Who “Gets” Left Behind

I remember reading the novels.  I read them in the gym of the high school I taught in.  Sometimes students would ask me about them, and I’d say they were about the end of the world.  But I also sometimes wondered if people would think I was a fundamentalist, an end-of-the-worlder, a kook.  Now that the new movie is out, friend of ILYBYGTH Daniel Silliman has offered a thoughtful essay about what it means to be a fan of Left Behind.

For those of you who haven’t heard, the Left Behind series blew a lot of minds when it came out in the 1990s.  Fundamentalist writer Tim LaHaye and his colleague Jerry Jenkins set out to present another gripping fictional story of the end of the world.  But not just any end of the world.  Left Behind told the story of the way many American fundamentalists have come to interpret the Bible’s eschatology.

Clarence Larkin's theological charts were very popular among the first generation of fundamentalists in the 1920s.

Clarence Larkin’s theological charts were very popular among the first generation of fundamentalists in the 1920s.

Since around the beginning of the twentieth century, many (but by no means all!) fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have embraced the theology of dispensational premillennialism.  This interpretation of the Bible sets out a series of ages, or “dispensations.”  Our current Age is set to expire sometime soon.  When it does, this theology predicts, Jesus will lift all true believers to meet him “in the air.”  This event will be known as the “rapture.”  After the rapture, those who have been left behind will suffer through seven years of tribulation before Jesus returns in glory.  Once Jesus and his angelic hosts have defeated the Antichrist on the field of Armageddon, a thousand years of peace and love will follow on earth, the millennium.

That’s a quick and dirty summary, but for our purposes, it will do.  Tim LaHaye was not the first prophecy writer to fictionalize this story.  As many evangelicals of a certain age will remember, an older generation of films such as A Thief in the Night told a similar story, in a similarly dramatic fashion.

But LaHaye’s Left Behind series took this Bible apocalypse into the mainstream.  Millions of people read the books.  And evangelical sorta-star Kirk Cameron made a series of movies to bring the message to even more fans.  And now, for some reason, there’s a new movie version, this time starring Nicholas Cage.

For nerds like me, the interesting question is not whether the new film is good or bad.  (Although I couldn’t find a single review that said it was good.  Just bad, really bad, and “God-awful.”)  Instead, I want to know what it can tell us about American religion.  Specifically, I want to know why so many people gobble up these fundamentalist bedtime stories.  Is America really that sympathetic to fundamentalism?  Does some part of our national psyche still yearn for this sort of stern hellfire morality play?

Daniel Silliman tackles this question of audience.  Take a few minutes to read his whole essay.  In short, he demonstrates that we can’t really assume much about America based on its seeming never-ending appetite for Biblical apocalypses.  Just because millions of people read these books, we can’t assume we know if those readers bought into the fundamentalist end-of-the-world story.

Left Behind

Some people, Silliman notes, will watch this movie ironically.  That is, they will rush out to see the movie to see just how silly those Christians will get this time around.  Like the infamous Snakes on a Plane, many movies become popular because of their badness.

But Silliman also gives some examples of people who seem to embrace the film precisely because they embrace the theological message.  Just because the story seems outrageous to me doesn’t mean that other viewers are not watching it with very different attitudes.

In other words, we must be careful about assuming too much from this film.  If it flops, we will not be able to say that America has turned its back on fundamentalist theology.  And if it’s a huge box-office success, we won’t be able to say that America is still a fundamentalist fief.

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3 Comments

  1. Yes, I have to agree here. My family was definitely super-fundamentalist evangelical and they believed in the 7-year-tribulation (although they believed the rapture would happen after, not before). And yet, they were quite opposed to the Left Behind series, probably for popularizing and modernizing the message. Among the others that I knew that saw it, the reasons ranged from genuine belief in the message, to just wanting something social to do with their other fundie friends. As such, my limited experience concurs that the audiences to very theological films can be pretty complex.

    I am kind of shocked that the Left Behind series still has enough of a following to merit another movie though. I had thought it had faded into obscurity.

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  2. Patrick

     /  October 8, 2014

    I haven’t read it, but my friends have shown me a funny parody of the “Left Behind” series called “Right Behind.” It’s by a Christian. http://www.amazon.com/Right-Behind-Parody-Last-Goofiness/dp/1885767870

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  3. Lou

     /  May 13, 2015

    [Ready for some shocks? I caught the following while webbing away.]

    The Pretrib Rapture Jackpot!

    by Bruce Rockwell

    Attention, writers. You can make millions by promoting the pretrib rapture!
    As you know, pretrib began in Scotland in 1830. Early developers including Edward Irving and John Darby admitted it was then a totally new view that had never been part of any theology or organized church.
    They also admitted that it had suddenly sprung from only OT and NT “types” and “symbols” and not from any clear Bible statement! (Part of their “cut and paste” included stretching forward “gather” (Matt. 24:31) on their “charts” and turning it into a pretrib coming!)
    As late as 1957, pretrib expert John Walvoord admitted in “The Rapture Question” (p. 148) that “pretribulationism” is NOT “an explicit teaching of Scripture”!
    Since the early 1900s pretrib has been sold by novelists like Sydney Watson (in 1913) and by Salem Kirban whose “Left Behind”-type novel “666” came out in 1970 – the same year Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” started breaking sales records.
    The very first pretrib rapture novel titled “Left Behind” came from the joint pens of Peter and Patti Lalonde in mid-1995 before Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins somehow came up with the very same title: “Left Behind”!
    The pretrib rapture view, which admittedly is only an “inference” and not “explicit,” rests basically on verses in John 14, I Thess. 4, and I Cor. 15, none of which have either a “taken/left” separation or exciting, nail-biting scenarios that can “sell” pretrib.
    You have to go to Revelation’s action-packed chapters instead. When you do, you discover they can be tied to end time details found basically in the Olivet Discourse.
    As you know, pretribs believe in two stages; Stage 1 is the pretrib rapture which supposedly occurs several years before Stage 2 which is the posttrib second coming to earth.
    Since the three “rapture” chapters listed above don’t have any clear rapture-type separation between the “righteous” and the “wicked,” your best launching pad if you want to be a bestselling author is “the one shall be taken, and the other left” phrase in Matt. 24:40, 41 and Luke 17:34-36.
    Trouble is, Dr. Walvoord and many other pretrib leaders declare that the “one taken” refers to the “wicked” taken in judgment while the “righteous” are left! But since average pew-sitters don’t seem to know this, you can easily convince them that the “one taken” is a sort of code for an any-moment pretrib rapture!
    And the pew-sitters don’t know that Walvoord etc. also teach that the same phrase is part of “non-imminent” Stage 2 which is posttrib (and not pretrib) and is on “Jewish” (and not “Church”) ground!
    In order to preserve Stage 1 (the long-stretched-forward pretrib rapture), pretrib merchandisers in recent decades have been stretching forward various aspects found in Stage 2 and quietly applying them to Stage 1. Aspects include “the day of the Lord,” “God’s wrath,” “the taken/left phrase,” “the unknown day and hour,” and Christ’s coming “as a thief” (which in the Bible is always tied to Armageddon and other posttrib events).
    (For more on the above, Google “The Correct Answer to Who’s Taken” etc. on Joe Ortiz’s blog of Apr. 12, 2010. Sure, there’s disagreement on who’s “taken” first, but pretrib pew-sitters forget or don’t know that THE TAKEN/LEFT PHRASE IS FOUND IN ONLY A POSTTRIB SETTING IN THE BIBLE!!)
    Yes, I’ve told you how you can turn yourself into a bestselling, wealthy author.
    But unfortunately you have some competition because LaHaye and Jenkins have long been aware of the above facts. And for years they’ve been milking their 19th century cash cow (which hasn’t dried up yet) to shatter all-time sales records and make millions of pretrib dollars that are destined to be left behind!
    For more on LaHaye etc. Google “Left Behind or Led Astray?,” “The ‘Left Behind’ Rupture,” “Prof. Craig Leaves Tim LaHaye Behind,” “LaHaye’s Temperament,” “Jerry Jenkins Apologizes for Being Seen Gambling in Casinos,” “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Pretrib Rapture Pride,” “Walvoord Melts Ice,” “Famous Rapture Watchers,” “Margaret Macdonald’s Rapture Chart,” “Pretrib Rapture’s Missing Lines,” “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism,” “Evangelicals Use Occult Deception,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” “Letter from Mrs. Billy Graham,” “Pretrib Rapture: A Staged Event,” “Pretrib Rapture Stealth,” “Deceiving and Being Deceived” (by D.M.), and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.” (Most of these are by the author of “The Rapture Plot,” the most accurate and documented book on pretrib rapture history, obtainable by calling 800.643.4645.) BTW, for a unique Obama-inspired article, Google “The Background Obama Can’t Cover Up.”
    In closing let me say that Jeremiah 17:11 warns that “he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool.”
    And you can bet on this!

    Reply

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