According to a prominent strand of Christian teaching, believers in Jesus are awaiting a future in which they will be transported to heaven in an event known as “the Rapture.” The most popular biblical passage used to support this view is Paul’s eschatological discourse in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. Despite common interpretations of this text in terms of an end-time elevation from the earth, the apostle does not describe a “rapture” out of our world. To the contrary, rather than describing believers being herded to heaven, Paul details events that will occur on this earth in tandem with the Messiah’s second coming.
In his presentation of the Parousia, Paul declares, “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 Messiah will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up (ἁρπάζω; harpadzo) with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (4:16-17). While some read a “rapture” into these verses, Paul’s language and context argue against such a reading. First, among the Greeks of Paul’s day, “caught up” (ἁρπάζω; harpadzo) was used as a euphemism for an untimely death (see Plutarch, Letter to Apollonius 111C-D, 117B); the apostle repurposes ἁρπάζω, not as another word for death, but as a description of eternal life upon the Lord’s return.
Second, the context does not describe Jesus (or his followers) ascending to heaven, but rather coming down to earth on the “clouds” (νεφέλαις; nephelais), which are common vehicles for divine visitation (e.g., Num 11:25; 12:5; Dan 7:13; Mk 13:26; Rev 10:1). Moreover, Paul’s reference to Yeshua arriving with the sound of a “trumpet” (σάλπιγξ; sálpigx) recalls the shofar blast that accompanied God’s descent onto Sinai: “As the sound of the trumpet (שׁופר; shofar/σάλπιγξ; sálpigx [LXX]) grew louder… the Lord came down onto Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain” (Exod 19:19). Once God alighted on this earth, “the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up” (19:20). Just as Moses goes up to meet the Lord in the rarified air of the mountaintop, Paul asserts that believers will meet the descending Lord in the “air” (ἀήρ; aér)—not in a rapture to “heaven” (οὐρανός; ouranós).
Finally, just as Moses eventually comes back down the mountain (see Exod 19:25), those who meet the Messiah in the air will also come back down to this earth. Paul’s picture is of an emperor on his way back from a military campaign: in the ancient Roman world, victorious emperors would return to the capital along with a massive train of foreign prisoners, wealth, and other spoils of war. On hearing of the emperor’s return, the Roman citizens would meet their triumphant leader along the way and follow him back into the city as part of the celebratory procession. Paul envisions a similar scenario at Jesus’ second coming: The Messiah will begin his descent on the clouds and his followers will meet him at a midway point in the air so that they can follow their conquering King back down to this earth.
Although it is common in certain Christian circles to read a “rapture” into 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, this conclusion does not account for Paul’s literary and cultural contexts. Instead of describing a portal to heaven, the apostle offers a window into the eternal life that comes with the resurrection of the dead and Jesus’ everlasting reign in the Kingdom of God.