Those no longer living when Jesus Christ returns will be at no disadvantage. They, along with believers still living, will meet him as he comes to earth.
This passage states its primary concern in 4:13--Paul does not want his readers to lose hope about their future with the Lord, simply because other believers have died ("fallen asleep"). Perhaps some Thessalonians thought that Christians would not die before Jesus returned. Paul reassures them that those who have died in Christ will be raised and will meet the Lord along with those who are still living when he comes.
This passage is highly symbolic. The images of loud calls, trumpets, and clouds recall Old Testament language that signals God's presence in the world. The passage hardly gives a complete, literal description of the sights and sounds of Jesus' return. Careful readers will also notice that Paul says nothing about people being taken out of the world and nothing about the punishment of others. The Greek vocabulary Paul uses implies that believers will meet the Lord "in the air" as a means of welcoming him back to the world, not as an act of departing from creation. Paul calls people to have hope and to be alert for the Lord's return.
Paul's mention, in 4:17, of living people being "caught up" has played an important role in some Christians' contention that in the future believers will be "raptured," miraculously scooped up from this world to protect them from the horrors that will afflict those "left behind" on the planet. The term rapture comes from the Latin verb rapio, which was used to translate this verse in a fourth-century translation of the Bible. Yet in this passage Paul is only emphasizing the suddenness of Christ's return and the suddenness of believers' encounter with him--human beings dead and alive will meet Christ first and be with him forever. To read this passage as providing specific details about this event and its aftermath is to make it say more than it does.
This passage employs language that its first audience might have readily associated with the political rhetoric of the Roman Empire. Jesus' "coming" (4:15) and our "meeting" (4:17) with him use terms that described political or military dignitaries making official visits. Warnings about false "peace and security" (5:3) echo Roman imperial slogans, suggesting that what the greatest powers of human society promise pale in comparison to what Christ will accomplish.
13 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. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.* 15For 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.* 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangels call and with the sound of Gods trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then 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 for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,* you do not need to have anything written to you.
2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
3When they say, There is peace and security, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
4But you, beloved,* are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;
5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober;
7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.
8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,
10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org