1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
For the Lord himself … will descend from heaven, and the dead in the Messiah will rise first. 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.
In the past, I've quipped that the idea of 'the rapture' can only be considered 'biblical' if the new testament is thrown into a blender and the scraps are pieced into something new, something which the original texts could never have said. The above passage, lifted from its context in 1 Thessalonians 4, is one such text that suffers this abuse. Nevertheless, instead of sarcastically criticizing the hermeneutical method that results in 'the rapture' doctrine, it would be more beneficial to actually examine the text central to its claim.
'The rapture' is the teaching that, prior to the period of tribulation which would precede his true second coming, Jesus will return invisibly to remove all his followers from the earth into heaven, including the bodies of any Christians who have died. Usually, they rise into the air before disappearing from sight. Despite how heavily this view relies on 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, the rapture cannot be found there.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so 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 died. 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. 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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul believed that the second coming of Jesus was imminent. He denied any ability to predict its actual timing, but he sincerely thought it was just over the horizon. Consequently, the Thessalonians — people of Greek culture, where the dead returning to life was a wild concept befitting only ancient legends — mourned the deaths of their fellow Christians. In dying before Jesus' return, they had missed out on the age when God would renew his creation.
In writing his response, Paul sets out to 'inform' them of the resurrection of the dead, an idea they had apparently not fully accepted. (We see similar skepticism of resurrection by the Greek-minded church in 1 Corinthians 15.) His goal is to 'encourage' the Thessalonian Christians who are 'grieving' over the deaths of their loved ones, because their deaths are not the end of their story. With this goal, Paul does not intend to lay out an elaborate system of eschatology; he intends only to inform them about the resurrection of the dead and their inclusion in the renewal of the world.
The error in the rapture interpretation of this passage is twofold.
The first mistake is in reading the idea Paul expresses here as penultimate to his eschatology. Paul is not presenting a second-to-last part of his eschatology, but the last part of his eschatology; not a disappearance of Christians many years before the second coming of Jesus, but the resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Jesus. Paul is telling his students in Thessalonika about the resurrection, which in every other of Paul's letters is the grand conclusion to his eschatology.
Parousia and Apantesis
The second mistake is in literalizing just one of the handful of metaphors Paul uses here, while ignoring the rich meaning of the others. The 'clouds' image is taken as an exact description of what will occur in this event, so that proponents of the rapture foresee an event where people will literally rise into the sky. Yet, for as much emphasis they put on this specific part of the text, they neglect other images Paul's audience would have easily recognized, or they outright ignore the implications of what Paul says entirely.
The parousia, as an official visit, and the apantēsis, as a protocol of reception, are part of a metaphor. The reference to the Lord coming "as a thief in the night" (1 Thess 5.2) is another. It is nonsense to take both literally: a thief does not announce his coming with a trumpet or organize a procession. But why recognize one idea as a figure of speech but treat the other as a real description?
Néstor Oscar Miguez, The Practice of Hope: Ideology and Intention in 1 Thessalonians, Excursus I
In the Greek of 1 Thessalonians, 'coming' is the term παρουσία, and 'meet' is the noun ἀπάντησις. In Greco-Roman culture, these were words uses to describe each the arrival of a visiting official (a dignitary, a governor, even the emperor) to a local city, and the city's residents reception of their visitor. In this culture, as the visiting official approached the city, the residents would go out to meet him on the road, bringing him back into their home.
We see examples of ἀπάντησις (and its synonym ὑπάντησις) used in this sense in the new testament:
'But at midnight there was a shout, "Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet [ἀπάντησιν] him."'
And so we came to Rome. The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet [ἀπάντησιν] us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet [ὑπάντησιν] him
We also find an exact description of this sort of reception by the historian Josephus:
whereupon God warned [Jaddua] in a dream … that he and the priests should meet [ὑπάντησιν] the king [Alexander the Great] … According to which dream he acted entirely, and so waited for the coming [παρουσίαν] of the king. And when [Jaddua] understood that [Alexander] was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 11.327
In the Greco-Roman world, the dead were buried in catacombs outside their cities. In a reception like this, a visitor would pass the dead on the way into the city. Paul envisions Jesus' second coming as a physical descent from the sky. When Jesus makes his royal appearance (παρουσία), the dead will be restored to life and will join the living as they go to meet Jesus in the clouds with their reception (ἀπάντησις). Dressing the second coming of Jesus in language of an official visit, something his Thessalonian readers would quickly recognize, makes Paul's encouragement come across strongly. As Jesus makes his παρουσία, he will not pass the dead by, forgotten in their graves. They will, in fact, be at the front of the ἀπάντησις to meet him!
Yet, Paul does not leave everyone in the clouds, as the rapture doctrine states. Having them them remain in the clouds (or even leave for heaven entirely), would be equivalent to having a Thessalonian reception for Caesar stay on the the dirt road outside their city (or even leave for Rome entirely). By invoking this image of παρουσία and ἀπάντησις, the natural implication — taken for granted by Paul because he would have no reason to explain it to his Thessalonian readers — is that after the procession to meet the king, Jesus would return with them back to their home.
The very text central to the rapture doctrine in fact describes something wholly opposite to the rapture: the event is not secret but very public, it is not penultimate but the grand finale, it is not a disappearance into heaven but a reception to the earth.