I’m a Christian, but when the new Left Behind movie is released on Friday ushering swarms of my brothers and sisters into theaters, I hope I get left behind.
I read all the Left Behind books as a child, and eagerly viewed the original film adaptation featuring Kirk Cameron. When news broke last year that the film was being re-done, this time with a larger budget and big names like Nicholas Cage and Chad Michael Murray on board, it was almost a nostalgic moment for me.
But since reading the books, much about my faith has changed, much that has forced me to step back, shed my childhood nostalgia, and think critically about the theology behind these runaway best-sellers that infiltrated not just my own upbringing, but an entire generation of American Christianity. And when viewed critically, when examined through the lens of Scripture and the message of hope, reconciliation and Christ’s life, death and resurrection, I found there to be some startling and disconcerting thought patterns behind Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ books.
In many ways it would be easy, even therapeutic perhaps, to rip off my proverbial gloves and tear into The Left Behind series with great sarcasm and attempted wit. But this would be neither helpful nor conducive to important conversations that surround the topic at hand: the end times and the salvation of humanity.
So what I’ve attempted to do is summarize two of the more important and evident aspects of the Left Behind series which I’d beg all Christians to consider. I hope these are presented in ways that encourage humble and unifying conversation. Because at the end of the day, as NT Wright once dutifully noted, all language about the future is simply a set of signposts pointing into the fog. That is not to say, however, that anybody’s guess is as good as every one else’s; for we have been given a guide to lead us through the fog: God as revealed through Scripture has granted us glimpses of what to expect.
And it is based on an evaluation of these glimpses that I believe LaHaye and Jenkins are seriously misguided in the following areas:
1) A Westernized, Modern Understanding Of Suffering
The Left Behind series is based on the premise of God’s chosen people (Christians) being raptured, zapped from earth and whisked away to heaven, previous to a period of intense and horrific trials descending upon the earth. Following the rapture, the earth undergoes numerous plagues, famines, wars, and apocalyptic nightmares all of which are painted with broad strokes of interpretation from passages in Revelation.
For starters, a certain amount of kudos must be given to the authors Larry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye for their interpretations, and everyone reading the books (most likely) understands that these are just interpretations. Inasmuch it’d be downright nit-picky for me to go through each book and argue points like: “In Revelation 6 there’s a white horse of death which you interpret as being a cloud of anthrax but if you actually knew Greek you’d dispel any such idiotic idea…”
Thus, the issue I have with the interpretation in the Left Behind series has nothing to do with the artistic approach taken to interpreting Revelation but everything to do with the attitude and lens with which the authors view the relationship between the Church and persecution.
By the authors’ understanding, Christians are rewarded for their trust in God by being liberated from tribulation; they’re raptured out of the world right before the world enters its most trying and desperate times. The underlying assumption to a belief like this is that everyone knows that God loves Christians, and if Christians have chosen to love God then God will ensure that only good things happen to Christians while in this world.
But the problem with the theology of an approach to end times that removes Christians from the picture right before they’re most needed is that it defies the very mission of the Church as it’s been understood across ages.
There’s a commercial out there, you may have seen it once, advertising for the United States Marines. The advertisement shows a dark cloud, from it whence one hears gunfire, screaming, cries of anguish, desperation, pain and hopelessness. And slowly one can see hordes of people fleeing an unspeakable terror from within the unknown darkness. But as the camera zooms out what the viewer sees, slowly, is a group of people running into the danger, running towards the terror, towards the pain, towards the evil, towards the very thing that every human instinct begs us to flee. And then we see it: they’re Marines.
What’s a shame is that we see clips such as these we think of our military and not of our Churches. What’s a shame is that when we think of heroes and don’t instantly think of Christians. Instead, the biggest “Christian” production of the year is a movie depicting a dark cloud of tribulation descending upon the earth and: TA! DA! Christians are gone! Safe! Sound! Happy! Rejoicing in heaven! Whew!
Historically, such an understanding of suffering has never been the position or viewpoint of the Church.
The earliest Christians were martyred by the hundreds. They were dragged into arenas and slaughtered by wild animals and gladiators, ripped to shreds and torn apart, literally limb my limb. The most famous account from this era tells of a new convert, a woman who was pregnant. She gave birth in a prison cell, handing her newborn child over to her family who begged her one final time to recant her faith. She refused and as a result was led to the arena where she met her death by wild beasts, hours after giving birth.
One Roman Emperor crucified Christians and would further light their live bodies afire and use them as lighting for his extravagant parties. Families could be crucified apart from each other, facing each other, so that as they died the last thing they saw was their loved ones’ naked bodies writhing in pain and the Romans below them partying, jeering and laughing at their demise.
Christians outside of and prior to American Evangelicalism have always embraced the idea that when suffering hits, when persecution comes and tribulation arrives they’ll be at its cross hairs. For:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
And when persecution stopped, when the Church wasn’t directly persecuted or hurting, they sought those who were. When the plague swept through Europe in the Middle Ages, Christians earned a strange reputation. While everyone else was fleeing cities, even throwing their own infected family members into the streets out of self-preservation, Christians embraced those who were infected with the plague. They entered abandoned towns where only sick and dying remained and cared for them in their final hours, took in homeless and infected patients and provided decent burials for the massive piles of poignant corpses no one else would touch. Thousands of Christians died as a result but their legacy remained.
To further the point, we need look no further than our Savior. For in the person of Jesus Christ we see someone who entered into suffering rather than fleeing it:
“And (Christ)…humbled himself by becoming obedient to death-even death on a cross!”
Jesus entered into the suffering of humanity for the purpose of saving it. And as a human he bypassed the religious majority (the “moral majority” if you will), bypassed the “chosen” race of the Jews, and went to the outcast, the lepers, the prostitutes, the despicable, lowly, lame, blind, ugly, tax collectors and sinners.
And the message he left was clear, the road he was calling his followers to travel was one of persecution, hardship and pain:
“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”
“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”
And a theology of the end times, a depiction Revelation that shows Christians being spared suffering is simply not Biblical. Rather, this is a Westernized, mutated version of the gospel where becoming a Christian is suddenly equated with happiness, where “God loves me” means “God would never let me suffer.”
We don’t ever claim to believe in health and wealth gospel because God hasn’t taken away our loan payments, our depression, our homework, our cranky boss, our family dysfunctions and similar #firstworldproblems. Life is still life and it still hurts and we realize that; but we’ve disconnected the reality of true persecution, of apocalyptic suffering, from the love of God and come to accept the belief that God couldn’t possibly love us and at the same time allow us to endure something as horrible as what Revelation depicts; surely he’ll evacuate his loved ones?
But God is a God who cares for those in pain, those who are hurting, weak, depraved, despicable and lowly. The notion that he’s going to rapture just a few chosen and submit the rest of the world to tribulation and judgment to prompt their repentance is a misconstrued understanding of the Bible, and a misconstrued understanding of God.
And if it happens to be the case, I’d rather get left behind. Please leave me with those who are suffering, with the unchosen, with the poor, the weak and the needy.
Because you know what? When Jesus really shows up, when Jesus truly arrives on the scene, that’s who he’ll go too. If he’s the Jesus of the New Testament, he won’t go to the people who are avoiding pain, he’ll go to those who are too deep in it to know any different.
So please, hear me you: I’d rather get left behind.
2) A Hopeless Understanding Of Heaven
The second and (arguably) most disconcerting aspect of the Left Behind series concerns the presented perspective of heaven. The Left Behind series stems from a tradition in theology known as dispensationalism. One of the original dispensationalists was William Miller, an American minister who lived and preached in the early 1800’s. Miller preached with urgency to what he believed and viewed was a “dying and perishing world.” Miller and others, such as John Nelson Darby, started a movement that reeked of Platonic influence and even Gnosticism in which the spiritual was good and the physical bad. We might instantly scoff our noses at this idea, but it’s seeped its way quite deeply into our current understandings and is permeating undertone of the Left Behind series.
For under the preaching of these two men came the idea that this world was in fact dying and perishing, which, its worth saying, is true. For as Paul says “all creation groans for redemption” (Romans 8:22). But what formulated out of the dispensationalist line of thought was the idea that since earth was dying, it would one day die at which time those who were saved would depart to a heaven removed from earth.
So heaven was removed from earth and earth was therefore a temporary thing, something that would be discarded after God was done with it, after the human salvation narrative had run its course. Then, once God had gotten his fill of it, he’d usher in this end times, the final scene of the play, like a re-run of the Noah narrative. But instead of an ark with one family, this time he’d snatch Christians up via the rapture, and wallah!- the earth would be destroyed, and with it our bodies gone. Then we’d all be in heaven which is somewhere, out there (though, presumably not on Pluto because the stupid thing isn’t even a planet).
Thus the belief evolved that one day God would come and rescue his chosen people and they’d all be whisked away off to this spiritual heaven. It would, after all, be a spiritual place because our bodies are still on earth- they’ve been buried under six feet of soil, remember?
But all this begs the terribly important question: what did Christ’s resurrection actually accomplish? Was it just a power move to convince us to trust him to get us outta here? Was it just some grand magic trick to make us believe that he really is God, that he really was the one who could pull it off, the one who could rescue us from this sinking ship called “earth”? Was that what it meant? We put our trust in Christ and he gets us the hell out of here before the earth goes down in flames? Raptures us away before the true shit hits the fan?
If that’s the case then the Christian hope is actually, rather…somewhat, well…hopeless.
Because what of my childhood home, the nostalgia I have for the backyard where I grew up, and the trickling brook with trout, apple trees and cool breezes in the fall? What of my current physical body? Yes, I get it, I know that right now my knee hurts, and I know I get migraines and mood swings but is it really just worthless? Is it really beyond redemption? Beyond God’s power? Beyond hope?
And what about the sun and moon and stars? Didn’t God see all this and say it was “good”? Wasn’t the plan to redeem it? To save it? Salvage it?
I thought Christ said:
“Behold I am making all things new.”
But the notion of Christ coming and rescuing us out of here doesn’t sound like anything other than an evacuation plan; a cosmic get-away before death and destruction take their final grip of this desolate and hopeless universe.
If that is the case, then Christ isn’t really King; he didn’t win, he was forced to retreat. Sure he built a new heaven and a new earth but if earth is a battleground and we’re being raptured away, then Satan has won earth over to destruction; it’s going down in flames; death will have its reign.
And that’s not hope. That’s hopelessness.
But if Christ’s rising from the grave actually conquered death, if redemption is actually something we believe in, something we pay more than lip service too, then this earth isn’t perishing, dying and beyond hope, but is groaning for redemption.
And the new creation will come about in the form of a new heavens and new earth descending from the clouds and settling upon this earth, as is beautifully depicted in Revelation 21:2. It will come about when the shadowlands we see around us are redeemed into the magnificence that shine like Moses’ face descending the mountain and Christ at the transfiguration. It will not involve earth being discarded but transformed, just like it will not involve us being discarded. Instead it will entail us being ushered into the fulfillment of our beings:
“He will take our weak mortal bodies and transform them into glorious bodies like his own.”
The idea of a heaven away from this earth, of redemption removed from God’s original creation is not the fulfillment of Christian hope but it’s emptying.
And if heaven is some sort of spirit world, some weird realm where we worship a god who really isn’t all powerful, who really couldn’t redeem the earth and defeat Satan but just retreated and managed to snatch up a bunch of us with him…then thanks but no thanks:
I’d rather get left behind.
The Left Behind series is an interpretation of a book of the Bible that’s really difficult to interpret. And kudos to LaHaye and Jenkins for trying. But that’s where the awards stop; that’s where I withhold my applause and start handing out harsh critique.
Because if the message of the Left Behind series is that as Christians were going to get raptured out of tribulation, away from pain and suffering when the world needs Christians the most, then count me out. If the message of the Left Behind series is that the Church is going to flee those who are persecuted, going to separate itself from those who are lost, and that God will reward this pharistical behavior with an early admission to heaven, then excuse me if I take a pass.
And if the message of the Left Behind series is that heaven hasn’t got anything to do with this earth but all hope for this earth really is lost, then I’m afraid that hope is also lost. If the message of the Left Behind series is that God’s plan was never redemption but actually retreat, that Christ’s resurrection from the grave wasn’t an example of what will come of all creation but just a tactic to convince us that he’s our ticket out of this hell-hole where death eventually will win… well, then death already has.
And that’s the message of the Left Behind series. So please, count me out. I’ve played my cards and I know where I fall.
I choose a deeper hope, a more real hope, a hope that runs toward pain and embraces it with the tears of Christ. I choose a hope that sees the hopelessness around me but sees the power of a Risen Savior who came not to rescue us and whisk us away to some far off location where we float on clouds as spirits for all eternity, but to redeem everything. Because it is good and was good and will be good again. Because death hasn’t won and will never win. Because the grave is empty.
But as far as the theology of the Left Behind books goes, and when it comes to the scores of Christians who will pour into theatres to see the movie this weekend, then let me just say:
I really, truly, sincerely hope I get left behind.