When I was a church kid in the late 90s and early 2000s, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins had gripped the popular evangelical imagination with their Left Behind series of novels. To this day, I cannot hear those words without remembering the smell of my church’s library and the feel of the orange shag carpet which adorned the floor of my Sunday school room, nor can I remember these things without also remembering the hours of childhood anxiety that I endured as a result of these novels (and their subsequent Kirk Cameron film adaptation).
Left Behind took place in a hypothetical future which was supposedly in line with biblical prophecies of the world’s last days. The series took its name from the fact that the main characters had been “left behind” when the rest of the church was “raptured” into heaven, and thus had to endure a terrible period of tribulation still on the earth. Not only do I remember my own anxiety, which was induced by this franchise, but I have spoken with countless childhood friends and other Christians who recall similar feelings and struggles with this series during the height of its popularity. If you and I grew up in similar Christian cultures, you may recall fearing that the rapture had happened any time you could not find your parents or hearing whispers of “antichrist” any time a new, charismatic politician appeared on the world stage. Perhaps you have a particular grandparent or great-uncle who was known to rant at family gatherings about the imminent “Mark of the Beast” or “new world order”. Perhaps you remember trying to hide the way that your young and naïve heart was racing with fear while the adults present probably assumed that you weren’t even paying attention.
Can you tell that I am speaking from personal experience? I am fortunate enough now to be a graduate student in the field of New Testament studies, who actually holds the book of Revelation very highly and has learned to engage with it in a way that is sensitive to the cultural, historical, and theological context out of which it was born. As such, I can look back at this phenomenon and see it as the product of Fundamentalist Evangelical fearmongering that it truly was, but my young mind had no such luxury.
Before I dive into the Biblical exegesis, I would like to state a disclaimer. For the interest of keeping this article as concise as possible, I will not be including the massive amounts of scholarly quotes and references that I am tempted to include, but I will add a small list of sources to the end of this article for anyone who is interested in learning more about this topic. The content of this article is the result of my own lifelong obsession with the Book of Revelation and the relevant research that I have done, both in an academic setting and independently, but I would encourage everyone who is interested in learning more on this topic (and perhaps relieving more of their own childhood anxiety!) to dive into the sources themselves and come to their own conclusions. In addition to this, I would like to state that I am using the Left Behind series as my primary object of criticism in this article, but it should be understood that Left Behind is only one example of a much wider cultural movement which, through an ultimately flawed exegesis, has built a narrative of fear in the evangelical psyche which brings with it an attitude of political defensiveness and general anxiety towards the future of the world. This attitude is not only based on a flawed reading of the Book of Revelation, but it also contradicts the entire narrative of the bible starting with Genesis. The problems that I will point out with this series are not unique to this series, but rather problematic ideas and narratives within the stereotypical evangelical worldview that are only exemplified by LaHaye’s novels. This article intends to reassure the average Christian that the anxiety induced by Evangelical Apocalypticism is not only unbiblical, but it is something that should be actively opposed and driven out of the modern church.
The first problem with the Left Behind series is that it is centered around an unbiblical expectation of “the rapture”. By this I am referring to the idea that one day all Christians will suddenly vanish into thin air and be taken to heaven, while the unbelieving masses are “left behind” on a doomed earth. Unfortunately for Tim LaHaye and Kirk Cameron, this is actually not an idea that is found anywhere in the Bible, nor is it found anywhere in any Christian thought until the past few hundred years in North America. Many Christians are shocked to find out that the rapture is an incredibly new idea in the world of theology, but it is true, nonetheless. You are free to scour the works of theologians and church leaders from the time of Christ to the present day, and you will find not one suggestion that one day all Christians will vanish into thin air until certain conservative groups swept the continent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Granted, there is one specific biblical passage which seems to have “rapture” implications, but a contextually aware reading will reveal the truth of the matter. The passage of which I speak comes from Paul in 1 Thessalonians. It reads:
Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.1 Thessalonians 4:17, ESV
Unfortunately for LaHaye and his fans, it is widely understood and accepted in the scholarly world that Paul is engaging in a typical Pauline use of contemporary political and scriptural imagery to enhance or illustrate his convictions, rather than giving a literal step-by-step guide to the Church’s ultimate future.
Acclaimed New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has this to say about Paul’s imagery in this passage:
“Paul’s description of Jesus’ reappearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21: At Jesus’ “coming” or “appearing,” those who are still alive will be “changed” or “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, deathless. This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he borrows imagery—from biblical and political sources—to enhance his message. Little did he know how his rich metaphors would be misunderstood two millennia later.”
The sources from which Paul is borrowing imagery are most likely Daniel 7, a popular Jewish text which talks about the “Son of Man” (understood to be Jesus in the Christian reading) “coming on the clouds” (an image of transcendence and power – not a literal prophecy of Jesus riding a cloud down to earth), as well as practices of the ancient world wherein an envoy of representatives would travel out of a city to meet a King or significant person who was coming to visit. This passage should not be read as a literal prophecy of every Christian suddenly being swept up into the sky to meet Jesus, but rather as a hazy image which points toward the Christian hope of Christ one day being fully present within a fully redeemed creation: A hope which we will only ever be able to vaguely grasp at with image and metaphor while still on this side of its realization.
The second problem with the Left Behind series is that it places the entirety of the Book of Revelation within a hypothetical future setting that has not yet been realized, and it treats the images of Revelation as a set of codes which point to specific figures, events, or institutions.
The first part of this problem is not entirely incorrect, though we need to tread here with a high degree of caution. The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic text. This is a genre of literature which was popular in the ancient world, and though the word “apocalyptic” may be immediately associated with the end of the world in the modern mind, its Greek etymology tells a different story. “Apocalyptic” comes from Apokalypsis – a Greek term, which literally means “to reveal” or “to uncover”. This is why an ancient Christian document which was known as The Apocalypse of John in the ancient world is now known as the Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic literature, including the book of Revelation, is always full of symbols and images. These symbols should not be understood as specific codes that point to one specific person, place, or event, but rather as broad interpretive aids that the author wants us to use to make sense of the world around us. Perhaps the metaphor of eyeglasses is appropriate here: the images of apocalyptic literature are lenses which, when appropriately placed over our eyes, show us some aspect of truth in the world around us – truth which may not be apparent with the naked eye. Indeed, there is a future element to the Book of Revelation insofar as the author seems to expect that the symbols which he uses will be present in the world until they are all put under Christ’s feet, but we should not assume that it is only talking about the future. For example, a common image that Revelation uses is Babylon. Taking into account the fact that this book was written during the reign of the Roman empire, most scholars agree that Babylon is being used as a symbol (a symbol that would have been familiar to the book’s Jewish audience) which is both describing Babylon itself, but also describing Rome, and presumably describing the world’s future empires as well. The point of the book of Revelation is not to give us insight only into the future of the world, but rather to give us insight (through the use of metaphor and symbol) into the structures and powers which have been present in the world since the beginning of time and will still be present with us far into the future.
New Testament scholar Dr. Michael J. Gorman has written about this particular flaw of the Left Behind approach to scripture, and argues the following:
“It [Left Behind] misunderstands the nature or function of both prophetic and apocalyptic literature, and it grossly misinterprets just about every biblical text it utilizes. Prophetic does not merely mean predictive, and apocalyptic is heavily symbolic.”(Reading Revelation Responsibly, 71. Emphasis mine.)
Let us heed Gorman’s warning that “prophetic does not merely mean predictive.” While the attitude of LaHaye may be that the book of Revelation is “History written in advance” (an actual quote from the book), the true nature of Biblical prophecy and Apocalyptic is far more complicated. Are there times where Biblical prophets predicted future events? Absolutely. But even if Biblical prophecy is sometimes prediction, it is also speaking truth into the present – “taking off the blinders”, as it were, and showing the reader what is really going on behind the scenes of the world. This is how the book of Revelation would have struck its original audience. Take our example of Babylon for example. The author of Revelation is clearly describing the life of Christians under the Roman empire but using the image of Babylon as a symbol that the text’s Jewish audience would have been all too familiar with. Babylon and it’s buddy “the Beast” appear in Revelation not as a future state of opposition to Christianity, but as a symbol of the greed, bloodshed, corruption, and exploitation that haunts every worldly empire, whether that empire be based in Babylon, Rome, Nazi Germany, or, dare I say it, Washington D.C.
These are not specific codes that point to one specific person or institution of the future, but rather statements of broad historical truths which spread from the distant past into the distant future. So, is there a predictive element to Revelation? Yes, but this predictive element is only active to assure the reader that the same forces which work against Christ and his people in the past and in the present will still be active until a future event where Christ subjugates all of heaven and earth, and when his lordship over creation is fully expressed.
I will not pretend here to know exactly how each symbol of Revelation should be treated or interpreted, as in fact I believe one of the key factors of this sort of literature is that these symbols can be returned to ad infinitum without being exhausted of significance and placing concrete rules of interpretation around each symbol may ultimately prove contrary to my argument so far. But the key flaw in the Left Behind series is that these symbols are reduced to single, solitary events, people, institutions, etc, which is placing the role of Biblical prophecy in far too small of an interpretive box. These symbols are intended to embody timeless truths which are relevant to all people in all times, and they must be given the room to do so.
Simply put, Left Behind expects that the world will one day endure a period which we may refer to as the “End Times”. This period of time will be preceded by the rapture, and it will consist of the world falling under the rule of a tyrannical government which opposes Christianity, and there is something in the midst of this about the “Mark of the Beast” being implanted in our foreheads or our wrists. So why is this such a problematic reading? In spite of the theological and hermeneutical reasons outlined thus far, I believe that there are political and social reasons to avoid this reading as well. Put in the simplest of terms, this reading of Biblical apocalyptic brings with it a political engagement that is ultimately rooted in distrust and anxiety towards the future of the world. The Christian who ultimately expects a period of great tribulation and persecution to befall the modern church, is going to be predisposed to a sort of paranoid political engagement which seeks to protect one’s personal rights and freedoms at all costs. Do not misunderstand me – I do not deny that Christians have and will continue to face legitimate persecution at the hands of worldly governments but let us still be contextually aware of the persecution that the early church faced in the Roman world (the persecution on which the Book of Revelation claims to shed light). Christianity was not compatible with the Roman world, not because of any private spiritual practices or convictions (we know that the Roman world was already full of strange and private religious practices), but because the claim that Jesus Christ was Lord of the earth was not compatible with the reign of Caesar. While countless Roman citizens (and, as Revelation itself makes known, even many members of the early Church) saw no problem in regarding Caesar as a god and the Roman empire as an agent of divine justice and power, Revelation is a call to wake up and see that the empires of the world, though they change as history progresses, are ultimately powered by a metaphorical beast that will one day have to answer to the lordship of Christ. In exchange for holding fast to this truth, and not buying into the power structures of this world which will ultimately be put under the dominion of Christ, Christians are sure to not become terribly popular with worldly powers which are more interested with economic, military, and political success than they are with the widow, the orphan, and the refugee which inhabit the Kingdom of God. Revelation is not, ultimately, a warning of a coming tyrannical government or kingdom – it is a reminder of the government of Christ. A reminder of who’s Kingdom we must ultimately choose to serve.
Reading Revelation Responsibly – Michael J. Gorman
Theology of the Book of Revelation – Richard Bauckham
Apocalypse and Allegiance – J. Nelson Kraybill