1 Thessalonians 4 and the Rapture


Many American Christians have questions about something called “the rapture.” These questions are often tied to a particular flavor of premillennialism called “dispensationalism.” According to this framework, “the rapture” means “the idea that Christ will remove the church from the world prior to the great tribulation.”1 They believe the rapture is before the Great Tribulation, so it is “pre-tribulational.” This teaching relies heavily on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, along with other supporting passages. This article will evaluate whether this passage teaches a pre-tribulational rapture.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Paul begins a new subject at 1 Thessalonians 4:13.2 Maybe the church had written to Paul with this question, or maybe Timothy had relayed it in person (1 Thess 3:6f). Regardless, Paul doesn’t want the church in Thessalonica to be upset and grieve, as if they had no hope.

Why are they upset? We don’t know how the issue came up, but wrong ideas seem to taken root in the congregation about Jesus’ return. This isn’t surprising, because Paul didn’t spend much time with them before he was run out of town (Acts 17:1-9).

What is this hope that ought to stop them from grieving? Paul explains:

For 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. (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

Paul explains3 that, because Jesus has died and rose again, in the same way4 God will bring with Jesus those who have died (“fallen asleep”) while in union with Him. So, anyone who believes that Jesus is the hinge upon which God’s single plan to rescue us and this world turns—that is, any believer—will be resurrected and be with Jesus forever. This means there is hope, whether the believer is alive or dead.

According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)

In fact, the believers who are alive when Jesus returns will not be “first in line” to see Him. The dead believers will not be left behind. What does this mean? Paul explains …5

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. (1 Thessalonians 4:16)

The reason dead Christians won’t miss anything is because Jesus Himself will come from heaven and resurrect “the dead in Christ” first. Jesus will come very publicly, very loudly—accompanied with both a piercing battle cry6and the sound of a blasting trumpet. So, the dead believers will be resurrected first—but what about the believers who are still alive when Christ returns?

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.(1 Thessalonians 4:17)7

After the dead in Christ are resurrected in the same way as Jesus (i.e., miraculously), those who are still alive will be caught up, snatched, or suddenly seized away8 into the clouds to meet Jesus in the air as He returns. This happens right after the resurrection of the dead believers, so that together they will meet Jesus in the air as one group. And so, Paul concludes, in this way all believers will be with the Lord for all time.

The point is that dead believers have reason to hope. They will miss nothing. So, when Paul makes his conclusion at the end of v.17, he’s drawing those strands together. He’s answering a question about whether the dead in Christ will miss out when Jesus returns. The answer is no, both dead and living believers will meet the Lord together in the air. In this manner, all believers will be with Jesus forever.

Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:18)

So, does 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 teach that the Lord will remove the church from the earth before the Great Tribulation? No, it does not. The passage isn’t about the rapture at all. It’s about how those who are in relationship with Jesus, whether alive or dead, always have hope that they’ll be with Him forever when He returns. To be sure, the passage contains the rapture, but that isn’t the same thing as being about the rapture.

Paul doesn’t answer the question about rapture timing. He doesn’t address that issue at all. He simply says that, when Jesus returns, both dead and living believers will meet Him in the air as one group and be with the Lord forever. Paul doesn’t say what happens next.

  • Does the group (a) then ascend back to heaven with Jesus, (b) clearing the way for the Great Tribulation on the people of Israel, and then (c) return to earth with Jesus afterwards?
  • Or does the group simply fall in behind Jesus in the air as He continues His return—in which case this meeting is like a divine triumphal entry in which they met Him “half way”?

Paul doesn’t say. You must bring in other passages to make the case for a pre-tribulational rapture. I’ll examine the most common support passages in follow-up articles. But the evidence in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 does not support any particular timing for the rapture.


1 Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, revised ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), s.v. “Rapture, Pretribulational view of the,” p. 167.

2 The NIV omits the transitional conjunction δὲ.

3 The conjunction at the beginning of v.14 is explanatory (γὰρ).

4 The adverb of manner at v. 14b (οὕτως) explains that our dying and rising again will happen in the same way as Jesus.’

5 The conjunction at the beginning of v.17 (ὅτι) is explanatory.

6 BDAG, s.v., “κέλευσμα,” p. 538; LSJ, s.v., p. 936.

7 Gk: ἔπειτα ἡμεῖς οἱ ζῶντες (nom. apposition) οἱ περιλειπόμενοι (nom. apposition) ἅμα σὺν αὐτοῖς ἁρπαγησόμεθα (paired with ἡμεῖς)ἐν νεφέλαις εἰς ἀπάντησιν τοῦ κυρίου εἰς ἀέρα· καὶ (conclusion) οὕτως πάντοτε σὺν κυρίῳ ἐσόμεθα. “And then we—those who are alive and are still here—will be snatched away together with them into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so, in this way we’ll be with the Lord for all time.”

8 BDAG, s.v., “ἁρπάζω,” sense 2, p. 134; LSJ, s.v., sense 2, p. 246.


Interesting, from a linguistic standpoint, that Paul says, “we, who are still alive.” He turns out not to be in that latter group of believers who are still alive for this event.

In seminary, our class in Bible Exposition was given the assignment of expositing this passage. Every one of us handed in an outline with the theme "The Second Coming of Christ". My eschatology became simple when I saw the Second Coming and "the rapture" as the same event and that separating them by seven years required hermeneutic gymnastics. And yes, I still hold to imminency.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

When I studied 1 Thes. 4 during seminary (a dispensational seminary!), I changed my eschatological perspective from pre-trib / pre-mil to historic pre-mil.

A couple things to point out in 1 Thes. 4:13-18:

  • Most people focus on the word ἁρπάζω, but really people should focus on the word ἀπάντησις.
  • ἀπάντησις refers to the action of going out to meet an arrival. This word was used of Roman citizens going out of their city to greet an arriving dignitary and welcoming him into their city. In other words, what Paul is describing is believers (both dead and alive) going out to meet Jesus in the clouds as he is returning to the earth.

So, I believe Paul does provide us in this passage with context clues about "what happens next."

THoward: Yes, I agree. LSJ is particularly good with its discussion of the word. I’ll update the article this evening. I wrote this rather quickly and deliberately kept it very short, but this is a good point.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

I used to believe the events of 1 Thess 4:13ff described a post-Trib event. I changed my belief to pre-Trib while in school at BJU. Among the many reasons: You must change the defn of "imminent" to "not-so-imminent" if you equate the events of 1 Thess 4:13ff to the final return of Christ to earth. If the events of 1 Thess 4:13ff occur after the Tribulation or even mid-Tribulation, then the return of Christ is at least 3 1/2 years away and not so imminent.

Wally Morris
Huntington, IN


You can believe in post-trib and still believe in the imminency of Christ's return. Imminent means "ready to take place especially: hanging threateningly over one’s head"

Although I am historic pre-mil guy, I believe Christ's return is imminent.

Not very "hanging threateningly" if it's at least 3 1/2 years away.

Wally Morris
Huntington, IN

Not very "hanging threateningly" if it's at least 3 1/2 years away.

Why is that? Does an event have to be a "can happen anytime" event for it to be impending or for it to "hang threateningly" over you?

I don't think so.

Jesus didn't say his return could happen anytime. He gave his disciples warnings and described several precursors to his return (see Matt. 24). Paul also made it clear that certain events had to take place before Christ would return (see, for example, 2 Thess. 2:1-12). But, both Jesus and Paul described Christ's return as impending. Be alert! Be watchful!

You are changing meaning of words to fit your theology. Christians have always believed that Christ could return at any time. 2 Thess 2 refers to the Day of the Lord. According to your theology, we have at least 7 years before Christ's return. Not very encouraging.

Wally Morris
Huntington, IN

The word imminent doesn't have to mean "can happen anytime." Jesus and Paul didn't teach Christ's parousia could "happen at anytime." They did teach his parousia was impending or "hanging threateningly."

And, Christians have not always believed a "can happen anytime" view. This "can happen anytime" belief has been pushed primarily by dispensationalism, but even then only to refer to the pre-trib rapture, not to the parousia.

That get's us back to the point of discussion. Does Jesus and/or Paul teach a pre-trib rapture of the church? Not in Matthew 24 or 1 Thessalonians 4.

The OED gives five definitions, listing three as obsolete:

1. 1528 Of an event, etc. (almost always of evil or danger): Impending threateningly, hanging over one's head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its incidence; coming on shortly.

2. 1641 † Remaining fixed or intent (upon something). Obsolete.

3. 1727 In literal sense: Projecting or leaning forward; overhanging.

4. 1605–1856 † Confused with immanent adj. Obsolete.

5. 1642 † Confused with eminent adj. Obsolete.

Three passages seem to fit with meaning 1:

Mt 24.32-33 ¶ “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.

Mk 13.29 “Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door.

These two are from the Olivet Discourse. The operative question is who are these words for? The church in general or for those alive when these events are happening?

Jas 5.7-9 ¶ Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. 8 You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.

This one seems to be for every believer in every age.

There are probably other passages that touch on this, I just was thinking of the phrase "at the door."

In any case, I don't think it is a matter of definitions, but whether there is a specific event prophesied that will precede the Rapture.

BTW, per Tyler's article, I think everyone who believes the Bible believes in the Rapture. That is what 1 Thess 4 is describing. The issue is when will it occur? Is it next, or must something intervene?

To me the witness of Scripture says nothing intervenes.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

It seems to me that the problem of imminency is best resolved by a single second coming, not two. Not one to rapture the saints, and another to return to earth, but one coming when saints are raptured and the now fully glorified saints join Christ in His return to earth.

G. N. Barkman

Post-Tribs have a depressing few years coming. You are expecting to experience the horrors of the Tribulation judgments. Most everything you have and most people you know, including believers and family, will die. Build your bunker now.

Wally Morris
Huntington, IN

Some also don't see "The Tribulation" as the world-wide (and somtimes United States centered) event as portrayed in Left Behind/Hal Lindsay presentations.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Post-Tribs have a depressing few years coming. You are expecting to experience the horrors of the Tribulation judgments. Most everything you have and most people you know, including believers and family, will die. Build your bunker now.

This comment represents a very modern, western (i.e. American) attitude toward suffering. I guess we forget about the millions of Christians who have gone on before us and who were martyred for their faith. Whether they or their families were beheaded, fed to the lions, burned at the stake, starved to death, hanged, shot, or worse, these brothers and sisters counted themselves blessed to be persecuted for their Savior (Matt. 5:11-12).

All we in America think about is our comfort and relatively pain-free life. For me, one of the benefits of holding a historic pre-mil position is I won't be surprised when the trouble and persecution comes. However, all of my brothers and sisters who've been banking on a pre-trib escape will have a real come-to-Jesus moment.