That’s right folks, we’ve arrived at 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17. What you probably didn’t know about rapture theology is that it also includes a battle of the Bible versions.
More evangelical versions of the Bible, like the NIV and the NLT, are careful to limit the work of Jesus at his second coming. “For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus comes, God will bring back with Jesus all the Christians who have died. 15 I can tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not rise to meet him ahead of those who are in their graves. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the call of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, all the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and remain with him forever.”
While more mainline versions, like the NRSV, allow for a more expansive final judgment. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
I can tell you that the word “Christian” which appears twice in the NLT is not in the Greek text. What was inferred in the NIV “14 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.” is expressly stated in the NLT. What I find most interesting, however, is that neither version actually states anything about Jesus snatching believers from their chariots, leaving them to careen off cliffs or to run unabated into the first century equivalent of a couture cupcake shop. Simply put, there is no Biblical case for a pre-tribulation rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4.
So then, what is Paul talking about? Well, I’d rather let someone like NT Wright do that heavy lifting, but he can be a bit long winded. Here’s what I think. I think Paul is talking about the new heaven and the new earth. I think he’s helping the struggling believers in Thessalonica see that when Jesus does come back, it will be to restore all of Creation, not just parts of it. The second coming isn’t about who’s in and who’s out, but rather about the power of God to restore hearts, minds, souls, and even created matter into his perfect vision.