I would like to ask about this text where Paul writes about the Lord returning:

Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

Paul says "we which are alive", but he died before Lord returned. Did he fail in his words, or he was speaking about that very moment? I mean he didn't give any precise date for the Second Coming -- he just said that those alive will join the Lord, and at that moment he was alive.

A person told me that this is a failed prophecy. I don't regard it that way, but I cannot fully understand what the real meaning is either.

  • 1
    A.) I think this is a great question, and there are several things in the Greek that I hope someone could tackle: Would the Greek verbs be in the subjunctive if Paul was speaking hypothetically, about possibilities? B.) Is Paul using the "Royal We" - was he speaking generically - about the body - and including everyone? In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 - "So also we will be with the Lord" - Paul seems to include himself with the dead too ... Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 8:43
  • 1
    Why do you say that Paul died before Christ's return?
    – Ruminator
    Commented Dec 22, 2018 at 5:11
  • Can't "we which are alive" simply be considered equivalent to "those of us that are alive"? If so, Paul isn't claiming the he will of a certainty be among that group. Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 1:53

7 Answers 7


Paul's Inclusive Speech

Paul was speaking inclusively to the Thessalonians about this. As a fellow believer, he includes himself in his examples. This type of inclusion occurs in the Old Testament as well:

2 “The Lord also brings a charge against Judah,
And will punish Jacob according to his ways;
According to his deeds He will recompense him.
3 He took his brother by the heel in the womb,
And in his strength he struggled with God.
4 Yes, he struggled with the Angel and prevailed;
He wept, and sought favor from Him.
He found Him in Bethel,
And there He spoke to us
-Hosea 12:2-4 (NKJV)

No one in Hosea's time was alive when God spoke to Jacob at Bethel, yet Hosea speaks inclusively in the last line of verse 4.

John Gill states the same in his commentary:

That we which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord: not that the apostle thought that he and the saints then in the flesh should live and continue till the second coming of Christ; for he did not imagine that the coming of Christ was so near, as is manifest from 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 though the Thessalonians might take him in this sense, which he there corrects; but he speaks of himself and others in the first person plural, by way of instance and example, for illustration sake....

As does Thomas Coke in his commentary:

That we which are alive, &c.— Because here and elsewhere St. Paul speaks in the first person plural, and thereby seems to join himself with those who should be alive at Christ's second coming, when the dead are to be raised, and the living transformed,—some have too hastily concluded that he thought the day of the Lord to be just then at hand; and that he, and several of the Christians of that age, should be of the number of those who should (not die and be raised again, but) be transformed: but they are great strangers to St. Paul's [style] and manner, who have not observed in what a latitude he uses the word we; sometimes thereby meaning himself, and at other times himself and his companions; sometimes the Apostles, and at other times the Christians in general;—in some places the Jewish, and in other places the Gentile Christians....

There are only two groups that Paul is speaking of at the coming of the Lord: those who are alive and those who are dead. And as such, I think Charles Ellicott sums it well when he says:

We which are alive and remain.—Literally, We, (that is) the quick, those who are left over. There is not the least necessity for supposing from these words that St. Paul confidently expected the Advent before his death. Very likely he did, but it cannot be proved from this passage. Had the “we” stood alone, without the explanatory participles, it might have amounted to a proof, but not so now. [...] St. Paul is only picturing to imagination the scene of the Advent; and for any man it is far easier to imagine himself among the quick than among the dead at that moment.

The Brief Time Span Between the Two Thessalonian Letters

Paul writes his second letter to the Thessalonians shortly after the first, which was perhaps to help clarify things in his first letter. The start of both letters begin with the same greeting:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians...

Silvanus is Silas, with Silas Σίλας being a contracted form of Silvanus Σιλουανός. Paul, Silas, and Timothy were together in Berea:

13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds. 14 Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there. -Acts 17:13-14 (NKJV)

Paul is briefly separated from Silas and Timothy, but sent word for them to join him in Athens:

So those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed. -Acts 17:15 (NKJV)

Paul then leaves Athens and goes to Corinth:

After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. -Acts 18:1 (NKJV)

Where all three are mentioned together again:

When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. -Acts 18:5 (NKJV)

Paul stays in Corinth for 1 year and 6 months:

And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. -Acts 18:11 (NKJV)

After which Paul departs for Syria with Priscilla and Aquila:

...Then he [Paul] took leave of the brethren and sailed for Syria, and Priscilla and Aquila were with him.... -Acts 18:18 (NKJV)

Paul, Silas, and Timothy are not mentioned being together again for the rest of Acts. While Timothy is mentioned as being with Paul again later in Acts 19:22 and Acts 20:4, Silas is not. 2 Thessalonians was written on behalf of Paul, Silas, and Timothy by Paul's own hand:

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.... -2 Thessalonians 3:17 (ESV)
The salutation of Paul with my own hand.... - 2 Thessalonians 3:17 (NKJV)

and as such, there was a relatively short amount of time between when the first and second letters were written.


Paul used the word "we" in chapter 4 for illustrative purposes. For just a little later in the letter, Paul says concerning the day of the Lord:

But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. -1 Thessalonians 5:1-2 (NKJV)

There was no need to write to them about the times and seasons because they already knew such things. They knew of them because it was from Jesus' own words concerning His coming, such as what is recorded in Matthew 24. While a specific day or hour was not known, Jesus Himself gave general signs of the times that would indicate His return would be near. And as John Gill states, Paul did not imagine that the coming of Christ was so near, and though the Thessalonians might take him in this sense when he used the word "we," he corrects this possible misinterpretation of his words in his second letter to them shortly thereafter.

  • Sorry I took some time to mark the answer as accepted because I was taking some reading about your points and I find it very accurate, taking as well into account that Paul was a Rabbin he follows the writing style of the Old Testament, very good and logical explanation.
    – JCO9
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 8:24
  • @JCO9 - No problem. Don't feel in any hurry to mark an answer as accepted here. =)
    – user6503
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 13:34

Bart D. Ehrman says, in Forged, page 106, that Paul thought the end was coming in his lifetime. Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica because some of them had become disturbed over the death of a number of their fellow believers. When he converted these people, Paul had taught them that the end of the age was imminent and that they were to enter the kingdom when Jesus returned, but members of the congregation had died before it happened. Paul wrote the First Epistle to the Thessalonians to assure the survivors that even those who have died will be brought into the kingdom.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, Paul acknowledges the concerns of the Thessalonians and reassures them that all will be well:

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14: But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

In verses 15-17, Paul expresses the sincere belief that Jesus will return in the lifetimes of some of those remaining:

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17: For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

Finally, Paul urges the Thessalonians to comfort each other with his words of assurance:

1 Thessalonians 4:18: Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

To the extent that Paul had given the Thessalonians a firm assurance that Jesus would return in their lifetimes, this could be considered a failed prophecy. The earliest New Testament gospel was Mark's Gospel, which appears in places to be influenced by Paul's epistles. Mark 9:1 and Mark chapter 13 reflect the expectation of the Second Coming during the lifetimes of those then present.

Some time later, when it was becoming clear that Jesus would not return soon, Paul or more probably someone writing in Paul's name after his death, wrote the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians to explain that the end is not coming right away, because certain things have to happen first. By means of this epistle, the early Christians were assured that Paul had not really prophesied the return of Christ in his own lifetime.

  • You said: "Paul or more probably someone writing in Paul's name after his death, wrote the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians...." 2 Thessalonians 3:17 says: "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand..." (ESV / NASB / with the NKJV & KJV saying basically the same thing only in a slight more roundabout way).
    – user6503
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 2:52
  • Additionally, 2 Thessalonians is dated from only a few months to perhaps not longer than one year after 1 Thessalonians (cite1a; cite1b; cite2a; cite2b), circa A.D. 50-52.
    – user6503
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 3:36
  • Considering the short amount of time between the two letters, Paul did not misunderstand Jesus' 2nd coming--the Thessalonians misunderstood Paul's words, much as you are doing now. This no doubt required a 2nd letter for clarification, which I would imagine was a reason for Paul to explicitly state he wrote 2 Thessalonians with his own hand.
    – user6503
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 3:42
  • I'm actually just curious where you are getting that the point of 2 Thess. to explain that the end is not coming right away? How is 2 Thess 2:1 any different than 1 Thess 4:17? ἡμεῖς (we) is not much different than ἡμῶν (our). So 2 Thess 2:1 must be implying expectation of Paul within his lifetime since he includes himself, if we are going to be technical like the OP?
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 3:59
  • @Bʀɪᴀɴ What is the firm biblical basis for saying that 2 Thess was written no longer than 1 year after 1 Thess. Wikipedia: "Scholars who support its authenticity view it as having been written around 51-52 AD, shortly after the First Epistle. Those who see it as a later composition, assign a date of around 80 - 115 AD." Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 4:59

It seems like maybe we are making this one more complex than need be...Paul says "We" and "Them" in this passage and he could easily be including himself in either category but speaking from his present 'Alive' status. It looks pretty clear to me that Paul is simply laying out the two scenarios. Either we will rise from the grave or be taken while still in our body. Also, I am thinking that entertaining the notion that Paul made some sort of mistake in the way he worded things is a non-starter. Is the scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit or not? Certainly we can argue interpretations of the original manuscripts but there are times when we make things a little too complex.

  • Admittedly Brian's analysis is a good amount deeper. And you don't have a lot of material to support what you're saying, but I think the simplicity is warranted here. He's talking about people who are alive and people who are dead. He is alive and speaking to people who are alive. What group do you think he's going to include himself in? It would be more of a prophecy if he predicted he would be dead, but Paul simply didn't know when so included himself with those alive.
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 20:42

If we are just goes along with the context of 1Thessalonians 4:13-18 and include the remaining chapter 5:1-10(continued), we will come up to the knowledge why Paul used the word "We" in 4:17 of 1 Thessalonians.

First, Paul said to the brethren in Thessalonians in verse 13 that Paul don't want them to be ignorant concerning "THEM" which are "ASLEEP"(which means dead in Christ, literally), Thessalonian need no to be sorrow like others that has no hope. There is hope for them that "ASLEEP". For in verse 14, Paul reminds them that "IF WE" believed that Jesus died and rose again, even so "THEM" which ASLEEP in Jesus will bring with him. Note the word used by Paul, "BRING WITH HIM", that was the HOPE. Christ will bring those dead too together with Paul (which "ALIVE" that day, literally ALIVE) and also Thessalonians which also "ALIVE" that day. Why? Why Paul included himself?

In verse 15 as we continued, Paul was very clear in his statement that the reason why he is saying these it's because he say this "BY THE WORD OF THE LORD". It is the word of Jesus that declared to Paul that "YOU PAUL ARE ALIVE THAT DAY WITH THE THESSALLONIAN" saints. And you Paul with others that are alive that day, in the day that the Lord will come shall not prevent them that are "ASLEEP".

You will noticed in those Statements of Paul that came from Christ was absolutely true, them that are "ASLEEP" is different from them that are "ALIVE" in the time the Lord will come.

And it is clear in verse 16 when Paul visualized the day when the Lord will come. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven and the dead and Christ will rise first (which are Asleep), no need for Paul to risen because that day, Paul was already Alive? The event that comes to follow after the first resurrected saints in Christ (not the dead which was not in Christ, they will resurrected after them that Asleep according to Revelation 20:12) is the "CAUGHT UP" of both Alive and Resurrected saints in the clouds to meet the Lord in the Air. And after that all of them will be "EVER" with the Lord. Note after the what they called "RUPTURE" they will be with the Lord FOREVER. Unlike in the First Resurrection in Rvelation 20:6,them that are resurrected will reign in Earth for 1 thousand years. 1Thessalonians scenario is different from Revelation 20:6.

So, the hope of this statement of Paul that came from our Lord Jesus Christ to the Thessalonians are a comfort to each one of them according to verse 18.

Now, Paul emphasized that " TIMES AND SEASONS " no need to write unto you because Thessalonians are very much aware and know perfectly that the day of the Lord will come as a thief. As verse 5:3 explained well. Because Thessalonians are Children of light, and not of Darkness. They are very "AWAKE" and "AWARE" at that day, If they will follow Paul exhortation in verse 6, which mean different "ASLEEP" compare to ASLEEP in 4:13-17. Asleep in 5:6 is considered to be Asleep in line of being vigilant or watchful at that day as what the verse 5:4-8 explained. Not literally Asleep but Asleep in righteousness or dead in righteousness. One of the sign that if you are dead in righteousness you are drunken, living in a world of darkness. You are not AWARE or AWAKE that day.

Now, you might asked, why Paul alived at that day. The answer was simple. Read Revelation 20:6. Paul will be included in first resurrection and the event on 1Thessalonians 4:16-17 will takes place after the Millennium. Read Matthew 24, Luke 21:5... and Mark 13. Try to form the jigsaw puzzle.

Thanks be to God and to his Son our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

  • Welcome to BH SE. It's very courageous of you to post about such a complex topic with what appears to be limited English skills. It is hard to understand your answer though. Perhaps you could read it through and edit it some more to make it more concise and readable. You have a nice layout of the text, but you could spend time adding the verses you reference as quotes - as other answers have done - like this hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/24643/…
    – Steve
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 7:35

The simplest explanation, rather than after-the-fact rationalizations, is the best: Paul wrongly believed, and kept telling everybody, that Jesus was going to be back immediately. The Thessalonians were getting discouraged because deaths kept occurring, with no sign of Jesus. So Paul had to reassure them. He was wrong (by the way - it seems inescapable that Paul taught the dead would not meet Jesus until he returned, which makes the whole concept of the dead going to Heaven wildly problematic).

Later efforts attributed to Paul to explain the delay are almost certainly forgeries, written after Paul was dead. The chap that wrote Second Peter (Peter himself, if he ever existed, was by then long since dead), tried to explain the embarrassment of Paul's failed prophecies by claiming that scoffers will scoff, and Paul said some things that are hard to understand, and a day to God is like 1,000 years to man. But then he felt compelled to suggest that it was the last days. Also, it's impossible to use the "day is a thousand years" argument to evade Paul's failed prophecy - Paul said nothing about "days", but instead that Jesus would be back within Paul's lifetime.

Jesus himself said that the coming of the Kingdom was imminent and the events would occur during the lifetime of some of those then standing. (Jesus said nothing about "days"). He was wrong. There are many excellent books on Jesus being an apocalyptic prophet. Ehrman's stuff is good, and written from the vantage point of a former fundamentalist Christian. Paula Friedricksen is great. There are many others. Thomas Jefferson's writings on Paul (he considered Paul to be a perverter of Jesus' actual teachings) are also fun.


My own operating thesis at the moment is, no, it was not a failed prophecy. Paul et all were taken home as promised and are ever with the Lord.

The prophecy came true, all of the bride of Christ was gathered to meet the Lord Jesus in the air and are ever with the Lord. Jesus came as a thief in the night and snatched them away. Fortunately there are copies of God's "Left Behind" book, the apostolic writings, so we could understand why we are being left behind:

[Rev 22:6-21 NLT] (6) Then the angel said to me, "Everything you have heard and seen is trustworthy and true. The Lord God, who inspires his prophets, has sent his angel to tell his servants what will happen soon." (7) "Look, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who obey the words of prophecy written in this book." (8) I, John, am the one who heard and saw all these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me. (9) But he said, "No, don't worship me. I am a servant of God, just like you and your brothers the prophets, as well as all who obey what is written in this book. Worship only God!" (10) Then he instructed me, "Do not seal up the prophetic words in this book, for the time is near. (11) Let the one who is doing harm continue to do harm; let the one who is vile continue to be vile; let the one who is righteous continue to live righteously; let the one who is holy continue to be holy." (12) "Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. (13) I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." (14) Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life. (15) Outside the city are the dogs--the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idol worshipers, and all who love to live a lie.

(16) "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne. I am the bright morning star." (17) The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." Let anyone who hears this say, "Come." Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (18) And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. (19) And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person's share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book. (20) He who is the faithful witness to all these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon!" Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (21) May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's holy people.

Since Jesus said he was coming right away (within the current generation) as a thief to snatch away his people and leave the rest behind to be tormented day and night forever then who are we to say he didn't do it?

[Jer 8:19-22 NLT] (19) Listen to the weeping of my people; it can be heard all across the land. "Has the LORD abandoned Jerusalem?" the people ask. "Is her King no longer there?" "Oh, why have they provoked my anger with their carved idols and their worthless foreign gods?" says the LORD. (20) "The harvest is finished, and the summer is gone," the people cry, "yet we are not saved!" (21) **I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief. (22) Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wounds of my people?

[Mat 8:11-12 KJV] (11) And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. (12) But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

[Luk 13:22-30 NLT] (22) Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he went, always pressing on toward Jerusalem. (23) Someone asked him, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" He replied, (24) "Work hard to enter the narrow door to God's Kingdom, for many will try to enter but will fail. (25) When the master of the house has locked the door, it will be too late. You will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Lord, open the door for us!' But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from.' (26) Then you will say, 'But we ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' (27) And he will reply, 'I tell you, I don't know you or where you come from. Get away from me, all you who do evil.' (28) "There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, for you will see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out. (29) And people will come from all over the world--from east and west, north and south--to take their places in the Kingdom of God. (30) And note this: Some who seem least important now will be the greatest then, and some who are the greatest now will be least important then."

[Mat 23:13 NLT] (13) "What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces. You won't go in yourselves, and you don't let others enter either.

John describes Jesus as the new Moses, gathering to him all those who fear YHVH in truth and they have returned and found them unready and he wages war against his own people:

[Rev 19:11-21 NLT] (11) Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. (12) His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. (13) He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. (14) The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. (15) From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. (16) On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. (17) Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, shouting to the vultures flying high in the sky: "Come! Gather together for the great banquet God has prepared. (18) Come and eat the flesh of kings, generals, and strong warriors; of horses and their riders; and of all humanity, both free and slave, small and great." (19) Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. (20) And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast--miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. (21) Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse. And the vultures all gorged themselves on the dead bodies.

I believe this is what Jesus was predicting, and why. It was not a failed prophecy. It happened when and how Jesus said. Paul et al were "right behind" the Lord while we are "left behind".

[Heb 13:14 NKJV] (14) For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.

[Heb 11:16 DBY] (16) but now they seek a better, that is, a heavenly; wherefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God; for he has prepared for them a city.

[Heb 12:18-29 DBY] (18) For ye have not come to the mount that might be touched and was all on fire, and to obscurity, and darkness, and tempest, (19) and trumpet's sound, and voice of words; which they that heard, excusing themselves, declined the word being addressed to them any more: (20) (for they were not able to bear what was enjoined: And if a beast should touch the mountain, it shall be stoned; (21) and, so fearful was the sight, Moses said, I am exceedingly afraid and full of trembling;) (22) but ye have come to mount Zion; and to the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem; and to myriads of angels, (23) the universal gathering; and to the assembly of the firstborn who are registered in heaven; and to God, judge of all; and to the spirits of just men made perfect; (24) and to Jesus, mediator of a new covenant; and to the blood of sprinkling, speaking better than Abel. (25) See that ye refuse not him that speaks. For if those did not escape who had refused him who uttered the oracles on earth, much more we who turn away from him who does so from heaven: (26) whose voice then shook the earth; but now he has promised, saying, Yet once will I shake not only the earth, but also the heaven. (27) But this Yet once, signifies the removing of what is shaken, as being made, that what is not shaken may remain. (28) Wherefore let us, receiving a kingdom not to be shaken, have grace, by which let us serve God acceptably with reverence and fear. (29) For also our God is a consuming fire.

For a long time I was a champion of the idea that the earthly promises had to be fulfilled in an earthly way but have since had to abandon that view. The new covenant can't go into old wine skins.


I think this is a ridiculous question. Paul was very aware that because we are one in Christ we are all part of the body of christ. He was talking about the body And simply saying WE who are alive i.e those of us still alive.... thats it. I fail to see how this is prophetic in the manner of specifying a time and saying he necessarily will be one of those still alive. Indeed who would know that noone knows the ned time other than the father. Because the word of god dose not know the end times. As the end times will.pass away but the word will.never pass.

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