I recently conversed with a skeptical student of mine about the Christian belief in the end of the world. He wanted to know why Christians always talk like the end of the world is near but don’t act like it. We keep going to work, saving for retirement and traveling the world to do ministry. “Shouldn’t you be building a bunker or something?” he added with a grin.
It’s a great question. If we really believe that Jesus could return at any moment, doesn’t that change the way we think about and engage with our work, the work of the ministry and our “secular” work? It does, but not in the way my student suggests. And in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Paul illustrates for us that a robust belief in the end of the world should lead us to more work, not less. It should lead us to mission, not a bunker.
We don’t have to work very hard to come up with examples of modern Christian congregations who have gotten the connection between the end times and work wrong. My student was not out of line for asking his questions. From the Millerites to the Dami Mission to Harold Camping, when Christians come to believe the end of the world is near or assume they know the exact date of the end, they tend to engage in some seriously inappropriate and disordered behavior, especially related to work. We have all heard the stories of members of Christian apocalyptic groups quitting their jobs, selling their possessions, cashing out their retirements (to buy billboards) and hiding out in compounds to wait for Jesus to return. The Apostle Paul does not advocate that sort of behavior in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and that means it isn’t appropriately Christian.
A robust belief in the end of the world should lead us to more work, not less. It should lead us to mission, not a bunker.
The End of the World in Thessalonians
Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians both end in the same way. In these letters Paul deals with mistaken notions and false teachings about the end of the world, and then he gives final admonitions about the virtues of work and the vices of idleness. Paul reassures the Christians in Thessalonica that all those who have believed the gospel will be with Jesus at his return, whether alive or dead (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11). And Paul reassures the Christians in Thessalonica that the events of the end times will be so global and so catastrophic that there is no possibility they will miss them (2 Thessalonians 2:1-17). Leaders are then admonished to work hard, and they are to be respected, not for their social standing or position, but because of their work (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). He urges all people to work hard, earn their own living and keep away from those who don’t (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13). So strong are Paul’s admonitions about work in 2 Thessalonians that he orders church discipline upon those who refuse to follow Christ and the examples of the missionaries in this matter (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
New Testament scholars debate how direct the connection is between the Thessalonians’ questions about the end of the world and Paul’s admonitions about work. Some scholars see them as entirely unconnected, arguing that Paul’s reason for writing about the end of the world and his reason for writing to admonish and instruct the churches in Thessalonica about the value of work flow from entirely different circumstances. Some scholars, on the other hand, see the Thessalonians’ questions about the end of the world and Paul’s admonitions about work as connected. Some believers in Thessalonica, these scholars argue, believed the end of the world was right around the corner. Some in Thessalonica even believed that Jesus had already returned and thus not only were the end times near, the Thessalonians were already living in them. This led them to stop working and mooch off the church while they waited for Jesus. Sound familiar?
We don’t have to have an opinion on the question of the occasions and rhetorical structures of 1 and 2 Thessalonians to understand how our work and the end of the world are connected in Paul’s mind. Even if these sections of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are unconnected by common occasion, they are not unconnected in Paul’s broader theology.
In 1 and 2 Thessalonians Paul teaches two very specific things about the end of the world:
- Paul taught that no one can know when Jesus will return.
- Paul continually talked and lived as though Jesus’ return would be very soon. Paul, for example, includes himself in those who would be alive at the Lord’s coming (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17) and does not include himself among those who will be already long dead when the Lord returns (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
What are we to make of this? First, those who say they know when the end will come are not just wrong, they are openly denying and defying the plain teaching of Jesus and the Scripture. Second, while those uses of the first person by Paul are probably rhetorical in origin—Paul certainly isn’t teaching that he must be alive when Jesus returns—they should not be quickly dismissed. Paul wants all followers of Jesus to imitate him in this belief. Because we don’t know when Jesus will return, we are to live every moment with the expectation that the Lord can and will return. We are to assume that we will live to see the return of Christ, and therefore we are always to be “sober” and “watchful,” waiting for something we fully expect to happen right away. How does this relate to work? Paul believed in the soon coming of Christ as strongly as anyone ever has. He wants us to have that belief as well, but that led him to a strong theology of work, not away from it.
To be clear: This Paul, who believed so strongly in the imminent return of Jesus, is the one who told us that the mission of Christ to the world should go on and that hard “secular” work makes that mission possible (1 Thessalonians 2:9). This Paul told us that hard work, especially hard work in ministry, is honorable (1 Thessalonians 5:12). This Paul told us that hard work is one of the key ways that God keeps us out of trouble and rescues us from ourselves (2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). Paul’s strong belief in the imminent coming of Christ didn’t turn him away from the world to a compound, and it didn’t turn him away from “secular” work or the work of the ministry. Instead, this belief led him to work harder than ever to support the mission with a job (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 1:9) and it led him to engage the world with the gospel (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2).
My Student Was Right (And Wrong).
My student was right. Christians do talk about the end of the world as if it is right around the corner. Do we know when Christ will return? No. But we should speak and live as the Apostle Paul did, with the continued expectation that the end is near. My student was also right that our expectation that the end is near should greatly impact our work and our ministry. But he was wrong about how. We should not follow the bad examples of so many in history. We should follow the example of the Scripture. Work hard; it is honorable, moral. and necessary. Do mission; it is God’s plan, because God loves the whole world.
Don’t build a bunker.