The apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians speaks of Christians as people who ‘wait for [God’s] son from heaven…who rescues us from the coming wrath’ (1 Thess 1.10). Later, Paul adds that ‘we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Thess 4.15). He does not say, ‘those who are alive’ (which could refer to some far future and as yet unknown group), but ‘we who are alive’, thus showing his expectation that the Lord will come before Paul’s death. Furthermore, Paul boldly claims that this is ‘the Lord’s own word’ (1 Thess 4.15).
The plain fact is that the end of the world simply did not come before Paul’s hearers had all died. Paul was writing in the 50′s AD and today’s date is 2019. So one can demonstrate empirically that Paul was mistaken.
But why does this matter? Paul said that his teaching was the ‘Lord’s own word’. But if this is the case then the Lord (presumably Jesus) made a mistake and mislead Paul about Jesus’ second coming. Paul therefore thought he had a true word from the Lord but the passing of historical time absolutely disproves this.
A more plausible explanation is that Paul, who had several visions of Jesus, was not in fact receiving truth from Jesus/God but was the victim of his own religious imagination. If this is the case (and the empirical evidence leads to this conclusion) then it puts in serious doubt the authenticity and veracity of Paul’s other visions of Jesus, above all the Damascus Road vision in Acts. So this little problem passage has momentous consequences for Christian belief which rely heavily on the integrity and truthfulness of Paul’s testimony. If Paul was mistaken about the end of the world occurring in the first century then we cannot automatically trust his other claims to have received divine revelation in the rest of his letters.
Here are the verses in their immediate context:
13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For 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. 17After 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. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.