Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Left Behind: A Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

One of the Scripture texts that gives stark language and emotional power to Left Behind Theology, is Matthew 24:36-42. In these few verses, we get the imagery of Noah's flood and the language of being "swept away," as well as the poignant examples of two people in the field or grinding at the mill, when "one will be taken and one will be left." In particular, these words, "one will be left" are the roots of the catchphrase "left behind." So, let's look at this passage of Matthew's gospel for a moment, since that seems to be a key originating text of this whole apparatus of Left Behind Theology. (For the best effect of reading this text, one should lay it side-by-side with Mark 13:32-37 and Luke 17:22-37 and see both the similarities and differences between them. For now, we'll just look at Matthew.)

Jesus says:
But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Wow. As a young person, the mental image in my head when reading or hearing this passage was that the age of Noah was a wild and hedonistic age, when suddenly God sent the flood and annihilated most of them, who, up to the last minute when it was too late, were blissfully ignorant of the cosmic drama happening around them. And, it seemed that Jesus was saying that when he comes to take away his faithful, the worker grinding at the mill will likewise be ignorant of what has happened when she turns around and says, "Now, where did that other mill worker go all of a sudden?"

The field worker and the mill worker who are 'left behind,' become the airplane passengers- whose pilot is suddenly "raptured" and whose plane is suddenly spiralling toward a major city- in all of the modern Left Behind Theology scenarios.

But wait! Something is awry in this reading, a "sleight of hand," as it were, that turns this text on its head. If- as Jesus says- it is like "the days of Noah", then we need to ask, Who gets 'swept away' and who gets 'left behind' in the Noah story? And the answer is, all of those partying, blissfully ignorant people get 'swept away,' and it is Noah and his family who are 'left behind' by surviving the flood in an ark, rescuing animals of all spiecies, and participating in the work of rebuilding life and community after the disaster. In that story, Noah is 'left behind' because God wants to redeem and rebuild the circle of life.

Here is the equation for all of you math types:
Noah: ready, left behind = Faithful who are watching and ready today
Ignorant partyers: not ready = Ignorant partyers not ready today

So, when Jesus says, "For as the days of Noah were ..." maybe his point is that those who trust in the God whose steadfast love endures forever, are those who will be watching and ready to be part of God's great rebuilding, God's faithfulness to the whole of creation, even after calamities and catastrophe.

At least in this particular Scripture- the one that gives us such powerful imagery and language- being "Left Behind" is the right thing, not the dreaded wrong thing.

I'd love to hear your reaction to this!


  1. As suggested, I looked at the other verses. Luke makes me question that being left behind is good. His last verse the people are asking "where"? Jesus answers (depending on the version) where the corpse/body/dead body is...vultures/birds gather
    Most translations just say "where," (which I interpret, where will they be taken) but one translation, New Life Version, says "where will this happen". The Message translation says "The action will begin around my dead body". I would love to hear what others think.

  2. I think it is important to let each gospel writer have his own unique voice and way of seeing things. Mark, in c.13, seems to be addressing the destruction of Jerusalem and the chaos that ensues (more about that one day). Matthew is probably writing 15-20 years after Mark, so the destruction of Jerusalem is not the focus. Matt's 24th chapter seems to culminate with the story in c.25 of the sheep and goats asking, "When we did see you hungry and feed/not feed you?" to Jesus. I think that is very important, because Matthew is telling a different story from Mark. Likewise, Luke is making a point also, but his story extends into Acts, where the 'dead body' of Jesus (as "The Message" puts it), is experienced at the table with bread and wine.
    I think we're most accurate when we say, "For Matthew (or "For Luke), the phrase 'left behind' seems to be..."
    My point would be that, in Matthew, it may not be the threatening specter that Left Behind Theology pretends that it is.
    This is a good observation, Sunflower.

  3. The following link convinced me that this passage (particularly Matt 24) isn't about the 2nd (bodily) coming of JC.

    I wouldn't accept the dating of Matt being X amount of time after Mark as being particularly defensible though.

    Actually - If Matthew is trying to win over the remaining Jews (after the Jersualem desolation) with this gospel, and he's so big on 'proving' prophecy points to Jesus - then how come he doesn't explain at least the undisputed (generally by preterists & futurists) part of the temple's destruction? In fact it seems to date earlier because he's still coding it as 'let the reader understand' - rather than making it a plain 'Look! This came to pass!'.


If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive