Revelation’s Warning to Evangelicals: Left Behind May Be Hazardous to Our Health
In the Left Behind series of end-times novels, co-authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the Christian reader encounters the strange world of the day after tomorrow. The reader’s present is contiguous with recent history in the novels’ future setting, but everything has changed: true Christians, along with every child on earth, have suddenly vanished in the Rapture, and those “left behind” face the prospect of seven years of hell on earth before Jesus returns in power (an event detailed in the twelfth book).
The United Nations has fallen under the control of the Antichrist, one Nicolai Carpathia, who has risen to power as secretary-general and used the institution to achieve global domination. Unbelievers of all kinds fall under the Antichrist’s tyrannical spell, which is cloaked in his curiously appealing rhetoric of world peace, brotherhood, and disarmament. If you are in the right kind of bookstore, you will find this account in the nonfiction section.
Liberal Protestants and Catholics largely ignore Left Behind, as the impact on their communities is mostly secondary, and socially mediated. But I daresay that every American evangelical Protestant, even if not personally acquainted with the series, knows at least one devotee of Left Behind. The series is viewed by many evangelicals as a future history writ in broad strokes—not an inerrant one, to be sure, but a true depiction of where the world is headed. This perception represents a profound spiritual threat to evangelicals of all stripes. Whether the evangelical understands Left Behind as spiritual beach reading or clarion scriptural truth, every reader is in fact exposed to dispensationalist propaganda of a particularly subtle and invasive type: by taking in these accounts we invite wolves into the sheepfold. Embedded in the narrative are scriptural interpretations encoded as engaging fiction. The vision therein deviates wildly from core evangelical truths. And these codes have the power to cripple discipleship.
We evangelicals may all acknowledge that Left Behind has one thing right: history moves toward fulfillment and judgment in the eschaton of a new heaven and a new earth, and perfect communion with God. Yet if we are not careful, Left Behind can lead us to forsake our properly Christian hope in the eschaton in favor of apocalypticism, as John Howard Yoder defines it: “the effort to obtain precise information as to the date and shape of things to come.”1 The danger of misplaced hope is both real and mortal, as seen in the cautionary warning given to the seven churches in Asia through John’s vision at Patmos, recorded in Revelation 2–3. When considering the potential toll that Left Behind can take on evangelicals, the sins of three churches, in particular, stand out: let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches (Rev 3.22).
To the church in Sardis: I know your deeds. You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!
Throughout their history, dispensationalists have been accused of a social apathy born of terminal pessimism, and often justifiably so. Historian Timothy Weber notes Pat Robertson’s observation: “We are not to weep as the people of the world weep when there are certain tragedies or breakups of the government or systems of the world. We are not to wring our hands and say, ‘Isn’t that awful?’ That isn’t awful at all. It’s good. That is a token, an evident token of our salvation, of where God is going to take us.”2
Robertson’s blithe lack of concern for the effects of humanity’s sinfulness embodies the premillennial worldview embedded in Left Behind, which holds that the world must sink into depravity before Christ’s return. Since the world cannot be saved or even substantially bettered by human striving, and because the end is coming soon, intervention in systemic problems like the environment or the buildup of nuclear arms is seen as futile at best. At worst, such efforts are perceived as satanic secular- ism, since they work against the very purposes of the Lord whose second coming awaits utter global degradation.
Left Behind is insidiously effective as a vehicle for sin-affirming pessimism: every wound our fall- en species suffers simply confirms the Left Behind Christian’s conviction about the world, while simultaneously strengthening the smug satisfaction in the believer’s Rapture before things get too bad to bear.3
The Left Behind Christian, insulated by a hedge of American power and wealth from any actual effects of wars, or rumors of wars, is encouraged to watch with a knowingly bemused eye as human-made events of global consequence threaten the well-being of his or her brothers and sisters: anything with the power to threaten life so cataclysmically must be ordained for the Tribulation and God’s purpose. In the world preceding the Left Behind future, the vagaries of our fallenness simply reinforce apocalyptic beliefs and are therefore cause for rejoicing. The series thus positions the reader with all the indifference of a non-participant in relation to human misery.
What shall we say, then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound (Rom 6.1)? Has our in- ability as finite humans to save the world relieved us of the undying responsibility to serve the one who has? It may be the case that Christ will return only when the world has forsaken all goodness; will he find the world’s condition then in spite of or because of the church’s witness? Will we discover that we have been the wicked and lazy servant of the parable (Matt 25:24–30), having hoarded our single talent in fear of the master’s return? Or will God find us to be a church who, even knowing the final inefficacy of our deeds, nevertheless strove for righteousness to our last breath?
No matter what fervent evangelistic efforts are prompted by doomsday cries, in the end sum, when Left Behind Christians anticipate meeting Jesus in the Rapture, they wash their hands of the neighbors that we are supposed to love as ourselves. The most fervent hope of the Left Behind Christian is to be absent when lost siblings enter into the time of their greatest sorrow. The avid identification with the persecution of the Tribulation Force (an under- ground group of post-Rapture converts to Christ) is thus voyeuristically vicarious, as the Left Behind reader is entertained by a last-ditch ministry that he or she has every intention of avoiding. The macabre giddiness of the experience is encapsulated by the Left Behind screensaver, available free at www.leftbehind.com, which marketed the stories of the Tribulation—a time of categorically unsurpassable human suffering—with the slogan “The future is clear. The answer is in place. The adventure begins.”
The worldview engendered by Left Behind thus pushes the edict of 1 John 2:15 (“Do not love the world or anything in [it]”) to the point where the very failure to intervene, the sin of omission, can constitute discipleship. Yoder accurately names the “do-nothing attitude to social evil” fostered by this type of apocalypticism as the precise element that makes it “unchristian and unbiblical.”4
Because Left Behind gives up on the world be- fore God does (to adapt Martin Marty’s quip5 about dispensationalists), it perverts a faith in the God of John 3:16: until the last trump falls silent, any presumption that the Lord who so loved the world is done with humanity is a perversion of evangelical faith. Because Left Behind demonstrates the conviction that the fruits of our worst sins—such as the idolatry of our nuclear weaponry—are consecrated to God’s purpose, it pulls up short of what must be the unfailing desire for the repentance of sinners that is constitutive of evangelical hope. And because, when the demonic vehicle of the United Nations fails in its humanitarian mission, Left Be- hind exhibits greater joy at Satan’s stumbling than sorrow at the human misery that the U.N. could not avert, it fails finally in the unavoidably global scope of evangelical love.
To the church in Ephesus: I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love.
The apostle Paul preached a world on the brink of disappearance, but the churches he planted did not wither and die when earthly history proved more enduring than previously imagined. Will the same resilience be true of the fervor spawned by Left Behind? In its best moments, the dispensationalist movement calls the church universal to remember Jesus’ teaching of waiting on God: the Christian must balance on the one hand a readiness to meet the Lord at any instant, and on the other the recognition that he or she may very will live a complete life and die a natural death. In practice, however, it is always more exciting to presume that one is living in the final generation, and focus on the imminent apocalypse.
Furthermore, the unrelenting depravity of the world means that the interested exegete of eschatological prophecy—with Left Behind in one hand and the Washington Times in the other—will never lack evidence that the end is demonstrably nigh. Bernard McGinn writes that interpreters of such prophecy may “with impunity discover in its pages the message they themselves put there out of a sense that so menacing a document, full of hitherto misunderstood detail, can have application only to the unprecedented world-historical crisis of their own moment in time.”6
Take the case of the anonymous woman mentioned in a Washington Post report on the LaHaye and Jenkins phenomenon, who testified that “I’ve always been interested in Revelation. I was so amazed. After reading that book I decided I didn’t want to be left behind.”7 With such converts, Left Behind’s complete lack of interest in enduring discipleship and the Christian life is cause for concern. Because the series is set in a future that looks like it could be tomorrow and because this generation looks like the last, it offers no real encouragement of that quintessentially dispensationalist discipline to live life simultaneously ready for the Rapture and for our appointed threescore years and ten.
Is Left Behind playing an unwitting Iago to the Othello of the church, teasing out falsehood draped in just enough of a semblance of truth? If Christ does not return within the year, or the decade, what sins will be committed out of indifference, how many atrocities will have been perversely welcomed as signs of the times, and how will the believer’s faith suffer as time goes on and the zeal of a Rapture- ready conversion begins to fade? Even for the one who endures, what is it to live a life pained by God’s gracious continuation of the world’s existence? Such a response is not mere hypothetical speculation; historian Weber records the British literary critic Edmund Gosse’s recounting of his dispensationalist father’s death: “My father lived…never losing the hope of ‘not tasting death,’ and as the last moments of mortality approached, he was bitterly disappointed at what he held to be a scanty reward of his long faith and patience.”
The avidity of such expectation is actually at odds with dispensationalist teachings, in theory if not practice, which hold that the church age—the time between Christ’s death and the Rapture—is a ‘great parenthesis’ as far as scriptural prophecy is concerned. No one can know how long it will last. Nevertheless, LaHaye and others venture into apocalyptic speculation through an interpretation of the fig tree pericope (Mk 13.28–31 and parallels), claiming that though the date of the Rapture cannot be known, certain signs will indicate the preceding season. “Certainly we have more historical evidence for [the Rapture’s imminence] than any generation of Christians in almost two thousand years….I believe the Bible teaches that we are already living in the beginning of the end,” LaHaye writes in his nonfiction prophecy interpretation, No Fear of the Storm.8
LaHaye never explores, however, what must be an accompanying corollary assumption to his bold claim: if this generation can believe we know the signs indicating the end, then all previous generations, had they interpreted prophecy as accurately as LaHaye, would have had some measure of confidence that the season was not at hand. LaHaye fails to deal with the categorical fact that we may either know nothing or something about the conditions preceding the second coming. If we claim that our common-sense interpretation of prophecy leads us to know something—anything—we necessarily imply that the common sense of those long dead ought to have given them comfort that the world had many generations left to it. The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, but if we may know today that the twilight of history has already passed, then five hundred years ago good and sensible Christians really ought to have known it was still mid-after- noon—the siesta hour. The theological implications of this interpretation of the “fig tree sign” are flatly un-scriptural, given their patent contradiction with the plain sense of Jesus’ commandment for his disciples’ eternal vigilance.
To the church in Laodicea: You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.”
Perhaps the attribute of Left Behind that evangelicals ought to be most concerned with is the way in which the series creates a circle of self-authentication with the Bible, thus distorting its readers’ relationship with the living Word of God. For example: a first-time reader of Left Behind, skeptical that the Antichrist would come as the secretary-general of the United Nations and a campaigner for military disarmament, returns to scripture to double-check the validity of the series. The results seem astonishingly accurate: Secretary-General Carpathia looks just like the amalgamated Antichrist that dispensationalists cobble from various points in scripture.
But these results are not due to the series’ inherent scriptural accuracy. Rather, the reader’s perception of Carpathia as Antichrist has, at this point, already defined the parameters of his or her search in the Bible and the scope of its interpretation. It is no surprise that the Left Behind Christian should find the series’ fictions in the Bible. The narrative, rich with contemporary details familiar to the reader, fleshes out scripture’s spare language, creating a new reading of prophecy that repeatedly verifies itself. The Left Behind Christian thus no longer re- quires the active revelation of God: the truth on the page is clear.
This stunted manner of interpretation therefore becomes the common sense for all subsequent en- counters with scripture. In the case of the Antichrist, we know that he will be a lying peace activist because such is the common-sense reading of the Bible, and we know the common-sense reading of the Bible because it is the interpretation in which we can see that the Antichrist will be a lying peace activist.
The viciousness of this interpretive circle is no accident. LaHaye, when asked in an interview with FamilyChristian.com (June 14, 2003), “How do you respond when people say they look at the book of Revelation through the lens you’ve created with this series?” replied: “We’re hopeful that they will…people have been driven back to the book of Revelation to prove us wrong only to find that what we said was there. After having seen it through Jerry’s eyes, it’s almost like a verbal moving picture.”9
A verbal moving picture, indeed—but how many believers, hearing some story of Moses, unavoidably call to mind the face of the president of the National Rifle Association? Retellings of the Bible invariably fill in the gaps left by scripture. When they are as doctrinally problematic as those of Left Behind, however, such retellings choke the space that should only properly be occupied by the Spirit. Could the Left Behind reader, eyes fixed on the United Nations, recognize the Antichrist if he appeared instead (for example) in the White House?
Left Behind is built on the assumption that second-coming prophecy must be interpreted literally because the prophecies of Christ’s first coming were fulfilled literally. But such a conception radically denies the magnificence of the incarnation. What ancient Israelite, living a generation before Jesus and knowing only the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures, could have written, in a similar manner to Left Behind, a speculative future history that rightly portrayed the first coming of our savior Jesus Christ, of his miraculous birth, life, teachings, passion, and death? What narrative, based only on a clever reading of the Septuagint, could have de- scribed the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit? How might the magnificence of Christ’s actual identity be conceivable from some “literal” interpretation of Old Testament prophecy? Would not such an effort—with its unavoidably smaller-than-life interpretation of scripture—have led potential followers of Jesus away from him, instead?
Prophecy proclaimed Jesus’ way into the world, and by prophecy some recognized him, but the indispensably unique character of the incarnation of God’s love was utterly unimaginable prior to his coming: his actual coming humbled the prophecies that foretold it. Prophecy whets the appetite of the world, but no Christian could equate the actual bread of heaven with any hunger-born anticipation for it. Even Jesus’ disciples, raised in a society saturated with messianic prophecy, did not recognize what was happening in their own time; only after Jesus was glorified did they remember that “what had been written of him…had been done to him” (John 12:.16).
The ignorance of those who lived in the actual company of Jesus should lead evangelicals to adopt a hermeneutic of supreme humility as we seek to live in accordance with the scriptures that foretell Jesus’ return. Now, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self- discipline” (2 Tim 1:7), and if the evangelical church is true to God, it must preach the gospel of Christ with bravery: it must make claims about the canon of scripture, including eschatological prophecy. But, in doing so, we remember that Jesus Christ saved us in a way that no mortal ever could have dreamed, because no mortal knows the unsearchable mind of God. By remembering God’s astonishing grace in the incarnation, we might find the appropriate posture to engage with courageous humility the foretelling of the parousia. Our hope is, in the end, in the Lord whose fullness has ever exceeded our capacity to imagine. Maranatha!
1. J. H. Yoder, “If Christ Is Truly Lord,” The Original Revolution (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald, 2003), 53.
2. T. P. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987 [expanded edition]), 232.
3 In using the term Left Behind Christian, by no means do I intend to implicate each and every Chris- tian who reads the series. Many millions of God’s saints enjoy Left Behind without falling prey to the dangers outlined in this essay. Rather, in keeping with my assessment of Left Behind as intentional narrative propaganda, I use Left Behind Christian to refer to the authors’ ideal intended audience: a hypothetical reader who, upon enjoying the books, responds positively to them by conforming to some degree (in the case of this critique) his or her socio- political ethics, eschatological beliefs, and mode of biblical interpretation to the viewpoint encoded in Left Behind’s fictions.
4. Yoder, “If Christ Is Truly Lord,” 71.
5. Paraphrased by Weber, Living in the Shadow, 234.
6. B. McGinn, “Revelation,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. R. Alter and F. Kermode (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press [Belknap], 1987), 523.
7. L. Weeks, “The End, To Be Continued,” The Washington Post, July 23, 2002.
8. T. LaHaye, The Beginning of the End (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1991 [revised edition]), xii.
9. “FamilyChristian.com Exclusive Interview: A Conversation with…Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye”, (www.familychristian.com/books/jenkins.lahaye.asp, accessed 6/14/03), interview undated.
Tyler Wigg Stevenson, currently a freelance writer and editor, has contributed to Reflections and Christian Science Monitor. He is associate minister of the Christian Tabernacle Baptist Church and serves on the board of directors of the Global Security. He happily and authentically self-identifies as an evangelical Baptist.