Left Behind

Left Behind, an apocalyptic thriller starring Nicholas Cage, premieres October 3. A key premise of the Left Behind series is that most people will be ... well, "left behind." As history reaches its climax before Jesus's return to rule the world, the world experiences terrible tribulation. True followers of Jesus, however, escape this final period of suffering, because they are "raptured," taken out of the world.

For those who have never heard this premise, it is one believed by many people. It was promoted in the early twentieth century by the Scofield Reference Bible, in the 1970s by Hal Lindsey's Late, Great Planet Earth, and today by Left Behind novels and movies. Many denominations and churches founded in the twentieth century, as well as global movements led by their adherents, support this basic left-behind theology.

Many people in these churches take for granted that this is what the Bible teaches. They may be surprised to discover that no biblical text specifically and unambiguously mentions believers being removed before the final tribulation. That limitation may be why we have no clear record of any interpreter noticing the view in the Bible before 1830. The view was held by none of the church fathers, none of the Reformers such as Luther or Calvin, none of the leaders in various evangelical revival movements such as John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, or Charles Finney. I am reasonably certain that today the majority of evangelical biblical scholars (as well as virtually all other Christian biblical scholars) reject it.

Passages in the Bible do teach that Jesus will return, that he will gather his followers, and that he will bring justice by punishing those who chose evil rather than truth. Passages also promise a subsequent future of justice and peace. By showing that God values justice and peace, such passages also invite his followers to work for such values now. Some New Testament passages further share the ancient Jewish expectation of a period of end-time tribulation, although scholars debate what this means. (Many of us address these questions more fully in our Revelation commentaries; to remain concise, I simply summarize here.)

But no unambiguous passage supports Christians being "raptured" before the tribulation. The Book of Revelation describes sufferings, many of which characterize much of the world we live in. But while Revelation depicts God protecting at least some of his people from his own judgment, it nowhere mentions Christians being removed. Revelation's first full description of Jesus's coming, as well as its first mention of what many construe as Christians' resurrection ("the first resurrection") appear toward the end of the book (Revelation 19:11-16; 20:4-5). Throughout Revelation's middle section, God's servants suffer on earth and, after death, worship in heaven.

To argue that a rapture precedes Revelation's tribulation, some appeal to Revelation 4:1, where a voice invites John, "Come up here!" But this voice invites John's vision, not the church's rapture (compare 17:1; 21:9). More persuasively, some appeal to Jesus's promise to some Christians in 3:10: "I will keep you from the hour of testing." The wording, however, can mean "protect from while there" (as in John 17:15)--an understanding that better fits the rest of Revelation.

Many counter with 2 Thessalonians 2:3-7, where a restrainer is removed before the coming of the ultimate wicked ruler (what many call the "antichrist"). Readers propose a vast range of interpretations here, but one view that context prohibits is that the passage describes Christians' "rapture." The wicked ruler comes before Jesus's coming to gather his people (2:1-3), when Jesus will destroy that wicked ruler (2:8). Further in the context, Jesus's followers do not receive final exemption from sufferings until his public return to judge the world (1:5-10).

I can summarize only three more arguments of "left behind" proponents. Some protest that since Jesus will come unexpectedly, he must return before the final tribulation. Unfortunately for this argument, most texts that speak of Jesus's unexpected coming are in contexts that refer unambiguously to his coming to judge the world, with no specific reference to an event several years before (Matthew 24:29-31, 43-44; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 16:15-21). Indeed, other passages summon Christians to look for Jesus's public "appearing" (Titus 2:13) and the final judgment (2 Peter 3:12).

In context, Jesus's saying that mentions some being "left behind" may refer to the righteous left behind when the wicked are "taken" to judgment (Matthew 24:38-41), to where vultures feed on corpses (Luke 17:34-37)!

Finally, some contend that Christians will escape God's "wrath" (citing Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9). But elsewhere in Paul's letters deliverance from God's wrath means that Jesus's followers are forgiven because of him (Rom 5:9). It does not refer to escaping tribulation. Even when Revelation uses the Greek term that Paul uses here, it refers to final judgment, not a preceding tribulation. (Revelation may use a different Greek term for God's anger during tribulation, but even that Greek term refers more often to the final judgment.)

Many books argue for or against left-behind theology. When I am asked what book I recommend against left-behind theology, I usually recommend that people read a book supporting that theology -- and then look up in context all the verses it quotes. After I became a Christian, I was initially schooled in "left behind" theology myself. Once I began reading the Bible carefully, however, I discovered that every text supporting this view was out of context.

I would challenge the view's advocates to reread the Bible as honestly as possible with this question in mind: If you had never been taught either way, would you recognize a clear gathering of believers before a future tribulation, or would you identify that gathering with what happens at Jesus's return after tribulation (e.g., Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:24-27)?

I readily defer the role of film critic to others, as well as the separate question of determining what is left of the series' theology if the "left behind" premise is removed. But if Christians will not leave the rest of the world behind, we're all in this together for now. If so, that probably means that God wants us to keep loving and serving our neighbors in the meantime.