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The Challenge of ‘Left Behind’

One pastor’s story can offer some insights on the popularity of this fiction series. Jason Byassee writes in his article “Enraptured: What’s Behind ‘Left Behind’?” that he had never met anyone who believed in the rapture–not in college, not in seminary, not in his evangelical fellowship groups–until he received his first rural church assignment.

At that time, he came to realize that he was the only person in the congregation who did not believe that true believers would be snatched away to heaven by the returning Christ: “My parishioners simply assume that this is what the Bible teaches. And why shouldn’t they–they’ve never heard otherwise from their preachers.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The members of Byassee’s church were functioning with beliefs drawn from a theological system known as “dispensationalism,” of which the rapture is a critical component. Premillennial dispensationalism is the version of this system that provides the theological grid through which the authors of the Left Behind series interpret Scripture and develop their novels.
 
The authors’ “literal interpretation” (a phrase that has come to be equated with “the only valid interpretation”) is in fact guided by a system of belief that was developed in the mid-1800s by a man named J. N. Darby. This theological system is imposed on Scripture rather than allowing the biblical text to speak for itself.
 
We will examine the history and content of premillennial dispensationalism in detail in Chapter 2; and in later chapters, we will explore how Bible texts are forced into service to support particular components of the belief system.
 
For now, it is critical to make three key points: First, those who are reading and celebrating the Left Behind series are laypeople who believe in aspects of this theological system and find reinforcement for those beliefs in the novels. Pastors do not tend to read the novels; and even when their pastors clearly disapprove of the series, parishioners continue to read and share the books.
 
Second, the majority of the Christian world does not hold to dispensationalsim, premillennial or otherwise. Although the words premillennial and dispensational do pop up from time to time in theological discourse, few people, if any, truly understand the system to which one must adhere in full in order to agree with the interpretation of the end times as presented by LaHaye and Jenkins.
 
For the most part, biblical scholars would be in serious disagreement with this belief system (and much of what LaHaye and Jenkins are purporting to be biblical truth); however, they generally do not even bother to engage it or the writings that flow from and perpetuate it.
 
And third, similar to the experience reported by Byassee, most pastors do not know enough about dispensationalsim to have an intelligent conversation about the topic.
 
The sad reality is that while this theological system and the social and political ideologies that are formed by it are growing in popularity and social and political influence, the majority of seminaries and pastors have ignored the phenomenon. The result is that pastors and seminary professors are interpreting and teaching the Bible from one set of understandings while the premillennial dispensational, self-designated “prophecy teachers” are teaching from a very different theological basis.
 
Consequently, laypeople who engage teachings from both arenas are receiving mixed message, from which they are building their own working theologies. In the end, faithful church attendees embrace a working theology that is inconsistent at best and dysfunctional at its worst.
 
Seminary professors and pastors from a wide spectrum of theological stances, conservative to liberal, can no longer afford to ignore the phenomenon the premillennial dispensational prophecy teachers are sustaining.
 
The teachings on the end times (what scholars refer to as “eschatology”) found in the Left Behind series are seriously problematic for several reasons.
 
First, they perpetuate a massive misunderstanding of the nature of Scripture and how Scripture should be studied.
 
Second, they create and support a separatist worldview in which all who disagree are deemed “the enemy.”
 
Finally, the mixed-up working theology of church members may thwart (and likely already has thwarted) healthy forward movement in local congregations.
 
The implications of these outcomes can lead to some far-reaching, extremely serious, and even disastrous consequences. We have seen two very extreme examples of these consequences in our own lifetime in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Waco, Texas and San Diego, California.
 
The Waco Branch Davidian group began in 1929 under the name Davidians when Victor Houteff, a former Seventh-day Adventist, became convinced the church had compromised its commitment to holiness. After Houteff”s death, he was succeeded by his wife, who lost credibility when her prediction of Christ’s return in 1959 did not materialize.
 
By then Ben Roden had established a new group called the Branch Davidians, built off the excitement of the founding of Israel in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967. This group managed to gain control of Mount Carmel. In 1987
 
Vernon Howell, who later changed his name to David Koresh, assumed control of the group. Through his marathon Bible studies in which he demonstrated how to systematize prophecy and his claims to unlock the seven seals of the scroll mentioned in Revelation 5, Koresh was able to win the group’s loyalty.
 
Due to his teaching that the kingdom would come only through violence and his stockpiling of weapons, federal agents took action against him and the community in 1993. In the end, 80 Branch Davidians, including Koresh, died in the fire that erupted during the federal assault.
 
In 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, a San Diego-based New Age millennialist movement under the leadership of Marshall Applewhite, committed suicide. The group believed—based on a combination as astrology, New Age philosophy, and Christian millennialism—that an immanent judgment was coming and sought to escape to a better place.
 
It is high time for some education, teaching and preaching on the topic of popular end-times theologies.
 
For while the popularity of the Left Behind series will eventually come to an end, the teachings of premillennial dispensationalism will live on in the hearts and minds of the general population, awaiting another opportunity for exploitation.
 
LeAnn Snow Flesher teaches Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West. This column is an excerpt from her new book, Left Behind? The Facts Behind the Fiction, published by Judson Press.