactly opposite assumption? Which of his other certainties, less susceptible to disproof, might be equally unreliable? And, given that this certainty had come to him ‘as the Lord’s word’, how could he ever again found his faith on, or shape hs life around, any new religious conviction?
Paul had no doubt come to realise the hard, difficult fact that he had been completely wrong about this key element of his new religion before he wrote the great summation of his Christianity, the Letter to the Romans, around 56 CE; if the world was to end imminently, there would have been little point in writing such a work, and in any case Romans makes no reference to the idea of an imminent End that had still been so important when he had written to the Thessalonians four years earlier. Was Paul among those religious teachers who, unable either to admit they had been wrong or to simply walk away, feel they have no alternative but to rather desperately salvage as much as they can from a religious outlook in some of whose essential assumptions they can no longer believe? There is an alternative though. It is to try to discover what genuinely helpful resources for living may have been buried in the old religious ideas, to unearth them and supplement them from your own understanding and experience, not so as to create a new religion but to stimulate your hearers and help them as well as yourself towards fulfilment. You might warn them that a great crisis – death, political upheaval, or even the end of the world – could come at any time, like a thief in the night, but that would not be a prediction, only a warning about not making over-confident misleading assumptions about the future as they get on with the essential business of living well in this familiar world that has survived so many confidently-expected Ends.