The "Left Behind" series of books and movies, authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins, have been very popular over the two decades. The books alone have sold over 65 million copies, largely in the United States.
A new movie version is out now staring Nicolas Cage. The rollicking (and bloody) series is based on premillenial dispensationalist theology which may be lost on some who are just enjoying the well-told tale and the "win" for Christians.
It is too bad that such a successful series is dead wrong about Jesus. Even in the relatively conservative religion departments of Baylor University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary I was taught alternative - and historical - readings of Revelation and the other scriptures from which the "Left Behind" folks spring. Here are some reasons why you will not be left behind:
Many of the scriptures used in the "Left Behind" theology actually related directly to what was going on at that time. For example, in Jesus' long predictive sermon in Mark 13, he is largely talking about the destruction of the Temple, which indeed took place in 70 A.D. And for good measure, Jesus says, these things will take place "while people of this time are living." Pretty clear. This is true of the book of Revelation as well, since it emerged in a time when Roman emperors like Nero and Domition were starting to brutally persecute Christians. The book, based on the model of Jewish apocalyptic literature and written in a dense code, encourages Christians in a time of martyrdom, promises the ultimate victory of Christ over evil, and looks to God's comfort throughout history. The "beast" in the book was obviously the murderous Roman Empire, not communism, the U.N., or ISIS. We mustn't read our Bibles backwards.
The Bible continues to point to God's eternal intent for us - love, forgiveness and acceptance. This is true in Isaiah, where the Temple is envisioned as "a house of prayer for all nations." It is true in Romans, where Paul affirms that God's covenant with the Jews has not been abrogated, and that God's intent is "mercy to all." It is true in John, where that most iconic verse proclaims "God so loved the world..." that Christ was sent to us, and in the very next verse reminds us that he came "not to condemn, but to save." It is true when Jesus counsels his disciples in John 10 that he has "other sheep...not of this sheep pen" that he is also willing to die for. (When you figure that one out, let me know.) A universal hope is sprinkled throughout our scriptures, not a dualistic purge-the-infidels mentality.
Speaking of hope, the "Left Behind" mentality subverts hope for our world. Lots of millenial sects have been utopian - the Shakers come to mind, and their gentle ways witnessed to a peculiar, but loving faith. The "Left Behind" view is dystopian - the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and the sooner the better, so God can get on with a cosmic mop-up. Nevermind climate change, world hunger, clean water, refugees, peace-making. A "flip the switch" faith takes over from a faith that is actually trying to believe in, and follow Christ's call AND example.
Finally, the "Left Behind" Jesus just isn't like Jesus. If we take the real Jesus of Nazareth seriously, we cannot remake him into some kind of avenging demon. Such theology serves a god of wrath, not the God of love. As a friend is wont to say, this is where I came into the movie. As a teen, I was taught this theology - complete with charts. The names and dates change (for book sales) but the theology remains the same. I remember sitting through one presentation, and thinking, "This is not my Jesus." The next day I went into senior English class and wrote a furious essay about it. My poor teacher suddenly had theology on her hands.
You see, I don't believe in Jesus any less than the second-coming crowd. In fact, I would argue that Christ, in many forms, is with us all the time. The Spirit of Christ is alive in the world now. That is what he taught his disciples when he said at the end of Matthew's gospel, "I will be with you always, even until the end of the ages."
Luke chapter 15 pictures God as a seeking Shepherd, searching Woman, and waiting Father - a God of covenant love, who does not leave us behind, but searches every crevice of the earth to find us. That's my gospel and I'm sticking with it.
Christ's Peace, Greg Bain