Because the Cross/Resurrection couple is so important for Paul, he speaks about it very often, directly or indirectly. To try to get an overview of Paul’s teaching about resurrection , we will focus on one1 major biblical reference: 1Thessalonians 4,13-18 and I will mention others when necessary to assist us in understanding the difficulties of this challenging passage.
I give you a literal translation so that we may not be influenced by our previous readings of this passage that led to confusion about the after life.
13We do not wish you to ignore, brothers, about the sleeping ones,
so that not being grieving like also others, those having no hope.
14For if we have faith that Jesus died and rose
thus also God through Jesus will lead the sleeping ones with him.
15Indeed, this we say to you in the word of the Lord that we, the living, the remaining until the coming (παρουσίαν) of the Lord not at all should we precede the sleeping ones.
16That himself, the Lord, in a commend, in a voice of an angel and in a trumpet of God he will go down from heaven, and the dead in Christ, will rise first.
17Then us, the living remaining together with them will be seized in the clouds for going to meet the Lord in the air, and so always with the Lord we will be.
18So then encourage one another in these words
This is the oldest Christian teaching on the resurrection of the dead. This passage is considered to be the draft of 1 Corinthians 15. It has been too often misunderstood because of translations and traditions (or maybe the contrary 😉 )
v13 Paul wants to answer a question of the Thessalonians in the 1st christian generation:« what happens to those who die before the return of the Lord? ». That was a real problem for it led some to be grieving like those having no hope. It was a matter of spiritual discouragement among the Thessalonians.
Paul refers to those who have already died as the sleeping ones. This is not a way to encourage, it was a common way of speaking in the greek world. And it is still a way tot talk about those who die today.
Others who have no hope are the non-christians (the same as the outsiders of v12).
v14 talks about being confident (having faith) that if Christ died and rose then it will be the same for Christians who are dead. In 1Corinthians 15,2 Paul even says that it is a matter of salvation even if in 1Corinthians he says it the other way round: it is because God has provided for a resurrection that Christ has risen. But whichever way you look at the problem there is a link between Jesus' raising and the general resurrection. It is like if Paul was reversing the problem: God will take care of the sleeping ones! In doing so he gives a 1st answer to the question of the Thessalonians.
The problem now is more about explaining how the "still alive" will be cared of.
v15-16 This "Word of the Lord" said in v15 is the turning point of the passage. Very often we focus on the spectacular v16 (spectacular because of apocalyptic genre) which talks about "being seized in the clouds" and the "meeting with the Lord in the air". Because of our imagination we visualize this in our mind and conclude that : "we will be with the Lord forever in the air that we assimilate with heavens". But the most important word here is:
παρουσίαν = parousian which means coming or presence.
Paul says that for his parousia the Lord will go down from heaven (see 1Thessalonians 1,10). Here, he refers to a custom of the Roman Empire that required sending a delegation to welcome high-ranking figures of the Empire before they would reach the town, when they honored a city with a visit. Then of course after the official welcoming, every one would (joyously) go back into town.
It’s the same movement that is described here: it is concerning those who have risen, and those who will not have died yet at this moment. They will all together go to welcome the Lord at his return. It’s not about going to live with Christ midway between earth and heaven, in the air. It’s about going in the air to welcome Christ and go back triumphant… on earth.
Is it an apocalyptic image, or a true literal prophetic description? The strong parallel of 1Corinthians 15,51-52 suggests that to be able to welcome the Lord at its parousia we will be transformed:
51Listen, I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.
Transformed but to become what? 1Corinthians 15,42-44:
42So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; 43sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; 44sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
After that, the Thessalonians could have also ask "OK Paul, but where are they, our sleeping relatives?". In this passage there is no direct answer to the question. But still, asking the question shows that we are left with an interval between bodily death and bodily resurrection2.
What we can say, still in Paul’s theology, is that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Jesus-Christ - 1Thessalonians 5,10. She’ol/Hades as an intermediate state is not being dead, but not yet fully alive. It is in concordance with 1Corinthians 15,26 The last enemy to be abolished is death.
All this is enough to realize that Paul’s teaching about resurrection is in tune with Jesus’.
1 If you want more details see N.T. Wright book The resurrection of the son of man in which the author devotes 190 pages to Paul's vision of the resurrection.
2 The reformers of the 16th century debated a lot around the status of the dead in this interval.