Some churches attempt to prove from this verse that heaven is the reward of the saved—that Christians will go to heaven and be there with Christ forever. But where did the idea that heaven is the reward of the saved originate? Does the Old Testament teach it? Did Jesus and His apostles teach it?
A perusal of various encyclopedia articles on "heaven" will show that this doctrine originated with the pagan, polytheistic Greeks and Romans. Their deified heroes and other favorites of their multiple gods were supposedly given admission to their "heaven," which they called "Elysium."
Various peoples evolved their own versions of Elysium. The Germans and Scandinavians had their Valhalla. The American Indians had their Happy Hunting Grounds. The eastern Buddhists have Nirvana, which offers the dubious promise of "the extinction of all desire and personality." Interestingly, the Western, professing Christian heaven is more similar to the original Greek concept.
The Old Testament shows clearly that when Jesus Christ returns to earth, it will be to set up the Kingdom of God—on earth, not in heaven.
Daniel 2:36-43 describes four major kingdoms, empires, or governmental systems that have ruled over the greater part of the civilized world: the Chaldean-Babylonian Empire (625 to 538 BC); the Medo-Persian Empire (538 to 330 BC); the Greco-Macedonian Empire (333 to 31 BC); and the the Roman Empire (Established 31 BC. The imagery suggests that it will exist in some form until the end of the age.) Clearly, these physical empires existed on earth. But verses 44-45 say that God's Kingdom will encompass all of these previous kingdoms—on earth! Daniel 7:17-18 says much the same.
Daniel 7:27 adds a vital piece of information to our understanding of where God's Kingdom is:
Then the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him.
God's everlasting Kingdom, then, shall not be in heaven but "under the whole heaven"!
Why then should we be surprised that God's Kingdom will be on earth? God tells us through Moses that ancient Israel was a type of God's Kingdom and, in fact, could have been His Kingdom had they obeyed Him (Exodus 19:5-6).
The very churches that misuse I Thessalonians 4:17 could better understand its meaning by studying the words of the so-called "Lord's Prayer": "Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10; see Micah 4:8). Jesus instructs His people to pray for God's Kingdom to come—to earth—not to be taken away to it!
Matthew 24:3 shows that the disciples knew, and therefore were taught by Jesus Himself, that He would come back to this earth, when they asked Him, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"
In His reply, Jesus continually repeats that He will come back to this earth:
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west; so also will the coming of the Son of man be. . . . Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. . . . But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. (verses 27, 30, 37; see also verses 39, 42, 44, 46, 48, 50)
Some might argue that, because Jesus went to be with God the Father in heaven after His death and resurrection, we must go to heaven to be with Him. However, in John 14:3, Jesus tells His disciples that He will come again to earth and will here receive them to Himself to be with Him: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also." If He wants us in heaven, why would He have to come here to get us? The Parable of the Minas or Pounds (see Luke 19:11-15) also makes this clear.
After all of Jesus' teaching, the disciples, although still limited in their knowledge and understanding, knew for sure that Jesus was to restore His Kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). In Acts 1:9-11, their understanding is greatly enhanced:
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."
He will come down from heaven, through the clouds, and will set down on the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:4). He will be clearly visible to human eyes.
Christ reveals to the apostle John in Revelation 19:11-21 that He will not return meekly or unnoticed to this earth. His return will be witnessed by the whole world whose kings and armies (verse 19) will gather to battle against Him. No secret, quiet "rapture," whisking Christians off to heaven, but the most terrible battle in man's history.
Consider the context of I Thessalonians 4:17, and notice the previous verse: "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first" (verse 16). This clearly proves that the timeframe is that of the second coming of Jesus Christ, not the death of each Christian.
Notice also that Christ is descending from heaven. We will not meet Him in heaven but in the atmosphere of the earth as He is on His way down.
Now comes the central question of this matter. We have just met Christ in the air! Where do we go from here? Up to heaven or back down to earth? I Thessalonians 4:17 says that we are to be with the Lord forever, but where will the Lord be? Again, many scriptures give the clear answer, but Zechariah 14:4 gives a concise one:
And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, from east to west, making a very large valley; half of the mountain shall move toward the north and half of it toward the south.
Could this be some "heavenly" Mount of Olives? No, it is the one "which faces Jerusalem on the east"! Could it be some "spiritual" Jerusalem? No, Jesus is going to split it in half!
He will have arrived on earth. Who will be with Him? The second half of verse 5 tells us: "Thus the LORD my God will come, and all the saints with You." All the resurrected saints or holy ones will be with Him.
Will He stay on earth? Notice verse 9: "And the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be—'The LORD is one,' and His name one." Yes, He will stay. The Kingdom of God and the reward of the saved are on this earth! As Jesus Himself tells us in Matthew 5:5, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
Jesus will come again to earth, this time with His saints and with His army of angels too. He will take His rightful place on His glorious, earthly throne and share power with His saints over the physical nations of the earth (Revelation 2:26-27). God tells us in Revelation 5:10: "And have made us [the saints; verse 9] kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth."