In Paul’s famous “rapture” passage (though the word rapture comes from the Latin Vulgate, not the Greek text), he describes a “meeting in the air” (1 Th. 4:17). This word “meeting” (apantesis) acquired a somewhat technical nuance in the Greco-Roman world, where it was used to describe the ancient civic custom of a delegation going out to welcome important visitors to one’s city. One sees this usage in other New Testament passages, such as when Paul and his company were approaching Rome and the Christians in Rome sent out a delegation to escort him back into the city (Ac. 28:15-16). By analogy, Paul seems to use this word in 1 Thessalonians to describe the saints rising in the air to meet the descending Christ so that they might escort him back to the earth.
If this is what Paul intends, however, it undercuts a very popular image—the idea that the saints will rise to meet Christ, Christ will make a reverse turn, and they all will go back to heaven for the seven years of the Great Tribulation (this is the version, for instance, one finds in the popular “Left Behind” series of novels). In fact, what is envisioned is not Christ making a reverse turn and going back to heaven, but rather, the saints making a reverse turn as they meet Christ so that they might escort him back into their “city” (i.e., the earth). Insofar as this imagery holds true, then it fits quite awkwardly with the notion of a preliminary coming of Christ before the end of the age, where Christians go to heaven while the rest of human history continues on for several additional years. It fits much better with the idea that at his second coming at the end of human history, Christ will descend to the earth as its reigning King. When he comes, both the living and the dead in Christ will be joined together, rising to welcome him to the earth, his rightful domain.