But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. ~ 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Christians who disagree about the rapture often get caught up in semantics – yes, pun is definitely intended. Seriously though, those who opposed the rapture often make the claim that the word “rapture” isn’t in the Bible. Those who embrace the rapture claim that the word is taken from Latin, meaning caught up.
The problem with both of these arguments is that neither side actually addresses the teaching of scripture. The issue isn’t whether or not there is going to be a rapture (a catching away) of the saints. The issue is the context into which we place this event, and our interpretation of what it really is.
For example, in dispensational premillennialism, the rapture is a secret escape (from tribulation) into Heaven for Christians and occurs separately from the second coming of Christ.
However, the Bible does not teach any such secret escape into Heaven for believers. The very things some Christians believe they are going to escape are the very things Christians have suffered throughout history. In fact, there are Christians living in the world today who are suffering the very things that some Christians think they are going to avoid via the rapture.
In all honesty, the rapture theology that some Christians have embraced couldn’t be preached or taught as the truth in some parts of the world, because the current suffering of the people would disprove it as false.
Furthermore, Paul says “the dead in Christ shall rise first.” This is a reference to believers whose souls are now in Heaven. Many of them have been in the presence of the Lord in Heaven for hundreds of years, and many have been there a thousand years or more. There is absolutely nothing in this world they would need to escape via a rapture.
Therefore, if the rapture is about “escaping tribulation” then it is only applicable to those who will be living on earth at the coming of the Lord. In no way does it apply to the saints who will rise from the dead – there is no tribulation they need to escape!
This is problematic from a doctronial standpoint because the very things that Christians think they are going to escape via their version of the rapture are the very things that many of the “dead in Christ” have already endured in their lifetime and suffered in their deaths.
The event described by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4 (referenced above) is not a secret escape from the troubles of this world. Instead, it is the promised resurrection of the saints which occurs at the coming of Christ.
Paul is teaching that at the coming of the Lord, those who have died in Christ and are with the Lord now in Heaven, will come with him, and their dead bodies will be raised to life (even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him ~ v 14). The promised resurrection of the saints occurs at the second coming of Christ, and that is why we who are “alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord” will also experience the resurrection of our bodies.
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. ~ 1 Thessalonians 4:15
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. ~ 1 Corinthians 15:51-53
No where in any of his letters does Paul ever advocate a “secret escape” from the troubles of this world, nor does any other New Testament writer. In fact, Paul testified of his much suffering for the name of Christ, and boasted in God’s grace which enabled him to endure such persecution and suffering.
Consider Paul’s list of the things he suffered:
… in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not. In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands. ~ 2 Corinthians 11:23-33
The truth is, Paul never taught those who were under his ministry to look for an escape from troubles and tribulation in this world, but rather to endure such from Christ’s sake.
Ironically, in 1 Thessalonians 3, only one chapter before chapter 4 which is interpreted as “escape tribulation” in dispensational premillennialism, Paul says the following:
Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone; And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellow labourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith: That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto. For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know. For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labour be in vain. But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you: Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord. For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith? Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you. And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: To the end he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints. ~ 1 Thessalonians 3:1-13
Those who advocate a secret escape interpretation of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4, will sometimes argue that at the rapture Jesus is coming for his saints, and at his second coming he is coming with his saints.
The Bible however, does not make any such distinction.
According to Paul, the second coming of Christ and our gathering to him will resemble that which occured in ancient times when a King who had journeyed to a far away land returned. The citizens under his rulership would go outside the city or country to meet him and escort him back into the country. This is what Paul is alluding to in 1 Thessalonians 4, and it is just one piece of the prophetic puzzle regarding how events will unfold at the coming of the Lord.
In 1 Thessalonians 3 (cited above) Paul encourages the believers in Thessalonica to endure tribulation and persevere in faith, while offering prayers for them. He then says, “to the end he (God) may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints. ~ v. 13
This is consistent with Peter’s description of how believers should live holy and godly lives in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. Please note that there is no secret escape for believers prior to the coming of Christ in Peter’s message.
This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour: Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. ~ 2 Peter 3:1-14
According to Peter, we are not to be looking for an escape route, rather we are looking for the new heavens and new earth when Christ returns. When the day of the Lord comes, the judgment of the ungodly will commence, and the new heavens and new earth will be ushered in. For this reason we are to live holy and godly lives looking for the coming of that day!
This agrees with the words of John:
And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming. If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him. Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. ~ 1 John 2:28-3:3
John encourages holiness in expectation of the coming of Christ, just as Peter does. Peter also says the following in same context of the coming of the day of the Lord.
And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. ~ v. 15-17
It is unfortunate that there are Christian interpretations which have turned the glorious resurrection of the saints into a secret escape from the wickedness of this world rather than victory over it at the coming of Christ. When Christ comes, we who have believed and trusted in Jesus will experience the resurrection of our mortal bodies. There will be no need to escape the things of this world of which we will then be immune in glorified bodies!
The testimony of the scripture is that the glorious (rapturous) and triumphant resurrection of the saints will happen when the Lord comes to judge the ungodly. The world will be judged, and Christ will be glorified in us. Consider Paul’s description of this:
And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day. Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power: that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. ~ 2 Thessalonians 1:7-2:2
Paul’s view of the coming of Christ and the resurrection of the saints is in agreement with Peter’s account of the day of the Lord. It is not in agreement with those who teach that Paul believed in a “secret escape” from tribulation.
Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4 have nothing to do with “escape tribulation.” Paul is describing the resurrection of the saints which the Bible places at the time of the second coming of Christ, at which time the ungodly will be judged and the new heavens and new earth with be ushered in.