Excerpted from a review by Iain D. Campbell © 2001
Perhaps it is a commentary on the reading habits of Christians that the closing years of the twentieth century witnessed a remarkable growth in the area of Christian fiction. The novels, for example, of Bodie and Brock Thoene, covering issues relating to Israel and Jerusalem, or of Jack Cavenaugh, relating to the Puritan settlements in New England, or of Michael Phillips and Judith Pella, a tale of Christian faith in tsarist Russia, or of Francine Rivers, whose historical fiction runs from scenes in Ancient Rome to modern America, or of Frank Perretti, whose novels This Present Darkness and The Oath portray with great vividness the spiritual forces at work in people’s lives, are only a few examples of this growing genre. Other writers could be added to the list. Theology teachers – such as R.C. Sproul – and Christian leaders – such as Charles Colson – have also contributed to the growth of Christian fiction literature.
While some people may quibble with this genre as a legitimate form of expressing Christian doctrine, it has to be acknowledged that the Bible also uses non-literal accounts in order to convey profound biblical truth. One thinks, for example, of the parables, or of the apocalyptic material of Scripture, both of which convey deep Christian doctrine in non-literal ways. Within the Christian tradition, we have seen a growth in the publication of the Christian novel, and a mushrooming of Christian fiction writers, whose purpose is to convey Christian truth through fiction literature.
In 1995, the novel Left Behind was published. It was co-authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Tim LaHaye is a minister and noted author, who has founded two important American centres of research and learning: one entitled Family Life Seminars, and the other The PreTrib Research Centre. He is a frequent speaker at Conferences on Bible Prophecy. His fellow-author, Jerry Jenkins has written and published many books, including biographies of Luis Palau and Billy Graham. Left Behind was the first in a projected 12-novel series, dealing with the theme of the end of the world. It became an immediate best-seller, now claiming to have over 10 million copies in print and circulation. Eight titles in the series have been published to date: Left Behind, Tribulation Force, Nicolae, Soul Harvest, Apollyon, Assassins, The Indwelling and The Mark.
… The undoubted success of the past year has been the “Left Behind” series by Jenkins and LaHaye. The Indwelling, the seventh volume has recently been published and the fans are still gripped by the story!” … The series has also spawned its own website at www.leftbehind.com, and Christianity Today, 10 July 2000, carried a feature on the proposal to make a film based on the novel. This is costing the film-makers $20 million, “the most expensive evangelistic movie in history”, from profits from other end-time productions. The film is due to hit the wide screen in February 2001.
We may bemoan the fact that theological giants, like the Puritans and the Princeton theologians, are not being read and studied as they ought. On the other hand, we have to realise that the Christian reading public is more likely to derive its theology from the burgeoning Christian fiction movement. The Left Behind series, with its powerful imagery and its well-structured storyline and plot, is going to provide generations of Christians, not just in America, but throughout the world (there are already Spanish translations of the novels) with a view of the end time and of biblical prophecy that is going to become their eschatology.
My concern is not that Christians read Christian fiction – I would rather they read Christian fiction than much of non-Christian fiction, although I would also rather they read Christian theology rather than Christian fiction – and my purpose today is not to dissuade anyone from reading the Left Behind series. But I am concerned with the theology of the last times that is being presented in this series. My concern arises from the fact that I do not believe the end-time scenario painted by LaHaye and Jenkins is what the New Testament actually teaches. I am also painfully aware of how little solid Bible preaching there is on issues relating to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. If we simply allow the Left Behind series to fill the gap, we will be left with a defective view of the Bible’s teaching concerning the end of the world.
For these reasons I considered it important to place this subject on the agenda of our conference, in order to give us an opportunity to address some of the issues which the Left Behind series raises. The task I have given myself today is not to make a literary critique of the novels – as novels they read very well – nor do I wish to spoil the plot for anyone who is reading them or wishes to read them. I do intend to refer to characters and scenes in the books, but I have to be careful in doing so in such a way as will not spoil the story.
My intention in this brief time is three-fold:
1. To introduce the storyline of the Left Behind series
2. To introduce the theology behind and implicit in the Left Behindseries; and
3. To critique that theology in the light of the Bible’s teaching concerning the Second Coming of Christ.
The Theology of the ‘Left Behind‘ Series
Perhaps you are asking why we should spend so much time thinking about a work of fiction? It is not because I am endorsing all kinds of fiction, or even commenting on the literary value of this particular series. I think it is important to grapple with the Left Behind series because it is attempting, very persuasively, to produce an end-time scenario which accords with the details of biblical prophecy. In other words, although the precise characters and locations are fictional, the major world events – beginning with the Rapture, and including the role of Israel, the rise of AntiChrist, the wars and the earthquakes – are all understood by the authors to be predicted in the Bible. And amid the confusion and uncertainty that even evangelical scholars have about the Bible’s eschatology, a series like this can readily convince.
The theology of the series is interwoven skillfully into the narrative. The tape that was produced by the senior pastor of Bruce Barnes’ church, as well as the imagined Internet broadcasts of Tsion Ben-Judah give an opening to the authors to present their understanding of what the Bible teaches about the end of the world.
The eschatology begins with the rapture of the saints, with Christ coming for his own. There is a sudden, mysterious and secret coming of Jesus to take away all true believers. Some churchmen are left, because one can pastor a church and not be a true believer. It is interesting to note how wide the rapture is, according to the Left Behind series. All children under about 12 years of age are raptured, including unborn babies. Interestingly, in the series, the Pope is raptured; so countless thousands suddenly disappear as, in the thoughts of Rayford Steele, “Jesus had come for his people” (I:48).
The whole concept of a rapture is built largely around 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:52, which both speak of the resurrection of dead believers and the immediate ascension into Heaven of living believers at the same moment. La Haye and Jenkins interpret this to mean that “when the Christians who have already died and those that are still living receive their immortal bodies, the Rapture of the church will have taken place” (I:210). But they go further and say: “You may wonder why this has happened. Some believe this is the judgement of God on an ungodly world. Actually, that is to come later. Strange as this may sound to you, this is God’s final effort to get the attention of every person who has ignored or rejected him. He is allowing now a vast period of trial and tribulation to come to you who remain” (I:212). In other words, the Rapture, while immediately impacting on the believers, is also an attempt on the part of God to get the attention of unbelievers, so that they will be converted.
Of course, the world will look on and explain the events in some other way. In Book I, Nicolae Carpathia is quoted as saying, in response to the Rapture view, that he does not accept the theory “because I know many, many more people who should be gone if the righteous were taken to Heaven. If there is a God, I respectfully submit that this is not the capricious way in which he would operate” (I:255). So, in spite of God’s judgements being in the earth, the rulers of the world still refuse to submit to Him.
But those who do submit have to face the events that follow the Rapture. The Left Behind series suggests the following eschatological sequence:
- The Rapture
- Seven-year Period of Tribulation
- Glorious Appearing of Christ
Most of the narrative of the Left Behind Series is set in the envisaged Tribulation period, which is further divided into an initial period of 21 months (corresponding to the 7 Sealed-Scroll Judgements of Revelation 6:1-8:5. According to the Book of Revelation, these include the white horse, representing the rise of Antichrist, the red-horse of war, the black horse of famine and economic inflation, the pale horse of death, bringing in a plague which will result in the death of a quarter of the world’s population, the gathering together and sealing of 144,000 Jewish believers, an earthquake (6:12 – sixth seal) which will represent the wrath of the Lamb against the enemies of believers, and the seventh seal will introduce the second period of tribulation.
This second period is represented in Revelation 8:6 – 10:11 as a series of 7 trumpets bringing 7 trumpet-judgements against the world, the first of which brings showers of hail, fire and blood which destroys one third of the earth’s vegetation, the second turns the sea into blood, the third makes the waters bitter, the fourth darkens the sun, moon and stars, the fifth darkens the atmosphere with smoke, out of which come locusts to destroy the earth and to torment men for five months (9:5), the sixth brings a mysterious army of horsemen into view (9:17) and the seventh (Revelation 10) brings this period to a close.
We are now half way through the tribulation period, one aspect of which has been the sealing of the believers on their foreheads, which is referred to in Revelation 7:3 …
The first half of the tribulation period is said to end with the seventh trumpet. The second half of 42 months is said to be the Great Tribulation, and corresponds to the 7-Vials of Revelation 15-16, a period characterised by death and judgement. The two witnesses of Revelation 11 will continue preaching in Jerusalem for 1,260 days (11:3), when they will be killed, and their dead bodies will lie in the streets (11:8) for three and a half days, after which they will be resurrected. During the Great Tribulation the Antichrist and the Beast will continue to rule the enemies of the Lamb, an important point of which will be the assassination of the Antichrist by a blow to his head, from which he will recover (13:3ff) and be resurrected in a manner similar to the resurrection of Christ, and then be indwelt by Satan as he governs his wicked kingdom, eventually sealing his own with the mark of the beast, the number 666 (13:18). Without the mark, no-one can buy or sell; it is the pledge of complete loyalty to antichrist, and of control by him. It reflects the fact that Christ’s are sealed in their foreheads. It marks out the storyline of the latest book, Book VIII, The Mark. Book VIII suggests that you can only have one mark, either that of Christ or that of the Beast and Antichrist.
I want to say two things about this theology:
This eschatology is based upon a linear view of the Book of Revelation, that is, a view that regards all the judgements recounted in Revelation as following each other in strict chronological and consequential order. In addition, it is based upon a view that sees the events of the Book of Revelation as entirely future (hence it is often known as the futurist view of Revelation), with the rapture taking place before Chapter 4, and the tribulation events taking place before the Millennium, the thousand-year period of Chapter 20. In other words, the rapture is pre-millennial and pre-tribulation. This sets the theology of the Left Behind series in the context of Dispensational thought. Dispensationalism is a view of the Bible – and consequently of history – which sees the historical outworking of redemption as taking place in isolated units of time along the world’s historical timeline.
One major influence in popularising Dispensationalism in America and determining its course for the twentieth century was the appearance of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. It divided biblical history into the dispensations of innocency, conscience, human government, promise, Mosaic, Grace and Kingdom. With minor variations, this became the classical dispensational view. A revision of the Scofield Bible in the 1960s led to a revision of the movement as a whole; one of the most noted revisionists was Charles Ryrie, whose Dispensationalism Today was published in 1965. In it, Ryrie wished to counteract some misrepresentations of dispensationalism, arguing that although they recognised different epochs in salvation history, nonetheless the differences between dispensationalists and nondispensationalists are to be seen in three areas: “(1) we believe in the clear distinction between Israel and the Church; (2) we affirm that normal or plain interpretation of the Bible should be applied consistently to all its parts; and (3) we avow that the unifying principle of the Bible is the glory of God and that this is worked out in several ways – the program of redemption, the program for Israel, the punishment of the wicked, the plan for the angels, and the glory of God revealed through nature” (DT, 211-2). For Ryrie, this meant that the dispensations “are not stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace, but are distinguishingly different administrations of God in directing the affairs of the world” (DT, 16).
Dispensationalism has now entered a new stage with the rise of what has been called by its proponents progressive dispensationalism, which has modified much of the older view and downgraded much of the distinctions between the historic dispensations, seeing them not as isolated but as successive units of salvation history. One element of this is the attempt to clear dispensationalism of the charge of antinomianism (if the Mosaic era has nothing to do with the church era, how can the Mosaic law be of relevance to us today?). Progressive dispensationalists want to say that Mosaic covenant law has been replaced with new covenant law, although the basic problem of dichotomy still remains. It is still the case, however, that basic to dispensational thought is that this is the church age; that there was no church in the Old Testament.
Basic to progressive dispensationalism is the belief that most of Revelation is future, including the millennium of Revelation 20. During that 1000-year period, it is argued, Christ will reign on earth. The tribulation precedes the millennium, and the millennium represents the fullest manifestation of the Kingdom of God, and earthly, spiritual, national and political reign of Christ on earth in a renewed Paradise, without sin, death or demons, what progressive dispensationalists call “the goal of redemption” (PD, p283).
The Left Behind series is an attempt to popularise this theology through fiction.
There are two obvious strengths to this approach to biblical history. The first is its effort to take the Bible literally … Nonetheless, even progressive dispensationalism acknowledges that many parts of Scripture contain apocalyptic material, defined as “story which views the present through the lens of heavenly perspective, conflict in the world, the future and end times” (PD, p90). Much, in turn, “is heavily symbolic literature” (PD, p90), which, though symbolic, presents a view of reality, referencing events in the world.
One of the main strengths of the dispensational material, however, is that it takes the Bible seriously, and, even given the heavy imagery of the Word of God, literally …
A second strength of this approach is its attempt to read world events in the light of biblical prophecy, and to relate the news to the Bible. Let me give one interesting example. The Left Behind series presents a view of the globalisation of religion, and the spread of a worldwide movement that will swallow up all religious distinctions and unite men in faith in an anti-Christian movement…
That could have come directly out of one of the Left Behind novels … There is a clear attempt in the novels to tie biblical prophecy to possible world events, which is all the more convincing when we see what is taking place in the world around us.
Although the Left Behind series popularises a particular kind of eschatology, and does it well, we must note that eschatology is the subject of continued debate and discussion in the evangelical church. A recent edition of Hilltop, the newspaper of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, reported a debate under the headline “Grapple in the Chapel” in which three of the Seminary’s outstanding scholars debated this whole question. The President, Dr Walter Kaiser, and outstanding evangelical Old Testament scholar, argued the premillennial position, including the pre-tribulational rapture. Dr Gregory Beale, who has just published a magisterial commentary on Revelation, presented the amillennial view, or the inaugurated millennial view. His basic premise is that the book of Revelation was intended to be taken figuratively. Dr Jack Davis, a systematic theologian, presented the post-millennial view, that the kingdom of Christ has been inaugurated, is being steadily advanced, and will know revival blessing before Christ comes again. This is very much a live issue.
My critique of the Left Behind series is as follows.
The unity of the Bible is safeguarded by a covenantal rather than by a dispensational approach to redemptive history. Although Paul uses the word “dispensation” in several places to refer to the manner and the time of God’s working, he never uses the concept as a structural form; in other words, the Bible is not structured around isolated, or even successive dispensations. To be sure, there is clear progress in the march of history; the Old Testament looks forward, and the New Testament looks back; we look forward to something better than the best of what we experience here. But what unifies the whole of history, and what structures the whole of the Bible is not that God works at different eras and epochs, but that throughout them his work is the same, and his work is determined by the covenant of his grace. There is a covenantal unity in the Bible, which derives from the unity of God’s single purpose in history.
O.Palmer Robertson, in his The Christ of the Covenants, puts it like this: “Dispensationalism partitions the purposes of God, making one purpose relate to the physical, earthly realm, and another purpose relate to the heavenly, spiritual realm. The whole of the Christian faith cries out against such a distinction” (COTC, 214). Further, he goes on to argue that “the covenants are explicit scriptural indicators of divine initiatives that structure redemptive history. The dispensations instead represent arbitrary impositions on the biblical order” (COTC 227). The Bible itself uses the covenant to structure history, whereas the varieties of dispensational thought are themselves a witness to the arbitrariness and the inadequacy of the dispensational approach.
The New Testament is clear in its assertion that there will be only one Second Coming. It will not be secret and silent – a coming of Jesus to rapture away his own, but public and clear – every eye will see Him. In the way he went to Heaven, he will return from Heaven. The Son of Man will come in his glory with the angels, and will judge the world. 1 Thessalonians 4 speaks of the Lord descending with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the sound of the trumpet – then there will be the resurrection and the catching up to be with the Lord in the air. The difficult passages of the apocalyptic literature must be interpreted in the light of the clear passages, which assert that the second coming will be like the days of Noah, in which the world continued as it always had been until suddenly the flood came.
But premillennialists may counter and say: but what about Matthew 24:40-41, “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken and the other left”. Does not this suggest a rapture, such as in the Left Behind series? But this view assumes that while one is taken the other is left behind in the field, or at the mill. This, however, is not Matthew’s point. The context is of final judgement which is attendant on the glorious appearing of Jesus; when this occurs there will occur the greatest separation between those who are ‘taken’ into safety with Christ and those who are ‘left’, not in this world to face the tribulation and the reign of the beast, but who are left to face an angry God.
The Book of Revelation says nothing about a rapture. The Left Behind series has to assume that the rapture takes place before Chapter 4, although premillennialism wants to base the rapture on the first resurrection of Chapter 20. But in that case it is not reading the Book in a linear and sequential fashion. Revelation presents visionary material, apocalyptic material and highly symbolic material. But nowhere does it say that God will remove his church and then usher in the tribulation. In fact, the whole point of Revelation seems to be that God will in fact protect his church until the moment comes when at the return of Christ the church will be taken with him to Heaven. It does not envisage a point when the church will be removed from the world, and the whole purpose of Chapters 1-3 is to show the relevance of the book for the church in the world.
The Book of Revelation is to be understood cyclically and figuratively. That is, its symbols remain symbols, and the judgements are reinforced by repetition. If we take the book chronologically, then we reach the end of the story at 11:14-18, where the seventh trumpet sounds, and we hear the heavenly choir singing that the “kingdoms of the world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ”. Salvation and judgement are the consummation. Yet the seven bowls are still to be poured out. What is happening is clearly that the bowls and the trumpets recapitulate the message of the seals, and the message is that in the history of the world God is at work, bringing the conflicting strands of sin and grace to a final climactic resolution in the judgement committed to the Son, for which he has appointed one day.
Beale’s commentary shows how the OT apocalyptic writers, like Daniel and Ezekiel often use this method of teaching, and John, whose writings are steeped in their imagery, does the same. This does not guarantee an easy understanding of Revelation, but it does help us to relate the Book to the present experience of the Church as the conflict between Christ and Satan escalates in these last days in which we live. Beale summarises the teaching of Revelation as follows: “The sovereignty of God and Christ in redeeming and judging brings them glory, which is intended to motivate saints to worship God and reflect his glorious attributes through obedience to his word” (Rev., 151). According to 1 John 4:3, the spirit of antichrist is already in the world, it is not a premillennial phenomenon. And the millennium itself, like so much of the numerology of Revelation, may well be a symbolic figure representing the interadvental work of the Church of Christ in the world.
What is the Gospel calling me to? The teaching of the Left Behind series seems to be that I should trust in Christ so that I won’t be left behind. But even if I am, I will still have the opportunity to repent after the rapture. One missing element in the series is an emphasis on what Jesus did the first time. Although the cross is mentioned, it does not become the central issue. More important than what the Bible claims Christ to have done in his first advent is what the biblical prophecy alleges to claim concerning his second coming. The church is to preach Christ and him crucified, to warn against the judgement to come, not against the rapture to come. I would not wish to accuse all dispensationalists of failing in their evangelistic work, but I do believe that the idea of a pre-tribulation and pre-millennial rapture undermines both the simplicity and the urgency of the Gospel message. We must come to Christ, and we must come now, because the next step on God’s calendar is the return of Jesus and the judgement of the world.
The Left Behind series will capture the popular Christian imagination. It will give people an eschatology. It will prove difficult to argue against it. But I think there are sound principles of biblical interpretation and of theological reflection that argue against the particular view of the end of the world presented in these novels. However, there are things we ought to learn:
The Bible does have something to say about the world in which we live, and about the events which take place in it. We cannot ignore movements like the World Peace Summit, or the ecumenical movement, or the political machinery of the West. Antichrist is not some distant enemy, but a very present enemy. In the light of Scripture, we must be vigilant and attentive both to what God is saying in the Word, and to what God is doing in the world.
The Second Coming “draweth nigh”. It is at our doors. One of the great issues that has been neglected in the Christian pulpit has been this very doctrine. Jesus is coming back, and He is coming back very soon. The issue is not “will I be taken or left at the rapture?” but “am I ready to meet Jesus when he comes?”
This is the age in which God calls us to be heralds of the cross, and preachers of the evangel. The time is short, and the responsibility is great. Let us tell men of what Jesus did at Calvary, so that, having proclaimed the whole counsel of God, we shall, on his return, be free from the blood of all men.
Above all, let’s remember what Jesus himself said: “Therefore be also ready; for in such an hour as you think not, the Son of man will come” (Matthew 24:44). Are we ready?