Q & R: insiders and outsiders in 1 Thessalonians

Here’s the Q:

I recently read A New Kind of Christianity, and was quite impressed. God has been gradually changing my understanding of much of the Christian message, and it’s been exciting for someone brought up as a fairly traditional Wesleyan. I had already moved somewhat away from my roots when I became part of the Charismatic stream of things. For several years we have been attending an Assembly of God church and I have been teaching the adult Sunday School class. Because of my Wesleyan background and the more adventurous ways God is leading me in recent years with regards to salvation and who God is (let’s face it… I’m not really a true dyed in the wool Pentecostal), I have sometimes found it difficult to teach the standard lessons that come from the denominational headquarters. Still, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I have always managed to find something positive to teach, even in the lessons I’m not altogether sure I agree with. I have made it a practice to try to only say things I really believe and not just parrot the party line. I could do that since I know it very well. I’m 67 and I’ve been a Christian all of my life, pretty much.
I do have a question about this week’s lesson. The scripture is 1 Thessalonians 4, and in this scripture, it sounds to me like there are some who are included and some who are not. I’ve been trying to get away from that idea, but there it is… v. 13 “…the rest of mankind who have no hope” and v. 16 “the dead in Christ will rise first.” That sounds like a clear distinction is being made. I’m okay with not being totally literal when it comes to end times events, but this scripture sounds like it refers to actual events that will happen. What do you think about eschatology and end time events? It’s always been an area I don’t enjoy studying, mainly because I think there’s too much speculation about events, and most people seem to think that they are correct, even if they disagree with other good people who also think themselves correct.
Anyway, I appreciate the fact that you continue to love Jesus and the Bible even as you speak for a “new kind of Christianity.”

Here’s the R:
Thanks for your encouraging words. As for your question, I’ve just spent some time re-reading 1 Thessalonians 4. One of the sources I go to for help on difficult texts is the Girardian Lectionary (here). The language might seem technical, but it’s worth the effort. There’s a helpful quote included from James Alison:

If we take the notion of the ‘end’ understood as vengeance, just as it is found in 1 Thessalonians, it is a vengeful end which depends exactly on there being insiders and outsiders, so that the afflicted are vindicated, and the persecutors punished. But in the degree to which the perception of God changes, becoming, as we have seen, shorn of violence, two realities are altered simultaneously: the separation between goodies and baddies, insiders and outsiders, enters into a process of continuous collapse and subversion, and at the same time the ‘end’ cannot remain as a vengeance if there is no longer any clarity about who’s an insider and who an outsider, and under these circumstances the notion of the end itself changes towards what we see in 2 Peter: it becomes a principle of revelation of what had really been going on during the time that has been left for the changing of hearts… In this way the End, rather than being a vengeful conclusion to time, comes to be a principle, operative in time, by means of which we may live out the arrival of the Son of Man, the being alert for the thief in the night, the whole time. (p. 127)