Tuesday, July 28, 2015

One Taken, One Left Behind

"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." - Matthew 24:40-41

"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." - Luke 17:34-35

In my theological immaturity, I accepted Darby's dispensational interpretation of the "left behind" passage in light of I Thessalonians 4.

"For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, 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." - I Thessalonians 4:16-17

Accordingly, the "taken ones" are raptured away from impending judgment at Christ's second coming and the ones "left behind" face the horrors of the impending tribulation.


But now, a more literal reading of the "left behind" passage raises a simpler, but even more profound question. Are the "ones taken" escaping judgment and the ones "left behind" facing it? Or, is the opposite true - are some "taken" to judgment and those "left behind" avoiding a similar fate? Or, equally likely, do both those "taken" and those "left behind" face the same sure, swift, sudden, and complete judgment that Jesus has repeatedly pronounced. After all, the immediate context is that the entire generation goes on heedless of the looming judgment - eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage.

The larger interpretational issue - at least as I see it - is: What is the guiding metaphor - the image in such common currency among Jesus' contemporaries - that provides the interpretive framework for this saying. There are two likely candidates: (1) the "division of souls" at the last day or (2) the military theme of the invading army and exiled people.

The "division of souls" is one of the most repeated themes of Jesus' kingdom teachings. Nations are divided right and left, the sheep from the goats. In the last day, some will experience a baptism of the Spirit - that great final eschatological outpouring foreseen by Joel - while others receive a baptism of fire (the fire of judgment, in context - "Now is the axe laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire."). If this image stands behind the ones "taken" - the ones "left behind" dichotomy, someone is surely facing judgment, while others are escaping it.

The specter of the invading army and the brutal disruption of exile was one of the dominant collective memories of post-exilic Judaism - not unlike the Holocaust for contemporary Jews. The rumblings of military conquest - the military might of the Roman armies, enforcing the Pax Romana with the edge of the sword - is everywhere apparent in the collections of Jesus' apocalyptic sayings - Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 17 and especially Luke 21. If this image serves as the framework for the "left behind" passage, then those who are "taken" face the brutality of exile, while those "left behind" are spared this immediate indignity, but face the bitterness of defeat nevertheless.


What do you think? Is Jesus arguing that some will face judgment while others escape in this passage? Or do all face the certainty of military defeat and God's judgment alike?


  1. Good question, Joe. I think we've all probably done a bit of struggling with the metaphor in this passage. I'm open to your suggestion that this may not, in the end, be a "division of souls", as you aptly put it. However, I also think there is a case to be made that it is intended as a "division of souls", not in the dispensational sense, but in quite the opposite direction.

    In the larger context of this sermon on the destruction of Jerusalem, which concludes with references to the end of the age, I suspect that there may be an intentional polarization between those "taken" and those "left behind", i.e., one to eschatological judgment and the other to survive. It seems to me that it follows along the lines of first the exile (when some were taken by the Babylonians and the others were left as the surviving remnant), then the coming destruction of Jerusalem (where some would be taken by the Romans and a remnant left), and finally, in an eschatological sense along the same lines.

    One parallel may be helpful. In Matthew's version of the sermon, in 24:39 he uses the expression for the days of Noah that the flood swept them away. Then, the next verse contains the saying in question. When he says "one will be taken", it seems to parallel the sweeping flood, which suggests that the one "taken" is taken in the cataclysm, while the one who is left (such as Noah and his family) are the surviving remnant. In all these historical precedents (Noah, the destruction of the 1st temple, and the destruction of the 2nd temple), there seem to be those "taken" in judgment (i.e., destroyed) and a surviving remnant. If there is a "division of souls" in this passage, it seems to me that it must be the reverse of the typical dispensational interpretation. The one "left behind" is the surviving remnant, while the one "taken" is removed by judgment.

  2. Dan, very interesting. I think I am in agreement with you that the invasion/exile motif is the most pronounced here - although you are absolutely correct to see a "division of souls" implied in the exiled and remnant communities.

    You raised the immediate context of the "days of Noah" passage. This raises two questions.

    First, are the two sayings - the "days of Noah" and the "left behind" passages - organically linked (that is, they are intended to be told together with the one NECESSARILY shining light on the other) or are they simply thematically linked (similar sayings about watchfulness) in the "collected" sermons of Matthew and Luke? I lean toward the first option. We only have two witnesses to the sayings: Matthew and Luke. (I have grown agnostic about the necessary existence of the theoretical Q - although I am still firmly committed to the priority of Mark and even the literary dependence of the so-called "double tradition" material.) Both sources present the sayings as a unit with almost identical wording. Even if the sayings were originally independent - the form critical (Bultmannian) assumption about all sayings of Jesus - our only knowledge of these sayings comes only through the unified literary unit we find in multiple attestation in Matthew and Luke. We have to deal with what we have - in the absence of any compelling evidence to the contrary, all else is speculation. The Lucan additions - the "days of Lot" and "two in the same bed" simply reinforce the narrative argument without really adding anything new - save for linking the theme of eschatological flight found elsewhere in other gospel sources to the Noah and left behind passages.

    Second, does the Noah passage (and the complementary Lot passage in Luke) really contrast the judged and the spared? Or is the real point the universality of quick and complete judgment on the heedless generation? It seems to me that Noah and Lot are not the point of the sayings. Their departure opens the central act of the dramatic image: the all-consuming judgment on the generation who only moments before lived their lives in everyday abandon, uncaring and unconcerned about the impending judgment. It is this willful ignorance - the constant and consistent ignoring of all the prophets - that prompts Jesus' most startling proclamation about the cumulative blood guiltiness of his contemporaries.

    As a footnote, I love the way Luke recycles the all-purpose saying of Jesus - "whoever loses his life will find it" - in the context of eschatological flight. There are other all-purpose sayings that pop-up in different contexts - "he who has ears, let him hear" and "all that is hidden will be revealed" to list two - that appear in multiple contexts, eliciting multiple meanings, in the synoptics and Thomas.

  3. Here are some further thoughts.

    One of the challenges in interpreting the Olivet Discourse is deciphering where the transition takes place between comments about the temple and comments about the end of the age. Everyone agrees that Jesus begins by addressing the coming destruction of the temple. In Matthew's version, at least, everyone agrees that Jesus closes with the end of the age (Mt. 25). However, where the transition occurs between these two poles is heavily debated. Dispensationalists tend to minimize the references to the temple and go very quickly to the end of the age. Here, the "end" and "parousia" in Mt. 24:3 (and I'll use Matthew's version, since it is the longest one) refer directly to the end of the age and the 2nd advent of Christ. At the opposite extreme are the preterists, who maximize the references to the temple and regard the transition to the end of the age as late in the discourse, probably as late as Mt. 24:51. Here, the "end" refers to the end of the temple, and the "parousia" refers to Christ's coming in judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70. There are, of course, mediating positions between these extremes.

    The point of all this is that it certainly affects the interpretation of the "one taken and the one left behind". In the dispensational viewpoint, the passage concerns the second coming of Christ at the end of the age. In the preterist viewpoint, it concerns the flight from Jerusalem at the invasion of Titus Vespasian. When Luke's version is thrown into the equation, he almost certainly spends more time on the temple than on the end of the age (which is why dispensationalists almost always prefer to work from Matthew and not from Luke). Many preterists, on the other hand, doubt that Luke talks about the end of the age at all.

    To further complicate the picture, only Matthew makes the "days of Noah" analogy in the Olivet Discourse. Luke records this saying of Jesus, but he locates, as you pointed out, in an entirely different context (Lk. 17:20-37). This seems to suggest that Jesus may have used the "days of Noah" analogy on more than a single occasion, and the interpreter must then decide whether he uses it the same way in both contexts.

    Now to your two questions... I am in agreement that the "days of Noah" are intentionally linked to the "days of the Son of man" so that each sheds light on the other. (As a side note, I am also less and less confident about Q in Synoptic studies.)

    As to the second question regarding the judgment and the spared, I'm more ambivalent. It certainly is true that if the statement about "one left, one remaining" is intended to describe judgment for the one and salvation for the other, Jesus doesn't emphasize this aspect. Rather, he seems to emphasize the aspect of unexpectedness. Mostly, I'm content to leave it at that.