Why this pastor loves ‘Left Behind’

September 26th, 2014

On October 3rd, the remake of the hit series, "Left Behind," will hit theaters. Even with Nicholas Cage playing the starring role I couldn’t be more excited about this movie hitting the big screen in a big way.

Many of my colleagues disagree, at least according to the many bits flying across my newsfeed. They are concerned that this movie portrays an inaccurate depiction of the Second Coming of Christ and the events surrounding it. They are worried that it promotes a theology of “escapism” and they argue that since rapture theology is relatively new (it came into being in the 1800’s) it should be suspect. I highly recommend reading Randall Hardman’s recent article “Why Left Behind should be... left behind” for a succinct review of rapture theology and why you should be suspicious of movies which interpret the “last days” the way "Left Behind" does.

I believe Hardman is most likely right in his interpretation of the various texts about eschatology (a study of the end of things), but I disagree with the conclusion which implies that those who embrace this theology also embrace escapism as a solution to the problems of this world. I think this is wrong for two reasons. One, it’s impossible to know this with any kind of certainty (does every person who believes in rapture theology run from the problems of this world?) and second, escape is not necessarily a bad thing.

If it’s true that the majority of American Christians believe in some sort of rapture theology (N.T. Wright calls it the American Obsession, and rightly so) then it would stand to reason that the majority of Christians in America refuse to deal with the problems or messiness in our world today and choose instead to sit on their hands and wait for the trumpet to sound. I can’t know the same people everyone else knows, but those I know don’t seem to fall neatly into these, or any, categories. I know folks who think the Left Behind books are gospel and are ruthlessly engaged in the problems of society, working hard to alleviate the suffering of their neighbors. I know folks who think "Left Behind" should be left behind and yet seem to do very little in the way of transforming the world.

Three years ago, when I was a broken man with a life spiraling out of control due to sexual addiction and a new student at live-in program for addicts like me, I overheard an argument between two fellow addicts about how the end of the world will take place. One was a staunch pre-millennialist and the other a post-millennialist, and both felt that the other’s position compromised the other’s life with God in some way. I, on the other hand, am a staunch pan-millennialist (it will all pan out in the end) and couldn’t help but to roll my eyes as I listened to this argument unfold. And then the absurdity of it all hit me: Here we are, men broken through sexual addiction and have in various ways ruined our lives and the lives of others, causing immeasurable pain in ourselves and in the world we live, and our views on how the end of the world will occur  pre, post, pan, whatever  did little if anything to save us.

Our greatest issue as Christians is not a hardened view of the end of times but hardened hearts that have lost sight of what it means to be obedient to our Lord. A person who believes in the rapture and has a heart right with God will take seriously Christ’s command to love God (which means many things not least of which is to love justice) and to love one’s neighbor (which means many things not least of which being willing suffer alongside them and seek to alleviate their pain). If you are not doing these things then you may want to stop wondering about how this world will come to an end and start wondering whether or not you will have a place in the next.

Hardman writes that, “Rapture-based theology teaches us to think and hope for an escape from this world, not endurance to persevere in it.” For billions of people on this planet an escape from this world and the torture, starvation, abuse, neglect, genocide, war, disease, addiction, and more that they experience every day of their existence isn’t such a bad thing for which to hope! As I sit here in my comfortable house drinking my delicious coffee and contemplating what I’m going to eat at three different times (maybe four) today, who am I to snuff out the only hope the majority of the world is holding on to? And who am I to suggest that they are somehow lacking in their ability to “endure and persevere”? Enduring another day is all they know how to do! I get upset when my pizza at Little Caesars isn’t both hot and ready when I walk in the door, so who am I to tell the Christian family being butchered in Syria that if they believe in the rapture they are placing their hope in fairy tales and thus forgetting how to bear the cross of this life?

Again, as with everything else, how I live this life has less to do with how I believe the end of the world will occur and everything to do with the posture of my heart. Am I loving God and loving my neighbor? Am I loving my neighbor if their only hope is that one day God will whisk them away to a place where there will be no more pain, no more death, no more tears and I crush that hope? By the way, that last bit is our hope as believers in Jesus Christ and can, in and of itself, produce an escapism mentality in anyone if your heart isn’t right, regardless of how you think we get to that place.

I love that as a Methodist pastor I don’t have to put all my eggs in the first and last chapters of the Bible. It is enough for us Methodists to say that God created it all and that God will redeem it all. How God did it then, and how God will do it then, I am OK with calling a mystery, trusting that all the pages between those chapters reveal a God who is good and just. The moment, however, that I humbly confess that I do not know how the end of the world will take place is the moment I must also humbly confess that the "Left Behind" interpretation could be one of a myriad of possibilities. I cannot attack it with any certainty when I am not certain of how it will happen. I’m grateful for it in that regard, that it gets me thinking about something I all too easily forget  that this world is not my final home, and one day Jesus is coming to rescue his bride. I hope on that day I am found worshiping the King of Kings and not critiquing the way in which he chooses to redeem his Kingdom. 

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