The Apostasy before the Flood


To help us understand the time known as the Last Days, Jesus uses an enlightening analogy. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus warns,

37 But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

38 For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,

39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

40 Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

41 Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

Matthew 24:37-41

Jesus implies that His coming will coincide with judgment and calamity on a scale comparable to the Flood, which destroyed almost all life on the earth. He says that the days of Noah resembled His coming not only in their apocalyptic climax, but also in the condition of human society just beforehand. In other words, men in the Last Days will descend to the same deplorable wickedness that God saw in the world before the Flood.

Jesus highlights three principal characteristics of Noah's age: 1) eating and drinking; 2) marriage and giving in marriage; and 3) ignorance of impending judgment. The failure of the antediluvians to expect divine wrath in return for their sin revealed that one vice prevalent among them was apostasy. The Book of Genesis leaves no doubt that apostasy had, by Noah's time, overtaken and infected the whole body of mankind.

Adam had many sons and daughters, including Abel, the godly son who was slain by his brother Cain, but the Bible has nothing good to say about any of the surviving children except Seth. In the days of Seth's son Enos, men began "to call upon the name of the LORD" (Gen. 4:26). Reading between the lines, we surmise that Enos helped to stir up spiritual revival among the Sethites and perhaps among others as well. It was in the line of Seth rather than in the line of Cain that Enoch appeared, the man who obtained such favor with God that God took him alive into heaven. Yet a few centuries later, about 1500 years after man was created, righteousness had nearly disappeared from the face of the earth. Only one man, Noah, remained who was "just" and perfect" and who "walked with God" (Gen. 6:9). Noah "found grace in the eyes of the Lord" (v. 8), but the rest of mankind earned only the Lord's regret that He had made them.

5 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

Genesis 6:5-7

The sinful ways of Cain and his descendants had spread to all the descendants of Adam. Corruption had even swallowed up the descendants of Seth, creating a nearly universal departure from truth and righteousness. Apostasy had all but erased godly religion.

The analogy that Jesus drew between the days of Noah and the Last Days implies that the latter will be as apostate as the former.


Ultradispensationalism


In recent years, an approach to prophecy has become popular which denies that the Olivet Discourse has anything to say about the Last Days preceding the rapture of the church. The passage generating the most radically different interpretations is Matthew 24:37-41, already quoted. Luke 17 offers a parallel passage.

26 And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.

27 They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.

28 Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;

29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.

30 Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.

31 In that day, he which shall be upon the house top, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.

32 Remember Lot's wife.

33 Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.

34 I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.

35 Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

36 Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

37 And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.

Luke 17:26-37

Words in italics, such as "women" in Matthew 24:41 and Luke 17:35 and "men" in Luke 17:34 and Luke 17:36, are not in the original. The original speaks only of two in a bed, two grinding together, and two in the field.

The interpretation of these passages has taken a new turn. At one time most Bible students believed that "the one . . . taken" will be the privileged one—that he will be taken to heaven while the other will be left behind to suffer the wrath of God. They inferred that Jesus was describing the days before the rapture of the church. Now, however, most conservative Bible students take another view. They believe that the one taken will go to judgment, while the one left behind will be made a citizen of Christ's Kingdom.

The recent shift of opinion reflects the growing popularity of ultradispensationalism. According to this system of interpretation, the teachings of Jesus are addressed primarily to the Jews rather than to the church, and in His prophetic discourses, He is laying out the future experience not of the church during the Church Age, but of the Jews during the Tribulation, after the church has been removed from the world.

Ultradispensationalists theorize, "The very end of the Tribulation will bring a separation between the godly and the ungodly. God will send His angels to carry away all the ungodly to judgment and eternal damnation. The ungodly will suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, and the godly will remain to pay homage to Christ."

So, ultradispensationalists deny that the passages quoted above are talking about a future rapture of the church. To read any rapture into these passages is, they say, a fundamental mistake. In their view, these passages are predicting not a rapture, but a judgment. They conclude that there is no connection between the days of Noah and the Last Days of the Church Age.


Rebuttal


Five reasons demand that we reject the ultradispensational interpretation of Matthew 24:37-41 and Luke 17:26-37.

1. Look at the state of the world at the time previewed in these passages. We see two men in the field. Presumably they are doing some sort of agricultural work. We also see two women grinding at the mill. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. And we see two people in bed asleep. What do these snapshots suggest about life on the earth at this time? They suggest life as usual. We see only the normal activities of people, activities of a kind that flourish in a time of peace and tranquility.

But it will not be life as usual at the end of the Tribulation. Just consider some of the last plagues. When the First Vial is poured upon the earth, "a noisome and grievous sore" will fall upon all men who wear the mark of the Beast (Rev. 16:2). What type of sore it will be, we cannot imagine. But evidently it will be very painful, and it will afflict most inhabitants of the earth. Then the second angel will pour out his vial upon the sea, which will become "as the blood of a dead man" (Rev. 16:3). In consequence, every living thing in the sea will die. When the third angel pours out his vial, all the fountains of water—that is, all the underground sources of water—will become as blood also. The next angel, the fourth, will pour out his vial upon the sun. John's alarming observation that "power was given unto him to scorch men with fire" (Rev. 16:8) suggests a sudden catastrophic rise in the temperature of the earth.

The sensible question is this. When the people of the earth are suffering from grievous sores, shortages of good water, and burning heat, will they persist in their regular work? Will men still go out to the field and tend crops? Will women still go out to the yard and mill grain? Of course not. Few crops will survive the terrible plagues. Moreover, few people will feel like working. Sick from sores, thirst, and heat, most people will lie in misery upon their beds. The few robust enough to stay active will huddle indoors during the day rather than face the relentless sun. Jesus said,

And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved.

Matthew 24:22

It is obvious that under the conditions prevailing at the end of the Tribulation, normal activities will be suspended.

We conclude that the scenes of two in the field and two at the mill—these being scenes of life as usual—must belong to another period of history. The attempt by ultradispensationalists to make them fit the end of the Tribulation is unreasonable.

2. The notion that only the wicked will be taken for judgment at the end of the Tribulation does not agree with the plain teaching of Scripture. Scripture says that in the transitional period between the Tribulation and the Millennium, both the wicked and the righteous will be taken for judgment. The judgment they will face is described in Matthew 25.

31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

32 And before him shall be gathered all nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.

33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

Matthew 25:31-41

The people brought to this judgment will be "all nations" (v. 32). We should not, however, imagine that each nation will be judged as a unit. In judging the United States, for instance (assuming the United States still exists), Christ will not relegate all its people to the same destiny. Look at what He approves and what He condemns. He approves acts of personal kindness, and He condemns acts of personal unkindness. So, obviously, as justice would indeed require, He is judging the nations one person at a time. No doubt some in every nation will be placed among the sheep, some among the goats.

Where will the nations be gathered? The place will be the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:2), probably an ancient name for the valley directly east of Jerusalem. Gathered by whom? By the angels. Who will be gathered? All nations. So, at the end of the Tribulation, both the wicked and the righteous will be taken for judgment. The idea that only the wicked will be taken, while the righteous will be excused from judgment and left at their homes, is utterly false. Yet the angels will no doubt restore the righteous to their homes after they have heard Christ's invitation to live in His kingdom.

3. People who favor the ultradispensational interpretation of these two Gospel passages say, "Look at the verses preceding Matthew 24:40-41."

38 For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,

39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:38-39

These ultradispensationalists reason, "The ones taken by the Flood were destroyed. In a sense, they were taken to judgment. So, the taking mentioned in the next verse, verse 40, where it says, 'the one shall be taken,' must be a taking to judgment also."

The hole in this argument is that although verses 39 and 40 may look similar in an English translation, they do not look similar in the Greek. The word "took" in verse 39 is entirely unrelated to the word "taken" in verse 40. The word in verse 39 is airo, which means "to lift" or "to sweep away." The word in verse 40 is paralambano, which means "to take alongside." It is evident that the words are not close synonyms. Whereas the one is suitable for describing the destructive effects of a flood, the other is suitable for describing a rapture.

Jesus used the word paralambano on another occasion also. At the Last Supper, He promised His disciples,

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive [paralambano] you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

John 14:3

The middle clause could be rendered, "I will come again, and take you alongside myself." When will He bring living saints alongside Himself? He will do so when He raptures them. If paralambano in John 14:3 refers to a rapture, it is reasonable to suppose that the same word in the prophecy, "The one shall be taken," also refers to a rapture.

4. The explanation of Matthew 24:40 and 41 lies not in verse 39, describing the Flood in Noah's day, but in verse 43.

But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.

Matthew 24:43

This verse answers the obvious question raised by the prediction that "the one shall be taken." The question, by whom? The answer, by the thief—in other words, by Christ. When Christ returns to catch away His church, He will be a thief intruding on the domain of another. The Bible teaches that Satan is presently the ruler and prince of this world (John 14:30; Eph. 2:2). Thus, in Matthew 24:40-41, the selective taking of one here and there is not a taking to judgment, but a taking to heaven.

5. Three times in Luke 17:26-37, Jesus says that "the one shall be taken, and the other left." The repetition of these solemn words alerted His disciples to their importance. But they could not determine what He meant. It seemed to them that He had omitted some crucial information. So, they asked, "Where, Lord?" (v. 37). They wanted to know where the one will be taken. Jesus obliged them with an answer that must have left them even more perplexed. He said, "Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together" (v. 37).

All this is rather mysterious because the meaning is hidden behind symbols. What is the body? The body is the body of Christ. What are the eagles? The eagles are saints in their immortal state. Jesus is predicting the great gathering of saints that will take place "in the air" (1 Thess. 4:17) at the time of Christ's return. Living saints will participate in this gathering as a result of being raptured. Thus, Jesus' answer to the question, "Where will the one be taken?" is not so difficult after all. He says simply that the one will be taken into the air to join all the other saints assembling before Christ at His return—Christ and all His saints together comprising His body.

Notice that the eagle is a fitting symbol of what every saint will become, for in our immortal state we will be able to fly unfettered by gravity. Moreover, like the eagle, we will have a distinctly noble bearing and will dwell in the highest places. And just as the eagle has a remarkable keenness of vision, so we will have access to all treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Several texts underscore the resemblance between the eagle and the perfected saint. The psalmist says of God,

Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's.

Psalm 103:5

This promise is best understood as a promise of immortality. Just as an eagle retains the vigor of youth, so the saints of God will stay youthful forever. We find a similar promise in the book of Isaiah.

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40:31

Not only will the saints be able by self-renewal to overcome every manner of weakness; they will "mount up with wings as eagles." In other words, they will be able to ascend the sky, as they will do at the time of the Rapture.

Some Bible students treat Luke 17:37 as parallel in meaning to Matthew 24:28. Before describing His glorious descent at the end of the Tribulation, Jesus says,

For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.

Matthew 24:28

But the texts in Matthew and Luke are contrastive rather than parallel. In Luke, Jesus says that eagles will be gathered at the "body" (soma, which refers to a living body). In Matthew, Jesus says that eagles will be gathered at the "carcase" (ptoma, which refers to a dead body, a corpse). The latter prediction will be fulfilled when Christ overpowers His enemies at Armageddon. Who will follow Christ as He descends at His second coming? The army of heaven, consisting of all the saints (Rev. 19:14). To the army of heaven gazing down upon the battlefield, the slaughtered millions will seem almost like a single carcass.


Conclusion


A careful examination of the texts referring to the days of Noah brings us to two firm conclusions.

  1. They are talking about the period before the rapture of the church.
  2. That period, which we elsewhere call the Last Days, will be a time of apostasy, as the days before the Flood were also a time of apostasy.

Will true religion disappear completely? In the days before the Flood, many who had once walked in the truth turned away from it, setting their own impulses and opinions above the law of God written on their hearts, preferring the approval of men to the approval of God. Yet the tide of evil did not engulf everyone. When God searched the earth for people He could spare from the general destruction, He found one righteous man, Noah. Besides Noah, God also preserved seven members of the patriarch's family, presumably because they had decided to follow Noah on the path of righteousness.

The number found worthy to escape the Flood was exceedingly small—only eight out of the millions then alive on the earth. But some were found worthy. Faith had not vanished altogether from the race of men. So it will be in the years just before Christ's return. After a long period of spiritual zeal and missionary enterprise, the church will go into a steep decline, continuing until the possessors of true faith become alarmingly few. It is this near extinction of true faith that Christ foresees when He asks, "When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). The question expresses the Bridegroom's tender concern for His Bride. But, as in Noah's day, a few will resist the pull of an evil world and stand firm in their commitment to righteousness. When many others are deserting the ranks of true Christianity, a few will remain loyal. How large will the remnant be? We do not know. We need not suppose that the remnant will be exactly eight persons, as in the Old Testament type. Perhaps the number who still espouse true faith will be hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions. But even millions would be a negligible portion of the world's population today.