“The Rapture”, an event detailed and made famous in the Left Behind series by LaHaye and Jenkins, is a staple belief of those who hold to a premillennial view of Revelation.[1] Basically, this doctrine is that faithful believers will be taken away at the start of a seven-year period called “the tribulation”, afterward, Christ will return to reign on earth for 1,000 years, and then the end of all things will come.[2] This doctrine isn’t peculiar to any denomination or group; there are people who both espouse and deny it in many different groups. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what any person or group believes; we want to know what God tells us in the Bible. Let’s look at 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 and see what God says about these things.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

– 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 (ESV)

There are many amazing things about this passage we should look at later. Right now, we are focused on answering our questions about the rapture. Does this passage teach that God’s faithful followers will be taken away before the last day? For now, let’s agree to set aside all other questions and focus on this one alone.

Unfortunately for us, these words appear at the end of chapter 4. This regrettable chapter break separates Paul’s explanation of what events will take place from Paul’s continued discussion about when they will take place. Contextually, we should consider 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 in our studies, too, or we risk missing out on important information.

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

– 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 (ESV)

What Is the Order of Events?

According to the premillennial doctrine of the rapture, God will remove his faithful followers with the Day of the Lord taking place 1,007 years later.[3] This creates a problem with Paul’s account in 1 Thessalonians since he has the consummation of God’s faithful people occurring on the Day of the Lord, not beforehand. The biblical order of events is vastly different from the premillennial one.

Paul explains the what, why and how of events in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18. The saints were aware of the resurrection of the dead, but they were uncertain how those things were going to happen. Were the dead going to be left behind? Were they going to receive the same promises as those left alive at the Lord’s coming? Paul seeks to put those fears to rest by clearly stating all believers “will be caught up together”. The dead will not precede the living, and the living won’t go on without the dead.

This makes sense because the Bible has only one “day of judgment”.[4] Any doctrine which contradicts other plain passages must be incorrect if we believe the Bible is infallible and without error. Since other passages clearly state there is a single day of judgment, creating multiple judgments is unacceptable. However, everything Paul mentions here is completely in line with the rest of the New Testament revelation unless we try to force the rapture into the text, which clearly does it violence.

No matter how fond we are of a doctrine or how cool the books are written about it, we must deny things the Bible doesn’t teach. By carefully looking at the order of events as presented in 1 Thessalonians 4 & 5, we must deny the doctrine of the rapture – at least the premillennial version of it.

When Do These Things Take Place?

After Paul allayed people’s fears of being left behind, he instructed them about when these events would occur. As mentioned previously, this is the purpose of 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11. Paul’s ultimate answer is we don’t get to know, but God will work these things when he is ready.[5]

According to 1 Thessalonians 5.2, these events are going to take place on the “Day of the Lord”, but which day of the Lord? There are many different “days of the Lord” in the Bible, so what are they and how do we tell them apart? Every biblical “day of the Lord” has something in common: judgment.[6] When a “day of the Lord” takes place, someone is being saved and someone else is being judged. Consider the exodus from Egypt: the Israelites were saved by passing through the Red Sea, and the Egyptians were destroyed by the sea and the plagues. They were drowned, as it were, by the judgments of God.

In 1 Thessalonians 5.2, the “Day of the Lord” refers to the “expected consummation of the kingdom of God”, or the time when God will stand as judge over the living and the dead of all ages, cf 2 Corinthians 5.10.[7] There is a shift from the physical judgments of the Old Testament to a spiritual judgment in the New Testament. Frequently in the Old Testament, it was the enemies of Israel being judged; Gentile nations standing against the promises and will of God paid a steep price for ignoring the Creator. For Christians, however, there is no national antagonist and no physical promises to be fulfilled. The enemies of God’s holy ones are Satan, sin and death. These three, along with all of Satan’s angels, will ultimately be cast into the “eternal fire”.[8] This isn’t merely a judgment against a nation, but the final judgment of all sin from all time; everyone will stand before God on this day.

So, when will this day dawn? We aren’t told. In fact, we’re told God is purposefully keeping us in the dark regarding his timing.  Jesus says, “no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”[9]. Paul echoes the words of Jesus by saying the last day will come “like a thief in the night”.[10] Nobody, believer nor unbeliever, will know the timing of the last day – not even the Son of God!

What Are the Conclusions?

After considering all the evidence, we can come away with at least two points leading to a final conclusion that 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 is definitely not about the premillennial rapture.

First, Jesus and Paul both clearly state that no one knows when this is going to happen. This presents a serious problem because the rapture makes the timeline for the “Day of the Lord” known. How? As mentioned earlier, proponents believe the “Day of the Lord” takes place 1,007 years after the rapture. Whenever the rapture takes place, just set your countdown timer to 1,007 years and then you know the exact timing for the last day. While knowing that information would be interesting, unfortunately it would make Jesus a liar. Since Jesus said no one knows when these things will occur, we must choose between belief in Jesus as the divine Son of God or belief in the premillennial rapture. Hopefully, we will all choose Jesus.

Now, to be fair, some might argue the unknown element of Jesus’ statement is the timing of the rapture itself, but the flow of Jesus’ words make this view impossible, cf. Matthew 24.36-25.46. Jesus moves right away from talking about his (willful) lack of knowledge to parables dealing with judgment on the last day.[11] If the order of events purported by rapture believers is correct, then Jesus is wrong.

Second, according to proponents of the rapture, the stealing away of God’s faithful is not part of the “Day of the Lord”, but precedes it by about 1,007 years. This doesn’t fit the timeline of 1 Thessalonians where all these events occur at the same time. Additionally, it creates multiple “Days of Judgment” while the clear biblical teaching is one, single Day of Judgment for all people.

These points must lead us to conclude the premillennial rapture is a false doctrine and not taught in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18. There is a coming day when all the Lord’s faithful, both the living and the dead, will be caught up into heaven, but it is the very last, ultimate Day of the Lord when everyone will give an account for what they have done.[12]

[1] The doctrine of the rapture is based primarily on a literal interpretation of the figurative book of Revelation. In Revelation 1.1, John writes that the purpose was to “show” or to make known through things that are seen. This is evidenced throughout the book where John says, “I saw”. This is a record of visions John received. John emphasizes this apocalyptic nature of his writings by against stating these things where “signified” or shown to him through signs and symbols; additionally, John refers to everything in the book as “all that he saw”, cf Revelation 1.2. While debate concerning the meaning of the signs is understandable, debate about the symbolic and pictorial nature of the writing itself is much less so.

[2] Elwell, Walter A., and Philip Wesley Comfort. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Tyndale Reference Library. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

[3] The actual number seems to chance some with different premillennial theories, but this seems to be the most popular belief: the Day of the Lord will occur after the seven year tribulation and a thousand year reign of Christ on earth in Jerusalem.

[4] 2 Peter 2.9, 3.7; 1 John 4.17; Jude 6. All these clearly refer to a single day when ultimate judgment is rendered. Whatever our conclusions about 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 are, they must be consistent with other passages in the Bible concerning the end of all things. If we create multiple days of judgment with 1 Thessalonians 4, then our understanding is incorrect; the rest of the Bible clearly refers to one day, not many.

[5] Cf Deuteronomy 29.29 is a verse that everyone should learn and memorize. Sometimes, there are things we just don’t get to know.

[6] Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. “Day of the Lord.” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.

[7] Myers, Allen C. “Day of the Lord”. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.

[8] Cf. Matthew 25.41 and Revelation 20.14.

[9] Matthew 24.36. The important of Jesus’ declaration of ignorance for all but the Father cannot be understated. Anyone claiming to know the timeframe for events of the “last day” is wrong.

[10] Cf. Matthew 24.43-44 and 1 Thessalonians 5.2.

[11] The “coming of the Son of Man” is probably not referring to the rapture or any other event outside of the first century. It’s likely referring to the impending judgment on Israel, specifically Jerusalem, which Jesus promises several times in the gospels.

[12] Cf. Psalm 62.12; Isaiah 3.10-11; Ezekiel 18.20; Matthew 16.27; Romans 2.5-10; 1 Corinthians 3.13, 4.15, and many others.

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