On October 3, theaters across the country will be lowering their screens for the much talked about reboot of “Left Behind,” a film installment based upon the popular book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins and a remake of the previous film by the same name. It's been the “year of the Christian movie” with films like “God's Not Dead,” “Heaven is For Real,” and “Son of God.” (I would include “Noah” but that was apparently condemned as heresy by the masses.) So, a reboot of “Left Behind” — especially one with a bigger budget and a bigger name (Nicolas Cage) — is not really unexpected, though it most certainly will draw the same sort of crowds as the other three movies and will find itself well within the likes of the church crowd.
Unfortunately, however, while “Left Behind” may prove itself to be a mediocre box office success, it represents a severe misinterpretation of what the Bible actually says about the topic. To put it bluntly, and perhaps to the chagrin of some readers, the idea of a “rapture” is simply not biblically based (and that's where I've lost a third of you!) It represents, instead, a theology based on escapism and in the process does damage to what the Bible really does say about “the last days.”
Of course, it's beyond the scope of this article to give a fleshed out analysis of the various portraits of “the last days” which exist in contemporary Christianity. More to the topic of this post, though, the whole idea of disappearing for seven years to a heavenly abode while the rest of the world endures some timetable of Revelation's cataclysmic prophecies of cosmic destruction, a one world order, an antichrist, a mark of the beast (watch out iPhone 6!), etc. is just not what Revelation is about.
To the surprise of many, rapture-based theology has only been around for the past couple hundred years and predominantly in America. Indeed, the world's leading biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, refers to it as an “American obsession” and notes that few Christians in the U.K. hold any sort of belief in it. I would say the same for biblical scholars (in fact, I can't think of a single trained biblical scholar of Revelation* that endorses rapture based theology minus a couple at Dallas Seminary.) The origins of rapture theology lie in 1830 Scotland where a fifteen year old girl name Margaret MacDonald claimed to see a vision of a “two-stage return of Jesus.” Enter John Nelson Darby, a British evangelist and the founder of the Plymouth Brethren. Darby took MacDonald's vision and created an entire system based off of it in which Jesus returns not once (as Christians have always believed) but twice! Darby and others who were sympathetic to his views went back to the Bible to search for clues, signs, and verses which would justify thinking of worldly history in terms of “dispensations” which included a seven-year tribulation and a preceding evacuation of the church from it.
Through various “mission trips” to the U.S. in the late 19th century, the notion of a “rapture” found itself appealing to American Christians who were going through the atrocities of the Civil War which, by all measure, must have looked like Armageddon: nation rising up against nation, brother against brother, son against father, etc. With more than half a million dead, who wouldn't find a “let's get out of here” theology attractive? This mindset, of course, was exacerbated with World War I and the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible which was handed out to soldiers in the trenches. Two other events corresponded to the promotion of the “rapture” in America: the conversion of Dwight L. Moody to the eschatological system (he later founded Moody Bible Institute and a major radio program which would become important in the promotion of rapture theology) and the establishment of a dispensationalist training center, Dallas Theological Seminary (get why their scholars are the exception?)
Now Christians have always affirmed the second coming of Christ, but only in the system which Darby, Scofield, and later dispensationalists developed were there three comings. This was a brand new take on the end, and while Christians throughout the centuries have always wondered whether their day was the last day (including Paul), with some interpreting contemporary events in such a way, the establishment of a system and a timetable was entirely new, as was the presupposition that Jesus would exorcise his Church from the last days.
When Paul refers to some being “caught up” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) he's not referring to a rapture which will precede a time of tribulation in the modern world: He is giving his audience hope in the midst of persecution and death and reminding them of the hope that all Christians share, that Christ will come again (just not again and then again!) When Jesus speaks of “one being taken” (Matthew 24:40) he is not referencing how Christians all across the world will escape from a period of trial; rather, he is referencing the Genesis flood story (vv 37-40) and, as the context makes clear, being “taken away” is actually unfortunate, as it is the one who is “taken away” that faces judgment.
I could go on with a verse by verse analysis of all the “rapture verses” but there exists an underlying problem with rapture theology, one which has the ability to affect so many aspects of how Christians interact with the problems of this world: It embraces escapism as a solution. Rapture-based theology teaches us to think and hope for an escape from this world, not endurance to persevere in it. In this view, Jesus loves his Bride too much to let it go through the intense suffering and judgment the world will face (very similar to the popular notion that suffering doesn't happen to godly people). But that is not the message of Scripture, nor is it the message of Revelation in particular. Sometimes terrible things do happen to good people and Scripture doesn't promise us an “out.” It promises us a “how.”
The message of Revelation, then, is extremely important and how we interpret the last days reflects itself on how we handle life and its troubles, both in the current global world and for all of history. Christians speak in a unified voice, “Come, Lord come” yet we do this not because we seek to escape and leave the trouble behind us, along with the people in it, but because we seek redemption of all of reality and the ultimate death of death itself. This means that God does not call us out of the world but, rather, calls us into it with all its messiness, troubles, and dirt and asks us to be part of the work of redemption. Jesus did not, though he certainly could have, escape from the cross. Likewise, the message of hope is not that we won't face our cross — many of us will — but that God stands alongside of us as we take it up and gives us the strength and the hope to die with him. “Fleeing to the mountains” or “flying to the clouds” is not redemption; it's escape and it's a belief that God won't let us endure tribulation. Revelation, however, calls us to the opposite: It encourages us to remain faithful even when we feel like it must be the end of the world.
Part 2 of 2: ‘Left Behind’: Examining the ‘rapture’ texts
*Note: By "biblical scholar of Revelation" I am not referring to pastors, Bible teachers, theologians, or even scholars whose expertise lies in other biblical books. The qualification here is important. I am referring to academically trained New Testament scholars who have immersed themselves in the Book of Revelation, published peer-reviewed journal articles on the book or written commentaries on the book from reputable publishers. Though I could be wrong (admittedly) I have not yet come across a commentary on Revelation that holds the rapture as a starting point of what unfolds in Revelation.
Randall Hardman blogs at The Bara Initiative.