What happens after we die? I’m sure this question is thought about a lot, and maybe the question pastors and chaplains get quite often, especially by old people and dying people. In the New Testament Thessalonian church, this question came up, and Paul addressed it in his letter to them—in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
As you can probably tell, Paul was eager and straightforward in talking about it. Apparently, some were overly grieved about some of their loved ones who had died. So Paul boldly informs them that they need not grieve for their friends as the unbelievers do who have no hope. He told them that just as Jesus died and was raised, God will also raise up those who have “fallen asleep” (died).
Then in verse 15, Paul begins to share more details; and he prefaces what he is going to share with them by saying, “this we say to you by the word of the Lord.” In other words, what he was about to tell them next was a new revelation from God to him (Paul). I’m sure Paul was very eager to share it. How excited he must have felt to share this new news with them.
And here is this new revelation: that when He comes to receive us, those who have died will be resurrected and taken up first, and then they will be followed by those who are still alive. Yes, the living at that time will not die but will be taken up to heaven alive! So all believers in Christ will be raised up, or snatched up, when He comes. And of course we will all be “changed,” glorified. (Those details are found in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54.)
Now the description of how the Lord comes, in verse 16, regarding His descent, “with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God,” has caused some controversy. Some say that since there will be so much noise at this event—with the shout and the trumpet, that this could not be the mysterious rapture. So they would say that this is the second coming. Or perhaps some would give up the idea of the rapture being a secret event, and they would say that it will be a grand and very public event. Again they are confusing the two phases of His coming.
What I suggest is this: the rapture will indeed be a secret event. No one will see or hear Him coming. Unbelievers will not be aware of this event until it is over, and they see that the believers are gone. And of course they will witness all the mayhem as a result of the rapture, like planes and cars crashing—because the drivers and pilots were Christians and they suddenly disappeared.
The reason I say that all the unbelievers will not see or hear Christ coming is because I believe that the shout and the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God will only be heard by angels in the spiritual realm. Have you ever heard an angel speak or shout or blow a trumpet? I haven’t. I’m sure angels speak and shout all the time, but we can’t hear them because they live in another realm. So I think the shout and the voice and the trumpet of God is not to inform us or to make us ready; it is rather the noise of victory in the spiritual realm. It is the victory cry of angels that Christ is now coming to receive His bride.