Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Left Behind: Why We Can't Ignore This Film (even if you want to)

As many in the Evangelical world know, the official trailer for the 'Left Behind' movie, starring Nic Cage, premiered on YouTube recently. As of the time of this writing, the official clip has more than 1.5 million views. I'm sure Kirk Cameron is green with envy.

As much as I'd like to pretend all of this isn't happening, I've reached the conclusion that willful ignorance simply isn't an option at this point. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to explain two things: 1) why do I keep hoping the existence of 'Left Behind' is just an extended, bad daydream and 2) how I've reached the conclusion that it is, in fact, really happening, and that I need to stop whining and address it directly.

Transient

A Bad Dream

"Left Behind" is bad theology. When you break those terms down, "bad theology" simply means speaking/thinking/learning about God "badly." As a convinced Christian, I believe that knowing the God revealed in Jesus is the most important vocation of humanity, and to do so "badly," whether through art or academic study, is harmful to the world.

The story of "Left Behind" is based on a specific form of Dispensational rhetoric that emerged and was clarified by John Darby in the late 1800s. The implications of this alone are important: no one before the 19th century believed in the "rapture." Martin Luther, Aquinas & Paul did not believe history was headed towards a magical, instant disappearance of millions of Christians, which would then leave behind chaos and disaster in a world occupied solely by unbelievers.

This may seem like a bold claim. There are entire books on this subject alone, but here I will briefly look at two misreadings of relevant texts, which I hope will be enough to make my point. If you are not convinced, please look into it more. Reading those books would be a good start.

First is 1 Thessalonians 4:17. This is Paul's earliest letter, and he explains that "those of us who are still alive will be caught up together in the air...and we will be with the Lord forever." This certainly sounds like we will be raptured "up into the sky," but this is decidedly not what Paul was referring to. The Greek word used here is parousia, which was a specific concept that referred to the custom of greeting a royal, noble person when he visited your estate. In this process of greeting, those who lived in the estate would go to the boundary, to greet the King, or Lord, and accompany the visiting party into the estate for the visit. It would be dishonorable to the guest not to go through a parousia. 

Paul goes to great lengths to explain to the early Christian church that God is the true King, the true Lord, of our world, not the current King, Emperor, or Caesar who exerts power over you. In the resurrection of Jesus, God inaugurated this Kingship, this process of bringing about new creation, which will only be fulfilled when God returns to claim back the creation that was wrested away by sin and evil. When God does return, we who are alive will greet God, in a grand parousia, which will end back on Earth. I cannot claim to know exactly what this might look like, but the mystical language Paul used in his letter to the Thessalonian church certainly does not describe a literal "vaporization" of Christians to some disembodied, heavenly realm. Paul would be grieved to know his words would be used this way.

Second is the discourse found in Matthew 24:36-44. In this section, Jesus explains that "two will be in the field, and one will be taken," or that "two women will be grinding meal, and one will be taken." This image, combined with the one above, have largely been the source of our modern notions of "rapture." A  careful reading of Matthew 24 does not allow this interpretation.

In this section of text, Jesus draws a clear comparison to the "days of Noah," in which men were eating, drinking, and having a grand time when the flood struck. Those men, he explains, knew nothing about what was about to happen, and the flood came and "swept them away." "So too," Jesus says, "will be the coming of the Son of Man." 

Per Jesus' explanation, the ones who were "swept away" by the flood were those who were judged, not those who were found to be righteous! It is a grand irony that we have missed this fundamental point and so concluded that only the true Christians will be "swept away" by the rapture.

When I read Matthew 24, I pray that I will be left behind.

Why I Can't Ignore This

What we believe about our future directly impacts how we act in the present. If I know my house is going to be demolished in a few weeks, I am not going to waste time cleaning the bathroom, mowing the lawn, or fixing any creaky doors. So too, if we believe we are going to be "teleported" away from impending earthly disaster to a spiritual, disembodied state. Why waste time and effort on ecological care? Why take care of our own bodies? 

Additionally, and more importantly, the "good news" of Jesus' gospel is warped into fear-mongering and scare tactics. I have spent countless conversations with children at summer camps & students on college campuses, assuring them that the end of history is not something Christians should fear. The idea of God coming to set everything right should be a joyful, hopeful prospect, if one believes God is the true, rightful King of our world, and one truly wants God's will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven. 

Within the decline in popularity of the "Left Behind" novels, and what I perceived as the abysmal failure of the first few movies, I hoped this phase was over. However, as the success of this new trailer apparently exhibits, our culture still maintains a strange fascination with this theology.

Notably, I have already had non-Christian friends point it out the trailer to me, and ask what I think about it. I can only imagine this is going to increase, as the film nears its wide release. As has happened in the past (with movies like "The Passion of the Christ" and "God's Not Dead), I'm sure Evangelical churches will see this film as an "opportunity to witness." There will probably be discussion guides, as well as full-blown Sunday school curriculum, printed and sold. Large churches will buy out theaters and encourage all their patrons to attend, in an effort to make this a successful movie.

This is why I (we) can't ignore it.

In a strange way, I actually agree that the release of "Left Behind" will be an "opportunity to witness." It is an opportunity to confidently say to our friends who view it, "I do not agree with this depiction of the God I worship. Can I explain to you why that is?"

The God of the Bible, the God revealed in Jesus, is not going to "beam up" His followers so that havoc can be unleashed on the creation He once called "good" and so desired to inhabit (see Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22). This God, the one who humbly walked into an unjust death at the hands of an earthly empire, does not require the violence depicted in the "Left Behind" novels to take place before his return.

With the widespread cultural visibility this film has already gained, those of us who are firmly anti-rapture-rhetoric do not have the option of wishing it would just go away. And I encourage those who subscribe to Pre-Millenial, Dispensational Theology to examine the implications of it, at the risk of supporting a distorted presentation of Our Lord and our future.

God, may your will be done on this Earth, on the ground I walk on, as it is currently done in Heaven.