June 25, 2001

What theology has been
'Left Behind' in best-selling novel series?

___By Peter Chattaway
___FaithWorks magazine
___A death-row inmate in Texas begged for an advance copy of a Left Behind book so he could read it before his execution date.
___A Tennessee woman dying of Lou Gehrig's disease wanted an early manuscript of the
SCENES from "Left Behind: The Movie" show non-Christians left beside the earthly leftovers of believers who have been "raptured" to heaven.
"The Mark," the most recent book in the Left Behind series, so she could be comforted in her last days by Christian martyrs who refuse the mark of evil.
___In both cases, the publisher of the end-times thrillers complied.
___Other readers are snapping up the books from more traditional sources--bookstores, discount chains, websites--at the phenomenal rate of 1.5 million copies per month.
___End-times books always create, and cash in on, a sense of urgency. The Left Behind industry--books, movies, clothes, even a race car--is becoming the most successful end-times phenomenon yet, not only because it is riding a wave of millennial interest but because of some first-class marketing and compelling storytelling by Jerry Jenkins, the principal writer.
___But the Left Behind craze is just the latest incursion of an evangelical end-times subculture that has simmered beneath the surface of mainstream pop culture for at least three decades.
___Although the books will provide millions of non-Christians a close encounter with evangelical faith, they are based on beliefs about the end of the world that are of fairly recent origin and are widely disputed even among conservative Christians.
___"Left Behind," the first book, became a publishing juggernaut after its 1995 debut. The series has sold more than 30 million copies. The two most recent volumes, "The Indwelling" and "The Mark," topped the New York Times bestseller list.
___Since publishing the first book, Tyndale House in Wheaton, Ill., has doubled both its staff and revenue. In addition to the books, another 10 million related items, such as wallpaper and postcards, have been sold. The Left Behind brand also includes a spin-off series for juvenile readers, a website that attracts 60,000 hits a day, one not-so-phenomenal movie and a sequel in the works, an upcoming series on PAX TV, screensavers and sponsorship of racers on the Winston Cup and Craftsman Truck circuits. Much more than an example of successful crossover marketing, it has become a pop culture phenomenon.
___It started with a novel, written by Jenkins to follow an end-times outline offered by Tim LaHaye, a fixture in the evangelical world. LaHaye and Jenkins since have produced eight books of a total 12 planned, with Jesus set to return in the final book, "Glorious Appearing," out in 2004.
___The storyline features a rapture in which millions of God-fearing people are zapped instantly into heaven, the rise of a Romanian Antichrist, and use of a computer-chip implant as the mark of the Beast. The central characters, left behind after the rapture, get a second chance at salvation. The books move chronologically from the rapture through seven years of tribulation leading up to the return of Christ.
___Although the books have brought Christianity to the attention of millions, the problem is, whose version of Christianity?
___The end-times scenario of Left Behind has drawn divergent reactions from Christians. Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and United Methodists generally think Jesus will return and judge everyone immediately, then reign forever. Leaders in these denominations argue that the notion of non-believers left behind for seven years is wrong, a misreading of the Book of Revelation, which is a difficult, symbolic text.
___"Certain Presbyterian churches have had seminars to debunk it," said Dan Balow, marketing director of Tyndale. "Then some Baptists and conservative evangelicals go in the opposite direction. They embrace it and don't treat it like the fiction it is."
___Belief in the rapture is so pervasive among evangelicals--who pride themselves in their literal interpretation of the Bible--that many don't realize it is a relatively recent doctrine with little basis in the Scriptures.
___Most articles on the Left Behind series have said it is based on the Book of Revelation,
but that is only partly true. The worldview reflected in these books and films can be traced back to the teachings of John Nelson Darby, a former Anglo-Irish priest who founded the Plymouth Brethren sect in the 19th century and whose views were popularized on this continent by the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909.
___Darby tried to synthesize the Bible's many prophetic passages into an interpretative scheme he called dispensationalism. He believed that world history, past and future, was divided into distinct eras, or dispensations, and that God had a different way of dealing with humanity in each of them.
___Like a number of Christians, Darby was a premillennialist--that is, he believed the world would have to endure seven years of great suffering before Jesus could return and reign over the earth in person during the millennium. However, it was Darby who introduced the rapture--based on the prediction in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 that believers will "meet the Lord in the air." Before the seven years of suffering could begin, Darby believed Jesus would scoop up all the true believers and take them to heaven, so they could avoid the horrors of the Antichrist's reign.
___Darby's views were not widely accepted at first. Most Christians, following the lead of Saint Augustine, were either amillennialists--that is, they believed the millennium should be understood as a metaphor for the age of the church--or postmillennialists, who believed that it was up to Christians to perfect the world and thus usher in the millennium themselves. According to these views, Jesus would return after the millennium had already taken place.
___In more recent years, Christians who refuse to get sidetracked by this debate have quipped that they are "panmillennialists"--that is, they believe it will all "pan out" in the end.
___In the late 19th century, most evangelicals were postmillennialists, and it was this belief in the need for social transformation that fueled their efforts to abolish slavery and win the rights of women. But by the early 20th century, they were growing discouraged. True reform was difficult if not impossible. Missionaries overseas met with resistance. Churches back home turned to more liberal interpretations of the Bible. The Christianization of the world seemed increasingly unlikely. In the 1920s, fundamentalists were pushed even further to the margins of society, following the public relations disasters of Prohibition and the Scopes trial.
___The idea that God would remove all the true believers and then exact his judgment on the rest of the world appealed to an increasingly marginalized community.
___Instead of saving the world, some evangelicals began to get involved in activities that would bring the world closer to its end. Dispensationalists believed that the Jews would return to Israel before Jesus returned, and some of them campaigned on behalf of the Zionist movement. In 1948, their efforts were successful, and the modern state of Israel was created. For many evangelicals, the end of the world was now just around the corner.
___And when the world went through the massive social, spiritual, political and economic upheavals of the late 1960s, Hal Lindsey popularized dispensationalism once again in a book called "The Late Great Planet Earth," which came out in 1970 and became one of the hottest books of the decade, selling more than 18 million copies. A film based on that book and narrated by Orson Welles was produced in the late 1970s.
___In both book and film, Lindsey strongly hinted that he expected the rapture to take place sometime in the 1980s. Despite the fact that none of "The Late Great Planet Earth's" dire predictions for the 1980s came true, Lindsey is still regarded as an expert on prophecy in some circles.
___The worldview of dispensationalism has had all sorts of political and social consequences. Many evangelicals are suspicious of peace talks, especially in the Middle East. In 1981, James Watt, secretary of the interior under Ronald Reagan, told Congress there was little point in protecting the environment, since the Second Coming could be just around the corner.
___To the unbeliever, the end-times industry is no doubt funny, if perhaps creepy. Yet the people who tell these stories in book, music and film want to be taken seriously, and Left Behind is their most earnest effort yet. They know that book and box office sales translate to cultural clout, something evangelicals crave.
___Although these writers and filmmakers claim their first goal is to win souls, some people will ask if these artists are selling their own.
___The kind of end-times worldview promoted by Left Behind raises significant moral questions, according to Baptist ethicist David Gushee. He points out that the Left Behind series capitalizes on "the most passionately held fears and suspicions of a certain strain of American evangelical Christianity."
___It is a worldview, warns Gushee, that is built on "anti-internationalism, anti-United Nations, anti-pacifism, anti-multilateralism, anti-ecumenism, anti-Catholicism (and) conspiracy-theory thinking."
___Such a worldview "remains a distressing aspect of one branch of conservative evangelical Christianity," he said. "Its presence in this wildly popular series can only encourage and reinforce that way of thinking."

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