Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians is most likely the earliest of Paul's letters and may be the earliest Christian document ever found. Consequently, this letter can offer some insight into the issues and concerns of the earliest Christian communities.
One of the central concerns reflected in Paul's correspondence with the Thessalonians is that of eschatology, which is the technical terms meaning "the study of the end." In simpler terms, the Thessalonians were unclear about exactly what happened after a person died and what would happen when Jesus returned. It is important to note that many early Christians anticipated the return of Jesus during their lifetime. Consequently, there was some confusion regarding the state of those who had died. Paul offers words of encouragement and uses the analogy of "falling asleep" to describe the experience of those who have died and are awaiting the final resurrection of the dead. Paul vividly describes the coming of Jesus and the gathering of all those who belong to him. These words are intended to comfort and offer hope to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
It is extremely important to note that although Paul is describing a future historical event, he is not attempted to provide a literal timeline for this event. In other words, Paul is drawing on numerous and various images found in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. Paul is seeking to use these images to describe an event that truly defies description in human terms. Therefore, any attempt to use Paul's language as a literal timeline (example: the "Left Behind" fictional book series) is a misreading of Paul's words. Even Paul reminds the Thessalonians not be concerned with dates and times (5:1).
Even though the details regarding our experience after death remain somewhat vague, we can have confidence and hope in the promise of Jesus' return and the final resurrection of the dead. In just two days, we will read about the glorious new creation that awaits us, so keep reading!