Taken Away in Matthew 24 – positive or negative?

Tough Eschatology question of the day:

Dr. Smith, I’ve heard you say that, in the Matt 24 passage, the term “taken away” has to do with judgement rather than rapture. Is there any significance that there are two different words used for “taken”? Someone argued in my Bible study that the first had to do with judgement and the 2nd had to do with rapture.

I assume you’re referring to the fact that in Mat 24:38 we have the phrase “took them all away” which depends on the Greek term airo whereas the taking in 24:40 & 41 uses the term paralambano (both are the same Greek term)?

Ironically, if there was a more positive connotation to one of these two terms, it would be to the first term rather than to the second, which is the opposite of what your friend has suggested.  Airo literally means something like “lifted up” and, for that reason, could connote a positive lifting. Given that, I could see how someone might argue that airo could mean “taken up” which might suggest a more positive kind of “taking” (i.e. saved by being lifted up and out of the situation).  In that case, the phrase “took them all away” in 24:38 would be referring to Noah and his family being “lifted up” by the floodwaters and so being saved in the Ark.

But that would be a pretty hard case to make.  Here’s why:

  1.  While airo could mean “lifted up”, with a positive connotation, this is by no means the primary usage (cf. Gen 35:2 where the LXX used it to say “get rid of foreign gods”, Lev 10:4 where it means “remove your dead relatives from the sanctuary”, Mat 13:12 “even what he has will be taken away from him”, etc.).  There are several times where it has a neutral connotation (as when they “took up” the bread leftover after the feeding of the 5000) and a few where the connotation can be seen as positive, but many, if not most of the usages of airo are negative.
  2. The syntax of 24:38 virtually requires that the bit about being “taken away” must refer to the wicked and not to Noah.  The sentence says that “they all” (plural; the word here is apas which means “all”) were taken away, but Noah is mentioned only as an individual.  His family is not mentioned in the sentence itself, so the use of the plural for those who were “taken away” must refer to the plural “they” who “did not understand until the flood came” mentioned earlier in the sentence.  If the intention had been to say that Noah was “lifted up by the floodwaters and so saved” then the text would have said “..the flood came and lifted him away…”.  Even if it had said that the “flood came and took them away” using a plural form of the pronoun autos I think the syntax would still require this to refer to the ones swept away in judgment rather than to Noah, since he is referred to in the singular here.  However, in that case you might make the very tenuous argument that the “they” could be referring to Noah and his family who, though not mentioned directly in the sentence, are being assumed.  Tenuous, but possible.  However, the use of apas instead of a plural form of autos completely eliminates even this unlikely possibility.  Apas doesn’t mean “them”, it means “all of those” which, in the context would have to be a reference to the wicked who are so clearly the primary focus of the sentence.
  3. Even apart from the grammatical and lexical considerations, it is obvious from the passage itself that the theme is “the wicked are ignorant of what’s going to happen until the moment it happens.”  It simply makes no sense to say that Jesus went from “the wicked are unprepared” to  “just like in the days of Noah, people were going about their business until the flood came and saved Noah”. The emphasis is not on the saving but on the judgment.
  4. The use of the thief analogy in vv43-44 again casts this coming day in a negative light for those who are unprepared for his arrival.  Jesus says there that his return will be like a “thief”.  Obviously, a thief’s arrival is both unexpected and unwelcome.  This seems an odd analogy to use if Jesus is saying to his disciples “I’m coming back to remove you from all unpleasantness and it will be for you like when an unwelcome thief breaks into your house in the middle of the night!”

But as for paralambano being the positive, rapture word, it just doesn’t flow from the evidence.  As with airoparalambano can be positive, neutral or negative.  Most of the early biblical usages are neutral, but it frequently has a negative connotation as in  Lam 3:2, where the LXX uses it to speak of someone being “driven away” in punishment. Now, to be fair, in Matthew specifically, it is usually used neutrally.  Beyond that, there are some instances in which it is used to speak of Jesus “taking” disciples with him to a place, which may be where this idea that it is a rapture reference comes from.  But, it is also the term used to speak of Satan “taking” Jesus to the temple and tempting him there, so it’s pretty clear that Matthew is not using it with a particularly positive slant in general.  It’s a rather generic word that must be understood to be positive or negative by the context.  Here, the context of negativity is inescapable.

But beyond that is the question of the ones who are “left”.  The Greek term here is aphiemi which can mean “left behind” or “left alone” or “permitted” or even “forgive”.   This word usually has a positive connotation.  In Gen 50:17 the LXX uses it to translate Joseph’s brothers’ request for forgiveness and, in that sense means “spare us”.  In Exo 12:23  it is used to say that God did not “permit” the destroyer to enter into the Hebrew houses.  In Leviticus and Numbers it is frequently used to speak of “forgiveness” (cf. Lev 4:20, 26, 31,35, Num 14:19, 15:26, et.al.). Within Matthew specifically, it often has this sense of “permitted” or “allowed” (cf. Mat 3:15).  It is the word used in the Lord’s Prayer to request forgiveness (Mat 6:12,14,15).  In fact, if there is a dominant usage of aphiemi in Matthew, it is “forgive”.  It is sometimes used in Matthew in a neutral way, but I can find no instances in which it has a sense of “abandoned” with an obvious negative connotation which is what the pre-trib interpretation of 24:40 & 41 would require.  If the term there means “left behind to face judgment” it would be the only such usage evident in Matthew, and perhaps anywhere in all of Scripture.  The most common usage of the term requires us to interpret it to say that this second group of individuals were “permitted to remain”, possibly with an implication that this was a reward for faithfulness.