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1 Thessalonians 4:16 says:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:

It's my understanding that most people in the Western world believe in Christian immortalism though. If the dead are already in heaven, how are they rising here?

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Strongly related: Premillennialist view of 1 Thessalonians 4:16. –  Wikis Nov 13 '12 at 7:05
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The "dead in Christ" (οἱ νεκροὶ ἐν Χριστῷ) refers to "those who are asleep" (τοὺς κοιμηθέντας; cp. 1 Thes. 4:14). Meaning, the dead bodies of Christian believers.

The souls of the dead Christian believers do indeed go to heaven (or "Paradise") upon death (cp. Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:8; Luke 23:43).

When the Messiah returns, the souls of dead believers will be reunited with their bodies.

Paulos writes, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that everyone may receive the things [done] in [his] body, according to that he hath done, whether [it be] good or bad." (2 Cor. 5:10 A.V.)

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Hmm, this is what my pastor said too. –  Ullallulloo Nov 13 '12 at 21:43
    
Where do our bodies go then? –  Ullallulloo Nov 14 '12 at 15:53
    
Souls formerly in heaven unite with resurrected bodies. To note, the resurrected bodies are now spiritual (πνευματικός) rather than physical/ natural/ soulish (ψυχικός) (cp. 1 Cor. 15:44). Rev. 19:6-9 describes their destination, that being to heaven to attend the marriage of the Lamb and his bride (because, the Church is his bride). Again, this is the united soul and body. Formerly, just souls were in heaven waiting to be reunited with the body after it is resurrected from the dead. After the marriage, Christ and his army return to earth for 1000 years (cp. Rev. 19:14-15). –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Nov 14 '12 at 17:35
    
I should add that I'm not particularly sold on a definitive millennial (= 1000 years) reign on earth, but I'm quite certain on everything else I stated. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Mar 23 '13 at 20:50
    
If the soul is already in heaven, why would it later be judged? And Jesus says we will get a new body, yes? So why the need to be reunited with old body? And how would it work for people who's bodies were cremated, eaten and digested, decomposed into nothing (completely absorbed by the earth, etc.? –  Crayon Violent Mar 24 '13 at 1:40
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Believers will join Moses and Elijah and the other saints in Heaven with our father when our bodies die. Our soul and spirit fellowship with God in paradise. However when the "Day of the Lord" comes we will be clothed with our new immortal bodies to complete us, just as Jesus was clothed with his new body and was the first fruit of the new breed of immortals in Christ. When he returns we will all be changed and clothed with these new bodies. That is the first resurrection. By the way, unbelievers will also be resurrected in the same manner and clothed with their determined immortal bodies but much later. On the Day of the Lord the angels will gather the elect from the 4 winds those who are raptured for the coming Battle of Armageddon. This will occur on Rosh Hashanah (Festival of Trumpets) and will take until Yom Kippur 10 days later when the day of Atonement happens and the Battle of Armageddon. The marriage supper of the Lamb takes place immediately after. Unlike what we westerners like to think about "marriage suppers" as a feast or celebration for us, the only ones who will be feasting will be the birds of the air on the flesh of those who are slain during this great battle.

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Welcome to the site! I'd invite you to read the FAQ, as well as these posts: meta.christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/692/… and meta.christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/1379/… I don't disagree with your answer, but it should be edited at a minimum to explain which denominations/views teach this, since it's not the only way this subject is interpreted. Some external references would greatly improve this answer and bring it within site guidelines. –  David Stratton Mar 23 '13 at 14:32
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Abstract

The idea that the saved go to heaven when they die is somewhat anachronistic. Equally anachronistic is the idea that people will be "raptured" into heaven when Jesus returns. Paul had another meaning in mind when he wrote this verse.


N. T. Wright explains in Surprised By Hope:

The word parousia occurs in two of the key passages [concerning rapture theology] in Paul (I Thessalonians 4:15 and I Corinthians 15:23), and is found frequently elsewhere in Paul and the New Testament. It seems clear that the early Christians knew the work well, and knew what was meant by it. People often assume that the early chruch used parousia simply to mean "the second coming of Jesus" and that by this event they all envisioned, in a quite literal fashion, the scenario of I Thessalonians 4:16-17 (Jesus coming down on a cloud and people flying upward to meet him). Neither of these assumptions is in fact correct.—p. 128

Wright then explains the two meanings of parousia that were in play:

  1. "The mysterious presence of a god or divinity, particularly when the power of this god was revealed in healing." (p. 129)

  2. "When a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province." (p. 129)

As Wright explains it, Paul envisioned Jesus returning to earth to establish His everlasting Kingdom here, not in heaven. Therefore, the spirits of the already dead will return to inhabit their resurrected bodies and the bodies of the living will be transformed so that we can meet our King.

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This explanation only works with a post-tribulation rapture though, right? –  Ullallulloo Nov 13 '12 at 1:28
    
@Ullallulloo: This view works even without a rapture. –  Bruce Alderman Nov 13 '12 at 6:44
    
@BruceAlderman Yeah, but it doesn't work with any other views of the rapture though. –  Ullallulloo Nov 13 '12 at 6:53
    
@Ullallulloo: Technically, Write argues that Paul did not envision a rapture at all. I believe that this position is technically amillennial. –  Jon Ericson Nov 13 '12 at 15:28
    
s/Write/Wright/ Sigh. –  Jon Ericson Nov 13 '12 at 20:13
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