So you don’t want to be left behind, but taken away?

A man and wife asleep in bed,
She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone.
I wish we’d all been ready.
Two men walking up a hill,
One disappears and one’s left standing still.
I wish we’d all been ready.
Refrain: There’s no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.

“The Two Women at the Mill” by James Tissot (1886-94), based on Matthew 24:41 (click to enlarge)

In 1972, Larry Norman popularized the words above in “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which was revived in 1995 by dc Talk. This song was inspired by the evangelical belief in the Secret Rapture when believers will be “taken away” to heaven and unbelievers will be “left behind,” an idea made almost universal by Hal Lindsey”s The Late, Great Planet Earth (1969). More recently, the Left Behind book series and movie and Harold Camping’s May 21, 2011 Rapture prediction capitalized on this “left behind” fearmongering. With every false prediction, the world becomes more and more cynical of evangelicals’ dispensational teachings.

Matthew Dickerson, a professor of computer science at Middlebury College and the author of several books, in a recent piece in Christianity Today entitled “Who Gets Left Behind?”, says that Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 24 (Luke 17) “thoroughly inverts some popular understandings of the end times”: the “left behind” concept of the Rapture.

Jesus said that his Second Coming will be “as were the days of Noah,” when it’s business as usual for the unbelieving world: “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away”
(Matt 24:37-39).
Notice who were “left behind” on earth and who were “swept away.” In the following verses 40-41, Jesus gives the well-known examples of pairs of people: “one will be taken and one left.” In Jesus’ example of the judgment in Noah’s time, who were taken and who were left? The wicked people who “were unaware” that judgment was coming were “swept away,” but Noah and his family were “left behind.” Dickerson explains the destination of these two groups:

We have to pause for a moment and observe how thoroughly this inverts some popular understandings of the end times. Those who do not follow God are, in the language of this passage, “taken away.” By contrast, Noah and his family are “left behind.” While the flood washes away the wicked, God rescues Noah and his kin, leaving them to enjoy the goodness of the renewed and restored creation.

In familiar contemporary language, when a person is arrested for a crime, the police officer in charge says to his lieutenants, “Take him away!” To prison of course. This brings up another related text in Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Feast. When the king sees a guest without a wedding garment, he commands his servants, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness” (Matt 22:13, ESV). The King James Version says, “Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast [him] into outer darkness” (italics mine). Although most modern translations omit “and take him away,” this suggests that the ancient notion is that the one who is “taken away” is the one sent to hell.

Is Christian escapism embodied in the Rapture scheme Biblical? Dickerson says it is more proximate to dualistic Gnosticism and Platonism,

which devalue the body and physical creation, than to Christianity. Plato’s Socrates … gladly drank the hemlock because it meant freedom from his body and a chance to escape the earth. In Plato’s vision, Socrates, the righteous and wise philosopher, would be taken away, while his enemies would be left behind.

Thus, “when Christians look forward to escaping the earth” when we imagine being ‘left behind’ as punishment, we may be embracing Gnosticism and Platonism rather than Christianity.”

What does Scripture teach about creation? After he had finished his work of creation, God delighted in it, because “it was very good” and mandated man to “multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over” his creation (Gen 1:31, 26). From the beginning, God intended that the whole earth be his Temple, that it might be his joy (Psa 104:31), and in the end, the whole earth will praise him (Psa 66:4). When he speaks of redemption, God speaks not only of redeeming his people, but the whole creation, “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:18-23). This is also why John says that God’s wrath will fall on “the destroyers of the earth” (Rev 11:18).

This Gnostic/Platonic impulse of Rapture escapism has led many Christians to a very low regard for life on this earth now, and instead long for a “heaven on earth,” the millennial expectation. In fact, one of Norman’s songs, “Reader’s Digest,” embodies this attitude:

What a mess the world is in, I wonder who began it.
Don’t ask me, I’m only visiting this planet.
This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.

To be sure, we are pilgrims and strangers in this world (Heb 11:13), yet Jesus himself prayed to his Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one,” because we are in this world on our assigned missions as long as this age is not ended (Joh 17:10, 15). But if we long for an escape, our earthly existence then becomes nothing but a hotel and not a home:

When we succumb to this way of thinking, we miss out on the importance of the bodily resurrection. Indeed, the centrality of the bodily resurrection to Christian teaching is one reason I am led to an understanding of Matthew 24-25 that contests our profound horror at the prospect of being left behind. If we view as a punishment being left in this world, what does that say about our view of creation? If we yearn ultimately to escape corporeal existence rather than awaiting our bodily resurrection and the coming of heaven to earth, what sort of care for God’s creation will result? The answers, thus far, have only been discouraging.

So if you really want to be “taken away” and not be “left behind,” think again. You might regret it.


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