Why does judgment before God appear to be missing in 1 Thess. 4:17?
Answer: Saints are not judged as they ascend to forever be with Christ.
Suppose we review the passages that relate specifically to the subject of judgment. First, let us examine the argument of universal judgment — the idea that everyone will stand before the Judgment Seat of God or Christ. Superficially, Scripture seems pretty clear:
Romans 14:10, 12: "For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. Each one of us will give an account of himself to God."
2 Corinthians 5:10: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad."
Finally, we have this:
1 Peter 4:17: "For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?"
Based on these passages it seems certain that everyone will stand before God in judgment. But is that true? Well, yes and no.
Perhaps we should ask a vital question here: If we have been baptized into Christ, have all our sins not been washed away just as we have been promised? More than that, we are also promised:
1 John 1:7, 9: "[If] we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin… 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
How, then, can the saints stand in judgment? Suppose we contrast the preceding verses with several others that are also relevant. First, we should understand that, upon His Resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven in glory and honor with the Father to become the King of all Creation (Mk 16:19, Acts 1:11, Heb. 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2).
In doing so, Christ now sits on His Throne governing everything that transpires on Earth. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15, Rev. 17:14, 19:6). In other words, we are all standing before Christ's Throne right now, although we may rarely (if ever) view things from that perspective. We have lived before the Seat of Christ all of our lives, and the evidence for or against us exists on our consciences. God is fully aware of our every act as human beings.
Suppose we now consider what else the New Testament has to say about the faithful. Note the many times that Christ, as God, has proclaimed (or necessarily implied) that while we walk in the Light, we are not to be judged:
John 3:18a: "He who believes in Him is not judged" (emphasis added).
From another passage in John' s Gospel, we know the Father does not judge:
John 5:22: “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son."
Are we to view John 3:18a and John 5:22 as mere hyperbole regarding the faithful? Only two verses later we read yet another, similar pronouncement by the Son of God:
John 5:24: "Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who hears [obeys] My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life" (emphasis added).
Are we to simply reject these vital pronouncements? Why would Christ ever make such claims (those emphasized in Jn. 3:18a, 5:22, 5:24)? It seems reasonable to conclude that He is addressing those who have exercised obedience to His Word. Consider this next passage that speaks to the status of the saints:
Romans 8:1: "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (emphasis added).
Has Paul not clearly stated that to those in Christ, the ones that have "clothed themselves with Christ" (Gal. 3:27) there is now no condemnation? What does that mean? It means that there is nothing to judge in our walk with Christ. And, if there is nothing to judge, then how do we stand before a judgment seat?
The answer is that saints do not stand in judgment.
Where there is judgment, some form of condemnation inevitable follows. However, any condemnation by God leads to eternal separation from Him. Those in Christ should understand that they have passed from being slaves of disobedience to become "slaves of righteousness" (Rom. 6:18) — the children of God. Consider Paul's Letter to the Colossians, which argues the point more emphatically:
Colossians 1:21-22: "And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet [Christ] has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before [the Father] holy and blameless and beyond reproach" (emphasis added).
We were once alienated and hostile to God. We were "engaged in evil deeds" just as verse 21 states. That is how God sees everyone outside of Christ, irrespective of whether we consider them "good" or "bad": what we happen to think is beside the point.
Precisely who stands in God's righteous judgment when they are holy, blameless, and beyond reproach? If this is not true, how do words have meaning? Paul's letter to the saints at Corinth appears to echo the same sentiments as those in his Letter to the Colossians:
1 Corinthians 6:11: "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God!" (emphasis added).
As before, note the similarity of the words to Col. 1:21-22: "washed," "sanctified," "justified." Of course, those who have not been washed (baptized, immersed), sanctified (set apart as holy), and justified (removal of condemnation, guilt, and sin) are filling up the measure of their sins before the Throne of God right now. This world appears to constitute The Trial, where we are either being cleansed, or forever condemned to eternal separation at physical death (the "first death").
On the other hand, those who exist in such a perfected state, will never stand in judgment. If one believes otherwise, perhaps they should ask themselves this question: Does being "washed, sanctified, and justified", not equate to spiritual perfection? How much more can any human being do? Our Heavenly Father is painfully aware of our limitations and our human frailties. That is why He has provided the solution to our great dilemma.
Here, now, is the passage in question from the OP:
1 Thessalonians 4:17: "Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord."
Obviously, Paul is speaking to the saints. However, where is there any mention of judgment in this verse? Are we to insert words that do not exist: "Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up to judgment only to later be together with them in the clouds"?
How does such reasoning not suggest that we will stand guilty for sins that have been washed away by our godly life in Christ? Read what the writer of Hebrews has to tell us:
Hebrews 9:28: "[So] Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him" (emphasis added).
What does it mean to appear "without reference to sin"? Do judges adjudicate cases when there are no charges and no case? Hear the apostle Paul's expectation, where he reveals the destiny of the saints when absent from the physical body:
2 Corinthians 5:8: "[We] are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord."
Just how is anyone "at home with the Lord" if they must stand in judgment? (Imagine standing in judgment for many appear to believe will be thousands of years.) Note that there is absolutely no detour mentioned in 2 Cor. 5:8, where "absent from the body — we will be judged — to later be at home with the Lord". Inevitably, these seem to beg questions that demand answers!
Read God's ominous words to the lost:
John 3:18b: "[He] who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed [obeyed, cf. Jn. 3:36, NAS] in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (emphasis added).
Suppose we consider another passage in favor of those in Christ:
Matthew 25:34: "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.'"
Note that "the King" does not say: "Now, stand in judgment for all your unrighteous deeds in the body". While the wording differs considerably, this passage is reminiscent of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in the OP, where we are told that "we will meet the Lord in the air."
In Matthew's account, the "sheep" have metaphorically been separated from the "goats" (Matt. 25:32-33) — the "goats" being those who will face God's Wrath (cf. Lk. 16:19ff).
Since Christ's Kingdom was inaugurated on Pentecost in the first century A.D., we might note a clause from the Lord's Prayer: "Your Kingdom come..." The reason that we still pray this is that, while the gates of the Kingdom were opened on the Lord's Day (first century), the Kingdom, the Church, has continued to receive new residents since that time. Each day, people are baptized to become citizens.
Each time a person is saved, they have "put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27, cf. Matt. 22:13) as royalty (1 Pet. 2:9). All others remain slaves — slaves of sin and death (Rom. 6:16), their consciences continually bearing witness against them (1 Cor. 8:10, 1 Cor. 10:25, 29, 1 Tim. 1:5, 1 Tim. 3:9, Heb. 13:18).
It should now be clear why neither the Father nor Christ will be a "judge" per se. It is because we are being contrasted to the Word of God every moment:
John 12:48: "He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day" (emphasis added).
Our faithful behavior is cleansing us at right now. Otherwise, our faithless disobedience condemns us. And, in that sense, our consciences, containing the entire record of our lives, will ultimately be our judge. The only words the lost may ever hear from God are these:
Matthew 7:23: "I never knew you; Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness."
The reason that 1 Thessalonians 4:17 appears to overlook 2 Corinthians 5:10 is that, while the faithless are storing up wrath every day by their persistent disobedience, those who walk in the Light are being cleansed daily. That is why there is no judgment of the saints, in contrast to the faithless, or in Christ's words, "Those who practice lawlessness." There is no contradiction.