In this chapter we will explore the difference between being saved from “the wrath to come” and being “saved from wrath.” The last chapter discussed the latter at length so this chapter will largely focus on the former.
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians will form the entirety of our exploration into "the wrath to come." As you will see, avoiding "the wrath to come" is a matter of salvation. In his letter, Paul seeks to encourage believers who are being persecuted by telling them about things that will happen in the future. One of these future events is “the wrath to come.” See how he describes it in 1 Thessalonians 1:10.
…wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.1
In the previous chapter we looked at a type of wrath that is currently taking place. However, this wrath is different in it’s time frame. Paul makes it clear that the wrath he is referring to will take place on a future date. If he is not speaking of temporal retribution for the world’s current sin, then this must mean something that will happen at a future date.
To understand what "the wrath to come" refers to it is helpful to remember the situation that the Thessalonians were experiencing. They were suffering persecution for proclaiming their faith throughout Macedonia.2 Paul is explaining that there is a coming time that the world will experience an even greater trouble by far than they were experiencing. Those future days of trouble would be one in which believers were rescued by Jesus. He’s going to explain more about this coming wrath, but first let’s look at what he has to say about the rescue plan a few chapters later in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words.3
This event is popularly called the rapture, which is taken from the Latin for, “caught up.” After the Lord descends there are three sounds and three actions that that follow. Let’s break the passage down into its parts.
It says, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven.” The Lord, Jesus, will exit Heaven and come toward the Earth. However, it doesn’t indicate that he will descend all the way to the Earth, but instead that he comes only to near-earth location in the sky. As he descends the first sound is heard. The three sounds are mentioned together, but we will connect the actions that might correspond with each sound.
The first sound is a “shout” possibly by the Lord’s voice. At this shout the first action takes place, which is “the dead in Christ will rise.” All those who have believed in Jesus and died physically will come to life at the sound of his voice. Jesus tells us about this event when he says in another place, “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.”4
The second sound is the voice of an archangel. Possibly a commanding angel with instructions to his subordinates. This sound seems most likely to correspond with the event of the believers being caught up. At that point all believer, both newly resurrected and those who are still alive will be relocated to the place where Christ is. The reference to the angels voice may have something to do with Jesus’ words in Matthew when he said, "And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.5”
The third sound is the trumpet of God. It’s possible this sound corresponds with the awaited meeting of the king and his beloved church. In the same way that trumpets would resound at a royal wedding, the trumpet of God is sounded when Christ and his church finally meet in the air.
He finishes the section by assuring the Thessalonians that we will never be parted from Christ again. It is sure to be a joyous occasion. It does, however, leave a few questions. For instance, why doesn’t Jesus descend all the way to the Earth? Why must we meet him in the air?
The answer to that has to do with his plan for the Earth during that meeting. After believers are removed from the Earth, and during the time that they are off the planet, God is going to bring a tremendous tribulation upon to the world, and it’s remaining inhabitants. This period is often called the tribulation, and is described in great detail in the book of Revelation. However, Paul gives us a succinct description a chapter later in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4.
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief.6
Paul gives some incredible clues as to what that period will be like, and how to recognize it’s dawning. First he tells them that they will not be able to put it on their calendar because it will come like a thief in the night. It will come when no-one is expecting it.
However, there is a sign that it is near. When the world is caught up in talking about peace and safety, the time is near. The world will be lulled into a false sense of security before sudden destruction will come.
He makes sure to tell us that they will not escape. That is, no one left on the Earth will escape the trouble that will strike. No one will escape what we now can call, "the wrath to come." This wrath that will strike the world is exactly what Paul was talking about when he first said "the wrath to come" in chapter 1.
He then comforts his readers by saying, “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief” Although all believers will be included in the rapture, it’s likely that many believers will be surprised because they were not faithful and eager for the Lord’s return. However, he assures the Thessalonians that they wouldn’t be surprised because they are are living in light of eternity. It’s a good reminder for us.
In case some believers might fear that they will be subjected to the “wrath to come,” Paul gives one more comfort to the contrary in 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10.
For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.7
That we are not appointed to wrath, could be taken in a number of ways, but Paul has in mind what he had already mentioned in chapter 1, "the wrath to come." In assuring the Thessalonians that they will miss out on "the wrath to come" (the tribulation) Paul sets up a clear opposite here. He points out that suffering "the wrath to come" is not in store for those who have salvation. In other words, those who have everlasting life will not experience the tribulation. This comes only after he’s explained the mechanism that Christ will use to rescue believers from "the wrath to come."
He then finishes by saying, “…that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.” Here he seems to be admiting that he honestly doesn’t know if he or they will still be physically alive by the time of the rapture. This was written around 50 A.D. And Paul had already known eyewitnesses of Jesus’s resurrected appearances that had passed away8. The reassurance is in the fact that whether the believer lives until Christ comes, or dies before then, they will avoid "the wrath to come" and be with Christ forever.
Therefore, "the wrath to come" and avoiding it is done by obtaining salvation. All those who have placed their faith in Christ will skip out on the tribulation.
Being that “the wrath to come” and avoiding it is connected to salvation, you can guess where we are going next. Now let’s compare "the wrath to come" from 1 Thessalonians with "God's wrath" found in Romans. This subject was covered at length in the previous chapter. For a fuller explanation see chapter twenty-six.
Since it’s already been covered this will be a very condensed version. Let’s review Romans 1:18 to see what "God's wrath" is.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men9
"God's wrath" is an expression of his temporal displeasure with the mankind that is currently being inflicted on the world. This infliction is represented by the consequence and suffering that sin causes on all of humanity. Paul teaches us the conditions for escaping "God's wrath" in Romans 1:16 and other places.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.10
Those who seek to escape "God's wrath" must first be believers, and second must be willing to live out their faith (not ashamed) in order to be delivered from God’s temporal wrath. Romans 5:9-10 shows that in more specific detail.
Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.11
Escaping this kind of wrath is only an option for believers. It doesn’t happen automatically for all Christians, however. Instead, a life of discipleship is required. For more information on this see the previous chapter. The basic truth is that “the wrath to come” and “God’s wrath” are speaking of two separate events.
In this section we discovered that escaping "the wrath to come" is done by obtaining salvation, while discipleship is required to be delivered from God’s temporal wrath. Understanding how these two are distinct and how they correspond to salvation and discipleship is important to keep us on track in our attempt to interpret the Bible accurately.
1 1 Thessalonians 1:10.
2 1 Thessalonians 1:8
3 1 Thessalonians 4:16–18.
4 John 5:25, 28
5 Mtatthew 24:31.
6 1 Thessalonians 5:1–4.
7 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10.
8 1 Corinthians 15:5-15
9 Romans 1:18.
10 Romans 1:16.
11 Romans 5:9–10.