(1 Thess. 4:16-18 ESV) 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
A large portion of the Protestant world believes in Rapture theology. Even many in the Churches of Christ believe in the Rapture; we just don’t call it that. Indeed, our hymn books often speak of meeting Jesus in the sky.
Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away
To a land on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away
When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away
To a land where joy will never end, I’ll fly away
In fact, we in the Churches of Christ have two competing, inconsistent theologies of the afterlife.
Theology 1: When we die, our soul flies off to heaven, leaving our bodies behind. Hence, we go to heaven immediately upon our deaths and our “resurrection” is nothing like Jesus’ — as he left an empty grave.
Theology 2: When Jesus returns (the Second Coming or Parousia), we’ll arise from our graves with resurrection bodies and fly up to heaven to meet Jesus and then be taken to heaven, leaving this world behind.
Now, 1 and 2 are obviously very different, and yet both are taught, sometimes in the very same sermon. So we go to heaven both when we die and when Jesus returns.
The inconsistency is sometimes resolved by assuming that we fly away at death to a temporary waiting room in the sky, pending Judgment Day. The saved go to Paradise and the damned to Tartarus. This theory is based on a tract written about 100 years ago called “Where Are the Dead?” This tract was adopted by several denominations as biblical truth, and has been a very popular teaching in the Churches of Christ.
I’ve never bought the theory. After all, if the damned and saved wait in two different places for Judgment, well, they’ve obviously already been judged. The saved wait with the saints and martyrs in a well air-conditioned, luxuriant garden. The damned wait with Hitler and his ilk in an overly warm waiting room with nothing but daytime TV to watch for millennia. Surely those present know how Judgment Day is going to turn out for them — and yet Jesus pictures people being surprised when their verdict is announced (Matt 25:37, 44).
Of course, for premillennialists, the Rapture is not just the resurrection, but the resurrection of the saved with the damned left behind. And that’s just not found in the Bible. The Revelation doesn’t even mention a “Rapture.”
The key passage is 1 Thess. 4:16-17, quoted above. The question not directly answered by the passage is: what happens next? Do we then ascend with Jesus back to heaven? Or do we descend with Jesus down to earth? Or do we all stay in the air?
An impressive array of commentators agree with N. T. Wright that Paul is using the language associated with the visitation by an emperor or other dignitary to a city. The residents would go outside the city walls to meet the dignitary and escort him into the city. Thus, the saved will be transformed and receive their resurrection bodies, allowing them to meet Jesus in the air as he descends to be with his people. They will then descend with Jesus to the ground as the heavens and earth are joined as described in Rev 21.
Moulton and Milligan [authors of an important NT Greek lexicon] observe that “the word (apantēsis) seems to have been a kind of technical term for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignity” (p. 53; cf., e.g., Cicero, Ad Att. 8.16.2; 16.11.6; Matt. 25:6; Acts 28:15; the term used for the arrival was parousia; see disc. on 2:19). …
We are not told what will follow that meeting in the air, but the imagery suggested by apantēsis (see above) points to the earth as their final destination (the citizens, who had gone out to meet him, escorting the new arrival back to their city). Paul, however, is not concerned to answer our questions as to what will follow, except to say that the saints will be with [syn] the Lord forever (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4; Phil. 1:23 for the same use of syn to mark our eternal companionship with Christ).
David J. Williams, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 85.
The purpose of the catching away underlines this divine/human encounter, to meet the Lord in the air. To meet (eis apantēsin) was almost a technical term that described the custom of sending a delegation outside the city to receive a dignitary who was on the way to town.
In Acts 28:15 Luke utilizes this word in his description of the way a delegation of Christians from Rome went out to receive Paul and his companions when he approached the imperial city, “The brothers there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us” (eis apantēsin). The customary procedure was for the delegation to return to the city with the visiting dignitaries (Acts 28:16; also Matt. 25:6).
The OT texts where the verb is used are numerous, while in Greek and Roman culture the custom was well established, especially when persons of high political rank came to town. Polybius spoke of the great pomp of such occasions (5.26.8), and author after author described how not only certain officials but also all the population would file out of the city to meet the emperor in his parousia. Josephus, for example, tells how the citizens of Rome went out to meet Vespasian as their new emperor (who, by the way, had just come from leading the Roman troops in the battles to quell the Jewish rebellion that began in A.D. 66):
Amidst such feelings of universal goodwill, those of higher rank, impatient of awaiting him, hastened to a great distance from Rome to be the first to greet [hapantōn] him. Nor, indeed, could any of the rest endure the delay of meeting, but all poured forth in such crowds—for to all it seems simpler and easier to go than to remain—that the very city then for the first time experienced with satisfaction the paucity of inhabitants; for those who went outnumbered those who remained. But when he was reported to be approaching and those who had gone ahead were telling of the affability of his reception of each party, the whole remaining population, with wives and children, were by now waiting at the road-sides to receive him; and each group as he passed, in their delight at the spectacle and moved by the blandness of his appearance, gave vent to all manner of cries, hailing him as “benefactor,” “savior,” and “only worthy emperor of Rome.” The whole city, moreover, was filled, like a temple, with garlands and incense.
In this entourage, those who went out first to meet Vespasian were those of the highest rank, and we most likely hear an echo of this custom in vv. 16b–17a: “the dead in Christ rise first.” In formal receptions, the leaders of the city and all the population would go out, including the soldiers, the gymnasiarch and the students, and the priest with cultic objects, all dressed with special clothing and garlands. The city would greet the dignitary upon entry with songs, loud cries, and sacrifices. Cosby correctly observes that the characteristics of these receptions do not correspond one for one with the reception the Lord shall receive when the resurrected and the living are caught away to meet him. However, since the context of this formal reception is the time of the royal parousia of the Lord (v. 15), there remains little doubt that this custom formed the background of this teaching, although with some notable modifications (for example, the time of the day of the Lord is unknown—5:1–11).
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos, 2002), 226–228.
It should be clear from the beginning of v. 16 that Christ is said to come down out of heaven and meet his followers somewhere else, in this case in the atmosphere, where there are clouds. There is likely an echo of Mic. 1:3 here: “For behold the LORD is coming forth out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.” Clouds are regularly said to accompany a theophany, when God comes down to the human level, not when humans are taken up into the presence of God in heaven (see Exod. 19:16; 40:34; 1 Kgs. 8:10–11; Ps. 97:2). Trumpet blasts also accompany theophanies (Exod. 19:16; Isa. 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zech. 9:14). The meeting does not take place in heaven, so there is no rapture into heaven here.
Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 141.
“Snatched into the air” does not mean into heaven. The Lord will descend to the earth (Job 19:25; Acts 1:11) where the judgment shall take place. It shall not take place in the air; nor shall the wicked, after being raised, be taken into the air. Revelation 21:1, 2 unites the new heaven and the new earth with the holy city; and the judgment will exclude the wicked from it. We read nowhere that the Lord will return to heaven after the Parousia, but rather that heaven and earth shall be one. Εἰς ἀπάντησιν is an idiom (it is also found in the papyri) that always occurs in this form and is like a compound preposition with the genitive, it is the German entgegen.
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon, (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1937), 337.
The three stories which Paul is here bringing together start with the story of Moses coming down the mountain. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses appears and descends from the mountain to see what’s been going on in his absence.
Then there is the story of Daniel 7, in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory. This ‘raising up on the clouds’, which Jesus applies to himself in the gospels, is now applied by Paul to the Christians who are presently suffering persecution.
Putting these two stories together, in a typically outrageous mix of metaphors, enables Paul to bring in the third story, to which we have already alluded. When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him arrive at the gates as though they his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air’, the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.
Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn’t mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city, but rather that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights.
These two verses in 1 Thessalonians 4, then, have been grievously abused by those who have constructed out of them a big picture of a supposed ‘rapture’. This has had its effect not only on popular fundamentalism, but on a fair amount of New Testament scholarship, which has assumed that Paul really meant what the fundamentalists think he meant.
Only when we put together the several different things that he says on the same topic does the truth emerge. This is a typical piece of highly charged and multiply allusive rhetoric. The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed. That, as we shall now see, is pretty much what the rest of the New Testament says as well.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 144–146.