In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, a question arose in the community. There had been deaths. Paul hadn’t been gone very long. It is speculated that those who died were probably martyrs rather than people dying of natural causes. The question raised was (4:13): What happens to those who have died before the second coming?
Paul writes in 4:13-18 that when the second coming happens, the dead in Christ and the living will all be reunited and be with the Lord forever. In short, Paul tells them not to worry about such things. God will take care of everything. Paul then takes time to describe the second coming when all Christians will be raised to meet the Lord in the air.
This is what rapture theology and most scenarios of an imminent second coming do. They maintain that all of this will happen someday. Some who believe this are willing to disagree about details. It should be noted that 4:13-18 does not refer to a seven-year period between meeting the Lord in the air and the final judgment which is maintained by many who embrace rapture theology. The notion of seven years has to be imported from elsewhere. And so many Christians see this as a second coming text that does not necessarily affirm the rapture.
It is important to know that rapture theology – the notion that true Christians will be taken up into heaven seven years before the second coming and final judgment – is neither ancient nor traditional Christianity. It is thoroughly modern. It was conceived in the 1800s by John Nelson Darby, an Anglo-Irish clergyman active in Britain and North America. He not only originated the rapture, but is also the theological ancestor of the widely known “Scofield Bible,” with its divisions of history into dispensations. Before him, no Christian had spoken of the rapture.
Seeing this text in its ancient historical context dissolves a foundation of rapture theology. Paul was not providing detailed information about a second coming that is still future from our point in time, whose details are to be correlated with other biblical texts about the last things – the second coming, last judgment and final state of affairs. Rather, using imagery from his time, he assured his community in Thessalonica of one thing – we shall all be together. Whether he meant any of the details in the text to be understood literally is impossible to know and seems unlikely.
It is clear, however, that the text in its historical context meant that Paul did think the second coming would be soon. He distinguished between those who have died and we who are alive, who are left when the Lord comes again. These words most naturally mean that Paul expected the second coming to occur while some of those he was writing to were still alive, possibly himself.