I was about ten years old. I’d gone to bed at the usual time and I think I must have slumbered a little. But now I was wide awake and my ears were straining for the usual sounds of my parents downstairs—the murmur of conversation, the radio, footsteps on the kitchen lino.
The silence was absolute and a terrible fear gripped me: maybe Jesus had returned while I slept and had raptured Mum and Dad. I was clear, even at that stage of my childhood, that I still hadn’t made a personal commitment to Christ and that therefore, were he to come again, I’d be left behind to suffer the horrors of the Great Tribulation.
The relief that overwhelmed me when I heard a cough downstairs is indescribable. Phew! They hadn’t been taken after all, and I hadn’t been left behind! Oh, wow! And yes, I really must think seriously about taking the step of becoming a Christian!
This scenario reflected our Brethren affiliation. My parents, raised as Methodists, had ‘got saved’ and joined the Brethren during my father’s army service in World War II. So I was drip-fed Darby, dispensationalism and the Scofield Reference Bible from being a toddler. There’s security in a system, and for years we remained comfortable in its embrace, ignorant of any other way of understanding the Scriptures and the purpose of God. Meanwhile, at the age of twelve I made my commitment to Christ—and thereafter slept more securely.
I ditched Darby, dispensationalism and the Scofield Bible while at university. That was around 1960, the period when the Puritan writers were being rediscovered in a big way, and I found their solid theology and amillennial eschatology both heart-warming and intellectually convincing. While I never embraced fully-fledged Calvinism, there was certainly no way I could ever return to the old system because everything I read in the Bible seem to contradict it—like the ‘left behind’ idea.
That some will be left behind at Christ’s return is not, of course, in question. Jesus himself made that clear in Matthew 24: ‘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’ (v40-41). The question is, if one’s a baddy and the other’s a goody, which is taken and which is left? To some it seems obvious that the goody is the one snatched away to better things, while the baddy is left behind to feel the heat. After all, if, when Jesus returns, the righteous will be ‘caught up…to meet the Lord in the air’, these are clearly the ones being ‘taken’, which leaves the wicked as those left behind. Obvious.
But it isn’t obvious at all! In fact every indication is to the contrary: that the wicked are the ones taken and that it’s the righteous who are left behind.
Take again the Matthew 24 passage quoted above: ‘one will be taken and the other left’. The verses before it draw a parallel between the coming of the Lord and the arrival of the flood in Noah’s day: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man’ (v37). So what happened in Noah’s day? His wicked contemporaries were living life as normal ‘until the flood came and took them all away’ (v39). That leaves righteous Noah and his family as the ones left behind to enjoy the safety of the Ark and a new life in the post-diluvian order. And Jesus continues, ‘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’ (v39-41). The meaning is unmistakable: the wicked are taken, the righteous are left behind; baddies go, goodies stay.
So how do we square that with the ‘rapture’ passage in 1 Thessalonians? Very easily. Let’s look at it—and please note carefully the two italicised words ‘coming’ and ‘meet’, which are the key to its message, as we shall see:
‘We who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven…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’ (v15-17).
New Testament scholars are agreed that Paul is here using a metaphor that all his readers were familiar with: the regular procedure observed when a king or emperor paid an official visit to a town in his kingdom.
There was a set pattern to it. First, in the months before the visit the citizens would repair the approach-road. They would fill in the potholes and level off the bumps so that the monarch could drive into town in dignity, without being thrown around in his chariot. This is what John the Baptist meant—with a moral application—when he urged people to ‘prepare the way for the Lord’.
Then, when the big day arrived, the town’s leading citizens, excited and in their finery, would pass through the city gates and walk a short distance out of town to meet the king on the road and formally welcome him. That done, they would turn around, join his retinue and accompany him back into town where all could cheer and admire him. In the everyday Greek of the period there were standard terms for parts of this procedure. The king’s official visit, for instance, was called his parousia, and the action of the city dignitaries in going out to accompany him back into town was called the apantesis.
Both were familiar terms in Paul’s day, and he inserts them into his description of the Lord’s coming, where they govern its meaning. They are the words italicised in the quotation above. The ‘coming of the Lord’ (v15) is his parousia and our going out ‘to meet the Lord in the air’ (v17) is the apantesis.
The whole point of this metaphor is that the king is coming to town—Jesus is returning to the earth. The emphasis is on his coming, not on our going. Our going—being ‘caught up’ or ‘raptured’—is just our brief sortie out of town. We are caught up to meet him on the aerial road and there to welcome him, but not to then go off with him to heaven or wherever. No, this is an apantesis. He doesn’t turn around; we do. We turn around and accompany him back to the earth, an earth instantly cleansed, while we are ‘out of town’, by the fire of divine judgment and remodelled into the ‘new earth’ fit to welcome the King and be the eternal abode of his righteous people. There, only righteousness will dwell, because everything and everyone that defiles will have been removed—‘taken’—leaving the glorious new environment to be enjoyed for ever by those who are ‘left’ in the presence of the King: ‘God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.’
This pattern—the wicked taken and the righteous left—finds an echo in the parables of Jesus. Take the one about the wheat and the weeds. At harvest-time the weeds are first removed from the field, leaving behind the wheat to be gathered into the master’s barn. Jesus himself goes on to spell out what that means:
‘The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’
The baddies are taken; the goodies are left to shine. It’s the same with the parable of the dragnet. The fishermen separate the bad items from the good fish, leaving the latter to be put to good use: ‘This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
To me, all this combines to settle the issue. To be taken is what we definitely don’t want, because that’s the way that the bad fish, the weeds, the baddies, the wicked go. No, we want to be left behind in the cleansed and renewed society that will forever be one of fellowship between the Lord and his redeemed people.
Oh dear. Now somebody’s going to have to write a whole new series of novels…
- 1 Thessalonians 4:17
- Luke 3:4-5, quoting Isaiah.
- ‘When a dignitary paid an official visit (parousia) to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesis.’ (F.F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 45, p102)
- See Romans 8:19-23; 2 Peter 3:10-13
- Revelation 21:3
- Matthew 13:38-43
- Matthew 13:49-50