Paul outlines what appears to be a novel eschatological scenario in his first letter to the churches at Thessalonika. He writes that at the coming of Christ believers will be raised from the dead, collected into the air, and brought into the presence of the Lord (4:16-17). At the sound of the last trumpet there will be a gathering of the faithful, a meeting with Christ, and a resurrection of the holy ones.
Due to the brevity of these enigmatic verses, Christians have long speculated as to the nature and purpose of the rapture experience. Questions and answers abound: How will believers be transported into the sky? Where will the faithful go after the conference? What will happen to those left behind?
I think such questions are best addressed by first determining the practical function of Paul’s fanciful scene. Our first question should not be How does this work? but rather What’s the point?
To get at that point, we can examine how other New Testament writers articulate their expectations regarding the parousia of Christ. As we do this the seeming novelty of Paul’s parousia presentation quickly subsides.
Rapture in the sky: Gathering the good and the bad
We can begin with what Paul terms the “enrapturing” or “plucking up” (ἁρπάζω) of believers into the sky. Although the precise word that Paul uses here never again appears in an eschatological context, Paul’s “rapture” of the faithful is conceptually linked to what other writers refer to as the “gathering up” or “collection” of the saints at the coming of the son of man. In each of these texts believers are swept away at the moment Christ arrives and brings the eschaton crashing into the present age.
- Harvesting angels “gather” (συνάγω/συλλέγω) the righteous into the master’s barn (Matthew 3:12/13:30).
- Angelic fishers “gather” (συνάγω) fish from the sea that they might “amass” (συλλέγω) the good into baskets (Matthew 13:47-48).
- The faithful are likened to those who shut themselves into the ark before the deluge came (Matthew 24:37-39).
- Angels “gather” (ἐπισυνάγω) the elect from everywhere under Heaven at the son of man’s call (Matthew 24:31).
Based on these examples it is clear that Paul’s enrapturing of believers in the sky is one of many renditions on the theme. Yet whereas Paul depicts the seizure of the righteous alone, early Christians seemed to have thought in terms of an unholy rapture as well. In Revelation’s vision of the coming son of man, for instance, angels “harvest” or “gather” (τρυγάω) the earth’s vintage that it might be crushed in the wine press of God’s fury (14:18-20). Still elsewhere the wicked are bundled together that they might be thrown into the furnace (Matthew 3:12, 13:42) or into the outer darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13).
The fundamental message these passages convey is that the eschatological judgement will involve precise “separation” (ἀφορίζω) (Matthew 13:49, 25:31-46). The good will not share in the fate of the bad and vice versa. To make this point Jesus and the early Christians employed a variety spacial metaphors: the righteous will be rewarded in one distinct place while the unrighteous will be punished in another distinct place. What is important then is not where the good or bad are gathered at the time of judgement, whether in a barn, an ark, a furnace, or the sky, but that they are gathered into discrete communities inhabiting separate spaces.
What then do we make of Paul’s rapture in the air? What seems to have been of greatest significance to the Apostle was that the righteous would be removed from the spacial plane inhabited by the wicked so as to not suffer the wrath about to befall the earth. The sky made for an obvious refuge in such circumstances. Paul’s rapture into the air functioned then not to permanently relocate believers to Heaven, but to grant safety to the persecuted churches during the judgement of the earthly realm.
Beyond the safety ensured by this temporary removal from the earth, the gathering of the righteous would also be a moment of political reconstitution for God’s people. Consider, for example, Jesus’ most famous description of the rapture in Mark 13:26-27. Jesus’ words conform most closely to LXX Deuteronomy 30:4 and Zechariah 2:6-7 presented below.
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather (ἐπισυνάγω) his elect from the four winds (τῶν τεσσάρων ἀνέμων), from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
If you are scattered from one end of heaven to the other, from there the Lord your God will gather (συνἄγω), and from there the Lord your God will take you.
Up, up! Flee from the land of the north, says the Lord; for I have spread you abroad like the four winds (τῶν τεσσάρων ἀνέμων) of heaven, says the Lord. Up! Escape to Zion, you that live with daughter Babylon.
In describing the coming of the son of man Jesus echoes scriptures relating to the restoration of Israel’s political existence after the Babylonian exile by means of Persian conquest. The coming of the son of man would therefore be a similarly socio-political exaltation of God’s people, albeit on a larger scale. Christ’s absconded elect would not only avoid God’s wrath upon the godless, they would also be given authority over the nations (cf. Zechariah 2:9-13) and a new political future (cf. Deuteronomy 30:5).
Meeting the Lord: Eschatological performance review
Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that the faithful will be taken into the clouds not only in order to be gathered together, but also “in order to meet” the Lord (εἰς ἀπάντησιν) (1 Thess 4:17). While early Christian texts commonly refer to a meeting between Christ and his servants on earth for the purpose of reward and punishment, Paul’s depiction of believers going out to meet Jesus is much less common (cf. Matthew 24:42-51, 25:19, Hebrews 9:28, 2 Thess 1:5-12). The parable of the ten virgins represents perhaps the only other case. The virgins with ready lamp oil are invited to “go out and meet” (ἐξέρχεσθε εἰς ἀπάντησιν) the bridegroom as he approaches (Matthew 25:1-6). In doing so they enter the wedding feast with the bridegroom. Those who were not ready for the meeting, however, are excluded.
Though the details vary among these presentations, Paul’s meeting with the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 4 should be classified with other depictions of in-house judgement at the parousia of Christ; particularly with the parables in which the master returns to balance accounts with his slaves. Whereas the rapturous gathering of believers was conceived in wholly positive terms (i.e. rescue and reconstitution), the meeting with Christ was more ambiguous. Would the believer be found dutiful or derelict? In Paul’s estimation, the believers at Thessalonika were ready and would therefore experience the meeting with joy. Paul was of course also aware of the devastating results awaiting those believers who were found unprepared at the coming of the Lord (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
All of this is to say that the expected eschatological meeting functioned first and foremost as an argument for moral readiness. What mattered was not where the meeting took place, whether in the sky or on the earth, but that believers were working obediently until Christ inevitably and unexpectedly came to audit his servants. Jesus’ warning at the end of the parable of the ten virgins both interprets the story and expresses the ethos surrounding the eschatological meeting: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13, cf. 1 Thess 5:1-11).
Resurrection of the dead: Rags to riches
Finally we turn to Paul’s reference to the resurrection of dead believers at the coming of Christ. Perhaps in large part thanks to the Gospel of John, Christians tend to think of the resurrection as the means by which believers receive happy and unending lives on the new earth (or in Heaven). While this may be a valid reading of early Christian hopes, it does not represent the primary function of resurrection in Biblical context. Where resurrection does appear in the Bible, it functions generally as a means of public vindication for the faithful.
- In Daniel 12:1-3 the wise and the righteous who sleep in the dust will “shine forever like the sky and the stars” while the unrighteous will awake to “everlasting shame and contempt.” In a similar account of the eschaton, the 1st century Jewish Testament of Moses states: “God will exalt you [Israel] and he will bring you to the heaven of the stars, in the place of their habitation. You will look from on high and see your enemies in Gehenna and you shall recognize them and rejoice” (10:9). What matters in these texts is not the nature of resurrected life per se but the eternal reputation of the saints in comparison to the reputation of their enemies. The faithful will shine brightly and beautifully for all to see; their honorable reputation will be as public as the day sky or the starry night (cf. Matthew 13:43, 17:2). The persecutors of the saints, however, will receive equally public eternal humiliation.
- The mention of resurrection in Isaiah’s Apocalypse is contained within a song about Judah’s restoration after defeat (26:19). In the song God comes to judge the inhabitants of the earth on Judah’s behalf by enlarging its borders and trampling the cities that opposed the holy city (26:5; 15; 21). Resurrection in this case is thus a symbol for Jerusalem’s unexpected political ascendancy over its enemies.
- An exilic Jerusalem is offered a similar prophetic summons to “rise up,” “awake,” and “shake off the dust” in Isaiah 52:1-2. Here the political liberation of Israel from captivity in Babylon is likened to the stirring up of the earth’s dead. Ezekiel’s vision in which Israel’s dry bones are incarnated once more is a vivid example of the same metaphor. God interprets the vision to the prophet: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel… I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land” (37:12-14). In these examples resurrection is an image of the people’s liberation and resettlement.
- As in Daniel 12, Paul often speaks of resurrection in terms of honor. The body sown in dishonor is raised in honor and glory (1 Cor 15:43; 49, 2 Cor 4:17, cf. 1 John 3:2, Isaiah 25:8). At the coming of the Lord believers are transformed into the glorious image of the heavenly Christ (Philippians 3:21, Colossians 3:4). For Paul this exaltation of the believer’s reputation appears to be the resurrection’s primary function.
- Jesus says that the long-dead people of Nineveh will “rise up” on the day of judgement in order to condemn the current generation of Jews (Matthew 12:38-42). On that day the people of Nineveh will be publicly glorified and vindicated for having listened to the word of God through Jonah. They will justly condemn those in Israel who rejected the word of God spoken through a greater Jonah, Jesus. There will thus be honor for the raised, dishonor for the condemned.
- Revelation speaks of the crowning and enthronement of the dead in Christ over the rebellious nations (2:10, 3:21). They will have their deaths avenged on the day of the Lamb’s wrath (6:9-11, 17:14) and they will judge the earth with Christ (20:1-4). All of this indicates that the rehabilitation of the martyrs’ public reputation is central to John’s eschatological hopes.
When the dust finally settles then, it was not the nature of the resurrection body that was of primary significance to the early Christians; it was the dramatic public reversal of honor and shame. Those once held in high esteem would be humiliated while those who trusted in Christ even unto an inglorious death would be exalted.
Putting all of this together, Paul’s words to the churches at Thessalonika are less fanciful speculation and more functional eschatology. The gathering in the sky, the meeting with the Lord, and the resurrection of the dead represented concrete practical solutions to pressing concrete problems. In the gathering of believers Christ would separate the good from the bad, condemning the latter and reconstituting the former. In the meeting with the Lord Christ would evaluate believers, administering either reward or chastisement. In the resurrection of the dead Christ would flip the world’s system of honor and dishonor on its head. Believers who had died would by no means miss out on the public vindication of Christ’s people.