“Left Behind and All That” is owned by the author and the University of the South, which originally published a version of it in the Sewanee Theological Review. “Left Behind and All That” may not be reproduced without the permission of the copyright holders, except for personal use.
I have observed in other contexts that talk about the “plain sense” of Scripture is not always helpful, because the plain sense of Scripture as one person sees it is not necessarily the plain sense seen by another. Nothing, I believe, could illustrate the point more clearly than Left Behind: A Novel of Earth’s Last Days.[i] A major premise of this novel is that it is not only proper, but even in a sense required, that “bible believing Christians” look to Scripture and the signs of the times, not merely to reassure themselves of the certainty of Christ’s coming and God’s judgment, but also – and this is the problem – to inform themselves as to its timing and its manner. This is precisely the activity engaged in by a pastor who is, in the authors’ view, manifestly right with God, and it is the activity to which that pastor exhorts others who would be saved.
“Nearly eight hundred years before Jesus came to earth the first time, Isaiah in the Old Testament prophesied that the kingdoms of nations will be in great conflict and their faces shall be flames. To me, this portends World War III, a thermonuclear war that will wipe out millions.
“Bible prophecy is history written in advance… Study so that you will know what is coming and you can be prepared” (214–15, my italics).
In Left Behind, all who are true believers are marked, so far as I can see, by their indulgence in this activity, or by their approval and acceptance of those who indulge in it (for example, 308–14).
Now, if there is one thing that appears to me to follow from the plain sense of Scripture, it is that such activity as this is forbidden to Christians. “It is not for you to know the signs or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power,” says the risen Jesus in answer to a question on just this subject (Acts 1.7). Indeed, as he was held to have said earlier, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13.23 // Matt. 24.36, compare Mark 4.19, Matt. 25.13, Luke 12.45, 21.34, 1 Thess. 5.6–7). As for details of God’s coming, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2.9; compare 1 John 3.2). The most we can say, apparently, is that it will be something more wonderful than we could possibly imagine, so that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8.18).
Evidently, therefore, I have a foundational problem with Left Behind as a portrait of Christian life. What it presents as a major element in that life appears to me, on my reading of Scripture, to be a sign of disobedience, unfaithfulness, and arrogance. According to Genesis, the sin by which humankind is thrust from Paradise is its desire to be “as gods” (or, as the Hebrew might equally well be rendered, “like God”) “knowing good and evil” (3.5). A dark side of the history of God’s people has again and again been its eagerness to tailor the certainty of God’s promise to its own desires and understanding. This eagerness is classically manifested in the apostasy of the golden calf (“These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” [Exod. 32.4]), but it is equally evidenced in the willingness of countless Christians over the centuries to treat the Book of Revelation as if it were a schedule of what God is going to do at the end of times – which times are always, of course, their times. Throughout those same centuries such interpretations have, of course, invariably turned out to be wrong (as will, most probably, be the fate of the interpretation implied by Left Behind). That fact may not be unconnected with another: that if biblical tradition is to be trusted, the temptation to seek or claim divine knowledge is in its origins and by its nature satanic (Gen. 3.5, compare Rev. 12.9, 20.2), and Satan is a liar (John 9.44, Rev. 12.9).
Thus distracted by its quest for kinds of knowledge about God’s judgment and kingdom that biblical tradition forbids, it is perhaps not surprising that Left Behind fails to mention other aspects of God’s judgment and kingdom about which the scriptures are, as it happens, rather clear. Thus, an essential element in the biblical and prophetic understanding of judgment is God’s desire for justiceon the simplest and most human level – justice for the weak, justice for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, justice for those who do not have resources to maintain their own cause (see Isa. 1. 17, 23, Jer. 7.6, 22.3, Ezek. 22.7, Amos 2.6–8; compare Deut. 14.29, 16.11, 14, 24.17–21, 26.12–13, 27.19, Psalm 82.3, 94.6, 146.9). I may be mistaken, but I do not believe that the word “justice” – let alone the idea that it enshrines – ever even occurs in the pages of Left Behind. Symptomatic of this failure of theological understanding and imagination is the novel’s treatment of the State of Israel. Early in the novel we hear of a wonderful new formula discovered by an Israeli scientist that enables the desert to “bloom like a greenhouse,” with the result that in Israel “everyone prospered” (8). The fact is, however, that Israel (like the rest of the world) already has resources sufficient to enable all who live in it to prosper. Israel’s problem in the real world, as Martin Buber saw, has from the beginning been a problem of injustice: the injustice of Arab toward Jew and Jew toward Arab. Yet of this the authors of Left Behind appear to have no awareness at all. Indeed, one who read nothing but Left Behind would have, if I am not mistaken, no way even of knowing that thereis any non-Jewish population in Israel or that there are any “occupied territories.” This particular example aside, the theological deficiency in Left Behind to which I point means that, while one may rejoice that its authors perceive the universality of human sin and our need for God’s forgiveness, it remains that their conception of sin, though not necessarily wrong so far as it goes, is desperately and dangerously limited.
There are other ways in which one might critique Left Behind. It is not especially well written, even for a thriller (Ian Fleming could have taught its author a thing or two), but it is written more or less well enough, most of the time. The chief exception to this, significantly, is in dialogue between characters when they are supposed to be showing genuine emotion. There is, for example, a conversation between a young man and a young woman who are, we are given to understand, falling in love (364–67). The conversation here seems to me to be so badly written as to be embarrassing.
It would, then, be easy for us to end consideration of Left Behind at this point, quietly congratulating ourselves on being members of a mainstream Christian denomination that has no truck with the nonsense that it represents. It would be easy, but it would be unwise. As will be obvious, I did not enjoy Left Behind. To tell the truth, I found reading it about the mental equivalent of chewing ashes, and I finished it because I had promised the student who lent it to me that I would. I am glad, nevertheless, that I did. For the experience has drawn my attention to a phenomenon that Christians should not, I think, ignore. However mistaken and even heretical Left Behind and its sequels (which, frankly, I do not intend to read) may be, and however mediocre their literary quality, the fact remains that they are best sellers – and without the benefit of a major publisher. Why?
Heresy flourishes when orthodoxy presents a vacuum. Anglicans (along with Christians of all the other mainstream denominations) claim at every Sunday Eucharist to believe and hope in Jesus Christ “who will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”[ii] We have moreover in Advent an entire liturgical season devoted to reflection on this – a season directed, as the Collect for the First Sunday reminds us, to looking for grace so that “in the last day, when [Jesus Christ] shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who lives and reigns with [the Father] and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”[iii] That is what the Advent season is for, but is that how we use it?
Because of my work, I hear more Episcopal sermons than do most people: on many days I hear two, one at the office and one at the Eucharist. As I look back over this past Advent (I am writing on the Tuesday after the Third Sunday) I have to admit that very few of the sermons I have heard have been devoted to any kind of serious consideration of Advent themes: God’s judgment and coming kingdom, and the connection of those things with God’s desire for justice. I embarrassed to have heard within the last few days of an Episcopal parish priest who is willing to say – quite openly and with, so far as I can see, with no sense of chagrin – that he would not have the slightest idea how to preach a sermon about the themes of the Book of Revelation. For a priest of the church to admit cheerfully that he does not know how to preach on a book of the New Testament appears to me to involve a level of professional incompetence on a par with one who set up as a dentist while admitting that he knew nothing about fillings.
In other words, unlike Left Behind, the kind of preaching I am talking about does not pervert the church’s Advent hope: it simply ignores it, which is perversion enough. People turn to religion as much as anything because, in the midst of a grief-filled and unjust world, they look for hope. But hoping means having something to hope for: therefore, as I have said in other contexts, Christian hope is not a belief alongside other beliefs, to be thought of when there is leisure from more pressing matters. Christian hope springs directly from the Old Testament promise, is affirmed and clarified in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so undergirds and gives direction to all other belief and action. Because we hope, it is worthwhile now engaging in the creative subversion that is Christian witness, going from the Liturgy into the world to be “faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”[iv] But if the Christian church is unwilling to preach and explain Christian hope, then there will always be purveyors of nonsense who are willing to fill the gap. That, I suspect, is why Left Behind is a best seller, and it is to our shame.
© Christopher Bryan, School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. All rights reserved. If you would like permission to reprint any part of this article, please Contact the Author.