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Who is ‘Left Behind’? An Advent Meditation

By Wesley Hill

One of the Gospel readings appointed for the Advent season used to send chills up my spine when I heard it as a child. “Then two will be in the field,” Jesus says, conjuring the image of two virtually indistinguishable fellow workers engaged in the same form of toil. “One will be taken and one will be left.” Then he repeats the story for emphasis: “Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Then he spells out the implied imperative: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:40-42).

When I heard that Gospel in my childhood, I assumed Jesus was talking about “the Rapture,” which one of the revered teachers in my church tradition had described as the end-of-history “carrying away of the church from earth to heaven” (Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 537) before the beginning of the “Great Tribulation” on earth.

The imagery I had in mind was from the 1972 film A Thief in the Night, which had, as N.T. Wright predicts its theology would, “frightened [me] into some kind of (distorted) faith.” In the film, which was popular in many fundamentalist and evangelical spaces in the next several years (until its copycat, the Left Behind series of books and movies, replaced it in the mid-’90s), various characters wake up to find that housemates, relatives, friends, and coworkers have vanished spontaneously, leaving behind still-running lawnmowers, kitchen mixers, and the like. It’s theme song was Larry Norman’s 1969 hit “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”: “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.”

One minute there are two friends sitting in a restaurant having a conversation, and the next minute one of them has disappeared. The theological framework behind this plot lies in “premillennial dispensationalism,” an interpretation of history’s end that has Jesus returning to rescue (or “rapture,” from the Latin rapere, “to seize or snatch away”) his true believers, while the rest of humanity endures the brutal seven-year dictatorship of the “Antichrist,” who makes life on earth the penultimate hell before the final judgment — when Jesus returns, again, to inaugurate the millennial golden age.

According to Wright, though, dispensational interpretations of Jesus’ picture in the Gospel — of two people working side by side when one of them is “taken” — almost certainly have it backward. As with a midnight raid on an unsuspecting village or when you hear a knock on the door from the secret police, those who are “taken” shouldn’t be understood as being whisked away to safety. No, the ones left behind are lucky. It’s those who are “raptured” who are heading for a jail cell or worse.[1]

What, then, is Jesus’ point in the Advent Gospel reading? It seems to be something like this: There is a catastrophic conclusion the world is hurtling toward. So stay alert. Keep your eyes peeled. Don’t fall asleep. Because you don’t know when you might be taken off-guard by an enemy. And mostly because you want to wait and watch for me when I come for you, as I promise to do.

The trouble is, when you read the rest of the story the Gospel tells, it doesn’t go well for the people whom Jesus exhorts to keep alert. On the night when he was betrayed and arrested, he asked for his friends to stay up with him in vigil: “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me” (Matt. 26:38). But they eventually succumb to drowsiness. They fail to link arms with Jesus in his direst time of need.

And yet the forecasted outcome never materializes. The three men who fell asleep — Peter, James, John, whom Jesus had predicted would be “taken” in judgment if they didn’t keep alert — are the ones who are, contrary to the way this plot is supposed to unfold, “left” or spared. And the one who did stay awake, who prayed all night to the God he called “Father,” who could have called in an unbreachable angelic fortress to encircle and defend him, was the one “taken” into custody. From there, he endured a sham of a trial, with its usual physical and psychological brutality. And the next morning, before noon, he was strung up on a death stake to await the suffocating fate that, all things being equal, could have been and should have been the fate of his friends instead.

It’s at that stark, singular point where we can glimpse the deepest meaning of all the prophetic, end-times, judgment imagery that saturates our readings during Advent. All the lurid images — the sudden darkness, the earthquakes and convulsions of the supposedly stable order of the world, the people being secreted away in the night to suffer unknown tortures — all of them come to a head when Jesus dies, alone, on the cross. He suffers our fate. He is, as Karl Barth said, the Judge judged in our place.

In Advent we’re asked to face up to the truth that a final reckoning, a last judgment, has been promised, and maybe one of the reasons so many cherish this part of the Church year is because we know firsthand the dread of it on the horizon. But the deepest truth of Advent is that the judgment has, in its truest and fullest sense, already taken place. It has fallen on Jesus, for our sake. And so, in Advent as in every other season, “Christians will never find that they are called to anything other than hope — for themselves and the world.”[2]

[1] “It should be noted that being ‘taken’ in this context means being taken in judgment. There is no hint, here, of a ‘rapture’, a sudden ‘supernatural’ event which would remove individuals from terra firma. Such an idea would look as odd, in these synoptic passages, as a Cadillac in a camel-train. It is a matter, rather, of secret police coming in the night, or of enemies sweeping through a village or city and seizing all they can. If the disciples were to escape, if they were to be ‘left’, it would be by the skin of their teeth” (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 366).

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, p. 118.


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