At the heart of Christian hope is the future resurrection of the saints at Christ’s return and the arrival of the new heavens and the new earth.
Central to the New Testament understanding of salvation is redemption. God is not simply abandoning what He first created, but instead, He is recovering and restoring what was enslaved by sin, decay, and death. But in His redemptive acts, the end state of all things that have been redeemed will be vastly superior to their original state, and this is epitomized in the promise of bodily resurrection.
When the Apostle discusses Christian hope, almost invariably he bases it on the death AND the resurrection of Jesus. The salvation was not achieved by his sacrificial death alone, but also through his resurrection from the dead. And just as consistently, when Paul discusses our future resurrection, he links it to the past resurrection of Jesus.
- “For I delivered to you first of all that which also I received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried and was raised on the third day… But now has Christ been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of them that are asleep. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, then they that are Christ’s at his coming” – (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 20-23).
Thus, the apostolic tradition teaches redemption, not abandonment. Salvation is actualized at the resurrection of the dead when all believers will “meet” Jesus as he descends from heaven. And at that time, dead believers will be resurrected and living ones transformed (“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”).
And consistently, Paul locates the bodily resurrection of the righteous at the “coming” or ‘parousia’ of Jesus:
- (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) – “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them who are falling asleep, lest you be sorrowing, even as the rest also who are without hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring forth with him them who have fallen asleep through Jesus; For this to you do we say by a word of the Lord, that we, the living who are left unto the arrival of the Lord, will in no way precede them who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with an archangel’s voice, and with a trumpet of God, shall descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, after that, we, the living who are left, together with them shall be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus, evermore, with the Lord shall we be! So then, be consoling one another with these words.”
In First Thessalonians, Paul reassured Christians concerning the fate of their fellow believers who had died before the “arrival” of Jesus, and that is why he stressed their bodily resurrection. Not only so, but any believers remaining alive on that day will be reunited with their resurrected loved ones, then together, all will “meet the Lord in the air” as he descends from heaven. Both living and dead Christians will be changed forever when he appears.
The passage does NOT state that Jesus then takes his saints back with him to “heaven” after he “meets them in the air.” In fact, it only ends with the statement, “and so will we be with the Lord forevermore.” Paul did not state exactly where this happy state would be after the “meeting.”
When interpreting the final verse of the passage, the larger context must be kept in view. In the next chapter, Paul warns that the unprepared will be overtaken by the events of that day – just “like a thief in the night.” The “arrival” of Christ is also the “Day of the Lord,” an event associated with God’s judicial punishment of the wicked.
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul declared that when Jesus is “revealed from heaven,” the righteous will be vindicated but the unrighteous will receive “everlasting destruction.” Both events occur on the same day – (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
In the New Testament, Jesus is always “coming” and never “going” at the time of his return. When any physical direction is provided, he is said to be coming “from heaven” and descending to the earth. And at that time, he gathers his saints to himself – (Matthew 16:27, 24:30, 25:31, 26:64, Acts 1:11, 1 Corinthians 15:23, Revelation 1:7).
The most comprehensive list of the events that will occur on that day is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians when he was correcting false teachings that denied the future bodily resurrection – (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 50-57). Christ’s “arrival” will result in the cessation of death (the “last enemy”), the resurrection of the dead, the final subjugation of all hostile powers. the consummation of the kingdom, and the transformation of the saints still alive that day from mortality to immortality.
The bodily resurrection will mean nothing less than the termination of death itself, and believers still alive will be transformed, the very same scenario presented to the Thessalonians. Paul’s point was not the removal of the Thessalonian Christians from the earth, but their resurrection and transformation.
The “arrival” of Jesus will result in the separation of the righteous from the unrighteous. It will be a day of joy for the prepared, but one of disaster and everlasting punishment for the unprepared. And the old “heaven and earth” will be dissolved, and the new heavens and the new earth will be inaugurated – (Matthew 13:30. 25:13, 25:31-46, Luke 12:33-39, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, 2 Peter 3:10-11).
And one thing that especially will characterize that day will be its finality. Death will cease forever, the old creation will disappear, resurrected believers will be with the Lord “forevermore,” and the unrighteous will receive “everlasting” punishment – (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 2:5-10).
Christian hope is not found in escape from the spacetime continuum or the desertion of God’s original creation but in the bodily resurrection and the New Creation. The gospel proclaimed by Jesus is about redemption, including the resurrection of the dead. Unfortunately, over the centuries, this central hope of the apostolic faith has dimmed and even been pushed aside.
And connected directly to resurrection is the new heavens and the new earth. Even now, the entire universe is “groaning,” not in despair over its eventual annihilation, but in anticipation of the resurrection of the “sons of God” and the “restoration of all things” that will follow – (Romans 8:19-25, 2 Peter 3:10).
In the end, the city of New Jerusalem DESCENDS from heaven to the new earth. The saints do not ascend to it, instead, it comes down to them. And in that glorious city, the men and women redeemed by the “blood of the Lamb” will live forever in his presence free from all sorrow, suffering, and death.