The rapture is perhaps the topic most likely to cause a heated debate among believers. Say something even casually about it and you’re almost guaranteed to create some chaos. Everyone has an opinion about the rapture and most of the disagreement center around its timing. When will it happen? Before the Tribulation? After the Tribulation? Sometime during? There is even disagreement about whether or not the rapture is even distinctly taught in Scripture.
Before I dive into one of the main passages in the rapture debate, let me briefly introduce the different arguments about the timing of this controversial, yet important, event. First, we have the pre-tribulation position (pre-trib or pre-tribbers). This view teaches that the rapture occurs seven years before Christ’s final return and just before the start of the tribulation. Pre-tribbers tend to believe that the rapture is part of the second coming of Christ, that is; it is the first phase (or stage) of his return, and this phase constitutes a “secret” coming. Only Christians will be able to see Christ at the rapture. Unbelievers will not see him until after the tribulation. This first stage is when Christ comes for his church, not with his church which is the second stage of the return.
Second, we have the mid-tribulation rapture. This is not followed by a lot of people anymore so I will not be concentrating too much on it in this series, although I will make brief mentions of it from time to time. Next is the pre-wrath rapture (I’ll refer to them as pre-wrathers). Those will follow this view believe that Christians will live throughout most of the Tribulation. However, at some point during the second-half of the period (the Great Tribulation), Christians will be raptured up to heaven so they can be spared God’s wrath (pre-tribbers believe the entire Tribulation is God’s wrath; pre-wrathers believe this only about the last part of the second half of the Tribulation).
Lastly, there is the post-tribulation position (post-trib or post-tribbers). This view teaches that Christians will live throughout the entire Tribulation. The second coming of Christ (the public viewing) and the Rapture are one and the same event.
As one can see, the topic of the rapture can be heated and confusing at the same time. Something that I plan to show throughout this series is that there are many misconceptions concerning each side of the debate and that many of the arguments (for all of the positions) are not simply what they seem.
In this article, I will spend my time on what is considered to be one of the main passages of the Rapture: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Along with John 14 and 1 Corinthians 15, it provides for us, according to one pre-tribber, “a confident foundation that our future blessed hope proceeds the Tribulation.” Paul’s “purpose was to comfort and encourage rather than to warn or alarm” (thus proving a pre-trib rapture in his view). Let’s take a look to see whether or not this passage teaches a pre-trib rapture or not. Here is the passage:
“Brothers, 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. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According 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. For 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. After 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. Therefore, encourage each other with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
Different Views of the Rapture
|Pre-Tribulational Rapture||Those holding to this view believe that God will rapture believers seven years before Christ makes his return. Thus, Christians will be rescued from the entire Tribulation. The Antichrist rises up after the rapture.|
|Mid-Tribulational Rapture||This is when God raptures the Church halfway through the Tribulation (3.5 years before Christ’s return). They will be spared the last half of the Tribulation when the Antichrist goes into the Temple and declares himself God.|
|Pre-Wrath Rapture||Christians who belief a pre-wrath rapture believe that Christians will go through most of the Tribulation. They will be removed from the earth sometime during the second half of the Tribulation, but before God pours out his wrath on sinful mankind. When this actually happens depends on the individual believer (some say a year or two before Christ’s return, some maybe only days before).|
|Post-Tribulational Rapture||In this view, the rapture and second coming are the same event.|
The word for “Rapture.”
The first issue to deal with concerning the rapture is whether or not the word “rapture” appears in the Bible. Some believe that it doesn’t. However, this argument does not hold up with some simple research. First off, there are many words that Christians regularly use in connection with God that do not appear in the Bible. Examples include the Trinity, omniscience, monotheism, inspiration, and others. So just because a certain word does not appear in the Bible does not mean that the concept is not there. Interestingly, the word “rapture” is…well…sorta in the Bible (and in 1 Thessalonians 4 of all places). Let me quote one scholar:
“The Greek verb harpagesometha, translated ‘caught up’ in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, is more vividly rendered ‘snatched up’…correctly indicating a sudden, forceful removal of the whole lot of resurrected and living believers up to the presence of the Lord. This is the same verb that is used in Acts 8:39 to describe how the Spirit of the Lord ‘snatched away’ (NET; Gk., herpasen) Philip after the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. In the Vulgate [a Latin translation of Scripture], harpagesometha is translated rapiemur, from rapio, and it is from that word that the English word rapture is derived. Accordingly, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 would be correctly rendered ‘Then we who are alive, who are left, will be raptured together with them.”
So to say that the word “rapture” cannot be found in Scripture is not a good argument. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 clearly teaches it.
A Diversity of Interpretations
Now that we have that issue out of the way let’s take some time to see what this passage teaches about the timing of the rapture. Anyone who has read what others think about this passage will discover that each side believes that these verses support their positions. Just take a look at the following information:
- Craig Blaising, a follower of the pre-trib rapture, thinks that 1 Thessalonians 4 is describing a rescue. The Lord rescues dead saints from death and living believers from the Lord’s wrath that comes during the tribulation.
- Writer Alan Kurschner, a pre-wrather, believes that this passage teaches a deliverance which is the rapture (note he thinks this way and is not a pre-tribber).
- Charles Wanamaker, in his commentary on the Thessalonian letters, believes that these verses teach that we go to heaven to be with the Lord before the tribulation to avoid the coming wrath.
- Douglas Moo does not believe that this passage supports a two-stage return of Christ and instead accepts the post-trib position.
- N.T. Wright, in his well-known book on the resurrection of Christ, notes that 1 Thessalonians 4 teaches us about how Christians will meet the Lord as he comes from heaven to “inaugurate God’s final transformative, judging-and-saving reign on earth as in heaven.” This is clearly a post-trib point of view.
That is pretty amazing how we can get so many views from just one passage, and this is only a small sampling of authors. Clearly we have a problem here. Is 1 Thessalonians 4 teaching a pre-trib rapture or something else? This is what the rest of this article will be about, starting with the meaning of what Paul means when he says that we will meet the Lord in the air.
A Meeting in the Air
1 Thessalonians 4:17 tells us that we will be raptured up “to meet” the Lord in the air. Advocates of a pre-trib rapture believe that this is proof that we will be raptured to meet the Lord in the sky and then be escorted back to heaven to live with Christ and other saints while the world is being ravaged during the Tribulation. Mid-tribbers and pre-wrathers believe this as well but with some modifications, namely that it takes place at a different time (not before the tribulation).
However, this is not the only interpretation of the passage. Followers of a post-tribulation rapture think that after believers are caught up in the air to meet Christ they will immediately turn around and escort the King of Kings back down to earth to set up his kingdom. All of this revolves around the Greek word apantesis which is used in verse 17 for the word “meet.”
This word “is used in Greek literature outside the Bible to speak of citizens going [outside] of a city to meet an arriving magistrate, then to return to the city with him. ‘The word apantasis is to be understood as a technical term for a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors’ … ‘The word seems to have been a kind of technical term for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary – a usage which accords excellently with its New Testament usage.’”
As well-known post-trib advocate Robert Gundry says, “Thus, the saints will meet Christ in the air to join Him in His continued descent.”
This is a good point to bring in to the debate. However, as to be expected, pre-tribbers do not take kindly to this interpretation. You can almost hear Mark Hitchcock’s contempt when he calls this meaning of the word, “narrow” and “technical.” There are others who have noted that this word does not have to bear the technical meaning, including some post-tribbers. Kevin Zuber, in his article on 1 Thessalonians 4, goes into some detail on why the technical meaning of the word is not always necessary.
He notes that the context of a word must determine its meaning, and I agree one hundred percent with him. He argues that the word for “meet” often does not bear the technical meaning. Philo, a Jew who lived around the time of Christ, employs different forms of this word 27 different times in his writings, but never in the meaning of a dignitary. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian from the first century, uses them 92 times, but only ten times are they used in formal receptions.
I agree that a word must be interpreted within the context that it is used. I also acknowledge that apantesis can be used without its technical meaning. However, the point that I want to make is that 1 Thessalonians 4:17 can have the meaning of a delegation. If this interpretation is correct then Christ will return, the dead in him will resurrect, and those Christians who are still alive will be raptured to meet Jesus in the air to then escort him back down to earth to set up his kingdom and reign with him forever.
This interpretation (which fits both a post-tribulation and pre-wrath rapture) is supported by another piece of evidence. I’ll quote Kurschner on this:
“The second part of verse 15 uses the phrase: ‘we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord.’ Paul does not simply say ‘we who are alive,’ but rather clarifies it with ‘who are left until the coming of the Lord.’ He uses both of these phrases together again in verse 17. The Greek term is hoi perileipomenoi (‘who are left’). When applied to humans, as it is here, it indicates survival. In addition, this term in biblical, Jewish, and secular usage can mean not just survival, but survival from some tragedy in which others have died. Paul is likely using this term to allude to Jesus’ teaching on the great tribulation.”
“In addition, Paul teaches that those who survive (‘who are left until the coming of the Lord’) live right up to the parousia [the coming of Christ]. This shows there is no gap of time between the rapture and his coming; the rapture is an initial event of the parousia of Christ. Thus Paul envisions the last generation of the church surviving under very difficult circumstances right up to the parousia. In his second epistle, Paul again depicts hardship as normative for believers just before the Lord comes back. For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. (2 Thess. 1: 6– 7) This is consistent with my earlier discussion on how Jesus describes a surviving remnant experiencing persecution right up to the time of his coming— persecution that will eventually be cut short by that coming (Matt. 24: 15; 21– 22; 29– 31).”
I’m sure there are at least a few people who are reading this who can think of some objections to this (see footnote 19). However, the point that I want to bring up is that this passage can be interpreted to support other views of the rapture besides pre-trib. These verses do not prove a pre-trib rapture.
The Context of Apantasis
Even though apantasis can be understood in a post-trib perspective, pre-tribbers believe that this view is improbable. There are a number of reasons for this according to them. Let’s take a look at each of these.
First, 1 Thessalonians 4 does not deal with a delegation of people, but instead all the saints. Personally, I do not see how this makes a post-trib interpretation improbable. Does apantasis have to deal only with a delegation or all the other technicalities to have the meaning of an immediate return? Can we not see them both as a groups of people?
Second, believers “do not ‘go out’ to meet him at their own discretion, but they are ‘snatched up’ by the Lord.” See number one above for the same response.
Third, the word for “meet” is also used in Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. Zuber notes that neither of these verses contain the “formal features” for a dignitary view. Concerning Matthew 25, he says, “In fact, following the pattern of ancient wedding customs, the event pictured would probably be that of the bridegroom, returning to his father’s house, with his bride.” None of the “odd features” fit the technical meaning.
What Zuber says about Matthew 25 does makes sense in that particular context. It is also probably the strongest evidence for a rapture position other than post-trib especially since some passages in Scripture view the church as the bride of Christ (remember that this could also point to a mid-trib or pre-wrath rapture and not only pre-trib). However, I do not see this verse as proof against a post-trib position considering it may not carry the same meaning in 1 Thessalonians 4. Remember that words can have different meanings in different contexts. We must look at all the evidence before making a conclusion (and I intent to do that throughout this series).
Fourth, according to Zuber, the technical meaning simply does not fit the context of 1 Thessalonians 4. He uses a study on Hellenistic Formal Receptions to argue that this passage does not contain certain features. These include “decrees to make elaborate preparations; preparations for wearing festive clothing, garlands and wreaths; sacrifices were often prepared on offered as a part of the reception; loud acclamations would be a prominent part of the receiving crowd’s behavior.”
He then quotes the author as saying “All of the main elements of Hellenistic receptions found in ancient papyri, inscriptions and literature are missing from 1 Thess 4:15-17.” Zuber notes that “the context in 1 Thessalonians describes an event that is ‘sudden and unexpected’; certainly none of the elaborate preparations are indicated. The Thessalonians are not told be prepared with special garments or garlands. It is not the Thessalonians who take the initiative for the meeting. It is not the Thessalonians who are making noise but the shout, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God…There is no evidence of a formal reception in this context so there is no way to determine the direction the parties take after the meeting based on such notions.”
Once again, I feel like a broken record by now, I need to ask if apantasis has to have all of those features every single time to indicate an immediate return? I guess that is why Zuber says, “There is no evidence of a formal reception in this context so there is no way to determine the direction the parties take after the meeting based on such notions.” (emphasis mine)
If, however, Zuber is correct, this would not prove a pre-trib rapture since this would also fit mid-trib and pre-wrath perspectives. Also, I do not see anywhere in 1 Thessalonians 4 where the rapture is “sudden and unexpected.” That is read into the passage from one particular interpretation of other verses in Scripture (I’ll get to those in another article).
An Immediate Return?
Another objection brought up is that “there is no indication that this escorting back must happen immediately…This leaves room for other views of the timing of the Rapture, not just posttribulationism.” Another pre-tribber goes as far to say that the emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 4 is on an upward movement. No downward movement mentioned. It could also be said that a return to “the earth” is not mentioned so we must go to heaven.
I understand and agree with the first statement. That is definitely possible. However, the second argument can be turned around. Robert Gundry, a very well-known post-tribber (and who is not liked at all by pre-tribbers), notes that “the word ‘descent’… indicates a complete, uninterrupted descent, like that of the Spirit at Christ’s baptism…Where a reversal from downward to upward motion comes into view, a specific statement to that effect appears, as in Acts 10:11, 16 (‘a certain object coming down…and immediately the object was taken up into the sky’). In the absence of a statement indicating a halt or a sudden reversal of direction, we naturally infer a complete descent to the earth, such as will take place only at the postribulational advent.”
He also makes an excellent point in that a return to “the earth” is never mentioned in any of the second coming passages. The phrase “to the earth” does not have to be present to teach a post-trib perspective.
Notice how each side interprets the upward or downward movement according to their views. This is common concerning this passage. The main point I want to make, once again, is that the words in this passage can be interpreted according to each view. It simply does not say whether we go to heaven or turn back around immediately.
There are, of course, some other objections pre-tribbers throw at other positions:
- In this passage it is clear that the Thessalonians were saddened because they thought deceased believers would miss the day of the Lord. This must mean that the Thessalonians believed in a pretribulational rapture since dead Christians would miss the joy and blessing of the rapture. This interpretation is not impossible, but one must understand that it lies solely on the idea that a pre-trib rapture is true. It is just as likely that “the Thessalonians thought that only living believers will be raptured at the second coming and so the dead will not share in the meeting with Jesus and the honor of joining His retinue as He descends.” This makes sense considering that deceased believers were already with Christ in Heaven, so why would the Thessalonians be upset?
- The Thessalonians would never have been so concerned about deceased believers if they knew they were going to go through the tribulation. Personally, I think this argument fails. The Thessalonians were already suffering persecution (1 Thess. 1:6; 3:3, 7) and it is unlikely they would occupy themselves with fear of more persecution. There was no reason for Paul to warn of more suffering to come when they were already suffering (it was common for Christians to live through tribulation).
- One pre-tribber objects that “the text says nothing about their accompanying him on the completion of his descent; rather, Paul concludes his description of the event with the assembly in heaven, encouraged by the fact that ‘we will always be with Lord.'” I do not get this argument. Whether we go to heaven with the Lord (pre-trib, mid-trib, or pre-wrath) or come right back to earth (post-trib) we will be the Lord forever (in heaven and on earth).
- There is no indication that we return to earth. In fact, the clouds in the passage imply that we go to heaven. There is also no mention of going to heaven either. The text is silent on both of these. The clouds may indicate a return to heaven, but this does not prove a pre-trib rapture. This would also fit a mid-trib and pre-wrath view as well. However, it is possible that Paul is mentioning the clouds to point to the fulfillment of what the angel said in Acts 1:11 that Christ would return just like the way he ascended into heaven (a cloud hid him from the apostles).
- The word for “caught up” means “to take someone by force…or to catch away to a celestial place.” This, again, could also point to mid-trib or pre-wrath. Also, a sudden removal does not disprove post-trib since this detail just shows us how we will be raptured in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:52). It will be a quick event. That fits all the perspectives.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is considered one of the main (if not the main) passage for the rapture. It is true that these verses teach a rapture at the end of the age. However, this passage does not tell us when the rapture occurs. The details in this passage do not indicate whether we will go to heaven or turn around immediately. Both views are possible. What ends up happening is that the position that a person already accepts as true (pre-trib, post-trib, etc.) is read into the text. The chapter’s silence is filled with what we already believe. It is thus not here that we will solve this issue but in other passages.
What do you think? Leave a comment here or on our Facebook page.
 Robert Dean, Jr. “Three Foundational Rapture Passages.” http://pre-trib.org/articles/view/the-three-major-rapture-passages. 1 (this page number is where I found the referenced material when I downloaded this article onto a pdf).
 Alan Kurschner. Antichrist Before the Day of the Lord (Pompton Lakes: Eschatos Publishing, 2013). 81-82. Kindle Edition.
 Craig Blaising. “A Case for the Pretribulation Rapture.” In Three Views on the Rapture 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010). 27; See also Kurschner, 81-82.
 Kurschner, 81-82. Kurschner (p. 81-82) continues on with idea: “The term harpazō is found fourteen times in the New Testament. (To be sure, the term is found in contexts other than the rapture.)” Examples include Revelation 12:5; 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4; and Acts 8:39-40. The idea of the rapture is also found in Genesis 5:24 and 2 Kings 2:1, with Enoch and Elijah respectively.” For Enoch – The Hebrew term lāqaḥ in this verse means “to remove someone.” In this context, Enoch was removed from the earth (cf. Heb. 11: 5). For Elijah – The Hebrew term ʿlh means “to cause to go up” (cf. 2 Kings 2: 9– 11).
 Blaising, 28-29.
 Kurschner, 128.
 Charles Wanamaker. The Epistles to the Thessalonians. In “The New International Greek Testament Commentary.” (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1990). 175-176.
 Douglas Moo. “A Case for the Posttribulation Rapture.” In Three Views on the Rapture 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010). 201.
 N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). 218.
 Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994). 1134 footnote 42; Millard Erickson. Christian Theology 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998). 1129; Moo, 200-201; Wright, 217-218; F. F. Bruce. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. In “Word Biblical Commentary” vol. 45 (Waco: Word Books, 1982). 102-103.
 Robert H. Gundry. The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973). 104.
 Mark Hitchcock. The End (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2012). 138-139.
 Moo, 201. Gundry (p. 104-105) quotes Bruce on this: “This connotation points toward our rising to meet Christ in order to escort Him immediately back to earth. Although the connotation is not absolutely necessary, it does favor the posttribulational concept of the purpose and the manner of the rapture and presents an obstacle to the pretribulational concept of a return to heaven or a remaining ‘in the air’ for seven years.”
 Kevin D. Zuber. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and the meaning of “to meet”: “Meeting the Dignitary” or ” Retrieving the Bride”? http://pre-trib.org/articles/view/1-thessalonians-417-and-meaning-of-to-meet-meeting-dignitary-or-retrieving-bride. 2 (this page number is where I found the referenced material when I downloaded this article onto a pdf).
 Zuber, 5. He notes (p. 1) that to believe that a word must always have the same meaning is the fallacy of “false assumptions about technical meaning.” He quotes D.A. Carson’s popular book, Exegetical Fallacies (p. 45), who says, “In this fallacy, an interpreter falsely assumes that a word always or nearly always has a certain technical meaning.”
 Zuber, 5.
 Kurschner, 76.
 Ibid., 76-77.
 One possible objection to this is that the Christians who survive up till the coming of the Lord are Jewish believers and/or Gentiles who came to Christ during the Tribulation and after the pre-trib rapture. I admit this is possible but I want to make the point that this is not stated in the text. It is read into it by a preconceived belief. I am not criticizing pre-tribbers for that belief since 1 Thessalonians 4 does not say the opposite as well. No matter which position you hold all of us interpret it according to our pre-belief.
 Zuber, 6. Dean (p. 6) notes that concerning “to meet” Gordon Fee concludes, “a recent investigation of the word has demonstrated that this is unlikely, and that all the other accouterments of such ceremonial receptions are altogether missing from this passage.”
 Blaising, 28. Zuber (p. 12) also thinks that believers who have fallen asleep do not fit the dignitary/reception model.
 Blaising, 28.
 Zuber, 7.
 Ibid., 8. Zuber (p. 15-16) argues the following: The metaphor [the bride of Christ] appears prominently in Ephesians 5 where Paul “uses the union of Christ and His church to illustrate the relation of husband and wife (Eph 5:22-23).” Understanding key aspects of this metaphor requires a knowledge of the ancient wedding customs with which the disciples and the early church would have been assuredly acquainted. Saucy describes the main features of these customs that are pertinent to understanding the main metaphor: he writes, “the Oriental practice of marriage . . . consisted of three stages. First came the betrothal, which was more than a promise of marriage. It was the very initiation of marriage, for the bride was legally considered a married woman from the time of betrothal.” After the betrothal, there would follow an indefinite time of preparation. This time was devoted to, on the man’s part, preparation of the future home and on the woman’s part, preparation of herself for the new role she was intended to fulfill. At an undesignated time, would come “the retrieval” when “the actual marriage took place. On that day the bridegroom and his friends went to the home of the bride and then, in company with the bride and her friends, the festal company proceeded to their future home.” “It is that simple outline, I suggest, that forms the background to understand the significance of the several passages that teach the rapture of the church, including 1 Thessalonians 4.” The rapture is the “retrieval and this is obviously what 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 is all about.” I can understand his thinking but the only to come to this conclusion is if you already have a pre-trib mindset. Also, see my comment on Matthew 25:6 in the main text of this article.
 Michael Crosby. “Hellenistic Formal Receptions.” in Zuber, 10.
 Zuber, 10.
 Hitchcock, 139; Bruce, 103.
 Dean, 5.
 Gundry, 103.
 Ibid., 104.
 John Walvoord. The Rapture Question in Gundry, 100.
 Gundry, 100-101. Kurschner, 77. Moo, 199. Moo says, that the comfort that Paul was giving here was that “of the hope that all believers will participate in the coming of the Lord and always be him.”
 Leon Wood. Is the Rapture Next? in Gundry, 101.
 Gundry, 101. Moo, 199.
 Blaising, 28. Zuber, 11.
 Wanamaker, 175. Zuber, 11.
 Zuber, 11.