Will Christians be raptured to heaven before Jesus Christ returns to the earth – or will we be taken somewhere else?
Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 are some of the most comforting and encouraging words in the Bible, especially for those who have lost loved ones. He writes, “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.”
It’s quite clear from this passage, that Jesus will return to raise the dead and then gather those who are still alive. These events are also referred to in Matthew 24:30-31, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Where will we be taken?
In 1 Thessalonians 4, it says that those of us ‘who are left’ will ‘be caught up together’ with them in the clouds… “Caught up” is the Greek word ‘harpazo’ which doesn’t in itself indicate direction whether up, down, east, west, etc. ‘Harpazo’ simply means ‘to seize, catch, pluck, pull, take by force’. It is used in the New Testament when people wanted to make Jesus king and plotted to ‘take him by force’ (John 6:15), or of when a wolf ‘catcheth’ the sheep (John 10:12), or of Paul knowing a man (likely himself) who was ‘caught up’ to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). Philip the evangelist, was ‘caught away’ after baptizing the eunuch and taken to Azotus. So, as you can see, ‘harpazo’ doesn’t indicate direction – it simply means being ‘taken’ or ‘seized.’
In 1 Thessalonians 4, the passage goes on to say that we will be taken away to be ‘in the clouds’ and ‘to meet the Lord in the air’. What is this talking about, if this is not heaven? Why would anyone think that it isn’t heaven? Well, because these events are interconnected with Jesus returning to earth – not believers going to heaven.
In order to investigate the correlation between Jesus’ return, the resurrection, the granting of immortality, and the beginning of the Kingdom on earth, the following ten passages are helpful:
Jesus will call the dead to life.
John 5:25-29, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.“
Jesus’ angels will gather the good and the bad, and then the righteous ‘will shine.’
Matthew 13:40-43, “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
Jesus will come ‘with the clouds’ and ‘every eye will see him’
Revelation 1:5-7 “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”
Those ransomed by Jesus will be priests and reign on earth
Revelation 5:9-10 “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
The earth is the ‘inheritance’ of the faithful
Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Psalm 37:34 “Wait for the LORD and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.” (see also verse 9, 11, 22, 29)
The saints will be given an everlasting kingdom over all other nations
Daniel 7:27 “And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.”
God’s kingdom will break all other kingdoms and ‘stand forever’
Daniel 2:44 “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever,”
All nations will serve, worship and bring gifts to the rulers of God’s kingdom
Isaiah 60 “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste. The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary, and I will make the place of my feet glorious… they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise. The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory…Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified.”
Jesus will be revealed to the world when he returns to the Mount of Olives with the ‘holy ones.’ This will be the beginning of his kingdom over all the earth.
Zechariah 14 “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle… Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward… Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him… On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem… And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one… Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts…”
We see from these ten references above, that Jesus is returning to raise the dead and grant immortality to his chosen ones. When he shows himself to the world and saves Israel from the nations that come against her, his ‘holy ones’ – the immortal saints – are with him. This deliverance will be the beginning of the ‘little stone’ of Daniel 2 taking over all the kingdoms of the world, and the saints inheriting the earth… not heaven.
So, where will we be gathered to, if not heaven? Why will we be in ‘the clouds’, and meet the Lord ‘in the air’?
The New Testament often speaks of Jesus returning ‘in the clouds’ (See Matt. 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27; Rev. 1:7). In Hebrews 12:1, Paul talks about all the faithful believers mentioned in the chapter before, as ‘a cloud of witnesses.’ The ‘clouds’ may refer to all the saints being together. Believers are caught away to be with the Lord and all the others who have been caught away.
Where is ‘the air’?
The Greek word that is used here is ‘aer’. Thayer’s defines it as ‘the air, particularly the lower and denser air as distinguished from the higher and rarer air, or the atmospheric region’. Strong’s defines it as coming from the root ‘aemi (to breathe unconsciously, that is respire; by analogy to blow)’ Therefore the air cannot refer to heaven where God dwells… but must be somewhere in our atmosphere.
Judgment and the Marriage Feast
In other New Testament passages, Jesus told us that when he returns there will be a time of judgment, when the ‘sheep’ will be set on his right hand and invited to ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,’ while those on his left will be told to depart (Matthew 25:31-46). Revelation 19:6-10 speaks of the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’ – a time for the saints to meet their ‘bridegroom’ and begin an eternal relationship with him. (see also Matthew 25:1-10; Luke 12:36). So, when the angels gather believers from all over the earth, we are not told specifically where we will be taken, perhaps because Jesus wants this wedding feast to be a private event. However, we know that we will be together both with those who have been raised from the dead and those who have been gathered from all over the earth. We know that we will be in the air that we can breathe – somewhere in our atmosphere. Best of all, we know that Jesus is returning to set up an everlasting Kingdom on this earth that will subdue all other governments and bring in a time of peace, righteousness and godliness that will last for 1000 years (Revelation 20). May that day come soon!