Why Were Christians Afraid of Dying Before Jesus Returned?

Due to a faulty understanding of the preaching of Jesus’ imminent return, some early Christians feared what would happen to those who died before Jesus returned. However, Paul reassured them that the dead would also rise in Christ.

Alyssa Roat
A cemetery in the morning mist

Heaven, the raising of the dead, “going to be with Jesus”— these ideas are common to us now, however, for some of the early Christians, the thought of death was still frightening and uncertain.

What would their loved ones do, these Christians wondered, who had died and not yet seen Jesus’ return? Would they miss out?

Paul had words of comfort for them, and they may provide comfort for us as well.

Where Is This in the Bible?

Paul’s most thorough coverage of the topic occurs in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

It's important to note that in this passage, Paul uses the word “sleep” to refer to death. In another passage, Paul explains, “For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52).

Though Paul often spoke of the return of Christ, some did not at first understand him, like those of Thessalonica in the first passage. Thus, he needed to explain to them that they need not fear the deaths of their loved ones.

Historical Context of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Paul wrote the first letter to the Thessalonians around AD 50. At the time, the Mediterranean and the surrounding lands were under the rule of the Roman Empire. The predominant religion was a sort of polytheism that varied in which gods and goddesses were worshipped where.

Thessalonica was a city of Macedon located in northern Greece. The city was made prosperous by its location on a major trade route and had been established for hundreds of years before Paul ever arrived.

Meanwhile, Jesus had died and been resurrected around AD 30, 20 years before. Thus, Christianity was very new. However, due to the relatively easy flow of travel and trade under the Pax Romana, there was indeed a Jewish synagogue in the prominent trade city of Thessalonica. This was where Paul stopped.

Biblical Context of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Paul was not able to visit the Thessalonians for very long. His visit is recorded in Acts 17. Paul and Silas stopped in Thessalonica during Paul’s second missionary journey.

The two likely only stayed for three weeks. Paul went into the synagogue on three Sabbaths (Acts 17:2), preaching the Gospel of Christ. Some of the Jews and a large number of Greeks came to put their faith in Christ.

However, Acts 17:5 records, “But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.” Paul and Silas were driven out, most likely only having had three weeks to teach about Jesus.

Paul was unable to return to Thessalonica, so he sent his protégé, Timothy instead. When Timothy returned with a report, Paul then wrote the letter that would become 1 Thessalonians to clarify some things for the church in Thessalonica. One of those things was their concern with those who might die before Jesus had returned.

What the Passage Means for Us

Today, it may seem a bit silly how much the Thessalonians misunderstood, believing that Jesus was coming right away and that He would only come for the living.

However, we are sometimes just as foolish in the opposite way. Whereas the Thessalonians lived as if Jesus might return at any moment, we find ourselves complacent. Would we be ready if He were to return right now?

We also often share their fears about death. If we know that for those who love Christ, death is not the end, why do we fear it so greatly?

With the Thessalonians, let us be ready yet patient for Christ’s return, and let us stand fearless in the face of our mortality, knowing that eternal life with Christ awaits us.

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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. Her debut novel Wraithwood releases Nov. 7, 2020. She has had 150+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.

Originally published May 15, 2020.