In a recent post, my co-blogger friend Jamin Hubner linked and agreed with the Christianity Today article entitled, "Who Gets Left Behind?" by Matthew Dickerson. Dickerson's conclusion is that those who are left behind are the righteous, and those who are taken are the wicked. I was taken back by Dickerson's surface-level exegesis of Matt 24:37–42, even grounding his word analysis on an English translation!
I ask the reader to read Dickerson's article then compare it with my exegetical reasoning below in which I argue that those who are left behind are the wicked:
We refer Matt 24:37–42. It is asserted that the judgment of “the flood came and took them [the wicked] all away” parallels with “one will be taken (paralambanō).” This is a misunderstanding for the following four reasons:
First, it breaks the parallelism of the illustrations. Noah’s family being delivered is described first ("the day when Noah entered the ark," v 38) then the judgment on the ungodly is described second ("the flood came and swept them all away," v 39). To preserve the parallel, a man in the field and a woman grinding at the mill is first described as taken (delivered), then the other man in the field and other woman grinding at the mill are left (judgment).
Second, some translations render the action of the flood illustration in verse 39 as, “the flood came and took them [the wicked] all away.” The rendering “took” is unfortunate because unsuspecting readers may assume that it is the same term used in verses 40–41 that have “taken.” This is not the case because there are two different Greek terms with very different meanings. The English Standard Version recognizes this and accordingly replaces “took” with “swept away”: “and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:39 ESV). The Greek term here is airō, which in this particular context of the judgment-flood illustration means to “take away, remove.” Therefore, this meaning is roughly opposite of the intimate receiving sense of paralambanō in verses 40–41.
Not surprisingly, just a few days later, Jesus uses this same term of intimate receiving when he taught reassurance to these same disciples about his return: “And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take (paralambanō) you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too” (John 14:3). Same context, same audience, same terminology.
Third, it is important to remember that the agricultural illustrations in verses 40–41 (men in field and women grinding) are not intended to illustrate the illustration of Noah and the flood in verses 37–39, but instead illustrates the climax of the Olivet Discourse, which is the gathering of God’s people at the parousia (Matt 24:30–31). At the separation when the parousia begins in verse 31, who is being taken? It is God's elect. That is the point of invoking the illustration in the first place!
Fourth, Luke records the same illustration that Jesus gives to describe his coming: “(34) I tell you, in that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. (35) There will be two women grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” (37) Then the disciples said to him, “Where, Lord?” He replied to them, “Where the dead body is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:34–37). This last verse containing the disciples’ question of “where” is insightful because Jesus responds that where the dead body is it will attract vultures—this judgment imagery evokes vultures hovering over dead people, who represent those deemed judged, the ungodly, not the righteous. This comports much better with those who are “left” and not with those who are taken.
Another objection to this interpretation claims that paralambanō does not always carry the sense of receiving in a positive sense. This is true, but misleading. Of the 49 times this term is used in the New Testament they will cite 3 times it is used negatively (Matt 27:27, John 19:16, Acts 23:18). But this is not a warranted reason because it is a rare meaning of the word found in a narrow specific context of a prisoner being handed over to the jurisdiction of soldiers, a context that is not related to our parousia illustration. It is a strained lexical argument to apply this unlikely meaning to our target passage (On avoiding this type of error, see D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, “Word-Study Fallacies,” 37–41).
Dickerson attempts to argue for his hypothesis by going to 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and by invoking the Greek term apantesis as support. I have lectured against this interpretation in the past and my lecture notes will suffice. (See also this related article.)
My last comment on Dickerson's article. He asserts: "I would suggest that the popular interpretation owes more to Platonism or Gnosticism, which devalue the body and physical creation, than to Christianity."
This is a bit of a desperate attempt at this point. Refute by pulling out the Gnostic card!