The Air 'Up There' OR The Air 'Down Here?' A Word Study in 1 Thessalonians 4.17 (rapture?)

Word Study, 1 Thessalonians 4.17

Below is a Word Study that I did based on 1 Thessalonians 4.17.  What is interesting to me is how it reinforced my belief that the “rapture” as it is popularly understood (Jesus secretly returns to extract believers from earth to heaven for eternity) is completely unwarranted.  If you choose to follow the logic below, you will know why :-)

1. Word Identification

The word underlying “air” in 1 Thessalonians 4.17 is the Greek word “ἀήρ” (Strong’s: #109).

2. Frequency and Distribution

Roman Historical Narrative                         1x                         Acts – 1

Pauline Letter                                     4x                         1Cor – 2, Eph – 1, 1Thes – 1

Apocalyptic                                                  2x                         Rev – 2

The usage of ἀήρ in the New Testament by verse:

Act 22:23

…εἰς τὸν ἀέρ

…dust into the air,

1Co 9:26

…ὡς οὐκ ἀέρα δέρων·

…one that beateth the air:

1Co 14:9

…γὰρ εἰς ἀέρα λαλοῦντες.

…shall speak into the air.

Eph 2:2

…ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος τοῦ πνεύματος…

…power of the air, the spirit that…

1Th 4:17

…κυρίου εἰς ἀέρα καὶ οὕτως…

…the Lord in the air: and so shall…

Rev 9:2

…καὶ ὁ ἀὴρ ἐκ τοῦ…

…sun and the air were darkened by…

Rev 16:17

…ἐπὶ τὸν ἀέρα καὶ ἐξῆλθεν…

…vial into the air; and there came…

3. Meaning

1) the air, particularly the lower and denser air as distinguished from the higher and rarer air 2)the atmospheric region[1]

After surveying the above seven occurrences, it is clear that the definition is simply the area of unseen space in our atmosphere.  Below, the meaning in its various usages are explained:

ήρ (aēr, 109), ἀέρος, , (ἄημι, ἄω, [cf. ἄνεμος, init.]), the air (particularly the lower and denser, as distinguished from the higher and rarer ὁ αἰθήρ, cf. Hom. Il. 14, 288), the atmospheric region: Acts xxii. 23; 1 Th. iv. 17; Rev. ix. 2, xvi. 17; ὁ ἄρχων τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος in Eph. ii. 2 signifies “the ruler of the powers (spirits, see ἐξουσία 4 c. ββ.) in the air”, i. e. the devil, the prince of the demons that according to Jewish opinion fill the realm of air (cf. Mey. ad loc.; [B. D. Am. ed. s. v. Air; Stuart in Bib. Sacr. for 1843, p. 139 sq.]). Sometimes indeed, ἀήρ denotes a hazy, obscure atmosphere (Hom. Il. 17, 644; 3, 381; 5, 356, etc.; Polyb. 18, 3, 7), but is nowhere quite equiv. to σκότος,— the sense which many injudiciously assign it in Eph. 1. c. ἀέρα δέρειν (cf. verberat ictibus auras, Verg. Aen. 5, 377, of pugilists who miss their aim) i. e. to contend in vain, 1 Co. ix. 26; εἰς ἀέρα λαλεῖν (verba ventis profundere, Lucr. 4, 929 (932)) “to speak into the air” i. e. without effect, used of those who speak what is not understood by the hearers, 1 Co. xiv. 9.*[2]

Although ἀήρ is not a word that is frequent in the New Testament, it is interesting to note that there is only one other word that is translated into English as “air.” The Greek οὐρανός has a different meaning when used as “air” than ἀήρ.  Rather than referring to the “lower and denser air as distinguished from the higher and rarer air,” it means:

1. the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it

  1. a. the universe, the world
  2. b. the aerial heavens or sky, the region where the clouds and the tempests gather, and where thunder and lightning are produced
  3. c. the sidereal or starry heavens

2. the region above the sidereal heavens, the seat of order of things eternal and consummately perfect where God dwells and other heavenly beings[3]

It seems that the difference between these two words will prove to be significant.  The word in the 1 Thessalonians text indicates the “air” of the “lower” region as opposed to the “heavens” as οὐρανός can also be translated (heavens – 24x, heavenly – 1, heaven – 218).  In other words, Paul had an option to use either of the words to talk about the “air” but he chose to use the word that refers mostly to the lower atmospheric region.

4. Meaning in Context

In the context of 1 Thessalonians 4.17, Paul is answering questions regarding the blessed Christian hope.  What happens to Christ-followers who die before the return of the Messiah?  Are they gone forever?  And what about those of us who are waiting for this day?  What are we to look forward to?  In answer to these kinds of questions Paul describes the coming of Jesus as a moment of resurrection.  Because Jesus died and rose again, his followers will someday be like him.  They will have bodies that are restored to the image of Christ who is the image of God.

Paul in this passage uses mixed metaphors to communicating the reality of the final resurrection.  He employs imagery from the Old Testament as well as from Roman royalty.  Christ will appear in such a way that it will be like Moses when he descended down from the Mountain of Sinai.  He will come with the “clouds” meaning that he will come with the power / authority of heaven like the “son of Man” in Daniel 7.  When this happens all followers of Jesus will be gathered around their King and will usher him into the new heavens and new earth.

Unfortunately, the present passage of Scripture has been interpreted in several different ways; mostly indicating that the return of Christ will be a rapturous moment when God will snatch believers away from this evil world to meet him in the “air” (up in heaven) for eternity.  There are several problems with this approach (too numerous to look at for this word study).  The current word study exposes one of the fallacies in this interpretive scheme.

Had the Apostle wanted to communicate that Christ coming downward to take us upward was the goal of the 2nd coming, he could have chosen to use a word like οὐρανός.  This word, which is interpreted as “air” on some occasions (as indicated above), would have given the impression that going to meet Christ in the “air” was a upward heavenly route.  However, what this word study has discovered is that the word Paul chose to use was one that indicates the lower part of the atmosphere.  Paul had a grammatical choice to make, and clearly he did not want to misguide his first century audience by making them think that being “with the Lord forever” actually meant going to heaven, away from the creation project.  So, in order to keep his metaphorical devices in place without giving the wrong impression, he chose to use ἀήρ to indicate that he was not talking about escaping this world; but rather being part of its redemptive process.  If the alternative word had been selected, Paul would have given us the opportunity to affirm cosmological dualism.

5. Verification

There is no dispute of how ἀήρ is to be translated from Greek into English among the translations.  In every version that was checked (ESV, KJV, NIV, and TNIV) this word is translated as “air.”

After consulting the “Easton Bible Dictionary” we find that this word study’s findings about the meaning of the word ἀήρ is consistent and verified.  It states: “The atmosphere, as opposed to the higher regions of the sky (1Th_4:17; Rev_9:2; Rev_16:17).”[4] This is also confirmed by the UBS Greek Dictionary: “air; ethereal region above the earth, space.”[5]


[1] http://www.biblestudytools.com/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=109&version=nas

[2] http://www.greekbiblestudy.org/gnt/greekWordStudy.do?id=100095&greek=false

[3] http://www.biblestudytools.com/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=3772&version=nas

[4] See: Easton Bible Dictionary. Available Online at: http://refbible.com/a/air.htm

[5] The Greek New Testament With Greek-English Dictionary by B. Aland (Editor), K. Aland (Editor), J. Karavidopoulos (Editor), B. M. Metzger (Editor), C. M. Martini (Editor)

  • James Lambert

    Kirk,
    Just a word on the word here: If you have access to Bauer’s 3rd edition lexicon there are some links to the extra-biblical uses of this word and some further discussion of the word. Also, the one time that οὐρανος is used as the english word sky it is discussing the color of the clouds. The clouds were apart of the “other” waters in the Jewish mind. Also in the Greek. It was the clouds that the god’s road in to judge or deliver the people. YHWH also was know to ride a cloud or two.

    You are correct that this word ἀηρ just means the space we walk through and breath.

    It would be interesting to look in the LXX and see where and how this word is used.

    God bless, and I hope the Hebrew is going well.
    James

  • http://nathanieljohnson.wordpress.com Nathaniel

    Kurt,

    Just wanted to thank you for a very interesting study. I had never even thought thought to do a word study on that passage. I would love to read more of your thoughts on its correct and incorrect interpretation.

    In Christ,
    Nathaniel

  • http://www.jmsmith.org James-Michael Smith

    Great word study, Kurt. If your readers want more on the Rapture and how it developed as a belief in the last 150 years and is without true Biblical support, the following might be of interest:

    A Conversation About the Rapture – http://www.examiner.com/x-8276-Methodist-Examiner~y2009m12d17-A-conversation-about-the-Rapture-part-3

    Why belief in the Rapture should be ‘left behind’ – http://www.examiner.com/x-8276-Methodist-Examiner~y2009m9d14-Why-belief-in-the-rapture-should-be-left-behind

    Reader response to Rapture article – http://www.examiner.com/x-8276-Methodist-Examiner~y2010m1d5-Reader-comments-on-recent-Rapture-article-series

  • Daniel

    “…he chose to use ἀήρ to indicate that he was not talking about escaping this world; but rather being part of its redemptive process”…

    You seem to make these kinds of statements a lot, and it seems I still can’t quite understand what it is you are kicking up against….

    Is is the specific teaching of a pre-trib rapture (which I would agree is not supported in scripture…), or the idea of people being “caught up” in some vertical direction at all…?

    Even if we agree that “heaven” is a tangible, physical world (the redeemed Earth…), wouldn’t we have to acknowledge that since it will have been redeemed, it will be perfect, and “heavenly” all the same? Even if people get sucked into a type of “dualism” in their understanding of heaven, and mistakenly believe that Heaven is somewhere “up there”, I myself have to wonder if such a misunderstanding really matters much, practically speaking… In the end, aren’t they still just looking forward to being in a perfect place with Jesus for eternity? Will Jesus reject their entrance to His Kingdom, because they didn’t properly understand the metaphysical details of Heaven…? At what point does this kind of misunderstanding become decidedly problematic, (from your perspective)?

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt Willems

      Daniel, I have heard multiple people discuss issues of political nature on my FB page that have used poor end times views to back it up. That might be one strong reason why this matters. Also, I have had people who choose not to care for creation because it is all going to ‘be destroyed anyway’ because this world is not what matters… heaven does. Not sure if you ever read the book that I recommended a while back: Surprised by Hope. That would help you to at least see where I am coming from on these dualism issues. Ultimately, my concern is to be faithful to the bible :-)

  • http://miked232.wordpress.com miked232

    Awesome. I have a close linguistic genus of a friend that majors in ancient Greek. We are making huge strides in a better understanding of the language of Paul that is causing us to rethink, and re analyze Paul; or so it seems.

  • http://twitter.com/spackmanjackman Aaron Jackman

    Thanks Kurt, I’ve certainly been enlightened.  I’ve been brought up to believe the ‘Left Behind’ guesswork of Tim LaHaye, and so value the work you’ve put in.   God Bless.


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