Really Dead / Truly Alive

By Bernard Brandon Scott | 9.04.18

The bizarre phrase “dead in Christ” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 has long fascinated me, but never more than in dealing with the recent death of my son.

The phrase appears in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the earliest extant discussion of death and resurrection in the New Testament. I have discussed this text at some length in my The Trouble with Resurrection (chapter 4).


The Greek is straightforward: hoi nekroi en Christō, literally “those who are dead in the Anointed (or Christ).” The Authentic Letters of Paul (SV) elaborates the translation as “those who have already died and belong to the Anointed.”

I prefer to translate Christos as “anointed” instead of “Christ” because “Christ” moves in a christological direction, while “Anointed” goes in a Jewish direction.

Christians invariably understand Christ as a christological title, reading later christological formulations into the term. I have witnessed many discussions in which folks prefer “Christ” to “Jesus” because for them Christ affirms divinity. This tendency informs us about the term’s semantic field or range of meaning.

Anointed, on the other hand, invokes a Jewish understanding, since Anointed is decidedly a Jewish title. The Anointed, in Hebrew Messiah, is anointed by God as king. For Paul to refer to Jesus as the Anointed is oxymoronic, or as he says nonsense (1 Cor 1:23). Crucifixion makes a mockery of Anointed, for the Anointed should defeat his enemies, not be defeated (crucified) by them.

In the Anointed

The phrase “in the Anointed” (traditionally “the Body of Christ”) is Paul’s abbreviation for a very large nexus of experiences, practices, and ideas centered around being incorporated into or belonging to the body of the Anointed. So it stands not only for baptism but more importantly the whole life of the those who trust in the Anointed within the community of the Anointed. It demarks and characterizes a whole different way of life that is characterized by trusting in the Anointed.

Paul’s most extended treatment of this notion is in 1 Corinthians 12 (See my discussion in The Real Paul, chapter 10). Rhetorically Paul uses the body metaphor to resolve the problem of disunity in the Corinthian community. He stresses the variety of body parts but the unity of the body, thus undercutting the hierarchical claims of various community members. “Just as the body has many parts and all of the parts, even though there are many of them, are still parts of one body, so is the body of the Anointed” (1 Cor 12:12). This egalitarian use of the body metaphor opposes its typical Roman usage which employs the metaphor to justify hierarchy, as by the way does Ephesians (1:22, see also Col 1:18), which Paul did not write.

The community and the individual in the community is the body of the Anointed (1 Cor 12:27). It is important to remember that the body of the Anointed is a martyred body, a body crucified by Rome. Rome created a unified empire by force of arms, while the body of the Anointed is created by faithfulness to God’s promise, the promise to choose life even in the face of death. The chief characteristic of the martyr’s life is that it given for, on behalf (hyper), of others. That is where the idea of atonement originates.

While Paul’s discussion of the body of the Anointed is frequently treated as a theological metaphor, Paul is really describing the life of the community and the individual. This life is characterized by unity. “If one part is in pain, all parts suffer; if one part is honored, all parts celebrate” (verse 26). We all hurt together, we all celebrate together. What Paul stresses in this phrase is that in death what counts is the life we led for others. Just as the Anointed gave his life for others, so we who have died in the Anointed give our lives for others. That seems to me exactly right. To choose life is a profound affirmation of how life should be.

The Least

The last judgment scene in Matthew 25 makes this same point.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a foreigner and you offered me hospitality; I was naked and you clothed me; I was ill and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to see me” (Matt 25:35-6 SV). When questioned as to when they did this for Jesus, he responds, “whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me” (25:40 SV).

What counts is this life, not the afterlife.

Apocalyptic Scenario

Paul remarks that “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess 4:16 NRSV). “Will rise first” comes from Paul’s apocalyptic scenario. This scenario envisions Jesus coming with God’s angels to set things right (See my The Real Paul, page 98, for an explanation of Paul’s apocalyptic scenario).

We can no longer accept this apocalyptic scenario because it arises from the fantasy that God will reward good and punish evil. But the purpose of the apocalyptic scenario is hope, hope in a future that fulfills God’s promise. The apocalyptic scenario did not long survive Paul’s death. The authors of Ephesians and Colossians, writing in Paul’s name, abandoned it because it did not play out—the world did not end. We must abandon the apocalyptic scenario, as well as the fantasy. Yet while abandoning the apocalyptic scenario, we can claim its underlying hope.

Hermeneutical Riff

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, “dead” is literal. Those who died are dead, really and completely dead. Paul has no notion of the immortal soul. That idea arises much later in the Christian tradition.

“In the Anointed” sums up the life of those who trusted in the Anointed. Like the Anointed, it is a life given for or on behalf of others. “If one part is in pain, all parts suffer; if one part is honored, all parts celebrate” (verse 26).

“Will rise first” expresses Paul’s apocalyptic hope, but that hope can be rephrased as a life lived “in the Anointed,” a life lived for others. Hope is not the expectation of reward in the afterlife, but a life well lived that transcends even the reality of death.

Hope in the face of death is based upon a life lived for others, caring for others, hurting with others, celebrating with others. The body of the Anointed is a life lived in faithfulness to the promise that life is worth living. A life well lived like that of my son creates hope. When I kissed his stone-cold forehead, I knew he was dead, empirically dead. But in that moment of grief, the joy of his life, his caring and gentle self, made life worth living.

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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