Why I Want to Be Left Behind

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Background

In recent times many good Bible scholars have pointed out the theological errors of mainstream evangelical Christianity with respect to end time events. The traditional approach to the issue of the rapture has been to demonstrate, with sound, systematic biblical evidence, that the popularized silent rapture scenario has no biblical foundation. They have strongly maintained that rather than being silent, secrete and mysterious, the rapture will be exactly that: rapturous. In summary, it will be loud, brilliantly visible, climactically joyful for some and ignominiously painful for others.

They have strongly maintained that rather than being silent, secrete and mysterious, the rapture will be exactly that: rapturous.

This response is a coherent eschatological framework that draws on, and ties together the biblical teachings on subjects such as the nature of man, the state of the dead, the nature of the judgment, the antitypical, prophetic experience of the church, and the final event of the Second Advent, or parousia. There are only two areas in which we have generally agreed with evangelicals on the nature of the second coming: first, that despite our considerably different view of its nature, we can agree to call it a “rapture”, for what it’s worth. The second area is one in which I, at least, had made a more specific agreement with evangelicals, and it is the area which I would now like to explore, and rethink. It is the idea that in the rapture event, Jesus pictures the saved as taken, and the lost as left behind. This phrase, of course, has become the title of a famous franchise of books and movies. It is the flagship eschatological warning of evangelicals to the lost. “Do not be left behind!” After reading this, it should be clear to you why in the context of these specific verses, I actually now would much prefer to be left (behind).

Like I mentioned, this is a specific biblical exegesis. It relates to the passage taken out of Matthew 24:40, 41.

“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” It seems that we have differed from other denominations only to the extent that the nature of the “taking away” is visible and public. It therefore appears that we have largely agreed that the “taking away” itself is the desirable event that leads to the translation of the saints into eternal glory. We have often further developed this thought with a direct association with 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where it is shown that we “will be caught up together with them (the dead in Christ) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Brackets mine.

I would like to propose a closer examination of the famous Olivet discourse, and hopefully show you why with good reason I have changed my mind, and no longer want to the “taken away”, but left behind.

The Context

“As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Matthew 24:3

We will not spend too much time here. Most Bible students have been here many times. Seventh-day Adventists particularly like this chapter: It focuses on and validates the very purpose of our existence, as captured in our name. Adventists exist to call the attention of the world to the soon coming, advent, of Christ, and to provide the mutual guidance, support and encouragement that will help each of us to form and maintain a relationship with Him.

We will only remind ourselves of the eschatological (end-time) focus of this chapter in which Christ seems to couch his answer as a warning against misunderstanding the nature of the event. Christ seems to give a great amount of detail, and intermittently warns that very different depictions would be given down the course of history; depictions which His followers should be careful to recognize and reject.

That done, let’s dive into the meat of the matter. We will consider some of the other descriptions, parables and comparisons Christ gives to paint the picture of His second coming, and see what emerges.

An End Time Parable

 
In Matthew 13:24 – 30 Jesus tells a well know parable of a man who plants wheat. His enemy comes in, sows, tares, and they sprout to strangle the wheat. The farmer is implored by his servants to allow them to remove the tares, but he lets them grow together until the time of harvest, when he asks them to first gather together the tares, burn them, and then to gather together the wheat into his barn.

This parable has been part of the standard arsenal in defense of the literal, visible coming of Christ. It is an important parable. I want to draw your attention to the sequence provided. The tares are gathered and burned up “first.” This is not a supplied word; Jesus Himself deliberately uses it. The Greek word is προτον (proton), meaning before, or at the beginning. The planter instructs not that the wheat be gathered into the barn first, but that the tares be “gathered up” and burned first.

Moving on.

What Really Happened to Noah and His Family?

In Matthew 24: 38, 39, during the Olivet discourse, Jesus also likened His second coming to the flood of Noah’s time. He said, “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Italics mine)

The people of Noah’s day lived just like most do today: oblivious of the reality of imminent divinely orchestrated destruction. Again, this is a usual reminder often given to silent rapture teachers, pointing out the suddenness of the event for those who are not watching for it, and showing that like the global flood, the second coming will be unexpected, not unperceived.

Let us also notice now who is taken away. The flood did not come and take away Noah and his family. It came and “took away” all of the wicked people. When the flood was over, it was Noah and His family who were left. This is clear in the flood account in Genesis 7:23: “Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.” The Hebrew rendition is translated more closely in the King James Version as: “and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”

The flood did not come and take away Noah and his family. It came and “took away” all of the wicked people.

Notice again that “alive” is italicized, meaning it was supplied by the translators. The Hebrew naturally ends by saying “…and Noah only remained, and they that were with him in the ark.”

It is very, very important to notice that after saying this Jesus just flows on in speech and says immediately after that in that day two would be in the field, one would be taken, the other left. Two women would be grinding, one would be taken, the other left. Jesus had not left the flood theme. He continues on with the same idea; He is actually still within the flood analogy. The Greek conjoining word τότε (toteh) which begins the “taken away” sequence means “then”, or “at that time”. At which time? Well, at the coming of the Son of man (verse 39). “Then shall two be in the field…” Clearly, Jesus is linking the “taken away” sequence to the previous flood sequence. It becomes obvious that in the “coming of the Son of man,” one would be taken by the flood, and the other would, like Noah, remain (alive).

Luke’s Viewpoint

The Olivet discourse is also narrated in Luke 17. The account is very similar, except of course, the wording is slightly different. This is very useful to us for determining what the inspired idea is behind the two accounts.

Again, Christ says in Noah’s day the people were living normal lives without any awareness of the coming flood, until the day of destruction. “People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” Luke 17:27.

Luke is more descriptive of what happens to the wicked. They are not only “taken away” by the flood, but they are destroyed. In verse 34, Luke carries on the idea that “two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left…”

By now it must be becoming clear that this is a narration of incredible consistency. Both authors record Jesus’s comparison of His second coming with Noah’s flood. Both say that the flood separates between two classes of people. Matthew says that the wicked are taken away, Luke says they are destroyed. Both then go on to say that the same thing will happen at the second coming! The two accounts are easily married in the single idea that the wicked are being “taken away unto destruction.” The righteous, like Noah, remain (alive).

The insertion of the word alive is useful for explaining the idea in English, because this is exactly what is meant in the Genesis account: every living creature was destroyed, but Noah and his family alone survived.

 

Peter’s Picture

Again, we will often pull out 2 Peter 3:10 to clarify the end time scenario as it applies to the wicked. Peter shows clearly that the wicked are not “left behind” as the silent rapture teachers propose, but are consumed and destroyed in the brightness of his coming, and along with everything that is in the Earth will be burned up.

Peter forcefully agrees with Matthew, Luke and Jesus that the fate of the wicked is destruction. Matthew chooses to capture the idea in terms of their being “taken away” from the face of the Earth as in the flood, Luke goes on to establish the equivalence between the “taking away” and the destroying, and Peter focuses on the destroying. Line upon line, nice and simple.

 

Jesus Ties it All Together

This is no mere scholarly speculation. The disciples themselves want to know where these wicked are carried away. Christ’s answer is highly instructive, but has been missed by many, until recently including myself.

In verse 37 of Luke’s account, the disciples ask Jesus where these wicked ones are taken. His response is grim: “Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.” Jesus’s words echo Isaiah, who, picturing the same scene, shows that  “they (the saints) will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Isaiah 66:24. They also echo Revelation 19:17, 18:

“And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, o that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”

Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will indeed gather. Jesus’ unification of these ideas is also consistent with His parable about the wheat and the tares. The farmer asks his servants to first remove the tares, and then to gather them together and burn them. The parable shows Jesus telling his angels, the reapers, to gather first the wicked and destroy them.

Again in Matthew 13:47 – 50, Jesus likens His second coming with a sea net that is cast in a lake that catches good and bad fish, drawing on the idea of clean and unclean fish. The fishermen collect the good fish in baskets, but they throw away the bad fish. Jesus concludes, “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Italics mine.

The righteous are not separated from the wicked, but vice versa. The King James Version is more visual with the words “the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just.” Again, they are taken away and thrown in the blazing furnace, and destroyed.

 

Conclusion: May I Remain!

If the flood is the analogical equivalent of the second coming, then the second coming will take away the wicked from the Earth to destruction. The righteous will be left alive.

Make no mistake, there is definitely a removal of the saints from the Earth to heaven: a “taking away”, as shown in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. This discussion does not intend to cast any doubt on that truth. What we have tried to focus on is the specific interpretation given to the taking away that Jesus describes in the Olivet discourse, particularly in Matthew 24:40, 41 and Luke 17:26, 34 – 36. That taking away is not the same as the rapture of the saints. It is a question of different imagery for the same eschatology, rather than one of different eschatologies.

Basically, Christ is not dealing with the ascension of the faithful in these verses. Other Bible passages deal adequately with that. In these verses, Jesus is concerned with the destruction of the wicked and the preservation, not the translation or translation of the saints. The second idea is catered for in 1 Corinthians 15:51 – 54. The transportation of the saint is likewise followed up in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 – 17.

So like I pointed out in the beginning, in the context of this passage alone, I have absolutely changed my mind about the substantive meaning of the text. Teachers of the silent rapture are not only wrong about the mechanism of the taking away (and more so now than I previously realized), but they are also wrong about the category of people who are taken away and the fate that awaits them – again, all in the context of the Olivet discourse.

In these verses, Jesus is concerned with the destruction of the wicked and the preservation, not the translation or transportation of the saints.

How could Christ’s words ever have been so misunderstood to mean the opposite of what He plainly related? I’m convinced that in many cases, this would not have happened in the absence of a preformed and wrong mental image of the depicted scene, derived mainly from stories such as the “Left Behind” series. Seen only in the context of Scripture, without any deceptive influences, Christ in the verses at hand can only be understood to describe the removal of the wicked from existence, as part of the process of cleansing the Earth from sin. On the other hand, sometimes a correct global view of the text of Scripture can clarify the big picture while obscuring some of its more minute pixels. This has, up to now, been the case for me.

I have now decided that I want to be left (behind), not in the geographic location of the Earth per se, but in the existential reality of eternal life with my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!


 

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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.