Resurrection or Removal?

Is the hope of the church bodily resurrection at Christ’s return, or its removal from the present spacetime continuum? 

Graveyard - Photo by Krisztina Papp on Unsplash
The New Testament never describes a day when believers are removed collectively from the earth and transported to a nonphysical dimension outside the spacetime continuum. In Scripture, individual salvation is actualized at the bodily resurrection when all believers “
meet” Jesus as he descends from heaven. Dead believers will be resurrected and living saints transformed - [Photo by Krisztina Papp on Unsplash].

Consistently, when discussing our salvation, whether as individuals or a collective whole, Paul points to our bodily resurrection at the end of the age. Moreover, he connects that future hope to the past resurrection of Jesus.
  • (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) – “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them who are falling asleep, lest you be sorrowing, even as the rest also who are without hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring forth with him them who have fallen asleep through Jesus; For this to you do we say by a word of the Lord, that we, the living who are left unto the arrival of the Lord, will in no way precede them who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with an archangel’s voice, and with a trumpet of God, shall descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, after that, we, the living who are left, together with them shall be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus, evermore, with the Lord shall we be! So then, be consoling one another with these words.”
In the passage, Paul reassures believers concerning the fate of Christians who die before the “arrival” of Jesus, which is why he stresses their future bodily resurrection. Not only so, but any believers remaining alive on that day will be reunited with their resurrected loved ones, and together they all will “meet the Lord in the air.” Both living and dead Christians will be changed forever when he arrives in glory.

Does the passage state that Jesus then takes his saints back to “heaven” after “meeting them in the air?” In fact, it only ends with the statement: “And so will we be with the Lord forevermore.” Paul does not state exactly where this happy condition will be after the “meeting.”

When interpreting the final verse, the larger context must be kept in view. In the next chapter, Paul warns that the unprepared will be overtaken by the events of this very same day, just “like a thief in the night.” The “arrival” of Jesus is also the “Day of the Lord,” an event associated with God’s judicial punishment of the wicked.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul declared that when Jesus is “revealed from heaven,” the righteous will be vindicated but the unrighteous will receive “everlasting destruction” - Both events occur on the same “day” - (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

In the New Testament, at his return Jesus is always “coming,” never “going,” returning, but NOT departing. When physical direction is provided, he is coming “from heaven” and descending to the earth. This pattern holds true regardless of which Greek term is applied to the event, whether “coming,” “arrival,” or “revelation.” And at that time, he gathers his saints to himself - (Matthew 16:27, 24:30, 25:31, 26:64, Acts 1:11, 1 Corinthians 15:23, Revelation 1:7).

The most comprehensive list of the events that will occur on that day is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians - (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 50-57). His “arrival” will include:
  • The cessation of death (the “last enemy”).
  • The final subjugation of all hostile powers.
  • The consummation of the kingdom.
  • The transformation of the saints still alive from mortality to immortality.
The bodily resurrection will mean nothing less than the termination of death. Believers still alive when he returns will be transformed from mortal to immortal, the very same scenario presented in his first letter to the Thessalonians. His point was not their removal from the earth, but their resurrection and transformation:
  • Behold, a mystery to you do I declare. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed; In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet; for it shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” – (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 15:51-58).
His “arrival” will result in the separation of the righteous from the unrighteous. It will be a day of joy for the prepared, but one of disaster and everlasting punishment for the unprepared. The old “heaven and earth” will be dissolved, and the new heavens and the new earth will be inaugurated - (Matthew 13:30. 25:13, 25:31-46, Luke 12:33-39, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, 2 Peter 3:10-11).

Ocean Sunset - Photo by v2osk on Unsplash
Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

In the New Testament, what characterizes that day is its 
finality. Death will cease forever, the old creation will disappear, resurrected believers will be with the Lord “forevermore,” and the unrighteous will receive “everlasting” punishment - (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 2:5-10).

Christian hope is not found in escape from the earth or the spacetime continuum, but instead, it looks forward to the bodily resurrection and the New Creation. The gospel is about redemption, which includes the promised resurrection of the righteous dead. And connected directly to it is the New Creation. Even now, the entire universe is groaning in anticipation of the resurrection of the “sons of God,” and that day will mean nothing less than a newly created order - (Romans 8:19-25, 2 Peter 3:10).

Similarly, in Revelation, the New Jerusalem DESCENDS from heaven to the new earth. The saints do not ascend to it, it comes down to them. In it, the redeemed live forever in the presence of the “Lamb,” free from all sorrow, suffering and death - (Revelation 21:1–22:5).



Language of the New Testament

Armageddon - Final Battle