Will We Be 'Left Behind'?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 5, 2003
Here’s another, similar, description, from the official Left Behind website:
This is what will happen, we are told, when the time of “The Rapture” arrives. The Rapture: the silent, invisible arrival of Christ, come again to take, to seize, to “rapture” out those who are loyal and faithful to him, in preparation for his Second Coming (the Parousia, in Greek) seven years later. This is a Big Topic, in some people’s minds at least—and they await the Rapture’s approach with hope (perhaps), or with dread (if they think they’re not ready for it), wondering with bated breath if they will be among those taken off into heaven by their blessed savior.
Some even have bumper stickers on their cars that read: “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.”
(Others of us own bumper stickers—though not on our cars [my wife won’t let me put it there; she’s probably right] —which read: “After the Rapture, we’ll have the place to ourselves.”)
The centerpiece of this whole Rapture-mania is the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye, a leading fundamentalist Christian preacher, and the novelist Jerry Jenkins.
The series began with the publication of Left Behind in 1995, and was originally supposed to include eight volumes, and be concluded in the year 2000. But now, the plan is for twelve volumes, finishing off sometime around 2004. Book number ten in the series, called The Remnant, appeared this past summer; number eleven, Armageddon, is supposed to come out in March. The other books in the series have provocative titles like Tribulation Force and Soul Harvest and Desecration; altogether, since 1995, they have sold at least 30 million copies, and have been called “the fastest-selling fiction series ever”. There is also a separate series for children, called Left Behind: The Kids, which now numbers twenty (slimmer) volumes. As you might imagine there are also Left Behind t-shirts and mousepads and board games, and all kinds of lucrative tie-in items. There have even been two full-length movies based on the books.
One death row inmate in Texas begged for an advanced copy of the seventh book in the series so he could read it before his execution date. It’s also said that a terminally ill woman in Tennessee asked the publisher for an advanced manuscript of the eight volume, The Mark, so she could be comforted in her last days by Christian martyrs refusing the mark of evil.
The plot of the series goes something like this:
In the first book, Left Behind, the Rapture takes place, as described earlier. In one cataclysmic moment, millions of people the world over simply disappear. The action focuses on Rayford Steele, an airline pilot, whose wife and son have been taken. In the meantime, global chaos (even more than usual) ensues.
In book two, Steele bands together with a hearty, heroic group of comrades to form the Tribulation Force—and to fight God’s battle during the seven years of chaos that have been unleashed.
In book three, Nicolae, the enemy becomes clearer: a Romanian leader named Nicolae Carpathia emerges as a new anti-christ.
In book four, Soul Harvest, the world takes sides, as the Tribulation Forces launches an underground war against the mighty powers of the Global Potentate.
In the next book, a plague of demon locusts is unleashed to torture the unsaved; despite the growing power of the Antichrist, the Tribulation Force gathers in Israel for a Conference of Witnesses.
In book six, titled Assassins, a horde of 200 million demonic horsemen slays a third of the Earth’s population; but the Tribulation Force gains a bit of revenge by managing to assassinate Carpathia in Jerusalem.
But in the next book in the series, The Indwelling, Carpathia is gone, but not forgotten. The forces of darkness unleash intense inner combat for the souls of humankind which prepares the groundwork for book number eight—
The Mark, where-- surprise! – Nicolae Carpathia is back—resurrected by the Devil himself! He tightens his grip on the world, and requires all people to wear “the Mark”—a computer chip recording their whereabouts at all times, as well as their deepest thoughts.
Then, in book nine, Desecration, the antichrist travels to Jerusalem again and takes the throne. He holds supreme power over all the world, and the chosen defenders of God flee into the wilderness where they remain as The Remnant (that’s book ten) laying plans for a final great battle—Armageddon (book eleven).
Now, this is pretty heady, exciting stuff. If it was just boilerplate fiction and fantasy, there would be no real reason to give it a first look (let alone an eleventh one). But the fact of the matter is that some people take this stuff very seriously indeed. To them, the Left Behind books are not “just fiction” or “mere fantasy”. Rather, they are blueprints for the future that is just a bit farther on down the road; they’re tour guides to the world that is becoming before our eyes.
Newsweek reports that 40% of Americans believe that the world will end in a great battle of Armageddon, just as scripture states. Furthermore, almost 20% think that this event will occur within their own lifetimes, and that it could begin at any time. Of course, “end time” prophecies and speculation are nothing new. Since Christianity began, people have been waiting for “Second Coming” of Christ. St. Paul and the other early Christians believed that it was immanent—that Jesus would return in their lifetimes and establish his Reign upon the Earth. By the time of the Second Epistle of Peter (which is probably the newest book in the Bible, dating to around the year 125 of the Common Era), many Christians had grown discouraged and tired of waiting, so that the author of the epistle had to warn the followers of Jesus:
“Be patient,” the early Christian leaders admonished their followers, “He’s coming again—any day now, any day…”
The days became years, then centuries, now millennia. Still (as far as we can tell)—no Second Coming. So, in good Western theological fashion, religious people sat down and tried to figure this out—they began to theologize about why the Second Coming had seemingly been “delayed”.
And, in typical Western theological fashion, they divided into factions; each citing their own bushel of biblical verses, they fought over what the real reason for the delay was. This is where things get a little complicated (and you might have to work hard at keeping your eyes from glazing over):
Over time, three schools of thought developed within Christianity concerning the parousia, the Second Coming of Christ: the Pre-Millennialists, the Amillennialists and the Post-Millennialists.
Pre-Millennialists (like the Left Behind crowd and most fundamentalist Christians) believe that Christ will return to Earth, literally and bodily, before the Final Age begins, and that He will institute a Kingdom over which he shall reign.
Amillennialists (include such renowned Fathers of the Church as St. Augustine and, probably, most mainline Catholic theologians) believes that there will be no Millennial Kingdom on Earth following the Second Coming (and indeed, that there may not even be a literal, physical Second Coming). Rather, they point to verses like that from Luke we read this morning about “the Kingdom of God” being within. Augustine and his followers tended to spiritualize all biblical teachings concerning the Second Coming, and emphasized the indwelling Christ, rather than the physical one.
Finally, there were the Post-Millennialists, who taught that, through human progress and human action, the world will get better and better all the time, until the Kingdom of God is established on the Earth, through human endeavors—at which time, Christ will return to reign over his kingdom in peace.
At various times, each of these schools of thought have held sway over the world’s Christian community. Throughout most of the 19th Century, for instance, Post-Millennialism dominated American Christianity at least—with its ideas of progress and pushing aside barriers and correcting social ills in the name of God. It led to the rise of the “Social Gospel” movement. It even influenced the development of American Unitarian thought, which proclaimed, in its statement of purposes during the 19th Century: “The inevitable progress of mankind onward and upward forever!” It could also be seen clearly in American Universalism around the turn of the century, which affirmed its faith in “the ability of men [and women] of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evils and progressively to establish the Kingdom of God.”
Unfortunately, the unspeakably bloody crimes of the Twentieth Century—two World Wars, Holocaust, the terrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—went a long way toward pulling the carpet out from under the Post-Millennialists, with their faith in human ability to establish God’s kingdom.
So now, we live in an age where the world seems to hover on a precipice, and we sense the uncertainty and discontent of these times. Like our forbears facing the coming of the year 1000, we watch the skies (or read the news) for signs of the Apocalypse. But if it didn’t come before, what makes us think that our times are so different?
Followers of the medieval preacher Joachim of Fiore would ritually beat themselves every day, because they felt they were to blame for Christ’s failure to return. If they showed God how sorry they were, maybe Christ would come back. It didn’t work.
In the 1500s, Martin Luther, usually a pretty perceptive man, believed that the world was in its final days. It wasn’t.
William Miller, a Vermont pastor, calculated that the world was going to end in the year 1843, and formed an entire religious movement around that “fact”. The world didn’t end.
In the early 1970s, Hal Lindsay made a great splash with his book The Late, Great Planet Earth (which also sold millions of copies), in which he pretty much predicted the end of the world by the end of the decade. He was wrong.
Now, we are treated to the rather severe endtime scenario of LaHaye and Jenkins. And as we watch terrors like those of September 11th unfold before our eyes, with fire raining from the sky and huge cities crumbling before our eyes, we can be forgiven for believing that “Surely, some revelation is at hand”, and that—who knows? —perhaps a Second Coming is at hand, as well…
Certainly, people are entitled to believe what they will about all matters religious—including the end of the world. If people want to believe that Christ will enrapture His followers to Heaven, leaving the rest of us behind here for a seven year period of the most heinous and awful tribulation imaginable, then so be it. If they want to believe in a physical Second Coming, and a physical Antichrist, and a physical Armageddon, then so be it. (The fact that, in these troubled and dangerous times, the Attorney General of the United States certainly believes in these things, and that the President of the United States may believe them, bothers me, I’ll admit. But it is their right—as much as any of ours—to believe what they will in matters of the Spirit.)
But we have our religious voices to raise, as well. And our pens to employ. And our religious imaginations to engage.
And while we may not sell millions and millions of copies, or preach before thousands, or get on the cover of Time or Newsweek with the message of our faith, let us be unafraid to proclaim it. Let us be unafraid to offer the people of our age not more fear or despair, but simply, very simply, hope and courage and the unending love of God.
Hope which proclaims that the final chapter in the history of this Earth has not been written yet—and that we are writing it with our hands, and with our lives, at this very moment.
Courage which remains steadfast and true in the face of all the challenges which history will throw at us.
And faith in the love of God which will never let us go. A love so profound and true and universal that it will—in its own time-- save all people from those hells which we create for one another. A love so profound and true and universal that in its embrace no one will be left behind. All will be included. All will have their place at the welcome table.
None of us knows when the endtimes may come—our own individual endtimes, or the endtime of our planet, Earth. But we do know that it is never too late to begin anew. It is never too late to do good, as Dr. King reminded us.
May we, too, know the Rapture—not of some condescending savior, or of a Superhero Jesus descending upon us from on high—not as a once and for all event in history—
But may we know the continual Rapture of each holy, sacred moment.
Each moment in which we reflect back a little of the glory of our Creator—
Each moment we live in accord with the truth of that Great Man of Nazareth, in accord with the truth of prophetic women and men of all times and all faiths—
Each moment in which we redeem the limited time we have to do justly and love mercy and walk humbly upon this green and good Earth.
What more rapture do we need than the beauty and truth of each sacred moment we live here upon this good Earth? What more rapture do we need?