Time and money are far too scarce for me to spare either one to see the new remake of Left Behind, this time with Nicolas Cage instead of Kirk Cameron. But let’s be honest: Do I really have to see it to know what’s gonna happen? I mean, sure, there are individual story lines and character development which I’m sure will be top notch (right?), but is that really what’s important about this movie? Will the target audience of this film franchise be flocking to see it because it represents the state of the art of filmmaking in our generation? No, they will pay to see this movie for the same reason they go to see all the other faith-targeted movies which are flooding the theaters this year: They pay to see their own tribal identity reinforced on the big screen, and they’ll pay good money to see all the other people in the world who don’t think the same way they think get brutally punished for being “on the outside” of The One True Right Way.
Remember that scene in A Christmas Story where Ralphie has to hold the soap in his mouth until he’s willing to fess up to who taught him how to curse? He then imagines his parents finally feeling remorse and sorrow for all those years they subjected him to this awful punishment.
There is a certain schadenfreude in watching your enemies suffer. And given the indomitable belief among Christian fundamentalists that they are being persecuted even while living in a country run by people who endlessly pander to their prejudices, nothing would please them more than seeing the world which they believe mistreats them fall apart in their absence. They truly believe they are what’s holding the world together—well, them and the Holy Spirit, whose presence coincides with their presence in practice so they might as well be the same thing, no matter how vehemently they would protest that conclusion. The Left Behind series of books and movies reinforces this notion, so it will continue to live on as long as Christians in the United States feel persecuted for their faith.
But where in the world did this scenario get cooked up? I mean really. People everywhere mysteriously disappear at once, leaving behind their clothes, and then all hell breaks lose all over the world? What gives?
Where All This Got Started
It’s not hard to dig up the origins of this crazy alternate reality, and plenty has been written about it. For the benefit of those who frequent this blog, I’d like to give my summary of how this bizarre story line ever got to be a thing.
Prior to the 19th century, many if not most versions of the Christian faith held to some form of expectation for the future return of Jesus, but very few laid out such a detailed timeline as the one thought up by John Darby of England in the early 1800’s. Darby thought up several novel interpretations of the Bible which to my knowledge had never been widely taught before, although if you ask most Pentecostals or Bible church members today they will assure you that No True Christians have ever taught anything else. He suggested that perhaps God’s plan for Israel and his plan for the Church (which is largely Gentile) run on two totally separate tracks. He taught that God’s current attention to the Gentile church is a parenthetical detour, a temporary “dispensation” until the time arrives when God will resume working with the Jews again during a tumultuous time period called the Great Tribulation. When that time arrives, the Gentile church won’t be needed anymore, so they will be taken up and away from the horrific events which follow. That leads to his second major innovation: The Pre-Tribulation Rapture.
Darby focused a great deal of attention on one short passage of the Bible which describes Christians being “caught up together to meet the Lord in the air” and suggested this would happen long before the unfolding of many of the other events foretold in the New Testament (even though that passage says nothing to indicate that life would go on as normal after such an event). He wasn’t the first to suggest this, but he certainly was the first to make the idea stick. If taken literally, a resurrection of the dead followed by the miraculous levitation of all living Christians into the sky would seem to be a part of a grand finale of history, and those who previously taught the rapture concept presented it as such. But Darby saw it as the beginning of the Apocalypse rather than as its culmination, and he foresaw the nations trudging on after the fact, struggling to deal with the aftermath of this traumatic event.
Taking America by Storm
His teachings earned him a modest following in his home country, but it was his preaching tour of the United States during the height of our civil war which made his interpretive framework truly famous. Darby taught that the Church was “in ruins” because it had forsaken the true teachings of early Christianity, and he taught that because the Church was falling down on its job, the rest of the world would only get worse and worse until it becomes ripe for domination by the bogeyman of New Testament prophecy, the Antichrist. Because his frightening forecast painted a bleak picture of the future, distraught Americans who were disappointed in the apparent failure of the American experiment embraced his pessimistic outlook and began looking to be taken away at once in order to be spared the worst of what lay ahead.
One convert to his way of thinking named Dwight L. Moody helped pioneer a new model for ministry training called a “Bible college” and disseminated Darby’s eschatology by taking the young men who came to him for their religious education and indoctrinating them into the Dispensational interpretation of the Bible. Another one of Moody’s associates named C.I. Scofield further popularized Darby’s views by including them in the study notes of his wildly popular Reference Bible. These two factors probably contributed more than anything else to the widespread acceptance of Darby’s view of end-times prophecy, particularly among those regions of the country where churches and their leaders didn’t have access to more established divinity schools, seminaries, and Bible study materials. Darby’s Dispensational theology came to dominate rural Christianity across the United States and it remains highly popular today, especially the farther you venture out from our urban centers. Few of them would even recognize Darby’s name, yet they have internalized his interpretive framework as if it were the One True Faith as delivered by the hand of God himself.
This tradition is the one that produced Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, Rick Warren, Hal Lindsey (author of The Late, Great Planet Earth), and Tim LaHaye (the co-author of the Left Behind series). It carries a certain appeal for anyone who feels the big bad world is against them. It appeals to the down and out, to the underprivileged, and to those who feel like it’s not fair how the wicked prosper while the devout languish in relative disadvantage. Just like the notion of Hell itself, the concept of a coming Tribulation (which they will dramatically escape from and be spared) to punish the rest of the non-believing world satisfies a deep longing for justice in the world. It’s central to their narrative of hope, and they are convinced that no other way of interpreting the Bible would be faithful to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Given our nation’s intrinsically populist ethos, I’d have to say the Dispensational view of the world uniquely appeals to American sensibilities, so of course this story line would continue to fascinate us to this day.
What Gets Left Behind?
Of course the title of this series refers to the rest of us poor saps who get left behind after the rapture because we weren’t ready for it. When the concept of the rapture was first teased out from the singular place it appears in the apostle Paul’s letters, it was assumed that all believers in Jesus would be summoned to the sky together with those risen from the dead, and that it would be a universally visible event. But Darby preferred the notion that the rapture would happen in secret, and many of his later disciples taught that only those Christians who are truly ready for it would be rescued from the coming tribulation. At first they talked as if people would be lifted into the air as if suddenly able to fly, but later they came to prefer the image of people simply disappearing, leaving their clothes behind like a magic disappearing act.
Because most Bible churches and Pentecostal churches believe in an age of accountability, they feel that small children are automatically exempt from the coming horrors of the Tribulation. They teach that when the rapture happens, babies will suddenly and mysteriously disappear from their unsaved mothers’ wombs, leaving them distraught. Cribs will be empty all over the world. Kindergartens will have to shutter their doors because no child under the age of accountability will be left behind. Their heartbroken parents and siblings, however, will mourn and search in vain for their loved ones because God suddenly and dramatically took them away. And that’s not even the worst of what will happen the those left behind. They still have to contend with the bogeyman, whom many rural Americans today are convinced is already occupying the White House today. I kid you not.
What gets left behind in this whole scenario is any sense of logic or reasonability, honestly. The Dispensational view of the world forces all of history into dramatic starts and stops, as if God utilizes violent, destructive shifts instead of gradual transitions from one phase of history to the next. It’s a bizarre mix of an austere and sovereign Calvinistic God who unilaterally controls history and an absentee landlord who takes long trips to some other realm, leaving humanity alone to struggle without his help against the forces of evil. Children are taken whether they want to be or not, but adults must choose to believe the right things or else they’ll be left to suffer the consequences. Supposedly this is all a part of the saving work of a loving God, and yet it looks and feels like a horror film. Welcome to the world of Bible church eschatology. It’s a crazy place, frankly, and yet they are thrilled to see this insanity brought to life on the big screen.
How This Scenario Messes with People’s Heads
Because adherents to this worldview are so accustomed to expecting sudden dramatic lurches in history rather than slow, gradual change, they find it very easy to believe conspiracy theories which suggest the big bad government will soon take away the freedoms Americans hold dear. My Pentecostal grandmother passed along a cassette tape of a preacher in the 1980’s predicting we would all get microchips implanted in our foreheads or on the backs of our hands and that this would be the mark of the beast. That idea stuck for many, so today when someone passes around that often debunked story about Obama dictating that we would all be receiving that very thing, people in churches all over the country instantly believe it. I also remember a teacher in my home church years ago suggesting that the “www” from internet URL’s could be transliterated into the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, rendering the internet itself the mark of the beast. The paranoid possibilities are endless, and the fear this teaching creates is as palpable as it is bankable.
The Dispensational worldview promotes a pessimistic view of the future while also viewing the church itself as irreparably broken. There’s a strange individualistic focus which avoids putting any expectations on the church itself to do anything good while still in the world. What use would it be, if you know God is only going to come destroy the whole thing in a few years, right? Along with that pessimism, Dispensational theology also splits up portions of the Bible into verses for the Jews and verses for the Gentiles such that Jesus’s ethical teachings don’t apply to the church. What you get as a result is a disdain for moral teaching which would help shape the character of the church in such a way that they could ever contribute much of value to the world around them. They see themselves as just biding their time, waiting for God to hit the reset button. I mean, why polish brass on a sinking ship? The church then shares no responsibility for making the world a better place. And when you talk to them about making a difference in the world, people raised on this teaching will just shake their heads and tell you that you’re talking nonsense. They are disturbingly disconnected from the rest of the world, and it’s largely because of this system of thought.
I must mention one more consequence of Darby’s ideology for the churches which still teach this stuff: They are adamant Zionists who believe that since God is supposed to resume a program for saving the nation of Israel, we must as a nation continue to favor Israel in every conflict they encounter, regardless of what sources of information tell us about what’s going on. In reality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are mind-numbingly complex, with both good and bad things being done by people on both sides. But Christian Zionism predisposes American Christians to view Israel through rose colored glasses, as if they can do no wrong because God is always on their side. At least in part because of the support of those churches raised to believe this theology, our nation has played a major role in arming and protecting the nation of Israel in hopes that they will always win and their enemies will always lose, no matter whose territory is being fought over at the time. Zionists will not be happy until every patch of dirt claimed by Israel is recaptured from the Palestinians, and this sentiment helps feed our country’s lust for control of Middle Eastern politics.
The people who believe this stuff swear that it represents the only right way to read the Bible. They are “rightly dividing the word of truth,” and all other Christians have it wrong. I find it nearly impossible to tell them that their way of interpreting the Bible didn’t even exist before about 1830 because they brush such things aside as lies of the Devil. They will continue to lap up this stuff and feed their paranoia because fear sells well, and their leaders can’t help themselves. Hollywood knows this, too, so I figure these movies will keep popping up as long as ticket sales continue rolling in. The rest of the world just scratches their heads and wonders how on earth anybody can believe this stuff. It’s just bizarre.