Straight Line Down
13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.
Those who hold to Rapture Eschatology see here undeniable evidence that the Rapture will happen. What else could “we…will be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” possibly mean? For many, this is the clearest teaching of the Rapture we have in the Bible.
But there are three questions that stand out. First, what is this passage really about? Second, what is the physical path that Jesus will take when he returns? Third, where exactly will we be with the Lord forever? Let’s examine each of these questions in turn.
To answer the first question, we must look back at verse 13, where Paul tells us why he is writing everything he writes in this paragraph. “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep.” The Thessalonian Christians became alarmed when their brothers and sisters began to pass away. Jesus had, after all, promised them eternal life. Paul’s solution to this conundrum was to look at Jesus and see that, just as he had died and risen again, so we will die and rise again. The resurrection of our bodies is our hope through death. This passage is first and foremost about what happens to dead Christians when Jesus returns and why those who are alive can have hope for them. This passage is about resurrection.
To answer the second question we have to look more closely at verse 16. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven….” Paul’s picture of Creation was vastly different from our own because he lived before the time of Galileo, Newton, space flight, and the Hubble telescope. He understood heaven to rest directly above the earth, so when he says Jesus comes down from heaven that means the only place for him to go is the earth. There is no mention of Jesus taking any other path. He moves in a straight line down from heaven to earth. There is no indication from the text that he stops halfway, calls all true believers to himself, then turns around and goes back into heaven.
The answer to the third question begins with an examination of verse 17. “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with [the resurrected Christians] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The question of where we spend eternity with Jesus has, according to this verse, two options. We either meet Jesus as he is coming down to earth and escort him down, or we meet him halfway and stay there. Again, nothing about this text says that he turns around and goes back up to heaven. We either meet him as he is coming or we meet him halfway—meaning we either spend eternity on earth or in the air. The one place that is not an option, according to this passage, is heaven.
Our understanding of this passage is colored by our misunderstanding of eternity. Only if we bring an American folk-lore picture of eternity and heaven to this passage can we interpret a Rapture here. The key to reading this passage aright is fixing our picture of heaven. If Revelation 21 and 22 are the definitive biblical teaching on eternity, then we will not be in heaven or in the air. We will be here, on the recreated and renewed earth, living with the Trinity in the New Jerusalem. (And if you want to go really deep, look at how John talks about the New Jerusalem and how other NT authors talk about the Church. This will blow your mind.) When we trade in our pseudo-Christian, American folk-lore picture of eternity for a biblical one, then this passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 will come into clear view.
There is so much more that could be said about this passage, but for now we can know, 1) this text is primarily about resurrection, 2) Jesus travels in a straight line down from heaven to earth when he returns, and 3) we spend eternity with the Trinity here on the new earth. Finding the Rapture here is a bit like finding an F# in a rainbow. There is no Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.