In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, Paul makes reference to what has come to be known as the rapture of the church, the catching up of believers to meet Christ in the air. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the subject of the rapture has received particularly close attention in evangelical circles. Often, the discussion revolves around the timing of the rapture and the rest of the events of the second coming of Jesus, with Christians debating whether the rapture comes before, during, or after the tribulation.
The debate over the rapture remains an intramural debate between true Christian believers; however, let us note that 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 does not seem to endorse many popular views in evangelicalism. From a straightforward reading of the passage, it seems that the rapture and the final resurrection will take place at roughly the same time. In fact, if anything happens first, it is the resurrection and not the rapture. Paul says that first the dead will rise, and then those who are alive will join them to meet Christ in the air (vv. 16–17). There is no intervening period between the rapture and the final judgment revealed in this passage.
Paul’s focus is not on the timing of these final events. Whatever view one takes on the relationship of the rapture to the resurrection, the Apostle tells us that we will not be able to date the end. As he says, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (5:1–2). Just as we cannot predict when a thief will break in and steal from us, we cannot know the day or hour of Christ’s return to judge creation. Jesus Himself tells us as much, and we dare not speculate where God is silent (Mark 13:32–37).
We do not know precisely when Christ will return, but we know that the “day of the Lord”—the final judgment (Ezek. 30:1–3; Zech. 14)—and the destruction of the wicked will come as “labor pains come upon a pregnant woman” (1 Thess. 5:3). The sense here is the suddenness and inevitability of the parousia or coming of Jesus. A pregnant woman cannot predict exactly when labor will begin, but she must eventually go into labor and deliver the baby. Likewise, the Lord’s return must happen, but we do not know when.
Yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:3 says that impenitent sinners will be caught off guard when Jesus comes. Their lives will be going on as normal—they will think that they are enjoying peace and security. But that will prove to be an illusion when Christ returns as Judge.