Why the Left Behind Series Should be Left Behind

As promised, here is my follow up post on the apocalyptic imagination of second temple Judaism. 

A common assumption found in Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind series is that the ultimate aim of apocalyptic texts like Revelation and Daniel is to provide a detailed, if coded, blueprint of future events.  Prophecy has no other purpose than this.  This becomes problematic when we start reading both prophetic and apocalyptic texts.  The major and minor prophets in the Hebrew scriptures seem to have a different goal.  The aim of these texts is not primarily in providing a detailed forecast of events, but to present a possible future based on Israel’s repentance or lack thereof.  The goal of Biblical prophecy is to encourage the faithful and challenge the wicked to repentance. 

If you are fans of the Left Behind series, you may interject here that this is indeed what Tim Lahaye is trying to accomplish.  He is literally trying to “scare the hell out of you” with his horrifying portrayal of burning bodies.  But here lies the second problem with Tim Lahaye’s telling of our future, and it once again goes back to a misunderstanding of the apocalyptic genre. 

Apocalyptic texts are almost always written in times of  acute suffering.  The apocalyptic portions of Daniel were most likely written during the malevolent reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Revelation during the persecutions under Domitan.  This means that Revelation and Daniel must be read through the lens of suffering and oppression.  What is the result? A reevaluation of what it means for God to return as judge.

Most American Christians today would characterize God’s judgment as bad and let’s face it, scary.  The imagery that almost always accompanies God’s judgment is fire.  It is commonly believed that God will once again destroy the world, but this time he will use fire instead of water.  If this is the case, God seems to have found a pretty sick loophole in his promise to Noah.  Early Christians would have had no theological category for this kind of destruction.  The people in their day who thought the world would be destroyed by fire were the Gnostics and Stoics.  God’s judgment was ultimately good news because it meant their God had returned to fully and finally eradicate evil.

Apocalyptic texts would then use highly symbolic language to communicate the truth that one day their God would put all things back together again.  If you start with the assumption that creation is good but corrupted, then the solution is not to scrap the world but to redeem it.  To view the world as evil is nothing more than a modernized version of Gnosticism.  Therefore, the fire and plagues and judgment of God should be viewed in terms of purification not destruction.  An oncologist pours a patient’s body with poison, not to destroy the body, but to eradicate the cancer that will ultimately kill it. 

Finally, the last problem with the Left Behind series that I will mention here is in its wooden literalism.  If we interpret Revelation literally, then during a three and a half year period (7 years is never mentioned in Revelation) God is arbitrarily pouring out fire, plagues and all other kinds of destruction on the world.  Apocalyptic texts need to be interpreted within the larger framework of the Judeo-Christian worldview.  Once we do this we notice that many of the plagues mentioned echo the plagues God brought on Egypt.  The Exodus represents to both Jews and Christians God’s great rescue of his people and judgment against their oppressors.  Revelation is trying to communicate similar themes, it is not predicting what will literally happen to arbitrary people “left behind.”

The Left Behind series is a shallow and dangerous misinterpretation of a beautiful, encouraging, and challenging book.  It does not attempt to understand the worldview of scripture but instead imposes its own Western, anti-catholic, and anti-Semitic hermeneutic.  Image

12 thoughts on “Why the Left Behind Series Should be Left Behind

  1. At most, both The Left behind series and Michelles evaluations are at best guesses. And thats ok. God gives us dreams and the ability to be creative. For me to poo poo the Left Behind series. I liked them. Good guesses, just as Michelle is guessing. I just know that God is a lot of things in the scriptures. He is gentle, kind, compassionate, and He is also full of justice and is a killer. He can be all things….because He is God. We are not. As we are led by the Spirit he gives clarity, as we are led by the flesh, we get guesses. In the end, He has shown us what is good. He has also shown us what is required of us. We must simply obey. Those that believe…obey. Those that obey….believe. We must not think to highly of ourselves. We may think we are smart, but actually HE is smart as we are in Him we are smart. A good friend Rich Mullins once told me

    “I had a professor one time… He said, ‘Class, you will forget almost everything I will teach you in here, so please remember this: that God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and He has been speaking through asses ever since. So, if God should choose to speak through you, you need not think too highly of yourself. And, if on meeting someone, right away you recognize what they are, listen to them anyway’.”
    ― Rich Mullins

    Shalom<
    SG

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    1. Loved the Rich Mullins quote and yes, we all need to be humble and realize that, when it comes to understanding God, the learning curve is pretty steep. However, I don’t think Michelle is merely “guessing.” To be more precise, she is attempting to understand apocalyptic imagery in Daniel and Revelation in context. I agree, this is a daunting task and we may never fully understand some of the more outlandish symbolism, but to say that both the Left Behind books and Michelle’s analysis are both “best guesses” puts them on equal footing. I think her evaluation is more nuanced and one of her points is that the LB books ignore context in favor of a literal interpretation of apocalyptic imagery. A context-based approach to these texts is not without its pitfalls, but the literalist approach opens the door to all manner of ridiculous prognostications (Remember the “Late, Great Planet Earth?”).

      Additionally, I think Michelle is probably honest enough to admit that a lot of the language in these texts is problematic and difficult to understand. Removing context makes it all the more daunting. So she is not saying “my interpretation is the only one.” The problem I have with books like the LB series is that they think they’ve got God’s plans figured out and that people start to believe that books like these are accurate predictors of future events. People get whipped up in a frenzy trying to discover the identity of the “Antichrist” and then pore over current events looking for the confirmation that these are indeed the end times. Dangerous stuff that, and it detracts from the central messages of the Gospel.

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      1. Agreed! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you for both of your comments. I definitely agree that humility is a lost virtue that must be regained in theological discussion. The fine line that we all have to tread is when and how to speak out on something that we view as either potentially dangerous or misguided.

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  2. I remember when Hal Lindsey’s version was the rapturist interpretation of choice. LaHaye and Jenkins’ version is indeed most literal: “locusts” as Lindsey’s helicopters versus L&J’s bugs (where “bug” equals something like the villain from the Smith/Jones “Men in Black” film).

    To my knowledge, very few if any writers dared to go beyond the return of Jesus as L&J do. These gentlemen brought us “Kingdom Come,” #16 in the series, about life on earth AFTER Jesus comes back. They were aiming for something like Mayor Sam Gamgee’s post-war Shire and didn’t really get there. Considering that their version was written to urge people to want to go there, that’s a problem.

    I do believe they were called to write something, and I do believe they did their best. I also believe that their best was, alas, not very good.

    But there are strange teachings and strange teachings, so to speak. Never do they deny the deity of Christ or His atoning work on the Cross. So their beliefs, while heterodox, do not necessarily separate them from the household of faith, just as our disagreement with them doesn’t separate us from it, either.

    (http://oldmaid.jallman.net)

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree with you in that I believe they had the best intentions. The problem with books/movies like these is that they are very popular amongst mainline Christians. Most of them think this is an accurate interpretation of what will happen in the future. This is what I commonly encounter among my own students, and it can lead to some harmful stuff. I would not want to separate these guys from the household of faith, but we have to be able to address our brothers and sisters in a way that is both honoring and truthful.

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      1. Agreed. There also is the popularity of doomsday stories in general ( http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=37 ). When you add a purportedly doctrinal edge to a work of fiction, strange things can happen. For one thing, relatively few Christians seem to have an answer as to why most rapturists are English-speaking peoples. It’s almost certainly a translational issue. But in a tail-swallowing fashion, it’s not uncommon for rapturists to respond that they have heard and responded to the “correct” doctrine because their doctrine is correct. My rapturist and nonrapturist relatives are a real party-in-a-box at holidays …

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  3. Catholics know that the bestselling “Left Behind” books and movies have grossly perverted Catholicism’s biblical “rapture” doctrine – the only “rapture” view before 1830.
    The 2000-year-old Catholic “rapture” (the “caught up” in I Thess. 4:17) occurs AFTER the final “tribulation” (post-tribulation) while the 185-year-old evangelical Protestant “rapture” supposedly occurs BEFORE it (pre-tribulation) and is said to be “imminent.”
    All Catholics should read journalist Dave MacPherson’s “The Rapture Plot” (available by calling 800.643.4645) – the most accurate documentation on the history of the pretrib rapture which began in British cultic circles in 1830. By twisting Scripture, this new doctrine gave folks the (false) hope of being evacuated from earth before the chaos found in the book of Revelation.
    “The Rapture Plot” reveals, for the first time, how a Plymouth Brethren historian, after John Darby’s death, secretly and dishonestly changed the earliest “rapture” writings of the Irvingites (the first group publicly teaching a pretrib rapture) so that he could wrongfully credit P.B. leader Darby with “dispensationalism” as well as with that rapture view! (Some still view Darby as the “father of dispensationalism” even though MacPherson’s book amply proves that Darby wasn’t first or original with any crucial aspect of that system but subtly plagiarized others!)
    The leading pretrib rapture merchandisers (Scofield, Lindsey, LaHaye etc.) are openly anti-Catholic and believe that the Antichrist during the coming tribulation will be headquartered in Rome (and you can guess where!).
    For more shocks Google “Catholics Did NOT Invent the Rapture,” “The Real Manuel Lacunza,” “Pseudo-Ephraem Taught Pretrib – NOT!,” “John Darby Did NOT Invent the Rapture,” “Margaret Macdonald’s Rapture Chart” (she originated the pretrib rapture!), “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Famous Rapture Watchers,” “Evangelicals Use Occult Deception,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.”

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