The importance of teaching about Jesus’ return and the rapture is for hope. Hope for those who are grieving the death of a loved one and hope in the promise we will be with Jesus now and forever.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For 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 Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (ESV)
Uninformed about Death
Because we should not be uniformed about what happens to believers immediately after they die, I taught two classes about what happens after death. It was a fairly extensive study. I covered several Christian views and those of a couple of cults. The slide presentations and audio can be found at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLhibSr82KRQexq_QPG61xw. You can also start with my blog at https://ray-ruppert.blogspot.com/2015/10/what-happens-immediately-after-people.html and follow the series that I used to develop the teaching.
One of the reasons there is confusion about what happens between our death and Jesus’ return is the use of the word sleep. Jesus used the terminology for Lazarus’s death in John 11:11. His disciples misunderstood him at that time. Paul uses it to refer to those who have died in several verses (1 Thess 4:13, 15, 5:10; 1 Cor 11:30, 15:6, 18, 20, 51). Peter also uses it in 2 Peter 3:4 referring to the death of our ancestors. It is with good reason they use the terminology because that is the view of the Old Testament as demonstrated in Daniel 12:2: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (NIV).
To add to the confusion, the Lord spoke of the wicked dying and never waking up in Jeremiah 51:57, “I will make her princes and her wise men drunk, Her governors, her prefects and her mighty men, That they may sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake up,” Declares the King, whose name is the Lord of hosts”(NASU). This can easily be construed to mean that the wicked will be destroyed, annihilated and cease to exist. Jesus made a similar statement in Matthew 10:28, “But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (NKJV). It isn’t without a lot of Bible study and analysis that we can come up with a comprehensive explanation of what happens to people immediately after death, whether they are Christians or not. People write books, traditions have been formed, but most people haven’t really thought it out, especially people who don’t place their faith in Jesus for salvation.
Here is my short version of what I discovered after putting together the teaching I mentioned above:
- Christians will be conscious and not asleep after death. Sleep is a euphemism for death, not a statement of the condition of the person after death. Jesus made that clear in John 11:11-14.
- When a Christian dies, he goes immediately to be in the presence of Jesus.
o 2 Corinthians 5:8 is clear. We are either alive here or with Jesus. “Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord” (NLT). This is also seen in Psalm 16:11 and Phil 1:23.
- Christians will have some sort of intermediate body that is recognizable as a human body.
o Jesus had a physical body after His resurrection that could appear and disappear (John 20:19-29; Luke 24:30) before His ascension into heaven.
o Jesus is the firstfruits of those who will be raised (1 Cor 15:23).
o 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 speaks of Christians taking off our current tents (bodies) and putting on heavenly dwellings (bodies) prepared for us by God who has given us this assurance by the Holy Spirit. The New Living Translations interprets it this way, “For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies” (2 Cor 5:3).
- Christians will get a resurrected body when Jesus returns.
o Resurrected bodies will be different from earthly bodies, “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44 NKJV).
o The dead will get new bodies as will everyone who is alive (1 Cor 15:50-53; 1 Thess 4:15-17).
These points make it clear that after death we will have some kind of body, exactly what it is like, we don’t know. After Jesus returns, we will get a final, eternal body that is also going to be different. Paul emphasizes the differences of bodies in 1 Corinthians 15:40-41 as he speaks of the different glories of sun, moon, stars all of which are different. If Jesus is our model, then compare His resurrected body before ascension to His two appearances afterward, first to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3) and then to John on Patmos (Rev 1:12-16). Is this not an indication that our intermediate bodies after death will be something different from the eternal bodies after Jesus’ return?
Just a quick word about what happens to non-Christians. They die and suffer consciously for a time, as Jesus pointed out when He told of the rich man who died in Luke 16:22-25. He was aware of his surroundings, was able to speak, recognized Abraham, and was in anguish in the flames. They will stay there until they are resurrected after the millennial reign of Jesus on the earth. Then they will be raised for judgment (Rev 20:5, 12-14). Their immortal bodies will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15) where Satan was tossed previously (Rev 20:10).
Is it really possible not to grieve over the loss of a loved one? We must remember that Paul didn’t say we would not grieve but that we shouldn’t do it the same as those without hope. One of the most astounding passages in the Old Testament regarding grief over the death of a loved one comes from David’s loss of his illegitimate son born to Bathsheba due to his adultery. God told him the boy would die (2 Sam 12:14) and he became ill. While the boy was ill and dying, David fasted and prayed for the boy’s healing (2 Sam 12:16). His action resembled mourning. This action was so out of the ordinary that they thought that he would kill himself when he heard the boy died, which happened seven days later. David ended his fast. His servants could not understand his actions (2 Sam 12:17-21). So David explained it to them, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:22-23 RSV).
Those with no hope (non-Christians) don’t have the assurance that they will see anyone again after death. Sure, some believe in reincarnation, various forms of heaven, and nirvana. But the truth is clear in all of those religions; there is no assurance. All of them depend on their own ability to be good enough to achieve their everlasting place. They can’t be sure they’ve done everything. They don’t have a Redeemer who has died and come back to tell them that He is the way. They don’t have a Savior who assures them that He has done everything necessary for their eternal salvation.
With a Savior like Jesus, we don’t have to grieve without hope of seeing our Christian loved ones again. Our grief is different because we miss them now but have the assurance we will see them again. Note that this assurance is only for Christians. If our loved ones are not Christians, we don’t have the assurance we will see them again. We will grieve for them in the same way as the world does. This makes it all the more important to share the Gospel with them and live lives that will not turn them away from Jesus.
Timing of the Rapture
Behold, 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. (1 Cor 15:51-52 NASB)
If anyone tells me that they can prove without a shadow of a doubt that the rapture is going to come before, in the middle, or at the end of the tribulation, I know that they are wrong. Paul clearly says it is a mystery. Yes, there are verses that lean toward each of these doctrinal positions, and that is just the point of why it is a mystery. If multiple theologians over time have spent years studying Scripture and have come down on opposite sides of the controversy, then how can anyone have 100% assurance that one is correct and the others are not? I’ve done my studies over the years and have come to my conclusion. But I assure you that I’m not 100% sure it will happen the way I think, even though it is sound biblical exegesis. The reason is simple. There are verses that don’t fit smoothly together with the rest. It doesn’t matter if it is my view or the others, an honest theologian will admit that there are weakness in his or her argument and I’ve seen them in each of the three positions.
One important thing to remember about this passage in 1 Thessalonians is that it doesn’t tell us anything about timing, other than it all happens at once. The rapture isn’t spread over several days, hours, or weeks. When Jesus comes back, that is it. We all are changed. We all will be with Jesus. All Christians are reunited. That is the encouragement that we get from this passage.