Many interpreters do not think that Paul has a literal rapture in mind when he spoke about the resurrection in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18.
I want to comment on this.
i. Here is a hermeneutic question to ask yourself to determine if metaphoric language is being used:
Let’s all assume for the sake of the argument that Paul did intend to teach that the rapture is only a metaphor and not a real event in 1 Thess 4. What language would he have used otherwise to teach the rapture as a literal event than the language that he actually used? If the interpreter cannot answer this question, then they should conclude that it is not metaphoric language.
The reasonableness of this question seems to escape many interpreters who deny a literal rapture.
ii. Some will infer that the event is not literal claiming that the word “air” can be used metaphorically. This is answered through a linguistic notion called collocation, the habitual association with other words constrains the meaning of the target word. For example, if someone says “he has a cold heart” you know that he is using “cold” (and “heart”!) metaphorically because of the collocation with the word “heart.”
In our case, Paul does not use only one word in his description: “air.” Rather, he employs a cluster of destination and action terms in collocation: “descend from heaven,” “be caught up,” “in the clouds,” “meet the Lord in.” Taking together, these words constrain the word “air” for a literal sense.
iii. Another aspect of the context is the purpose of the rapture. Paul teaches that the purpose of the rapture is to be taken to Christ (upwards) to be protected from the day of the Lord’s wrath (on earth).
Don’t you think it is strange that Paul would be teaching that God will protect his saints on earth during his wrath being poured out on earth by using a description of removing the saints from the earth to the sky? That is indeed very difficult to negotiate for an interpretation!
iv. To be consistent the interpreter should deny the literalness of the Ascension of Jesus to heaven in Acts 1 since similar language is being used (as well as the Bride who is said to come down from heaven in the New Jerusalem in Rev 21).
v. Finally, I actually think this is mostly driven by a disdain for pretribulationism and not sound exegesis. That is, many interpreters are not content with just refuting the pretribulation rapture. They are driven to refute the rapture event itself from the face of the earth—no pun intended!
Related to this is: