Tag Archives: left behind

Who Gets Left Behind?

I’m thoroughly convinced that the Scriptures themselves, and a long history of the church doing biblical theology, simply doesn’t support the idea of a secret escape from tribulation and an abandonment of the earth.

If you’re a subscriber to the blog, you know that I have recently been challenging rapture theology. If you’re new to the blog or you just drop in from time to time, please know that the following posts should really be read as a series of my thoughts on the subject:

When I first posted on the topic, I had no plans to address the rapture systematically. I never really had a plan, and honestly I still don’t. I’m just sharing whatever I’m thinking as I reflect on my upbringing, pop-culture Left Behind ideas, and what some of you have written in response to my posts.

Thank you to those who have responded. You really do help cultivate ideas for future posts. You can expect that I will further address some of your questions and concerns that relate to key rapture passages and ideas.

So, here’s my next installment.

In a previous post, I wrote: “Pay careful attention to this truth. It’s those who are righteous that are “left behind” (Matt 24:38-41). The wicked will not inherit the earth. They will be swept away in a flood of judgment.”

Let me expound on this point as I continue to dismantle rapture theology.

I Wish We’d All Stop Singing This Song

Did you ever hear the song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (1969) by Larry Norman? I remember hearing DC Talk’s (1995) version of it when I was in junior high. I admit that it was a moving song back then.

Life was filled with guns and war
And all of us got trampled on the floor
I wish we’d all been ready
Children died the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we’d all been ready
 
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind
 
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
 
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind
 
Children died the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we’d all been ready
 
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind

It’s a catchy tune, no doubt. It can even spur someone on to trusting in Jesus. But it’s songs like this that often shape our theology for the worse.

And our theological ideas impact the way in which we live.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s a plain distortion of the biblical hope for the righteous, and the righteous judgment for the wicked.

Let’s take a look at our primary text.

The Righteous Get Left Behind

Where does the idea of “Two men walking up a hill, one disappears and one’s left standing still” come from anyway? It’s taken from Matthew 24:36-44. But notice that the one left “standing still” is not the wicked man.

It’s the wicked that are taken from the earth. The righteous are left behind.

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 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. 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. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  Jesus, Matthew 24:37-42 (NIV)

See my post Then the End Will Come for the context of Matthew 24.

Jesus is talking about his imminent return at the end of the age, and he uses the story of Noah as an example of the judgment to come. So when he mentions two people in the field, and two people at the hand mill, it must be recognized that the ones taken are the wicked that reject God’s image in the earth. The flood of God’s judgment will remove the wicked from the earth.

It teaches the exact opposite of what rapture folks propose.

Therefore, the context of Matt 24:36-44 rules out a secret escape for Christians. Instead, as I have presented in my previous posts, Christians should expect God’s Kingdom to come to earth. As Jesus said, “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5) and God’s will is to be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Heaven is coming to earth (Rev 21).

Christ will return in glorious fashion to dwell on the earth forever. We shall go out to meet him and parade our divine King back into his rightful domain (1 Thess 4:15-17). Let’s be clear about this…

Kingdom people aren’t going anywhere.

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps 24:1). We will receive resurrected bodies for a resurrected world. It’s the wicked that will not enter into God’s rest on the earth. Just like in the flood, the wicked shall be removed in judgment. They want no part in God’s new creation.

The righteous will be left behind.

Of course, this means that we should then expect to endure suffering and tribulation on the earth. You can’t offer a well-rounded challenge to rapture theology without addressing the matter of tribulation.

I suppose that’s where I’ll take us next.

Stay tuned!

D.D. Flowers, 2012.


The Rapture Fallacy

If you have been following my posts here at the blog, you know that last month I began addressing “rapture” theology that has permeated American evangelicalism over the last century.

I’m confronting rapture theology head on because I think it has obstructed the gospel of the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed. In fact, it distorts the unique Christian hope, thereby influencing the way in which we evangelicals think and live in the world today.

I do affirm the orthodox teaching of the church that there will be a literal return of Christ. It completely bewilders me how anyone could deny this essential doctrine of the early church (Matt 24:36-42; Mk 13:26-37; Phil 3:20; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 2 Peter 3:8-10, Rev 22:20-21 etc.).

So while I do believe in the bodily return of Christ, I do not believe in the “dispensational” timetable of the end times—which has only recently (in the last century or so) been elaborately constructed by cutting and pasting verses together, and mishandling apocalyptic texts to promote something foreign to the NT apostolic hope for the future.

In the next few posts on this topic, I will deal with key “end times” verses that I believe have been mishandled, thus enabling the propagation of bad theology. This has major implications for our understanding and practice of the gospel, and our expectations for the future.

I have expressed here, here, and here that there are many good reasons to question the legitimacy of the popular Left Behind version of the future.

If you haven’t seen it already, please watch this short video on the history and influence of rapture theology in American evangelicalism.

The Situation & Context

I’ll go out on a limb here (though not a very long limb) and say that rapture theology is entirely based upon Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.

Let’s first begin with what I believe to be the foundation stone of this popular teaching. If we’re going to examine a verse or two of Scripture, it’s always best to read the surrounding verses in context. So, let’s do that first.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV) reads:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

It should be understood that Paul is writing in response to the confusion among the believers in Thessalonica. They apparently were led to believe that Christians who had died before the return of Christ would miss out on the Kingdom being fully realized on the earth.

Paul is correcting their theology and assuring them in the hope that the “dead in Christ will rise first” (v.16).

The main point of this passage is that the dead will not miss out on the resurrection. They will participate in God’s final victory. They are not lost. Christ will raise them up on the last day.

Now let’s look at the metaphors Paul uses to paint an altogether familiar, albeit ancient picture of a king returning in victory as a conquering hero.

The “Rapture” Proof-Text

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.  1 Thess 4:16-17

I will grant that it’s entirely understandable how, without any background knowledge of ancient literature and the common use of biblical metaphors, that a person could see a “rapture” idea.

But keep in mind, what may seem like a “plain” reading to our modern eyes, is not necessarily a plain reading to the ancient reader.

What did this imagery mean to Paul’s readers? The only way to get at Paul’s meaning is to recognize the metaphors he is using here.

You really need to have some knowledge of OT word pictures, first century ideas of imperial coronations (crowning of kings), and an awareness of second temple Judaism to understand the imagery Paul uses in this passage.

The church can’t be reminded enough that the Scripture is an ancient text that does often require help from trained individuals who have spent a great deal of their time studying the ancient literary and cultural context of the biblical world. Some have been trained better than others.

That isn’t to say that formal study guarantees correct interpretation. But it does mean that the ancient world is not the modern world. Therefore, an intimate knowledge of ancient literary genres and styles are necessary for getting closest to the original intent of the author.

Do you want someone performing open-heart surgery on you that has no real training and relies on the Holy Spirit’s guidance alone? Not very comforting is it? Let’s not set formal training up against the Spirit.

Mixing the Metaphors

The language of Jesus coming on clouds and everyone going up to meet him, should not be understood literally, but should instead be seen as a powerful image of divine kingship.

In the first century, kings would return to the city victorious from battle and be paraded back into his city.

You will recall that they actually did this to Jesus on Palm Sunday. The striking contrast is that Jesus was riding on a donkey, not a white horse; he didn’t have an army, only a hopeful crowd of peaceful followers and fans.

Now that’s saying something!

The trumpets blasting indicate a victorious procession and anthem upon Christ’s return (v. 16). The clouds should rightfully be understood as exalting Christ as divine. In both the Old and New Testaments the cloud(s) speak of divinity—God’s presence.

You see this with the cloud by day which led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the cloud on Mt. Sinai that surrounded Moses when receiving the Law, the clouds of the Son of Man in Dan 7:13, the cloud enveloping Jesus during his transfiguration, and now here with the return of Christ.

Jesus will literally “come down from heaven” (God’s space), not literally float down from cumulus clouds, but a hidden dimension altogether.

The purpose of the dead rising to “meet the Lord in the air” is to mix the metaphors (as it were) in presenting this picture of a divine king coming to his city and being paraded back (to earth in this case) by his people. It’s a beautiful image that ancient readers would have understood.

Christ’s return is literal, but the imagery being used is not to be taken literally.

The authors and readers of the NT would have understood this. They communicated great mysterious truths (especially future events) in this fashion and weren’t bothered by it like 21st century American Christians who tend to think that the literal reading is always the right one.

Rapture theology distorts this imagery by reading it literally and emphasizing the rapio (latin: “to be caught up”) in order to promote an escapist view of the future. The promise of the Lord has always been to renew this earth, not destroy it to steal us away somewhere else.

The imagery Paul is using here is consistent with the biblical covenants, promises, and hope for the future of God’s good world. This is what all Jews, including Jesus, were expecting. The Kingdom of God was going to come to earth in one cosmic event on the last day.

Meaning & Original Intent

Paul is meaning to say that Jesus (king) will return victorious, and like a king coming into his kingdom, we will usher him back to the city (earth) and reign with him forever. As he says, “So shall we be with the Lord forever.”

The literary context dictates these things.

Therefore, the original intent of human language, in the ancient situation and context, is what makes the difference here.

Unfortunately, ignorance of the metaphors and Paul’s deliberate use of over-the-top language in 1 Thess 4:16-17 is why most evangelicals react with such frustration at someone claiming that the literal reading is a mistake.

It has only been translated literally by those who are unfamiliar with the metaphor(s) in the text and by defenders of an escapist view of the future.

As I said before, learning and study is required in reading this ancient text. Meaning isn’t always floating on the surface. Sometimes you have to dig down deeper so you can appreciate the context, the language of the biblical writers, and their methods of communicating ideas.

Let’s be honest, many Christians don’t like to be reminded of that. I suppose this skepticism toward in-depth “Bible study” is born from sheer laziness, anti-intellectualism, or pure dogmatism and fundamentalism.

I’m not sure which.

Either way, we can do better. We must do better.

The Second Coming of Christ

How then do I envision Christ’s literal parousia (coming)? Honestly, I don’t know exactly. And I’m not too sure that the apostles knew either. I think that’s why they use metaphors to describe it.

They are essentially saying this:

“When Christ returns, it will be like a king returning from battle in triumph to his city. We will all go out to meet him and celebrate his arrival. Then at last we shall live with our king forever on the earth.”

Paul mixes the metaphors of clouds (divinity) and meeting in the air (exalted and caught between heaven and earth) for obvious reasons. This is no human king. This is the divine Son of Man (Dan 7:13).

Throw in the resurrection of the dead in this meeting of the Lord and you have a beautiful way of talking about something mysterious and unknown to any man on this planet. What a glorious sight soon to behold!

All of this is lost when you force a literal interpretation.

So, I’ll stick to the metaphors and imagine that whatever it’s going to be like, it will be greater than the metaphors themselves.

For no eye has seen nor ear has heard what the Lord has in mind for those who await his coming (1 Cor 2:9).

Therefore, I believe the NT only recognizes the imminent “second” return of the Lord Jesus to establish his Kingdom on the earth forever without end.

Based on this reading of the biblical text, I think we can safely say that you cannot build a rapture theology from 1 Thess 4:16-17.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Suggested Reading:


N.T. Wright on Heaven & Rapture Theology

N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities.

He was the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England from 2003-2010. He presently holds the Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Wright, a prolific author, has written over forty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to NT studies.

As I’ve said many times before, I sincerely believe he is one of the most important of Christian scholars alive today, particularly in the area of early Judaism, historical Jesus studies, and the theology of the apostle Paul.

Wright’s work offers fresh insights and a stimulating challenge to evangelical Christianity. In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Feb. 2008), Wright challenges the notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright says, “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”

What about the resurrection of the dead? What about renewed creation? What about the gospel of the kingdom come to earth?

For newcomers to the blog, I have reviewed Surprised by Hope in a series of five books that I believe are helping to shape a new vision for 21st century evangelicalism. I think you need to read all of them. Make it a group study!

In the following ABC News interview, Wright talks about how evangelicals, especially those in America, have distorted the Christian hope by obsessing over heaven, while neglecting the NT teaching of new heaven and earth—a future reality in real space and time (Rev 21).

In this video, Wright also critiques rapture theology and provokes us to rethink the implications of embracing such an escapist view of the church and a subsequent cataclysmic destruction of the earth.

Do you agree or disagree with Wright? Have many believers neglected the real Christian hope? Do you see a conflict with rapture theology and the NT vision of the Kingdom coming to earth? Do you believe that a person’s view of future things shapes their behavior and actions in the present?

D.D. Flowers, 2012.


Rapture Theology: History & Influence

Rapture theology dominated the “end times” landscape of pop-culture Christianity for most of the 20th century. However, I don’t think this is proving to be the case for 21st century evangelicalism.

I believe evangelicals are slowly taking steps away from this modern theological invention.

I remember growing up believing that rapture theology was what the NT plainly taught. Like many fundamentalists, I was simply unaware that the idea of a secret rapture was completely foreign to the apostles, and did not stand up to exegetical scrutiny.

[I have pointed out some inconsistencies with rapture theology and the NT vision of the future in this article.]

I was a freshmen in college when I was first challenged to rethink the Left Behind doctrine. And once I discovered that it actually distorted the gospel, nullified the Christian hope of the resurrection, and undermined the promise of kingdom coming to earth (Rev 21), I intentionally questioned everything else about my faith. What else needed to be reexamined?

I then set my course to learn how to think critically about my faith.

I believe the following video is a nice exposé of rapture theology. Watch and learn about its history and influence in American evangelicalism.

Do you think what we believe about the eschaton (last things) really matters? If the claims in this video are true, what difference does it make in the present? How have you worked through these matters?

D.D. Flowers, 2012.


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