The Catechism teaches that the Church “must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers,” and such a persecution will “unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth.” This religious deception will be “that of the Antichrist” (675).
But some Protestants believe that the Bible teaches otherwise: that Christians will not experience the persecution of the Antichrist but will be snatched up by the Lord prior to it. This is a doctrine known as the pre-tribulation rapture.
The passage they often appeal to is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17:
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, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, 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, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
Protestants who adhere to this view argue that Paul can’t be talking about the Second Coming because Jesus only comes part-way down and then goes back up. Moreover, because no judgment of the nations is mentioned, like we see in Matthew 25:31-46 and Revelation 20, this must be referring to a “rapture.”
What are to make of this challenge? Let’s take a look.
First, the challenge misreads the text as only a partial coming and return back to heaven. Verse 15 reads that the Lord will “descend from heaven with a cry of command.” But nowhere does Paul say that Jesus returns to heaven. If Jesus’s descent is definitive, it’s not a partial coming as the pre-tribulation view requires it to be.
But what are we to make of Paul’s description that the saints who are alive will be “caught up…to meet the Lord in the air”? A possible interpretation is that Paul is describing how Christians will meet the Lord in the air to escort him in a way that is analogous to the ancient custom of citizens ushering in important visitors.
It was common for citizens to meet an illustrious person (such as a dignitary or victorious military leader) and his entourage outside the walls of their city and accompany them back in. This was a way for people to honor the visitor and take part in the celebration of the visitor’s coming.
We see an example of this in Acts 28:14-15, where the brethren at Rome went out of the city to meet Paul as he approached: “And so we came to Rome. And the brethren there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.”’
Such a practice is no different from how people gather to welcome a celebrity at an airport. It’s this ancient custom that explains why the crowds go out to meet Jesus on Palm Sunday and usher him into Jerusalem (see Matt. 21:1-17).
So, for Paul, those who are alive at the Second Coming will do for our blessed Lord what the ancients did for their dignitaries: they will be caught up in the air to meet the approaching king Jesus and escort him as he “descend[s] from heaven with a cry of command” (1 Thess. 4:16).
A second way to meet this challenge is to point out how the details of the passage reveal that Paul is talking about the final coming of Jesus at the end of time.
Notice that it’s not just the living who are caught up with the Lord, but also the dead in Christ: “And the dead in Christ will rise first” (v.16). That Paul speaks of the resurrection of the dead tells us that he’s referring to the end of time.
We know this because Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15 that the end happens in tandem with the resurrection of the dead. He writes,
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power (1 Cor. 15:22-24; emphasis added).
If Paul viewed the resurrection of the dead occurring in tandem with the end of time, and if he speaks of the resurrection of the dead in tandem with Christ’s coming in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, it follows that Christ’s coming in those verses is his coming at the end of time and not a pre-tribulation rapture.
A second reason why we know Paul is talking about the end of time is because when he speaks about the “coming of the Lord” in his second epistle to the Thessalonians, he says that the Antichrist and his reign of evil must precede it:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited . . . to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed . . . and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming (2 Thess. 2:1-8).
It’s clear that Paul is connecting the “coming of our Lord” here in 2 Thessalonians and the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, because he speaks of “our assembling to meet him.”
So, if the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 must be preceded by the Antichrist and his reign of evil, then those verses can’t be referring to a pre-tribulation “rapture.” Rather, they must refer to our Lord’s coming at the end of time, when he vanquishes all evil and condemns those “who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:12).
A final clue for this being the final day of judgment is the fact that the Lord will descend with “the sound of the trumpet of God” (v.16). Paul speaks of the same trumpet when he describes the resurrection of the dead at the end of time:
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-53).
Since in Paul’s mind the trumpet is associated with the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, and he speaks of it when describing the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, we can conclude that the “coming of the Lord” that Paul writes of there is the final coming at the end of time.
Contrary to what some Protestants believe, 1 Thessalonians 4;15-17 does not refer to a pre-tribulation rapture. Rather, it refers to Christ’s Second and glorious coming at the end of time when the dead will be raised and reign with Christ forever in the new heaven and new earth.