Previous posts include:
1a. Born at a Time and Place 1; 1b. Born at a Time and Place 2
2a. A Change in Life Direction; 2b A Change in Life Direction 2; 2c A Change in Life Direction 3
3a. The Unknown Years 1; 3b. The Unknown Years 2; 3c. The Unknown Years 3
The previous posts for the current chapter are Life Beyond Death 1 and Life Beyond Death 2.
... So we might picture a scenario where Paul has preached that God has raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus has died on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, an act of faithfulness that has made it possible for anyone to be reconciled to the one true God, whether Jew or Gentile. God has enthroned Jesus at His right hand not only as the Jewish king (anointed one, messiah, Christ) but indeed as Lord over all the world. Very soon, Jesus would return from heaven to take his rightful place as king over the world.
The good news Paul preached was thus that the Thessalonians could escape the coming judgment if they were baptized in the name of Jesus. Baptism would appropriate the cross of Jesus and they would be saved from God's coming wrath (e.g., 1 Thess. 1:9, 10). Then, perhaps, someone who had accepted the good news died. Thinking this scenario through is potentially very eye opening to the difference between how obvious these things are to us and how much the earliest Christians were just figuring out!
So someone is distressed. How sad. Uncle Demetrius was so excited to be part of the kingdom of God when Christ returned. But now he's died and won't be able to see Jesus.
And so Paul fills them in on the nature of resurrection. Don't worry. Uncle Demetrius is not lost. There will be a resurrection at the time of Jesus' return. Indeed, the dead corpses will rise first, even before we who are alive and remain. A couple points of interest here. First, the word for the dead seemed to have exactly this sense--a dead body, a corpse. Paul does not seem to be talking about some immortality of the soul. He is talking about corpses coming back to life.
Second, he includes himself and his audience when he speaks of "we who remain." In his letters he never says outright, "I expect to be alive when Jesus returns." But his earliest letters seem especially to give off this vibe, as do other New Testament letters (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:29; cf. 1 Pet. 4:17). Christians take from this wording a sense that we must always live in expectation that Christ could come back very soon. We are to live in "imminent expectation" of Christ's return.
Paul and the Thessalonians knew some of the details Paul does not mention. For example, Paul says we will be "caught up ... in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thess. 4:17), the verse that stands behind the idea of a "rapture." Paul concludes, "so we will be with the Lord forever." What Paul does not say, though, is where that forever will be. Many scholars believe that we are meeting Christ in the air like you go out to meet a king or important person coming to town. You then go back into town with them. So passages like 1 Corinthians 6:2 indicate that Christians will participate in the judgment of the world. It thus seems quite possible that we are meeting Christ only to come back down for the judgment.
Paul also only speaks of the dead "in Christ" being raised (1 Thess. 4:16). Interestingly, the New Testament never says anywhere that all the dead will rise immediately at the point of Christ's initial return. Indeed, Revelation puts the famous millennial reign of Christ in between a first resurrection of Christian martyrs (Rev. 20:4-5). Paul of course never clearly speaks of a second resurrection where all the rest of the dead, both righteous and wicked, will rise.
This is an interesting observation. As Christians we believe in a general resurrection, when all the dead will rise, some to eternal life and some to an eternal judgment of some sort. But we have not really taken this idea from Paul's writings. Paul never mentions hell, although 2 Timothy 4:1 does mention that Christ will judge the dead, and Philippians 2:10 includes those "under the earth," the dead presumably, among all who will bow before Christ. We get that idea from elsewhere.
Paul never talks about when "every knee should bow... and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:10-11). Certainly the living will when Christ returns to earth. But of the dead, Paul only says that the dead "in Christ" will rise. Perhaps Christian understanding in relation to a general resurrection was still in progress at this time. Christians only affirm that the words that made it to the Bible be right, not necessarily everything going on in Paul's head as he wrote.
If at this point Paul only knew about the resurrection of those "in Christ," it would explain the Thessalonians' disappointment. It might also explain why some Christians were apparently baptizing for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29). They would be trying to do the equivalent of what a man named Judas Maccabeus does in a well known Jewish story of the time. In 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, Judas pays for sacrifices to be made for certain fallen soldiers so that they can be part of the resurrection.  In the same way, some early Christians may have thought that they could make sure their loved ones were included in the resurrection--maybe individuals who had never even heard of Jesus--by being baptized for them.
Another issue that Paul is largely silent on is what happens even to Christians in between their deaths and the resurrection. In 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul refers to the dead as those who "sleep" (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:13; 1 Cor. 15:18). Accordingly, some have wondered if Paul had no sense of conscious afterlife in his earliest writings. Whether or not this is the case, by the time he writes Philippians, he thinks of death as going to "be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23). Slightly more ambiguous, but similar is 2 Corinthians 5:6, where Paul seems to imply that being away from the body is to be with the Lord. Whatever Paul started out thinking, his clearest statement in Philippians implies that we are with Christ in between our deaths and future resurrection.
Some scholars have also suggested that Paul's thought underwent development between 1 and 2 Corinthians on the question of when resurrection takes place.  Whereas in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul clearly thinks of us receiving our resurrection body at the time of Christ's return, 2 Corinthians 5 says that if the "earthly tent we live in is destroyed," if we die, then we have "an eternal house in heaven," our resurrection body. It would be easy to read this statement to indicate that we go to heaven when we die and get a spiritual body immediately at death. We want to please Christ whether here in the body or in heaven when we die (2 Cor. 5:9). And one might argue accordingly that our appearence before the judgment seat of Christ in the next verse (2 Cor. 5:10) is what happens immediately at death.
Although this is a possible interpretation of Paul... [next week]
 Interestingly, 2 Maccabees--possibly a Pharisaic document--may not picture a general resurrection, only a resurrection of martyred and unpunished wicked.
 F. F. Bruce, for example, that great British evangelical of the twentieth century, accepted such a change, Paul, 309-13.