Leaving Behind “Left Behind”
I haven’t seen the new movie starring Nicholas Cage and don’t intend to, so this is not a movie review. Instead, I intend to respond to the whole phenomenon of what I call “rapture fever” that has gripped segments of American society for the past fifty years.
I grew up in a home and church that fervently believed in the “rapture”—the premillennial, pre-tribulational, departure of God’s true people from the earth by Christ to be with him in Paradise during a seven year period of the wrath of God poured out on the earth and the rise and domination of the “Antichrist.” Most of the people in my home church and denomination owned a Scofield Reference Bible whose footnotes included this eschatological vision. Many also owned books by Clarence Larkin, a major promoter of it. I remember being taken to “Prophecy Conferences” where Larkin’s “biblical timelines” ending with the rapture, the tribulation, and the millennial reign of Christ on earth were posted up around the auditorium or sanctuary. (This was before overhead projectors [to say nothing of PowerPoint]!)
We were caught up in rapture fever long before ninety-five percent of Americans knew what “rapture” meant (in this sense). I remember asking God to “tarry longer” (postpone the rapture) until I could get married and enjoy sex. Every boy in every similar church did the same! I heard numerous sermons and Sunday School lessons about the “imminent return of the Lord” which, in our context, always meant the imminence of the rapture that would come “like a thief in the night.” The point was that we should be ready at all times, because even carnal Christians were likely to be “left behind” to endure the horrors of the “Great Tribulation.”
This belief (which we considered knowledge) was our secret; it belonged to us. We knew that attempting to explain it to non-Christians (including nominal Christian church members of “mainline churches”) was like throwing pearls before swine. They would never be able to understand it and they would scoff at it.
Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of a “European Union” and a single world government and currency, and technologies that would make placing the “mark of the beast” on people’s forearms or foreheads invisible to all but those with that technology. And, of course, Israel’s Six-Day War. How well I remember watching television during those frightening years of the 1960s and thinking of the imminent rapture. I didn’t enter a movie theater until I was twenty because my spiritual mentors warned me that people in movie theaters would be left behind when Jesus returned to gather his true and faithful people to himself to escape the Tribulation.
Seeds of doubt about the rapture were planted in my mind by a book that was supposed to offer biblical and theological support for it—Things to Come by dispensationalist theologian Dwight Pentecost. I read it when I was nineteen or twenty and sensed something was wrong. Why would it take hundreds of pages of convoluted exegesis and argument to establish something so simple? I thought the book’s case for the “secret rapture” was weak and yet it was supposed to be the most scholarly case for it yet published!
1970 saw the publication of the book that took our arcane doctrine of the rapture public: The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. This was the height of the Jesus People Movement, too, and nearly all Jesus People believed fervently in the rapture. I remember wondering if it was really a good idea to publish a popular book for public consumption about the rapture. It made me uneasy.
1971/1972 saw two events where I was present at Ground Zero (or nearlyso) (of the public rapture fever that still persists). In 1971 I attended the Tri-State Youth for Christ rally in Evansville, Indiana. Larry Norman sang his new song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and electrified the audience. In 1972 I attended the world premier of the movie “A Thief in the Night.” (The premier was held at Hoyt Sherman Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa.)
Those events and ones like them (Lindsey’s book, Norman’s song, the movie) launched what I call “public rapture fever.” The imminent secret rapture was no longer a secret; it was “out there” for everyone to know about—whether they believed in it or not. As millions rushed to believe in it (or at least be entertained by the idea), including many who showed no signs of being evangelical Christians, I gradually left it behind.
But my leaving rapture fever and belief in a “pre-trib” rapture behind was not solely or even primarily due to the doctrine’s vulgarization by its Christian popularizers. While attending a fundamentalist Christian college I began to wonder about the biblical and traditional basis for several beliefs taught by my spiritual mentors. Search as I might, I could not find clear biblical evidence for them as doctrines (that is, as more than opinions) and they seemed to have gone unnoticed by even the church fathers closest to the apostles themselves (e.g., Irenaeus). But, alas, when I attempted to mention my doubts to my teachers and spiritual mentors (pastors, evangelists) I was shamed for even asking such obviously unspiritual questions.
Finally, while attending an evangelical Baptist seminary, I discovered one could be a “God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving” evangelical Christian and not believe in those sectarian doctrines. One was the “pre-trib” rapture. One evangelical biblical scholar who guided me in shaking off that doctrine was Robert Gundry, long-time New Testament professor at Westmont College, an evangelical Christian liberal arts institution in California. His book The Church and the Tribulation (1973) confirmed by suspicion that the doctrine of a secret, pre-trib rapture of Christians was both unbiblical and against the best of even evangelical tradition. Dave MacPherson’s The Incredible Cover-Up (1975) convinced me that the whole idea originated in some prophecies given in England and Scotland in the mid-19th century. While in seminary I read books about eschatology by the dean of evangelical New Testament scholarship George Eldon Ladd that convinced me of the truth of “historic premillennialism” or what some call “post-trib rapture” (in which no “rapture” as that is interpreted by Lindsey, et al. happens).
One of the most surprising things that has happened during my lifetime is the explosion of entertainment centering around the old “secret, pre-trib rapture” myth beginning, I suppose, with the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and the movies based on them. Many non-Christians have jumped on that bandwagon for the sheer entertainment of it. I suppose they regard it as little more than another dystopian futuristic fable. Well, in my opinion, that’s how it’s presented there. What I keep waiting for is a book or movie (or both) depicting the millennium which is, of course, the denouement of the wider eschatology onto which “rapturism” has been grafted. But, I conclude, that wouldn’t make for very good entertainment for people fascinated with evil and horror.
P.S. For you who are interested in reading a good book that lays out the premillennial alternative to pre-trib rapturism, I recommend A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology edited by Craig Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (BakerAcademic, 2009).