I suppose it’s about as good a time as any to deal with this popular misinterpretation, given Harold Camping‘s ridiculous prediction that the church will be raptured at 6PM on May 21 (time zone by time zone, no less!). Yet again, the passage in question deals with eschatology (the end times), a subject that has produced more than its share of misinterpreted passages. This particular passage is especially notorious, having provided the title of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and spawned several popular CCM songs, most notably Larry Norman‘s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” covered by DC Talk in the following video:
The passage is found in Matthew 24:40–41 and Luke 17:34–36 (with some variation); we’ll stick to the shorter version in Matthew for simplicity’s sake, though the same concepts that apply here apply equally to Luke. Matthew’s version reads:
Then two men will be in a field: one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and one will be left.
In the fanciful world of Pre-Trib dispensationalist theology, this verse as been interpreted as a reference to the “Rapture of the Church” in which Jesus comes from heaven to “catch up” his church in the air and take them back to heaven with him, leaving the unbelievers behind to suffer the wrath of God, poured out in all its gory goodness for a short but hellish period of time known as the “Great Tribulation” (this framework rests on a host of other misinterpreted passages—most notably Daniel 9:24–27—but we’ll just stick to this one for the time being). According to this interpretation, the fulfillment of Jesus’ words will look something like this:
An old woman sat across the aisle from him, a passed out drunk next to him. He turned form his window and looked at the old woman. She had a pair of cotton nylon blend underpants in one hand and dentures in the other. She stared at Buff in shock.
“Excuse me mister,” she said.
“Yes?” Buff said.
“My Harold,” she said.
“Yes?” Buff said.
“He’s gone. He’s just gone, vanished, disappeared. Could you help me find him?
“I’m afraid that there is going to be no finding him, Ma’am.”
“Has he left all material things behind him? Clothes, dentures, hairpiece?”
“Then he has finally turned his back on this world of matter and all things evil. He has jumped right out of the corruption that matter entails. he has taken everything essential to his being and left the rest behind. He has reached the enlightened world of forms where there is no jewelry but spiritual jewels, where dentures cannot go, where everyone is naked. He has been Raptured.”
“How do you know?” the woman said.
“I write bad apocalyptic fiction. I know things. Endgames are my game.”
“What is that?” the woman said.
“What?” Buff said.
“That pink thing in Harold’s seat. Right there in his trousers. It’s wet.” Buff looked closely, and was surprised.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid that’s Harold’s appendix. It’s been left behind.”
“Oh, how terrible!” Ma’am said, and she cried herself to sleep.
— Mr. Sock & Nathan Wilson, Right Behind, pp. 18–19.
Essentially, the idea is that (true) Christians will be “taken up” to be with Christ, with the unrighteous “left behind.” One will be taken, one will be left behind, as the passage says. It’s pretty straightforward, right?
Getting it Backwards (again)
Once again, we find that the passage has been interpreted to mean exactly the opposite of what it means in context. As usual, the antidote to bad interpretation is found in the immediately surrounding verses: let’s look at what immediately precedes these two short verses:
“For the coming of the son of man will be just like it was in the days of Noah— just like in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the day Noah entered the Ark—and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away [Luke: “destroyed them all”]. The coming of the son of man will be just like that.” (Matt 24:37–39)
Who was “taken” in the days of Noah? It certainly wasn’t the righteous—they stuck around and inherited the earth after God removed the wicked. Jesus explains here that the coming of the son of man will be just like the days of Noah, when the wicked were taken away and the righteous will be left behind. To make this more clear, consider that Matt 24:40–41, which I translated rather traditionally above, is probably better rendered this way:
Then two men will be in a field: one will be seized and one will be released. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be seized and one will be released.
This translation is a bit clearer: it’s better to be in the latter group than the former, better to be “let go” or “released” than “taken” or “seized.” This runs completely counter to the picture in modern imagination, which relies upon the idea that the righteous will be taken and the wicked “left behind” to suffer in the Tribulation. What’s remarkable to me is how ingrained this interpretation has gotten within the Evangelical world, despite it being a relatively new theological perspective with less than 200 years of history and despite the fact that it reads this “proof text” passage to mean the opposite of what it means in context.
Once again, we have found that a passage dealing with eschatology is interpreted to mean the opposite of what it actually says. In this case, we have a passage talking about the destruction of the wicked at the Parousia (Second Coming) that has been creatively transformed into a story about people disappearing and leaving the wicked on earth. Why is this important? Well, for one, a proper reading of these passages is a safeguard against predictions by the likes of Harold Camping and Hal Lindsay, since these predictions consistently rest on misinterpretations of this and other passages. If the foundation is bad, the building is worse.
It also should be understood that these passages are a promise of divine protection, not a promise that God will remove his people from times of trouble—something that quite simply has never been the case. Instead, Jesus promises that God will look after his people through tribulation rather than removing them from troubled times. This is a critical point, as it applies to every generation and not only to that one generation lucky enough to miss out on all the tough stuff (such a theology only works in the prosperous West to begin with). So next time someone asks you if you’ll be “left behind,” answer, “I certainly hope so!”