Growing up in the fundamentalist-evangelical world, along with the fear of a girl’s rejection, test taking, and the general anxiety and guilt of enjoying “worldly” music, movies, and television, I also worried about being, “left-behind.” In the late 70’s, sermons, songs, Bible studies, and best-selling books were rife with the eschatological belief in a “rapture” of “true” Christians, while the unfortunate rest, the doomed, are, “left-behind.”
There have been many books and scholarly works over the years debunking the eschatology underlying the belief in a “rapture,” and it may be at its most weakened state, since its inception. Only about 43% of evangelical pastors hold to a belief in a rapture. I’m sure it was much higher back in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this decline, we can be thankful. That one belief, along with its supporting theology, is a significant reason why so many evangelicals dismiss environmental concerns, support Israel no matter what, and display other destructive sensibilities.
Putting aside the Bible passages used to support a rapture and the theology that underlies it, what we often miss is the privilege it seeks to legitimize. It is a theology of glory and certainly not one of the cross. All such theologies are about, ultimately, privilege. Which is to say they are about believing one is chosen, over and above, others. These “others” become the “left-behind.” We might even see the term, “left-behind,” as a metaphor for our times.
Many don’t have to wait for a future “rapture,” to tell us they have been left-behind. We live among them. Perhaps we are one of them. And this is nothing new. The “left-behind,” have always been with us. Still, at certain times in history, it becomes stark and sobering. And theologies of glory give us reason to believe it is okay if the “left-behind” suffer. After all, they were not chosen. They brought this on themselves. We tried to make them like us, and they refused. Who are the left-behind?
The poor. The income gap continues to widen in the United States, meaning a middle-class continues to disappear. With automation, AI, and cheap labor in the rest of the world, we will probably see this gap grow even worse. Our economies have left the poor behind even as they prey upon them for their labor and consumption.
The immigrant. Those who have left their nation of birth due to violence, poverty, war, or to seek better lives most certainly feel left-behind. In exile they wait. Unable to return home, and not welcomed abroad, these have already been left-behind.
People of color. Many of us thought we were well past the racism, even, let’s say, of the 1960’s. We are not. Racism is alive and well. People of color wake up every day to face a world that seems bent, structured even, to make sure they remember their, “place.”
Women. Like racism, many of us also thought we were well past the sexism we grew up with. Even with gains in many areas, we still live in a world that does not see or treat women the same way it does men.
LGBT People: Again, even after making great strides, many still see these people and treat these people in a way that confirms we will tolerate them, but never accept them. In other parts of the world, they are not even tolerated but persecuted and jailed.
I’m sure I’ve missed some who also feel left-behind. My own privilege, my own blindness, I’m sure makes it easy for me to miss others, so forgive me. What I would hope fundamentalists-evangelicals could see, is that these people already feel left-behind. They are not worried about missing a future rapture; they are worried about today.
However, from Genesis to Revelation, there is a plumb-line laid down which is clearer and more powerful than any of the proof-texts grabbed here and there to support a dispensational and rapture theology. And that line, that marker, that directional beacon is that the God of the Christian narrative, if nothing else, is the Lord of the left-behind.
Peter Rollins tells illustrative stories to make his points. From his book, Insurrection, he tells the following:
Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the Earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation, the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit, and disease descended like a mist. One by one, all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees. Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence descended upon Heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But as this could only continue for so long, at the designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply, and addressed the angels. “The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff.”
Having spoken these words, God turned to face the world and called forth to the Church with a booming voice, “Rise up and ascend to Heaven, all of you who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me, all who have turned from the suffering world by calling out, ‘Lord, Lord,’” In an instant, millions were caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm, leaving the suffering world behind them.
Once this great rapture had taken place, God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying, “It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us to leave this place and take up residence on the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people, the ones who would forsake Heaven in order to embrace the Earth, the few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant.”
And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the Earth, the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark of God, the few who had discovered Heaven in the act of forsaking it.
Remember, the Gospel narratives, indeed the entire Christian narrative is one of grand reversals. Thus the “raptured” arrive to find heaven empty. Heaven becomes a purgatory, and the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…,” has been fulfilled.
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