Question: If the dead in Christ rise first and those believers living at the time are caught up to join them in the sky (1 Thess. 4:16-17), what happens to the unsaved dead? Do they stay buried, or join ones left behind on earth?
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 is the classic New Testament passage describing the return of Jesus Christ and the rapture of the church. It is in these two verses where we learn that those who already died as believers in Jesus will receive their resurrection bodies at the moment of Christ’s physical return to earth, immediately followed by believers still living on the earth who likewise receive their resurrection bodies—people who will never experience death. This is what the church has called the “rapture.”
This climactic event in God’s timetable of the redemption of mankind triggers four more critical events that conclude God’s grand plan:
1) The outpouring of God’s Wrath, where Satan and the Antichrist
are defeated and the earth is laid waste (Rev. 11:18; Rev. 19:19-20).
2) The reign of Jesus Christ from Jerusalem for one thousand years (the Millennium), during which the earth is restored and its survivors live in peace, health and under the righteous judgment of Christ:
Rev. 20:4-5 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection.
3) The temporary release of Satan, who instigates mankind’s final rebellion against God in a massive attack against Jesus’ seat of government in Jerusalem. Satan is defeated forever (Rev. 20:3, 10).
4) The Final Judgment (also called the Great White Throne Judgment), where all who have lived and died without Christ are bodily resurrected and condemned to an eternity in Hell (Rev. 20:11-15).
The Bible teaches that the souls of those who die without Christ spend their existence in Hades (Old Testament: Sheol) until the Final Judgment. Their bodies, of course, as with believers, decay until they are resurrected. For believers, the resurrection occurs at Christ’s return. For nonbelievers, their resurrection occurs at the Final Judgment following the millennial reign of Christ. Then, at last, death and Hades are both destroyed in Hell, “the Lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14) and God creates “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” (Rev. 21:1).
It is important to remember that all of mankind is condemned. It is not Jesus who condemns us but our own sinful condition. God wants no human being to suffer the torment of Hell (2Pet. 3:9).
John 3:16-17 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.