In a previous post I addressed 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as one of the “problem texts” that seems to contradict the idea of the renewal of creation in New Testament eschatology. Although this text is usually typically taken to teach the “rapture” of believers to heaven when Christ returns, I tried to show that it teaches no such thing.
In this post I will address the other standard proof text for the rapture in popular eschatology, namely Matthew 24:37-41 (along with its parallel in Luke 17:35-37). I hope to show that this text too has been seriously misinterpreted.
Although Brian Walsh and I addressed this misreading in The Transforming Vision (pp. 103-104), we presented only a brief analysis; there is much more that needs to be said. Indeed, it turns out that many dispensationalists agree that Matthew 24 // Luke 17 doesn’t teach the rapture. And some even doubt that it is taught anywhere in the Bible.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Understanding of Matthew 24:37-41 in Popular Eschatology
In Matthew 24 (as part of the so-called Olivet discourse) Jesus explains what will happen when the Son of Man returns. According to Matthew 24:40-41: “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.”
Luke 17:34-35 is similar: “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.”
The common assumption of much Christian eschatology is that the one “taken” in Matthew 24 // Luke 17 is the believer, going to heaven to be with the Lord. And this is identified with the “rapture” of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
The Importance of Reading Texts Carefully
The problem is that we do not typically read the Bible very carefully. So let us pay close attention to the comparison Jesus makes in Matthew 24.
Jesus begins by describing what life was like in the time of Noah, when people did not expect the flood. His point in verse 39 is that the people of Noah’s time “knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
Note who is taken away, according to Jesus. The phrase “swept them all away” clearly describes judgment on the wicked; it was Noah and his family who were “left behind” (if we might put it so); they remained on the earth after the flood.
Thus, when Jesus introduces the eschatological equivalent to the days of Noah (in vv. 40-41), it is evident from the analogy he draws between the two events that the ones taken are the unrighteous; they are taken to judgment.
The two Greek verbs Jesus uses in Matthew 24:39-41 (airō for the time of Noah and paralambanō for the coming of the Son of Man), are translated as “swept away” and “taken” in the NRSV. They are rendered as “taken away” and “taken” in the KJV, and also in the NIV. The similarity of these verbs in the KJV and NIV should have made Jesus’ point even more obvious for those reading these translations.
The fact that so many have misread who is taken and who is left, despite such clear verbal clues (not to mention Jesus’ analogy between the flood and the eschaton), is a powerful example of how our assumptions about what a text says can predetermine what we see in the text.
Luke 17 Clarifies Where They Are “Taken”
If we doubt this interpretation of Matthew 24, we need only turn to Luke’s version of this text, for he follows the narrative of one taken and one left (in 17:34-35) with a question from the disciples in verse 37. The ask, “Where, Lord?” That is, where are they taken?
Jesus replies, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” This is clearly a reference to judgment; the image is certainly not of “heaven.”
The image Jesus alludes to is the valley of Ben-Hinnom (gai ben-hinnom or Gehenna), southwest of Jerusalem, which legend says was the city dump in the Second Temple period, used for incinerating garbage, dead animals, and executed criminals. In the Old Testament the valley of Ben-Hinnom is associated with idolatry and child sacrifice (by burning) to Baal or Molech.
We should not be surprised that those taken from the earth are being judged. After all, the same Jesus who taught about the last days in Matthew 24 proclaimed in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5).
Most Dispensationalists No Longer Think Matthew 24 Teaches the Rapture
Although Matthew 24:37-41 is often used to support the rapture in popular eschatology, it is significant that these words of Jesus are not typically appealed to by dispensationalist theologians and Bible scholars (even though the rapture is a distinctively dispensationalist doctrine).
Even Hal Lindsay’s bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, which resolutely emphasizes the rapture, never appeals to this text about being “taken” in Matthew 24 or Luke 17.
These verses are also notably absent from the discussion in both the first and second editions of Three Views of the Rapture (1984; reprint. 1996; and 2010) published by Zondervan in their Counterpoints series; indeed, when the introduction to the second edition (2010) lists texts that either explicitly or implicitly teach the rapture, Matthew 24:36-42 is not on the list.
Although early dispensationalists such as John Nelson Darby and William E. Blackstone cited this text in arguing for the rapture, as early as 1925 dispensationalists had begun to back off using it as part of their argument. And by the mid-twentieth century the majority of dispensationalists had come to the conclusion that Matthew 24:36ff. did not address the rapture at all, conceding instead that it referred to events after the tribulation.
Thus dispensationalist John F. Walvoord critiques those who use this text to support the rapture, emphatically noting: “Those taken away were taken away in judgment” (Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation: A Historical and Biblical Study of Posttribulationalism [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976], 89).
Why Do Evangelicals Think Matthew 24 is a Rapture Text?
For the popularity of the contemporary rapture interpretation of Matthew 24 // Luke 17 we need to turn to Larry Norman’s famous 1969 song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which was released on what is usually regarded as the first Christian rock album (On this Rock, Capitol Records, 1969). After evoking the Great Tribulation in verse 1, the second verse of the song is a poetic restatement of Luke 17:34 and Matthew 24:40:
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.
The song clearly understands the person who is “gone” (or who “disappears”) as having been taken to heaven. Perhaps it is significant that according to Norman, the song “talked about something I had never heard preached from a pulpit as I grew up” (Larry Norman comment from 1969).
Because of Larry Norman, many of us have since heard this preached from the pulpit—and beyond the pulpit. Indeed, the chorus (“There’s no time to change your mind,/ The Son has come and you’ve been left behind”) arguably generated the title of the Left Behind series of books and movies.
Rapture Agnosticism and the New Creation among Some Dispensationalists
Beyond even John Walvoord’s assertion that Matthew 24 // Luke 17 does not teach the rapture, it is significant that some dispensationalists no longer affirm the rapture as a doctrine at all. One such is R. Todd Mangum, who has impeccable dispensationalist credentials (a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary and recipient of the John F. Walvoord Award for outstanding work in eschatology).
Yet Magnum admits that “little good has come of dispensationalists’ emphasis on a pre-tribulational rapture up to now; there is promise for even less good to come of such emphasis in the future.” He even suggests that dispensationalists adopt a posture of “rapture agnosticism,” both because of the doctrine’s negative ethical effects (it detracts from legitimate Christian concern for the earth) and because it is not clearly taught in Scripture (Mangum, “High Hopes for 21st-Century Dispensationalism: A Response to ‘Hope and Dispensationalism: An Historical Overview and Assessment’ by Gary L. Nebeker” [paper presented to the Dispensational Study Group of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nashville, Tennessee, November 2000]).
Magnum proposes instead an “inaugurated kingdom ethic”(the kingdom of God has already begun on earth, to be consummated at Christ’s return), which is more in line with the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament
New Testament scholar Darrell Bock also emphasizes the this-worldly nature of the kingdom. In an extended study, Bock examines the biblical basis for the inaugurated kingdom of God in the midst of history, while also affirming the kingdom’s culmination not in heaven, but in “the cosmos as a whole” (Bock, “The Kingdom of God in New Testament Theology,” in Looking into the Future: Evangelical Studies in Eschatology, ed. David W. Baker [Evangelical Theological Society Studies; Baker Academic, 2001], 48).
Both Magnum and Bock fit the category of what dispensationalist theologian Craig Blaising calls “progressive dispensationalism,” a term that does not refer to “progressive” in opposition to “conservative,” but rather to an understanding of how the dispensations unfold. According to Blaising, there are three stages in the development of dispensationalism—which he names classical, revised, and progressive (Blaising, “The Extent and Varieties of Dispensationalism,” in Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism [Wheaton, Ill: Bridgepoint, 1993], 9-56).
As a representative of progressive dispensationalism, Blaising himself has articulated a clear distinction between what he calls a “spiritual vision model” of eschatological escape to heaven and the biblical “new creation model,” which “expects the earth and the cosmic order to be renewed and made everlasting through the same creating power that grants immortal and resurrection life to the saints” (Blaising, “Premellennialism,” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell L. Bock [Counterpoints: Exploring Theology; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999], 163).
A Farewell to the Rapture?
What’s the world coming to when dispensationalists are agnostic about the rapture? Or when they affirm the renewal of the cosmos as the goal of eschatology?
This is an important and historic shift. But more important for our purposes is that neither Matthew 24 nor 1 Thessalonians 4 teaches the future escape of believers from the earth to heaven.
And if the two most cited proof-texts for the rapture don’t support this idea, we have no good reason to think that it is any part of biblical eschatology.
Special thanks to Steven L. James (whose PhD in theology is from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) for introducing me to the literature on progressive dispensationalism.