With all the current excitement/dismay in the US surrounding the release of yet another Left Behind film, starring Nicholas Cage, I thought I would offer a quick overview of arguments that I have presented in The Coming of the Son of Man and elsewhere regarding the offending passages. I was chatting with my friend Mike in Seattle about this yesterday (he’s in Seattle, not me, just to be clear). How does this sort of doctrine work in relation to a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament? What has it got to do with the gospel? My concern here is less to discredit the modern dispensationalist notion—it looks like the film is doing a perfectly good job of that itself, with a 2% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—than to relocate the New Testament language in a field of realistic historical expectation.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matt 24:29–31)
The “tribulation” to which Jesus refers is the period of the Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in AD 70. This is Jesus’ eschatological horizon. The event will be “seen” as a fulfilment of two Old Testament hopes: the vindication of Jesus as the Son of Man who suffers but receives kingdom (cf. Dan. 7:13-27); and the restoration and consolidation of a faithful part of the people of God—the “elect”—following the catastrophe of divine judgment (cf. Deut. 30:4).
For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the parousia of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. (Matt 24:38–41)
The analogy with the flood suggests that those who are “left behind” are the lucky ones. The current “evil generation” of Israel (Matt. 12:39-42, 45; 16:4; 23:36; cf. Acts 2:40) will experience the sudden, disastrous sweeping away of normal life as the Roman armies descend on Judea. Many will be “taken” by famine, disease, and the sword. This is the parousia of the Son of Man in the sense that it is the historical moment when Jesus “comes”, as Israel’s Lord and King—as YHWH “came” in the historical events of the Old Testament—to judge his people and establish his own rule over them.
…this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the parousia of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:15–17)
Paul’s perspective is a little different because he tells a story not for Israel alone but for the pagan nations of the Greek-Roman world. More clearly here parousia speaks of the coming of a ruler to a city or a people to establish his political or military presence. But Paul’s language also invokes a vivid Old Testament narrative about the deliverance of God’s people from persecution, the defeat of their enemies, the vindication of the righteous, and the re-establishment of God’s people under a glorious king.
My view is that Paul uses prophetic-apocalyptic language to describe the foreseen victory of Christ over the ancient pagan world, when the persecuted churches will be found to be in the right—that is, justified for having taken such a dangerous leap of faith. In this passage he assures the Thessalonians that the dead won’t miss out on this vindication. They will be raised and, figuratively speaking, will be “caught up… in the air” to meet the approaching ruler, together with the living (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50-52), now delivered from persecution, and share with Christ in his kingdom throughout the coming ages. I’m happy to believe in that rapture.
It might be objected, of course, that there is no evidence of such an “event” having taken place at the time of the conversion of the Roman empire. Surely the apocalyptic narrative needs to be pushed into a more remote future—our future—if it is to have any continuing prophetic credibility. But it seems to me inescapable that the New Testament, whether from Jesus’ perspective or from that of the later church in the pagan world, is determined to speak about foreseeable political realities—the persecution of the churches, whether by Judaism or paganism, on the one hand; the question of who rules the nations, YHWH or the gods, Jesus or Caesar, on the other. The story is told in these terms, with this sort of timeframe or historical horizon in view.
I would argue, therefore, that we show greater respect for the texts if we hold to the realistic frame of reference and allow that Jesus and his followers have fabricated loose prophetic narratives out of the material of the Jewish scriptures in order to articulate certain fundamental convictions about the future—that YHWH would triumph, that persecution would be brought to an end, that the churches would be vindicated, that the dead would not be excluded from this victory, and that Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations.