‘Left Behind,’ the rapture and God's plan for creation

November 14th, 2014

On October 3, 2014, the movie “Left Behind” opened in theaters. Based on the series of novels by the same name written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the film takes place in the aftermath of the rapture, the gathering of the Christian faithful in the clouds to meet Jesus, which marks the beginning of the end times.

The book series actually first appeared on the New York Times bestseller list in 1995. The first 11 books in the series sold more than 40 million copies, all leading up to the release of the 12th and final book, “The Glorious Appearing,” in 2004. An attempt to turn the success of the books into a movie franchise occurred in 2000, when Kirk Cameron starred in “Left Behind: The Movie.” There were two other films in the series before it stalled out in 2005.

Now, the stories and characters so familiar to those who read the books and saw the movies are back in a reboot. Along with them come the theological questions raised by the plot: Will believers be taken up into heaven before the “tribulations” marking the beginning of the end of time? Does the Book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature in the Bible give a literal blueprint to how the world as we know it will end and God’s reign will begin? What exactly does our faith teach us about the end times?

It might be important to point out that the current version of “Left Behind” has not done very well at the box office, and it is difficult to find a positive review anywhere except on the film’s website. At the time of this writing, the movie was number 21 at the box office, having fallen in four weeks from the number six spot it occupied on the opening weekend.

The issues raised by the film, though it has fallen flat at the box office, are still challenging for some people of faith who wonder what will happen at the end. These questions are of particular interest as we approach the Advent season, which begins next week. The readings for Advent — and even for today, Christ the King Sunday, suggested in the Revised Common Lectionary — tend to focus our attention on the future coming of Christ, even as we prepare to celebrate his first coming among us.

The last things

Though the name of the movie is “Left Behind,” which puts particular emphasis on the concept of the rapture and, more specifically, on those who did not get to meet Jesus in the clouds and are therefore “left behind,” it is important to note that the rapture is just one part of a theological system that attempts to describe what the end times will be like. The high-dollar word theologians used to describe the study of the end times is eschatology, which comes from a Greek word meaning last things.

The system of thought that includes the rapture is actually a rather new development within Christian theology. Commonly called “dispensationalism,” it is based on the 19th-century writings of John Nelson Darby, a former priest in the Church of Ireland who grew dissatisfied with the established church and joined a reform movement. Darby believed the history of the world to be divided into seven different dispensations, or eras, culminating with the rapture and the second coming of Christ. Darby was the first to separate the rapture from the Second Coming, making them two separate events. In 1909, C. I. Scofield published the Scofield Reference Bible, which popularized Darby’s thought and made it an important piece in fundamentalist and evangelical theology.

Scripture references for the rapture are scant. First Thessalonians 4:13-17 describes Jesus descending from heaven at the sound of a trumpet and meeting the faithful in the air, those who have died and those who are alive at the time. Paul was writing to give hope to those who were concerned about their loved ones who had died. It was thought that Jesus would return within the lifetimes of the first generation of believers. When people began to die, there was some concern about what would happen to those who already passed away before Jesus came back. Paul’s response was an answer to that concern, and it did not give any more information about this event taking place before or after any sort of end-of-the-world “tribulations.”

Luke 17:26-35 is sometimes referenced as a description of the rapture. Here, Jesus describes people being suddenly rescued or left behind, as in the days of Noah and Lot, to face destruction. He says that “on that night two people will be in the same bed: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together: one will be taken and the other left” (verses 34-35).

After the rapture

As mentioned previously, the rapture is just one component in the dispensational interpretation of the end times. There are various schools of thought about the timing of the rapture:

• Pre-tribulational: The faithful will be caught in the clouds with Jesus before the suffering at the end of the world begins.
• Mid-tribulational: As it sounds, believers are raptured in the midst of the suffering.
• Post-tribulational: The rapture takes place after the suffering.

Darby named the dispensation that coincides with the end times “the Millennium.” So, what is that all about? Revelation 20:1-10 describes a thousand-year period during which Satan is restrained from terrorizing the earth and Jesus reigns with the faithful. Then, Satan is released to create more mayhem until finally being conquered for good. The Left Behind book series describes this and the other events portrayed in the Book of Revelation as literal occurrences being predicted by John.

The end or the beginning?

It is easy to get bogged down in the lingo of eschatology; dispensationalism; millennialism; and pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation. It can be appealing to debate the finer points of the theology. But one thing is for sure no matter which system you follow: They all lead to the same place — the restoration and renewal of creation described in Revelation 21.

In the first verse of this chapter, John describes “a new heaven and a new earth.” It is a place where pain and suffering are no more. God is there in the midst of the people, and there is no need for a temple or even the sun, for that matter, because “God’s glory is its light” (verse 23). The final chapter of Revelation describes a beautiful garden, a mirror of Eden, with a tree whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations” (22:2).

The traditional creeds of the Christian church, particularly the Nicene Creed, simply state that Jesus will come again “in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” The early church leaders did not feel it necessary to spell out the particulars of the occurrence. They just thought it important that believers recognize that Jesus will indeed return.

They did not see this as something to be feared. In fact, the very end of Revelation, at 22:20, is a plea for Jesus to “come!” We can trust that God has great things in store for God’s people at all points in history. The fulfillment of all of God’s promises at what we call the “end times” is really the most hopeful news we have to share. It is, in fact, not an ending at all, but a beginning of the best of times.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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