Prophecy Opinion Today: "Who Gets Left Behind?'"- Matthew Dickerson

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May 23, 2011Send to printer | Close window


Home > 2011 > JuneChristianity Today, June, 2011
Who Gets Left Behind?
How end times theories shape the ways we view our earthly abode.

I travel from time to time. Unfortunately, this requires sleeping in hotel rooms. My last hotel stay had me pondering the differences between a hotel room and my own home. The "hospitality" industry specializes in the sterile and generic. I can hope for little more than clean sheets, hot water, and maybe a coffee machine. Even luxury hotels, despite elegant fixtures and expensive amenities, are designed for standardized guests. Any art on the walls is mass-produced.

One hotel room is the same as another. But my house, with all its quirks, is a home: a long-term habitat, a place of relationships and authentic hospitality. I don't feel like a guest. Indeed, even my guests shouldn't feel like guests, but like family.

For these reasons, I treat a hotel room much differently than my home. I don't trash hotel rooms, but neither am I invested in them. I wouldn't spend any money to redecorate the walls or to fix a broken drain in the tub. But I'm always thinking about maintaining and improving my home: adding new art or furniture, modifying rooms, installing a screen porch, redesigning a kitchen—and, of course, fixing what breaks. Because I am committed to my home, my attitude is fundamentally different.

This raises an important question: What is our attitude toward the world we live in? How do we treat God's physical creation, the cosmos into which he placed us? Like a home, or a hotel? Our answer is shaped in part by our eschatology. How do we view the end times? After all, our lifespan is just an infinitesimally small drop of time compared with the great ocean of eternity. If we look forward to being whisked away from this physical world at death—taken away with those who followed God, while the sinners are "left behind"—then maybe we affirm that this world is not our home; we're just passing through.

But what if God meant it to be something more like a home, and less like a hotel?

Body Language

As much or more than any theological concern, biblical teaching on end times should be approached with humility. When Jesus taught about end times, he spoke in parables and metaphors. He was trying to communicate ideas for which our language contains few words or illustrations. To understand them requires imagination as well as reason. Seldom does Jesus issue straightforward propositions or concrete descriptions—and never specific times! The same observation applies to the Revelation of John and the relevant Old Testament prophecies. Although Christians can boldly affirm certain end times doctrines, we need to show humility where the answers aren't clear.

Nonetheless, as our differing attitudes toward hotels and homes may suggest, what we believe about end times profoundly influences how we live here and now. Consider, for example, the implications of one doctrine that Christians can affirm with confidence: the bodily resurrection of Christ and the future bodily resurrection of his followers. As C. S. Lewis noted in Miracles, "The earliest Christian documents give a casual and unemphatic assent to the belief that the supernatural part of a man survives the death of the natural organism. But they are very little interested in the matter. What they are intensely interested in is the restoration or 'resurrection' of the whole composite creature by a miraculous divine act."

Taking seriously the bodily resurrection obliges Christians to work as redeeming and restoring influences in this world of space, time, and matter.

Not long ago in Christianity Today, N. T. Wright addressed the important implications of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, upon which Christians today may base their hope in their own bodily resurrection. "The mission of the church," he argued, "is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus' bodily resurrection …. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen …. And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus' resurrection must be the church that goes to work precisely in that space, time, and matter."

In other words, if we don't believe in a bodily resurrection—if we view heaven through Gnostic eyes as a place of disembodied spirits, of angels hovering on clouds and playing harps—then we are much less likely to take seriously the importance of caring for bodies (ours and those of others) and the physical world they inhabit. On the other hand, taking seriously the bodily resurrection obliges Christians to work as redeeming and restoring influences in this world of space, time, and matter.

Lessons from the Flood

Jesus' best-known teaching about end times is recorded in Matthew 24-25, with perhaps the most famous section found in 24:40-41. Here Jesus describes the impact of his Second Coming: "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." These two verses, along with the parallel passage in Luke 17, have inspired one of the most famous Christian songs of all times, Larry Norman's 1972 classic "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" (from an album tellingly titled Only Visiting This Planet). More recently, the hugely successful Left Behind book and film series has inspired the imaginations of countless Christians.

These verses are worth close consideration. According to Jesus, at least one key to understanding this teaching is the story of Noah, as Jesus explains in the preceding passage, Matthew 24:37-39:

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.

Notice what Jesus says twice in this passage. The coming of the Son of Man will be "as it was in the days of Noah" (v. 37). In case we missed it, we are told again: "That is how it will be" when the Son of Man comes (v. 39). Anytime Jesus says something twice, it is doubly worth paying attention to. Jesus seems to be emphasizing two aspects of the Noah story. One is simply the surprise factor of the Flood. Nobody was expecting it. Until the day it happened, people were going about their business, living their daily lives. They were taken by surprise. So too will the Second Coming of Jesus come unawares. We should always be ready.

We ought also to notice the presence of two groups of persons. One is Noah and, implicitly, his family. Noah is righteous and follows God. He and his family are saved; they are not caught by surprise. The second group is the unnamed "people" (v. 38): those who were eating, drinking, and marrying. This second group—described in Genesis 6:5 as full of wickedness, their hearts and thoughts continually evil—gets caught by surprise. Its wickedness prompted the judgment of the Flood. But as the story makes clear, the people who "knew nothing about what would happen" got taken away.

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.

And then, we are told—not once, but twice—that the Second Coming of Jesus will happen just like this. Consider once more verses 40 and 41. They describe two pairs of persons. In each case, one person is taken away and one is left behind. And verses 37 and 39 tell us that this outcome mirrors the days of Noah. The entire passage strongly suggests that the ones "left behind," in Jesus' description of the Second Coming, will not be the wicked ones but the followers of God. They are rewarded by being left behind to enjoy, as embodied creatures, God's new kingdom. The wicked are "taken away," losing the chance to experience the new creation.

Christ or Plato?

Of course, I may be wrong. Jesus often tells stories whose main ideas are not immediately obvious. Indeed, other passages seem at first glance to shine a different light on the concept of being "left behind." In Luke 17:26-36, for example, we have a different version of this teaching, where Jesus twice speaks of two persons, only one of whom will be taken. Here, Jesus refers not only to the Flood, but also to the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom. In the Lot story, the righteous are taken away from Sodom, while the ones left behind get destroyed. Does this reverse the lesson we derived from the Noah story? Perhaps it has nothing to do with being taken or left, but simply with the imperative of being ready.

There is, however, an important difference between the stories of Noah and Lot. The account of Noah, like Jesus' teaching about the last days, is about judgment on the whole earth. Perhaps this is why both Gospel writers included that element of Jesus' teaching. The Lot story is not about global judgment, but about judgment on one city. Indeed, even in this account, Lot and his daughters, though removed from Sodom, remain "left behind" as bodily beings, while the wicked, "left behind" in Sodom, end up perishing from the earth.

We might turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Paul's description of the Rapture. Surely, some suggest, this points to Christ's followers being taken away. But does it? The core of this passage is a message of hope that believers who have died like Jesus will be resurrected from the dead. Paul does speak of being caught up in the clouds to meet Jesus. But read the passage carefully. While it says nothing about Christ's followers leaving, it twice mentions Jesus coming (vv. 15-16). So what about "meet[ing] the Lord in the air" (v. 17)?

Interestingly, the Greek word for "meeting" here is apantesis—a term used infrequently in the New Testament and carrying a very different connotation. It means going out to meet a newly arriving magistrate or dignitary to welcome him back into the city. In other words, the 1 Thessalonians passage does not imply a departure from earth. Instead, the passage's emphasis is on Jesus' triumphal return. Paul seems to be evoking Jesus' earlier triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the people went outside the city to welcome him. As John describes the triumphal entry, "The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, 'Hosanna!' 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!' 'Blessed is the king of Israel!'?" (John 12:12-13, emphasis added).

This would seem far more in keeping with the weight of Scripture. Romans 8:18-24 speaks of God's redemptive and liberating work in all of creation. Revelation 11:18 speaks of God's judgment in "destroying those who destroy the earth." Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis and numerous Psalms (especially 104) speak of God's creation and superintendence of an earth in which he delights—and his appointment of humans as its stewards.

This brings us back to Matthew. If my reading is accurate, then many Christians have been interpreting the end times backwards for decades. Hasn't our common picture of the Rapture imagined the followers of God—those who are saved—getting taken away while the wicked are "left behind"? I would suggest that the popular interpretation owes more to Platonism or Gnosticism, which devalue the body and physical creation, than to Christianity. Plato's Socrates, when sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the Athenian youth, delighted to die; he 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. Similarly, 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.

Good Housekeeping

None of this discredits all the ideas and sentiments behind popular end times portrayals like Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready." The title of the song, repeated often in its refrain, speaks powerfully to the importance of being prepared for the last days. This seems to be the first of two main ideas Jesus draws from the Noah story. Indeed, the message is echoed in many of the parables that follow in Matthew 25. Surely, we do well to heed Jesus' warning in Matthew 24:42 to "keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come."

Nonetheless, if our thinking about who gets left behind is backwards, we are likely to adopt wrongheaded attitudes toward the arena of creation. To wit: Norman's same album includes a song, "Reader's Digest," which ends with these lines: "I'm only visiting this planet / This world is not my home, I'm just passing through." How many identically themed T-shirts and bumper stickers made their way through church circles in the 1970s? The world, according to this mindset, is a hotel, 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.

This world is our home. It is the home God made for us, blessed us with, and instructed us to take care of. Viewing it as our home is critical to our mission as caretakers. I, for one, look forward to being left behind, like Noah and his family—only with my new and resurrected body.

Matthew Dickerson is a professor of computer science at Middlebury College and the author of several books, including The Mind and the Machine (Brazos Press).

 

 

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