1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a remarkable passage in which Paul describes in detail the events that will take place at the end of redemptive history when Christ returns to raise the dead, and may well be one of the most inspiring and encouraging passages in all of Scripture. Paul’s words in verse 16, however, may be thought to undermine the view that all of the dead will be raised at this time, since the expression “the dead in Christ” is similar to two other expressions (one by Paul, another by John) which are clearly limited to those who died as believers in Christ (i.e., “those who have fallen asleep in Christ” in 1Cor 15:18 and “the dead who die in the Lord” in Rev 14:13). The context of 1Thess 4:13-18, however, strongly indicates that Paul is speaking of all the dead throughout history, whether they died before or after Christ’s first coming. But first, let’s consider the purpose for which this particular part of Paul’s letter was written, as I believe it is highly relevant to the issue at hand.
Some see in this passage an attempt by Paul to counter doubt in (or a denial of) the resurrection of the dead, which had (it may be supposed) arisen among some of the Thessalonian believers. But nowhere is it said that any of the Thessalonians denied or had begun to doubt this central doctrine of the Christian faith (as was the case with “some” in the Corinthian church). Moreover, had the Thessalonians been questioning the validity of (or were in danger of rejecting altogether) this fundamental doctrine of the faith, it would surely have called for a far different tone and approach than is found in this brief passage (compare, for example, Paul’s words in this passage with 1Cor 15:1, 33-36 and 2Tim 2:16-18). At the very least, it would likely have required a lengthier discourse on the subject of the resurrection (as is found in 1Cor 15). But here it is evident that Paul is not so much defending the doctrine of the resurrection against unbelief or heresy within the church as he is providing the Thessalonian believers with supplemental information on a general subject with which they were already familiar. Thus, Paul’s words here were calculated to strengthen and fortify the Thessalonians’ faith and hope in the resurrection. But why did the apostle see the need to do this?
Answer: We are told in v. 13 that Paul did not want them to be “uninformed” concerning those who were dead. And why was this? Answer: because he did not want them to have any reason to “grieve as others do who have no hope.” The church in Thessalonica was largely made of Gentile believers who had been converted from heathenism (1:9). Paul knew that the views of the unbelieving Gentiles in Thessalonica (many of whom were no doubt relatives or acquaintances of those he addressed) in regards to the destiny of the dead were in conflict with the truth of the gospel. The pagans had no hope in a resurrection for those who had died, and for this reason they grieved without hope. Paul thus reaffirms what the Thessalonians Christians already believed (i.e., that Christ had been raised from the dead, and is God’s pledge that the rest of the dead will be raised as well - v. 14), as well as provides them with additional information (of which they were ignorant) regarding the destiny of “those who slept” in order to help them more effectively resist the influence of the pagan culture in which they lived. The information they lacked, but with which Paul provided them, is simply this: when Christ returns to raise the dead, those who are still alive at this time will not precede the dead in being “caught up to meet the Lord in the air,” for the dead will be raised before this takes place. Only after the dead are awakened from the sleep of death will redeemed humanity, in one vast company, be caught up to join their Redeemer in the clouds to be with him forever.
However (to return to the original problem raised), if the apostle has in view only some of the dead and some of the living, then he leaves the destiny of the rest of mankind completely unaccounted for in this passage. For Paul has only two categories of people in view here: those who will be “asleep” (which is an expression Paul uses three times in this passage to denote the dead in general) at the time of this coming of Christ, and those who will still be alive on the earth at this time. Paul is not contrasting two classes of dead people or two classes of living people; he’s contrasting the dead and the living. Thus, if “the dead in Christ” in v. 16 does not embrace all of the dead, then the Thessalonians are only left to speculate as to when or if anyone else will be raised at all. But is it likely that Paul is completely ignoring the ultimate destiny of unbelievers in this passage? No - at least not when we keep in mind the reason for which Paul was sharing this particular information with the Thessalonians.
Remember that Paul is seeking to give encouragement and hope to these Thessalonian believers, not wanting them to grieve at the loss of those they knew as the heathen around them were inclined to do. But is it at all reasonable to think that the Thessalonians grieved only for those relatives, friends and acquaintances who’d died as believers, and not for those who had died without ever having come to faith in Christ? If anything, it would be expected that the grief these Thessalonian Christians might have experienced secondary to the death of people they knew (which would include those friends and relatives who had died prior to their own conversion!) would be all the more accentuated by the fact that the ones who had died had died in the darkness of heathenism, without having ever come to faith in Christ. Thus, only if the expression “those who are asleep” embraced and included both those who had died as believers and those who had died as unbelievers would Paul’s words be of any real consolation or encouragement to them. Moreover, if by the expression “those who are asleep” in v. 13 (about whom Paul doesn’t want the Thessalonians to be ignorant) the apostle meant all the dead, it would be strange if he went on to reveal the destiny of only those who had and would die in faith. But could Paul, after declaring, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep,” with any propriety proceed to give the fate of believers only? But according to the popular understanding of this passage, this is exactly what he does!
Moreover, the reader should keep in mind that commas, when they appear in English versions of the NT, must be supplied by the translators; and as could be demonstrated with several verses from the NT, the absence or presence of commas can alter the meaning of a text significantly. While it is possible that the English translation of this verse needs no commas in order to express the true meaning of Paul’s words (and the verse could still be understood in such a way as to be consistent with the views advanced so far), I submit that placing commas after the words “dead” and “Christ” (or simply after “dead”) would render the English translation more accurate and more explicitly consistent with Paul’s theology. When we do so, the verse reads, “And the dead, in Christ, will rise first.” Again, Paul is looking ahead to that future period when Christ returns from heaven to exercise his full authority and power as Lord over the dead and the living by subjecting them to himself (1Cor 15:28; Phil 3:20-21). At this singularly unique time in redemptive history, both those who had previously died and those who will still be alive will find themselves “in Christ” by virtue of their being the objects of his redemptive power. Whether or not one died as a believer prior to this time will be of no consequence, for “in the twinkling of an eye” all who are dead will be made alive in Christ, and all who are still living will be “changed,” so as to be made fit for meeting Christ in the air to be with him forever. No matter what the state in which people die (whether it be as “just” or “unjust”), they will ultimately be “in Christ” when our Lord returns from heaven to abolish death and subject all to himself.
This understanding of the passage makes it perfectly harmonious with what Paul says in 1Cor 15:20-23 when speaking of the same subject: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come 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 firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” In these verses Paul is alluding to the Jewish harvest, which had two orders: 1) the “firstfruits” of the barley harvest (in which a sheaf was brought into the temple and then shaken by the priest toward the four quarters of the world as a dedication to God, and as evidence of the consecration of the whole harvest throughout the nation) and 2) the rest of the harvest, which would follow afterwards. In accordance with this Hebrew imagery, Paul gives us two specific “orders”: 1) “Christ, the firstfruits” and 2) “those who are Christ’s at his coming.” Christ, the first to have been raised from the dead never to die again, is the pledge and consecration of the rest of the “harvest” to God. Those who make up this resurrection harvest (i.e., those who are said to be “Christ’s at his coming”) are simply those of whom he is the "firstfruits." But of whom is Christ the “firstfruits?” Paul provides us with the answer three times from verse 20 through 22: “those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20), “the dead” (v. 21), and all who die “in Adam” (v. 22). Thus, Christ is the “firstfruits” of all who will be found dead (“asleep”) at his return from heaven; it is these who will be “Christ’s at his coming.”