A VISION FOR MISSION AND THE BLESSED HOPE - LEFT BEHIND
The Christian’s twofold hope
The energetic and expectant people of God are filled with hope. We long for the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ at his end-of-history return (Titus 2). This is our heavenly hope. Not heavenly because we hope for heaven – far from it, we look forward not to ‘heaven’ but rather to beholding, enjoying and reflecting the glory of God in Christ in Spirit-formed resurrection bodies in the new heavens and new earth (I Corinthians 15, Revelation 21-22). No, the return of Christ is our heavenly hope because he comes from heaven. That is where he is now. In his glorified body, King Jesus is reigning from his heavenly throne over every atom in the universe (Ephesians 1, Matthew 28). Indeed he must reign until has put all his enemies under his feet (I Corinthians 15, Hebrews 10).
Meantime, there is an earthly dimension to the Christian’s hope too. The Christian’s earthly hope is to see the nations discipled for King Jesus, to see the gospel spread to every corner of the earth and to see the yeast of the kingdom fill the whole batch of human life so that every aspect of reality declares the Lordship of Jesus and in everything he has the first place which is his right. (Matthew 28, Matthew 13, Ephesians 1, Colossians 1).
Thus, in a sense, Christians have two hopes. On the one hand, within history, they hope for the evangelization of the world, the advance of the Kingdom, the building of the church, the subduing of Christ’s enemies. On the other hand, at the end of history, they hope for Christ to come in his glory from heaven to execute perfect judgment, effect perfect renewal and so bring the eternal state into full realization.
Hence the “energetic and expectant” people of God. Both aspects of our hope – the earthly display of the Lordship of Christ through the fulfilment of the great commission and the heavenly manifestation of the glory of Christ at his end-of-history return - motivate and inspire us. Knowing that “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD and all the families of the nations will bow down towards him” (Psalm 22), we delight that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24). Knowing that our Saviour is coming from heaven to end pain, wipe away tears, reward faithfulness and renew all things, we lift up our heads, sit light to what passes away, suffer and serve with patience and confidence, purify ourselves and get more and more excited about the prospect with every passing day.
This is the picture which the Bible gives us of the mind and heart of God’s people. The Holy Spirit renews and empowers the church in pure worship, directs and energizes the church by faithful Bible teaching, emboldens and equips the church in answer to prayer, and transforms and matures the church in righteous living. And through missions, evangelism, discipleship, and whole-of-life obedience, the world is won for Jesus, the mustard seed grows into the greatest of shrubs and the stone grows to become a mountain which fills the whole earth (Matthew 13, Daniel 2). The Lord Jesus Christ asks the Father for the nations as his inheritance and for the ends of the earth as his possession. And the Father says, “Yes!”
And through all of this, the church knows herself to be a pilgrim and stranger in the world as it is currently constituted, where Christ’s Lordship is so widely denied, Satan so active, sin so prevalent, and the consequences of the fall so pressing. Preaching the gospel to every creature, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, the church, at one and the same time labours to fulfil the Great Commission and longs to behold the Glorious Coming.
The Left Behind Phenomenon
But, oh dear, oh dear, the vision, the priorities, and the obsessions communicated in the Left Behind phenomenon are really rather different.
Phenomenon is the word, mark you. By May 2004, the Left Behind books had sold 62 million copies. Although, according to Newsweek, the core buyer is a “44-year-old born-again Christian woman, married with kids, living in the South [of the USA]”, the Left Behind series has filled many a window display in British Christian bookshops over the last few years. Twelve books have appeared in the main series although now a sequel and a prequel are planned. The Kids Series has forty books in it and there are side-by-side political and military series. Go to www.leftbehind.com and you are in another world. You can join the ‘Left Behind Prophecy Club’, receive email updates on how world events relate to biblical prophecies, buy graphic novels, audio and video products, or share your testimonial and prayer requests with other readers. But it’s a world with different priorities and preoccupations than those described above. Devoting twelve novels to what the authors call the “tribulation” – a seven year period between what they call the “rapture” and what they call “the glorious appearing”, the focus is upon the twists and turns in the battle between some post-rapture converts and the Antichrist and his forces.
Causes for concern
In fact, the whole Left Behind literature and movement give several causes for concern:
1. Unhelpful genre. The Left Behind series is historical fiction which is odd because these novels are about the future. With historical fiction, whether that of Sir Walter Scott, Jean Plaidy, or Elllis Peters, we are able – to oversimplify – to divide up what is “historical” from what is “fictional”. We may, if we choose, go and check which of the settings, characters and events are real and historically attested and which are imaginative creations. With the Left Behind series, however, no such checking process is possible. The reader of fiction enters the world that the author has created and agrees, so to speak, to abide by the rules. But in the world of Left Behind the rules are not only “we invent a character and as you read you believe that s/he exists” but also “we give you an interpretation of Biblical prophecy and apocalyptic and as you read you accept it”. On emerging from the make-believe world the reader is able to declare, “Rayford Steele and Buck Williams are imaginary characters”. But what is s/he to do with the assumptions that the rapture, the progress of the Tribulation, the methods and characterization of Antichrist, the location and form of Armageddon are as portrayed in the novels? The way that these are presented have now become the reader’s default interpretation. In other words, the whole way in which the series is set up makes it a education in a particular interpretative approach to the last things (a pre-trib rapture dispensational premillennialist approach!) while modestly claiming to be fiction. As well as “let’s pretend that a pastor named Bruce wasn’t raptured” we effectively have, “let’s pretend that Revelation 6-16 all refer to a seven year period in the future in which one-world government and religion will be established and … and …” Ingenious and unhelpful.
2. Unreliable teaching. Some readers of EN may disagree, but to my mind, the whole futurist reading of “last days”, “rapture”, “tribulation”, “Great tribulation”, “Antichrist”, “Armageddon” and suchlike imposes an unbiblical mythology onto these biblical concepts and phrases. There is not space here to explore these matters. At the least, however, we need to be clear that affirming the evangelicalism of brothers and sisters with whom we disagree on matters of ‘eschatology’ is not at all the same thing as suggesting that what we believe to be their errors are unimportant. In my view, the eschatological views of dispensational premillennialism are hermeneutically incompetent and politically dangerous. I believe that they lead to unbiblical views of spiritual warfare, an underestimate of the present reign of Christ, a failure to delight in the “mystery” of the Gospel (Ephesians 2-3) and a world-denying escapist mindset. A series of novels which reinforces such views is hardly a matter of indifference.
3. Limited vision and misplaced priorities. I do not claim that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins believe that the events of what they call the “rapture” and the “tribulation” ought to be the subject of Christians’ overriding interest. Nor do I claim that for a series of books to carry a “danger” is the same thing as for them to carry an inherent error. That said, as mentioned above, to enter the Left Behind website is to enter another world. Here history tells a tale of increasing wickedness, Bible study means making connections between parts of the book of Revelation and the events in a series of novels, devoted attention to those novels is a sign of spiritual seriousness and true believers comfort each other with the excitement of the latest product release. By all means let us take time for recreation and read good novels. But we must not allow those novels to obscure the character of the hope which is to fill our hearts nor the nature of the calling which is to fill our lives. The world – and every inch of our lives – belongs to Christ. Our hope is to see the ultimate realisation of that possession and our calling is to live in such a way that God’s will may be done – as much as in our power by grace lies – here and now on earth as it is in heaven.
Grumpy old man?
Listening to myself over these last few paragraphs, I can hear a ‘grumpy old man’ having a moan. Be that as it may, I think that there is more to it. For myself and for my children, for my fellow church-members and my students, I want biblically-informed fascinations, Christ-centred preoccupations, and Spirit-driven motivations. The church is to set her heart and mind on those things which will cause her to strive energetically to fulfil the Great Commission of her Redeemer-Lord and to meditate expectantly on the Glorious Coming of her Bridegroom-Saviour. Sad to say, if you give too much attention to LaHaye and Jenkins’ novels then it is precisely these God-given priorities which will be ‘left behind’.
Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness (American Vision, 1999)
C Marvin Pate, Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Zondervan, 1998)
Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, Road Map to Armageddon? (IVP, due Sept 2004)
R C Sproul, The Last Days according to Jesus (Baker, 1998)