Matthew 24:40-41 in the NET Bible Notes: Taken for Salvation or Judgment?

Recently, a reader of the NET Bible asked about the validity of the interpretation advanced in the notes for Matthew 24:40-41. The text of vv. 39b-41 with the relevant note reads as follows:

It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left.* There will be two women grinding grain with a mill; one will be taken and one left.

*sn There is debate among commentators and scholars over the phrase one will be taken and one left about whether one is taken for judgment or for salvation. If the imagery of Noah and Lot is followed, the ones taken are the saved. Those left behind are judged. The imagery pictures the separation of the righteous and the judged (i.e., condemned) at the return of the Son of Man, and nothing more.

This passage has been frequently debated concerning what it means to be “taken” and what it means to be “left.” Are those taken away saved and those left behind judged, or is the opposite the case and those taken away judged and those left behind saved?1 The NET Bible prefers the former interpretation, as indicated in the note, for the following reasons.

(1) Both interpretations must draw upon the prior context which speaks of the days of Noah and the flood. Verses 37-39a read as follows:

For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away.

The verse speaks of two groups of people: Noah, whom God allowed to enter the ark, and those who remained on the earth and were destroyed by the flood. (a) On a first reading in English, the text seems to use “take away” in a specific sense to imply judgment; some form of the verb “take [away]” is used in v. 39 to describe the effects of the flood upon those who remained on the earth in Noah’s day and then again in vv. 40 and 41 to describe what happens to one of the people in each pair. This would arguably support the interpretation that people are “taken away” for judgment. This argument does not hold up, however, when examined from a lexical standpoint. The underlying Greek words used in each case are different. In v. 39 a form of the verb ai[rw (airw) is used, while in v. 40 and 41 a form of the verb paralambavnw (paralambanw) is used. This is a case where one English word overlaps in sense with two different Greek words. Since they are different words, similarity in English translation has to be carefully sifted for interpretive value. (b) The imagery itself lends the most credence to the interpretation that those taken away are taken for salvation. In the original narrative about Noah, God was gracious to save Noah from judgment by taking him off the earth and placing him in the ark. He was “taken away” from the place where God’s judgment was poured out to a place of safety in the ark. Thus the reference to Noah lends more credence to the interpretation that those taken are taken for salvation.

(2) The verb paralambavnw used to describe those who are taken away in vv. 40 and 41 is used by Matthew sixteen times in his Gospel. It is used twice in chap. 1 to refer to the positive event of Joseph taking Mary to be his wife (1:20, 24) and four times in chap. 2 to mean “take to safety” (2:13, 14, 20, 21). Seven other occurrences have a neutral meaning of “take with/along” and refer simply to accompaniment (4:5, 8; 12:45; 17:1; 18:16; 20:17; 26:37). The sole reference that can be taken negatively is in 27:27 where the guards take Jesus into the palace to beat and mock him. It is within the general contours of Matthew’s use to see paralambavnw as having a positive nuance here. Thus those who are taken would be taken for salvation.

(3) The verb ajfivhmi (afihmi) used to describe those who are left behind in vv. 40 and 41 often means “abandon” or “forsake”; Matthew uses it that way in 4:20, 22; 8:22; 19:27, 29; 23:23, 38; 26:56; and 27:50. When it has a positive nuance it takes on the technical meaning of forgive, usually of sins (see 6:12, 14, 15; 9:2, 5, 6; 12:31, 32; 18:21, 27, 32, 35) but also of debt (18:27, 32). There is no mention of sins or debt in conjunction with ajfivhmi in this context, so it is difficult to see this verb as fitting the contours of Matthew’s positive use of the word. Most likely the verb fits Matthew’s negative use meaning “abandon” or “forsake.” This would imply that those left behind are left for judgment.

These factors combine to produce in the judgment of the NET Bible editors a favorable opinion towards the interpretation mentioned in the note, namely, that in Matthew 24:40-41 those who are taken away are saved and those who are left behind are judged.