I have heard there is a new Left Behind movie out in theaters. It has been several decades since Tim LaHaye’s series fictionalizing the return of Christ captured the evangelical imagination. This latest movie focusing on the antichrist seems to be following the pattern of trying to dramatize teachings about the end times for the purpose of evangelizing the lost.
The Left Behind books and movies fictionalize the popular formulations of dispensational premillennialism. This view of eschatology posits that there will be a secret rapture that takes place when Jesus comes where Christians will escape to heaven just before a period of tribulation and judgment on earth led by the antichrist. In this time, all the horrors of Revelation will take place. There are many who have critiqued this paradigm. Those critiques are not of interest to me at this point. But the overall reason why these movies are produced is.
As I point out in my book Imagining the Future, these fictionalized accounts are designed to depict a fearful future that is orchestrated specifically as part of the plan of God for the future. Instead of portraying the good news like the hit series The Chosen, end times fiction focuses on the bad news of a scary future that is coming. The problem is that countless generations of Christians have been traumatized by these accounts, often as children, and have instilled a sense of fear of Christ’s coming rather than hope. Mel Robeck noted that this emphasis on the horrors of the tribulation as an evangelistic tool has turned the blessed hope into a “not so blessed hammer.” The fact that movies continue to be produced shows we are still committed to scaring people into the kingdom of God (and scaring people who are already in the kingdom of God).
In my study of development of Assemblies of God eschatology, the rapture and tribulation paradigm was often present. However, for the most part, the emphasis was quite different than you find in these movies. I found that more often the coming of Christ inspired hope, rather than fear, as the primary emphasis and affection engendered but the Holy Spirit. The AG Statement of Fundamental Truths labeled its doctrine “Blessed Hope” rather than “The Rapture” because of the conviction that the coming of Christ was always seen as a hopeful event that is the consummation of Christ’s redemption process. In fact, the word “rapture” was removed from the Blessed Hope doctrine in 1927 and remains absent even today. And, the eschatological fundamental truths take no position on the tribulation. This demonstrates that for most AG interpreters, the resurrection of the body to fullness of life (1 Cor 15) was the hope of Christ’s return, not a promise to escape the tribulation.
Rapture theology itself is not the problem. This form of eschatology has roots in Christian history and has been very much part of the inner logic of early Pentecostal Theology, but in a way that is different than most evangelical theology. Early Pentecostals saw the baptism in the Holy Spirit an experience that initiated believers into the “Bride of Christ” that prepared people for the rapture. The ones who were “left behind” were those who were not filled with the Spirit, drawing from Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins. Most Pentecostals moved on from that bridal rapture theology, but the hopeful anticipation and relational nature of Christ’s coming remained. Most of what I found in AG teaching was less concerned about tribulation and who would be left behind. The primary emphasis was the joyful expectation of the Coming of Christ, our blessed hope.
Problems with the Left Behind Scripture Passages
In 2008, I wrote a book called Why I Want to be Left Behind, which was an attempt to look at the most common ideas in the left behind paradigm from the perspective of first century biblical interpretation. The book was a response at the time to the Left Behind phenomenon. I was younger then and I can’t say I still agree with everything I put in that book. Thus, it is no longer on the market.
However, the main reason I wrote the book at the time was to look at the passage where the concept of being left behind originated. I still believe that understanding scripture in context is important. Because of this, I want to share some of what I pointed out at the time. My primary argument is, if you take seriously the first century Jewish context of what Jesus is saying, the left behind paradigm says something quite different than the fictionalized account portray. Let me explain.
The key passages used to teach about being left behind are found in Matthew 24 (paralleled in Mark 13) and Luke 17. These verses have been used to warn people not to be left behind. Matthew records:
“No one knows about that day or hour. . . . As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. . . . they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Matt 24:36-41)
“I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken, the other left. . . . ‘Where Lord?’ they asked. He replied, ‘Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.'”(Luke 17:34-37)
In these parallel passages, Jesus refers to two groups of people: those who will be taken and others who will be left behind. This is where the phrase “left behind” comes from that has been attached to rapture theology. The most common interpretation is that Jesus will return to “take” his people to heaven while those who do not believe in him will be “left behind” on earth to suffer God’s judgment. But a careful look at these verses in context will show that they are saying something quite different. In fact, the context of these passages will demonstrate the total opposite to be true.
Who is Being Taken?
In the left behind paradigm, these passages are taught as proof that when Jesus comes, the act of being “taken” refers to the rapture of the saints. But when re-examined in light of the first century Jewish context, this is very problematic. First, Jesus uses the the analogy of the flood as an example of being “taken.” Of course, in the flood story, God saved Noah and his family (the righteous) when he was taken up in the boat. But this is not Jesus’ focus. Jesus focuses on flood as the judgement, not the salvation. He says that when the flood came, the water “took them all away.” In Noah’s day the flood took all the unrighteous away and Noah was saved and “left behind” to repopulate the earth. So in this first analogy it is the unrighteous who are taken, it is the righteous who are left behind.
The idea that the wicked will be taken away in judgment is very much a paradigm the Jewish people understood. This concept of being “taken” is one of the Old Testament’s main themes of judgment. Whenever Israel obeyed God, they prospered in the land that he gave them. Whenever they disobeyed, God judged Israel for breaking the covenant by taking them away to a foreign land. This fate was one of the curses in Deuteronomy 28, promising that if they break the covenant they will be “taken from the land.” This is also pronounced by King Solomon about Israel’s obedience. “When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near.” (1 Kings 8:46-49).
Throughout Israel’s history they experienced the cycle of rebellion, judgment, repentance, and restoration. From the period of the Judges to the judgments upon the divided kingdoms of Israel (722 BC) and Judah (586 BC), God judged his people through exile. When God’s people did not heed the warnings of the prophets, God allowed them to be carried away into captivity until they repented and called on his name.
The Jewish audience of Jesus’ teaching that “one will be taken, and one will be left behind” would know exactly what Jesus was saying based on their own history. This is illustrated further in the Luke 17 passage where the disciples ask, “Where will they be taken?” He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37). Meaning, those who are taken are not taken to heaven, they are taken into judgment, even to a place where the dead are piled up and become food for the vultures. Jesus was saying that when he comes, Israel will go into captivity because of their disobedience.
When end-times prophecy teachers use these passages to teach about being left behind, they are missing what Jesus is actually teaching. This is a warning to the Jewish nation that if they do not once again heed the prophets and repent to accept him as the Messiah, the nation will once again be taken into captivity. And that is exactly what happened 40 years later in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. Tens of thousands were killed and many more were taken into captivity by the Romans. This is exactly why Jesus cried over Jerusalem because he knew this judgment was coming.
It is Good To Be Left Behind
Based on this understanding of Jesus’ words, being left behind is a good thing!! Not because I am saying Christians will go through the tribulation. I am not concerned about that whole pre-mid-post-notrib-pantrib debate. But I can tell you that being left behind is a good thing, according to this passage, because when Jesus comes again, he will be “taking” the wicked away into judgment and leaving behind those who have stayed faithful to him. Therefore, I want to be left behind on earth with Jesus, don’t you?
I believe Jesus is coming soon. I believe his coming is the “blessed hope.” But that blessed hope is not rooted in whether or not I will escape the tribulation. I know that when Jesus comes, I will be left behind to rule and reign on earth with Jesus as he establishes his kingdom on earth. I also know the wicked will be taken away from the earth to purify the earth in his kingdom. That is good news. Perhaps they will make a movie about that! Because I would love to imagine what that will be like.
P.S. If you are worried about the mark of the beast, be sure to check out this blog on why you don’t have to worry about the mark of the beast. Like left behind, the mark of the beast understood in first century context doesn’t mean what the prophecy teachers say it means.