13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thes 4:13-14).
People find the idea of heaven appealing for several reasons. Belief in the afterlife is a comforting alternative to fear of oblivion. In addition, the notion that you will go to a better place when you die. Even at its best, this life is stressful. And some people lead very difficult lives.
Certainly, though, a major reason people find the idea of heaven appealing is the hope of reunion with departed loved ones. I deliberately say "people" and "idea" because it's not just appealing to Christians. Of course, unbelievers may have mistaken notions of what heaven is like, as well as unjustified confidence in what happens to them after they die, but for the moment I'm discussing culturally universal fears and desires. And that's useful in evangelism.
Now, it's striking that the Bible doesn't have much to say directly on the prospect of reunion with departed loved ones. We could speculate on why that's the case. Perhaps it's just so obvious that the Bible takes that longing for granted. Or perhaps it's just so obvious that the Bible redirects our attention to neglected aspects of the afterlife. Finally, unless universalism is true, the Bible can't promise reunion with departed loves ones. So Scripture can only offer guarded assurances in that respect.
Be that as it may, 1 Thes 4:13-14 probably comes closest to acknowledging and affirming this aspect of the afterlife. So this is a very important passage. However, because Paul's statement is so terse, we must tease out what-all he had in mind.
i) "Sleep" is a picturesque, euphemistic metaphor for death.
ii) The Psalms sometimes describe the Psalmist's distress over the prospect of his own untimely demise. However, this passage is not about feelings regarding our own demise, but the death of others. The fact that their death is a source of grief presumes that the decedents are friends and family–the "dearly departed" (although this could include compassion for the loss of others).
iii) Paul doesn't say why their death leaves the survivors grief-stricken, but as a matter of human experience, the reason we grieve the death of a loved-one is separation. At best, you won't see them again for the rest of your life. At worst, you will never seem them again. How the separation is viewed varies according to a person's outlook, whether that's considered a temporary separation or a permanent separation.
iv) Paul is drawing a contrast between Christians and unbelievers. Mainly pagans. In context, it's synonymous with "outsiders" (v12) or those who "don't know God" (v5).
v) In what sense were unbelievers without hope? Does that refer to their objectively hopeless condition or their subjective attitude towards death? In theory, Paul might be saying the fate of the lost is hopeless. When they die they go to hell.
But while that's theologically true, it doesn't fit this particular context. For Paul is describing what motivates pagan grief. That, therefore, reflects the viewpoint of the heathen mourner rather than Paul's viewpoint.
vi) Apropos (v), pagan views regarding death weren't monolithic. Platonism and Pythagoreanism affirmed the immorality of the soul. That, though, took the form of reincarnation. It was pretty esoteric. Stoics and Epicureans were physicalists, so they denied the afterlife. They cultivated a stiff upper life, feigning indifference to death. And that lent them a sense of moral superiority to the hoi polloi. But what they profess probably masked how they really felt.
A more popular belief affirmed a dismal, ghostly afterlife. The dead were disembodied spirits who exist underground. This was probably an extension of empirical realities. The dead are buried (or cremated). They no longer live on the surface of the earth. Cut off from physical pleasures and visual beauties. The Netherworld doesn't have trees and sunlight. You can't hug a ghost.
Ancient people believed in ghosts, including restless spirits who roamed the earth. Not having a body, they were reduced to spectators. Even if they haunted their old stomping grounds, they could not longer participate in life on earth.
Finally, heathen views of death may have been influenced, in some cases, by actual experience with poltergeists and haunted vicinities. In a world full of witchcraft, that's to be expected. Moreover, necromancy feeds on itself. On the one hand, it's premised on the possibility of contacting the death. On the other hand, it may sometimes succeed, which reinforces the presupposition. However, the experience of encountering the dead in that context will be depressing, to say the least.
Many pagans in the Roman Empire believed in astral fatalism. For better or worse, your destiny is written in the stars. That rendered prayer futile.
To some degree, pagan views were summed up by epitaphs. One epitaph said: "We are nothing. See, reader, how quickly we mortals return from nothing to nothing." Another common epitaph said: "I was not, I was, I am not, I care not". Latin poet Catullus wrote, "The sun can set and rise again, but once our brief light sets, we must sleep a never-ending night". Another epitaph even states the classic lament that's it's better never to be born: "Happy are those who saw not the sunlight after the birthpangs". These were widespread sentiments.
Despite their variety, what made pagan views of the afterlife so hopeless and doleful was the inevitable element of speculation and wishful thinking. Short of revelation, how would you know?
vii) A few scholars think Paul means Christians shouldn't grieve at all, but that's implausible. Paul himself was a very emotional, high-strung individual. Paul's point, rather, is that Christian grief isn't despairing, unlike heathen grief. That's because Christian have a firm basis for hope, not simply in the afterlife, but some specific, encouraging content.
viii) When Paul says unbelievers are without hope, is he defining hope in pagan terms or Christian terms? Both. From their own viewpoint, the heathen outlook on death was generally quite pessimistic at best. And that, moreover, stands in contrast to the nature of the Christian hope, which Paul turns to in v14.
ix) Since there's evidence that Paul affirmed the intermediate state (e.g. 2 Cor 5:1-10), we might wonder why he skips over the intermediate state and goes straight to the resurrection of the just. Since some pagans already believed in a disembodied afterlife, perhaps he wants to contrast that with what's distinctive to the Gospel. Otherwise, Paul's audience might assimilate the Christian intermediate state with their cultural notions of the Netherworld, which would be syncretistic. Paul avoids getting entangled in the need to distinguish the two by instead discussing the resurrection of the body.
Or perhaps Paul cuts to the Resurrection because that's a demonstrable, historical event. Unlike philosophical speculations, Homeric mythology, the pipe dreams of mystery religions, or indefinite and uncertain aspirations about the hereafter, Paul could point to real evidence. The Christian hope was grounded in a public, verifiable event. That lays a solid basis for expectations regarding the afterlife. Christians could enjoy a robust hope in the afterlife because they had better reasons and a better prospect.
For background information concerning heathen views of death in the ancient Near East and Roman Empire:
Jeffrey Weima, 1-2 Thessalonians (Baker, 2014), 315-16.
Gene Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Eerdmans, 2002), 217-219.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003), chap. 2.
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 3rd. ed., 2003), 243-50.
Peter Bolt, "Life, Death, and the Afterlife in the Greco-Roman World," R. Longenecker, ed. Life in the Face of Death (Eerdmans, 1998), chap. 3.
Edwin Yamauchi, "Life, Death, and the Afterlife in the Ancient Near East," R. Longenecker, ed. Life in the Face of Death (Eerdmans, 1998), chap. 2.