What Does “Left Behind” Really Mean?

I recently posted a video by Ben Witherington titled, “Where Did Rapture Theology Come From?” In my comments I said that I would blog about some of the exegetical problems of rapture theology.

When it comes to eschatology—the study of last things—it’s very difficult to debate the details. That’s because the Bible is not trying to give us details. In my estimation, the biggest problem with dispensational theology is not so much exegetical as it is hermeneutical. In other words, dispensational theology uses the apocalyptic literature in the Bible in ways that it was never intended to be used. The Book of Revelation (and other Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as that contained in Daniel) was never intended to be a detailed road map to the last days. Revelation uses dramatic imagery to convey large themes to the persecuted Christians of the first century. While it has great application for us today, it is not giving a timeline of twenty-first century events. So arguments about what nation today is being talked about in a particular verse miss the point.

But let’s step away from Revelation and into the gospels to talk about the origins of the term “Left Behind.” Ironically, the two passages that gave birth to that term cannot possibly be referring to what is called the “secret rapture” of the church—a day when believers will disappear from the earth.

The passages used are the words of Jesus in 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.” (NIV)

…and Luke 17:34-35…

“I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” (NIV)

In biblical interpretation, context is everything. If you want to misinterpret a passage, you start by ripping it out of its context. When we talk about the context of a scriptural passage we’re speaking about the type of biblical genre we’re dealing with (poetry, law, history, gospel, apocalyptic, etc.), the cultural context (where, when, why and by whom it was written—the world and circumstances in which it came about), and, of course, the immediate context (the verses and chapters surrounding it). So let’s look at the context of these two passages.

First of all, Jesus preceded them both by saying, “Just as it was in the days of Noah…” (Matthew 24:37, Luke 17:26). If you’ll recall the Noah story, it was the unrighteous who were swept away and it was the followers of God who were left behind to rebuild the world destroyed by the flood. If Jesus was trying to tell us the opposite, He certainly would not have specifically chosen the story of Noah as a point of comparison.

Then in Luke 17:37—immediately following Jesus’ words about those who are taken away—the disciples ask, “Where, Lord?” Jesus replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.” In other words, they die. That cannot possibly refer to a rapture of the saints. He’s saying that those taken away are killed.

Throughout those two passages Jesus gives a number of warnings that simply do not make sense if we maintain that He is talking about the disappearance of His people—their evacuation from this earth.

“Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 24:17-20)

“On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything.” (Luke 17:31)

“Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath” is certainly not a reference to a flight to heaven!

So what is Jesus talking about? He is obviously speaking about a cataclysmic event. He’s warning His disciples.

Most biblical scholars believe that Jesus was speaking about the impending destruction of Jerusalem, which did indeed happen in 70 AD. The Romans came and desecrated the Temple, destroyed it and burned Jerusalem to the ground. This desecration and destruction would explain Matthew 24:15-16…

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”

If you were raised to see Matthew 24 as a rapture and tribulation passage, it’s going to feel like a real stretch to see it solely as a description of what happened in 70 AD. There are so many cosmic phrases in there, such as…

“..then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

“They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30)

…and many others.

Some scholars will point out that in this passage Jesus has reverted to apocalyptic language—the language of imagery. In fact, Matthew 24 is often referred to as “the little apocalypse” (referring to its length, not its importance).

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve wrestled with Matthew 24 for a number of years. I certainly don’t claim to understand it all. I do believe Jesus is warning His followers about what the Romans were going to do. That much is clear to me. But it feels like there is so much more there. But what is crystal clear to me is that Jesus is not teaching about a secret rapture—the disappearance of His people from the face of the earth.

The term “rapture” does not occur in the New Testament. But, more important, the concept of the rapture does not appear in the Bible. For two thousand years Christians have believed that Jesus would return to earth, not that we would evacuate the earth.

I believe that Jesus will return. There can be no clearer teaching on this than what is found in Acts 1:11—“This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

That is our hope. The King and His kingdom are with us, but someday they will come in their fullness. We are called to do the work of His kingdom—today. We are called to be the answer to the prayer He taught us pray…

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)


(I hope to blog soon on the other passage that some people believe refers to a rapture—1 Thessalonians 4:17.)