“Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet [apantēsis] the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thess 4:17)
Recently, Michael Brown interacted with Mark Hitchcock on posttrib vs. pretrib. I thought Brown did well in responding to Hitchcock; although, I did not share his posttrib distinctive that unbelievers will enter into the millennial kingdom. (Incidentally, I am thankful to Michael Brown for having me on his program to talk about prewrath back in 2014. It was a good talk, even though it was a very short time—about 20 minutes including commercial breaks!)
The next day after Michael Brown interacted with Hitchcock, he did another program on responding to the pretrib imminent rapture. Again, I agreed with much of what he said, but I also disagreed with a key distinctive of posttribulationism. They teach that the Greek word apantēsis (meeting) in 1 Thess 4:17 means an “immediate escort back”; in this case, God’s people are raptured and meet Jesus in the clouds and then Jesus is immediately “escorted back” to earth. Thus, posttribulationists deny that after the rapture God’s people are taken to heaven before the throne of God.
This posttrib view is mistaken for three reasons.
First, it commits a lexical fallacy, the “technical fallacy,” a form of the larger illegitimate totality transfer word-concept fallacy. It is the general error of assuming that the presence of a particular word in a passage therefore means the presence of a particular concept. It illegitimately transfers the total relations into a specific context. It is a fallacy that James Barr critiqued over fifty years ago but is commonly still found in literature. The meaning of apantēsis is “to come near to and to meet, either in a friendly or hostile sense.” But its referential meaning is constrained by the context it is found in. So the claim that Jesus is immediately escorted by the people of God to earth must be signaled by contextual evidence, not the word itself. But there is no evidence in the context of 1 Thess 4 of Jesus coming immediately to earth after the rapture. Posttribulationists admit this point, which is why they focus on shoehorning that concept into the meaning of apantēsis.
Second, traditionally it has been thought that Paul in 1 Thess 4 is drawing from the imagery of Hellenistic formal receptions, hence a reason it was thought that apantēsis refers to an immediate escort (although this would not be true for the lexical reason above). But this idea of Paul drawing from Greek concepts in this context has been refuted for quite a long time; for example see:
Michael R. Cosby, “Hellenistic Formal Receptions and Paul’s use of AΠANTHΣIΣ in 1 Thessalonians 4.17,” BBR (1994): 4:15-34. (The article can be downloaded here: www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_1994_02_Cosby-Apantesis1Thes.pdf )
Joseph Plevnik, “1 Thessalonians 4:17: The Bringing in of the Lord or the Bringing in of the Faithful?,” Biblica 80 (1999): 537-546. (The article is online here)
As Cosby and others have shown, Paul is not drawing from Greek concepts but Jewish concepts, namely the imagery from the Sinai-mountain episode. But even in this case, the specific context and purpose must shape any antecedent imagery that Paul may have in mind.
Third, rather than reading the posttrib concept of an “immediate escort to earth” back into the meaning of apantēsis, it is better to take three explicit biblical passages that depict the people of God being escorted to heaven—not earth—when Jesus returns. See: