The question is: does the Apostle Paul teach a rapture? Now, the rapture is something we need to define. As many evangelicals understand the scripture to teach that, it is thought to be a secret snatching up of believers at some unspecified time in the future that is unspecified to us. When the church on earth will be taken up to Christ, they will remain in the air above the earth, and the prophecies concerning Israel, prophecies that are said to concern Israel on earth, will play themselves out to fulfillment until Christ comes and sets up what’s said to be his millennial kingdom. There is the great and final battle followed by the final judgment to come.When he comes we will meet him… and believers will be with Christ forever.
At a fairly widespread understanding of the last things, an appeal is made 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to support the portion of that scheme that I described in terms of the rapture. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 “Then we who are alive, who are left will be caught up together with them” – that is the dead in Christ – “in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.” Our word “rapture” is taken from that verb, which is translated “will be caught up together.”
Strictly speaking, yes, the apostle Paul does teach a rapture, but does he teach a secret rapture according to pre-millennial eschatology? I think the answer is ”no.” When we look at this passage, what we see is that Paul is describing something that, far from being secret, is in fact quite public.
You see that from a couple of details in the passage. There is Paul’s statement that we will be caught up together with them in the clouds. Now clouds, of course, is a way, particularly in the Old Testament, to describe the divine presence. We see that imagery, especially in Daniel 7, quoted by Jesus at his trial in Mark 14, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
That is a word that is uttered to the high priest, who is an enemy of Jesus, far from being something that is secret that concerns only believers. The appearance of the Son of Man in the clouds will be visible, will be public, and will be evident even to unbelievers. In the following verse, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:16: “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.” All of those are audible and visible phenomena, not things you would expect with a secret, private rapture.The appearance of the Son of Man in the clouds will be visible, public, and evident even to unbelievers.
Further, the phrase “the trumpet of God” is used elsewhere by the Apostle Paul to signal the bodily resurrection and the final judgment. We expect Paul, reading 1 Thessalonians 4 in light of 1 Corinthians 15, to be describing the events immediately leading up to the day of judgment. We do not expect, as the dispensational, premillennial scheme of things would argue, a long interim between what Paul describes here in 1 Thessalonians 4 and the Last Judgment.
What Paul is describing here, taken by itself and taken with Paul’s statements elsewhere, is that Christ will return. We do not know the day and the hour. When he comes we will meet him and all human beings will be judged before Christ, in the presence of Christ, and clothed in our resurrection bodies – some raised unto glory and others raised unto shame – and believers will be with Christ forever. That is the hope that Paul set before the Thessalonians as they were grieving as they were confused; that is the hope of God’s people in every age in the church.