So we will be with the Lord forever

A while ago I put forward the argument that Paul’s apocalyptic eschatology was drawn primarily from the social and psychological needs of the marginalized Christian communities throughout the pagan empire. Paul’s strange beliefs about the future apocalypse were in this way “functional” rather than speculative or mystical. The parousia and all its imaginative constituent parts functioned to assure Christians that their present undesirable circumstances would soon be reversed in concrete ways. Essentially, the church’s powerful enemies would be publicly demoted and believers would receive the authority once wielded against them.

Among those constituent parts of the parousia myth is Christ’s eventual eternal presence with his people:

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17). 

Regarding this topic I previously wrote:

In 1 Thessalonians 4:14 Paul claims that in the same way (οὕτως) God raised (ἀνέστη) Jesus [to heaven], God will also “bring” (ἄξει) the resurrected dead [to himself in heaven] when Christ descends on the clouds to bring about earthly judgment and establish his kingdom (4:14-16, cf. Matthew 24:30, Revelation 14:14-20, Acts 1:9-11, Psalm 18)…

So as it is commonly accepted that Paul’s framing of this scene imitates the Imperial Adventus cycle in which the emperor is greeted by dutiful citizens as he approaches a city he wishes to dominate, I propose that the living saints will ascend into the sky in order to receive authority from their king before returning to earth to rule (cf. Revelation 5:10, Luke 19:17). Having established this rule, Christ and the resurrected will then return to heaven to await the end of history.  

In my estimation the major problem with this line of thought is that Paul says “we will be with the Lord forever,” referring to believers both living and raised. If after the parousia Christ returns to his heavenly throne with the dead, and the living return to earth endowed with imperial authority, how does Christ remain with those who reign upon the earth as Paul claims?

To answer that question I think we must again consider the social and psychological functions fulfilled by the apocalyptic image: what does Christ’s presence with his people represent and accomplish?


God’s presence with Israel

In searching for an analogy we first turn to the Hebrew Bible. There we find a robust theology of the divine presence or kavod. God is with his people in various circumstances in order to achieve various ends. Here is a small sampling.

  • God promises to bless and multiply the descendants of the Patriarchs by remaining with them (Genesis 26:24, 28:15, 31:3-5).
  • God accompanies Moses and Aaron to liberate the Hebrews from Egypt (Exodus 3:12, Psalm 77:19-20).
  • God goes before his people so that they might inherit the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 3:12).
  • God dwells in the tabernacle among his people so as to grant them mercy for sin and protection from enemies (Leviticus 26:11-12, Numbers 10:35, 1 Samuel 4:3).
  • God is with David’s sons so that through them Israel might be a formidable kingdom (1 Kings 11:38).
  • God is with his people during the new Exodus so that they are not harmed by waters, fires, or enemies (Isaiah 43:1-3).
  • The prophet calls upon the Lord to descend from the heavens “to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2). 
  • In dire straights, the Psalmist laments that God is far from him (Psalm 22:1-2); his death is therefore imminent.

What becomes apparent from this scattering of texts is that the divine presence functions fundamentally to secure Israel’s well-being in concrete ways. On the one hand, by being with his people God causes them to prosper materially despite the harsh realities of the world (cf. Numbers 6:29, Ezekiel 37:14). On the other hand, when God has left his people they are vulnerable to failure, defeat, and dissolution (cf. Numbers 14:42, Deuteronomy 1:42).

What matters here then for the Biblical authors is not the metaphysics of God’s entrance into and existence within creation, but the social, economic, military, and political outcomes associated with the heavenly seal of approval. These positive earthly outcomes, along with the supernatural phenomena that sometimes affected them, constituted the evidence of God’s nearness. In short, “God with us” in all its variations represented divine providence; the name Immanuel had less to do with theology and more to do with history.

Christ’s presence with the church

I would argue the early Christian concept of Christ’s presence with his people functioned in much the same way. Christ’s presence was a way of talking about divine providence working for the good of the church. The desire “to be with Christ forever” was, in effect, the desire to be under Christ’ intimate and powerful care. The best example of this equivalence is Acts 18:10. There the heavenly Jesus says to Paul: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; For I am with you and no one will lay a hand on you, because I have many people in this city.” While not literally, or bodily, with Paul, Jesus orchestrates events in Paul’s favor. In this way, Jesus can be said to be with his apostle (cf. Matthew 18:18-20, 28:18-20).

All of this seems to leave open the possibility that Christ’s presence with his earthly governors after the events of the parousia has figurative import as well. While not yet with Christ bodily in heaven, as are the martyred and dead saints (cf. Revelation 20:4-6), the post-parousia churches will be with Christ in the sense that Christ will have overthrown their oppressors and installed them as regents. The concrete problems associated with God’s absence—privation, fear, marginalization, persecution, death—will be swept away when Christ overthrows the centuries-old pagan order. A new age of God’s observable presence—an age of plenty, security, honor, and fear of the Lord—will have begun.