I have just previewed a videotape of a new movie, which will be released on February 2: “Left Behind.” The best I can say for it is this:
“Left Behind” is based on an astoundingly successful fundamentalist publishing venture, a series of novels known collectively as Left Behind. At last count, there were eight volumes in this series. This series has generated sales totaling approximately a quarter of a billion dollars in just five years. Big money. Big audience. Big hopes for a very small movie producer.
The series is co-authored by Rev. Tim LaHaye, husband of Beverly LaHaye, who runs the Christian activist organization, Concerned Women of America.
The series is premised on a theological assumption, namely, that Chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew must not be taken literally. This is the passage, more than any other in the New Testament, that deals with the Kingdom of God in history. It contains several of Jesus’ parables, including the one that deals with the wheat and the tares. This is the parable where the field workers come to the field’s owner and tell him that an enemy has seeded the wheat field with tares — a worthless crop. Should they dig up the tares?
But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn (Matthew 13:29-30).
Jesus’ disciples came to Him after the crowd had left, and asked what this parable meant.
He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear (Matthew 13:37-43).
Jesus was quite clear: there will be no corporate separation of sinners and saints in history. Only at the end of time will the corporate separation take place: sheep and goats, wheat and tares, saved and lost, covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers. Until then, the separation remains confessional and institutional, not physical and corporate.
Until 1830, the Christian church universally taught this doctrine of temporal non-separation. In 1830, a tiny English Protestant sect known as the Irvingites proclaimed a new doctrine. The church will escape the prophesied future tribulation by being removed from history. The church will be pulled into heaven at an event that is today referred to as “the Rapture.”
Two preliminary observations are in order. First, the word “rapture” does not appear in either New Testament Greek or the King James Bible. Second, with respect to the doctrine of the Great Tribulation, significant segments of the church have understood this to refer to the Roman imperial army’s burning of the Temple and sacking of the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (See David Chilton’s book, The Great Tribulation.)
The Irvingites’ idea was immediately adopted by John Nelson Darby, a leader of the small British sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. Darby brought this doctrine to the United States. Decades later, in the 1880’s, it finally began to spread among American fundamentalists, especially those who were upset by the appearance of what soon became known as the Social Gospel, which identified the kingdom of God with the Progressive movement. The Social Gospel’s defenders secularized the older postmillennialism of the Puritans and American Presbyterians, concluding that the interventionist State will progressively manifest the political aspect of the kingdom of God in history.
Fundamentalists rejected such a notion, but offered in its place the Irving-Darby doctrine: the pre-tribulational, pre-millennial Rapture. The Rapture will take place 1,007 years prior to the final judgment, seven years prior to the bodily return of Jesus to set up an international Christian bureaucracy to run the world. This thousand-year era will be known as the millennial kingdom of God. Jesus will therefore return pre-millennially.
What was new in this premillennial outline was the doctrine that Christ will remove the church from the world 3.5 years prior to the great tribulation period, which will last for another 3.5 years. Seven years after the Rapture, He will return to set up His earthly kingdom. Traditional premillennialism, which has a long history, had previously taught that Christ will return after the great tribulation of His church. There will be no period in history where there is not continuity for His church.
So, Jesus will come secretly to rapture his church into heaven. Then the antichrist will set up an international government to rule the world. Three and a half years after the Rapture, the antichrist’s army will surround Jerusalem and kill (approximately) two-thirds of the Jews. (There are three big statistical problems with this prophecy: New York City, West Los Angeles, and Miami Beach.)
A major psychological reason why American fundamentalists support the State of Israel is this: the doctrine of the pre-tribulation Rapture teaches that the future persecution of the saints will be the persecution of Jews in Israel, not Christians. Christians by then will have flown the coop. (I have discussed this motivation in an earlier essay.)
“Left Behind” is based on Darby’s Rapture doctrine. It identifies the bad guys — central bankers and the United Nations (hard to argue with that!) — and the good guys: irrelevant Christians, who depart from the film rather early, leaving behind empty piles of clothing. This leaves only clueless non-Christians to carry the dramatic weight of the movie. But without the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein, and with too many nations in the European Union to fit the traditional fundamentalist prophecy of a ten-nation alliance against Israel, the screenwriter was hard-pressed to squeeze much drama out of it.
A Muted Trumpet
The movie’s first scene after the Rapture has taken place occurs on a transatlantic air flight. A lady asks a stewardess if the stewardess can look for her husband. “I think he’s naked.” She points to a pile of clothes on the seat next to her. The lady is elderly. So, presumably, is her husband. (This is a family film, after all.) But others on the plane are also missing. Where are they? They’re gone! On flights all over the skies, they’re gone. The rest of the people in the film have been . . . left behind!
Nobody knows why. In the movie, it’s a huge mystery, even a national security issue. The movie spends the next thirty minutes with characters wandering around saying, “Where did they go?”
The problem here, for both the screenwriter and fundamentalist theologians, is the trumpet. We are told later in the movie that the New Testament says this:
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
In another epistle, Paul wrote: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (I Corinthians 15:52). The trumpet is prominent in both passages. This is because both passages refer to the same event: the end of history (the real one, not Francis Fukuyama’s) and the final judgment.
So, why didn’t anyone in the movie hear the trumpet? Because the movie is about the secret Rapture. This is what fundamentalists call this hypothetical future event: the secret Rapture. Every Christian on earth will disappear in the twinkling of an eye, leaving behind piles of off-the-rack suits, but nobody who is left behind will have heard the trumpet. They will have trouble figuring out just what has happened.
I ask the screenwriter and the theologians: Where was that mighty trumpet sound? When it comes to the next cataclysmic eschatological event of history, I ask this: Louis Armstrong, where are you now that we need you?
Here’s Not Looking at You, Kids
In the movie, the world goes on. All the Christians are gone, but airlines still fly, power companies still operate, banks stay open, and the TV still blares. The only things missing on-screen are Oprah and Montel interviewing family members left behind, and Rosie O’Donnell arguing that this tragedy would never have happened if there had been effective gun control laws.
The whole social system still works. The infrastructure is intact. (“When I hear the word infrastructure, I reach for my gun.” — Ruben Alvarado.) The world has just lost the true — really, truly true — members of its largest religion, and everything still runs just fine. No problem! I mean, even the life insurance companies are still in business.
I suppose that Sunday morning TV programming of local preachers and televangelists would be taped re-runs, but the movie leaves this an open question. One of the characters left behind is a local fundamentalist pastor, who is very, very chagrined.
I wish all this were a spoof, but it isn’t. This movie faithfully represents dramatically a central tenet of American fundamentalism: Christianity is socially irrelevant.
In every field, Christians are today understood by fundamentalists as offering nothing of real importance culturally. The world can get along just fine without Christians. In education, science, technology, the professions, and entertainment — above all, entertainment — Christians are assumed by fundamentalists to be irrelevant or at least marginal, and necessarily so. This is indicated by their view of the seven-year interval between the Rapture and Christ’s Second Coming to set up His bureaucratic earthly kingdom. The absence of Christians will not be noticed after the Rapture because they are barely noticed today.
The only evidence in the movie that the absence of Christians will make a visible difference is in the number of auto accidents. Cars went out of control when their drivers were issued the Great Summons from the sky. Yet even here, the screenwriter does not have anyone say this. It is merely implied by a street full of banged-up cars.
There are no airplane crashes on-screen. Why not? Is it because the screenwriter assumed that Christians are not well-educated enough to be pilots? Or is this movie a subtle ad for El Al Airlines?
Yes, I am being sarcastic, but for a reason. The doctrine of the premillennial, pre-tribulation Rapture has gutted fundamentalism culturally for well over a century. What Christian wants to pay the personal sacrificial price that gaining influence requires, when he also expects the church to be removed from the world in the very near future? After all, the antichrist will inherit everything. Covenant-breakers will become the heirs of the capital of covenant-keepers. Why sacrifice today to build up an inheritance for God’s enemies?
The Bible teaches that “a good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just” (Proverbs 13:22). The Rapture doctrine teaches that the wealth of the just is laid up for the sinner. So, why spend a lifetime of above-average effort and risk-taking in order to lay up an inheritance that will be confiscated by the sinners left behind?
A radical present-orientation afflicts Protestant fundamentalists. In 1970, Edward Banfield identified the primary origin of lower-class culture as its present-orientation. (See the original edition of his book, The Unheavenly City.) It is not a person’s income but rather his time-perspective that best identifies his class position. Fundamentalists, by this definition, are lower class.
A person who has no faith in the long-term earthly future of his legacy is unlike to save, work long hours to build a business, advance his education, or do anything else that involves long-term sacrifice, other than foreign missions. Ludwig von Mises argued that people with high time-preference (low future-orientation) pay high interest rates to borrow money, and will not save unless they are offered high interest rates by borrowers. Cultures that are high time-preference societies experience low capital formation and therefore low economic growth, he said. They are unwilling to pay for it. They get what they pay for.
The result, artistically, is “Left Behind.”
I end this essay with a Bible verse. It should be applied in more senses than one.
For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? (I Corinthians 14:8)
Culturally, intellectually, and politically, American fundamentalists have been left behind. They have done their best to leave behind nothing of cultural value. They are committed theologically to cultural irrelevance, as I have explained in Chapter 5 of my book, Rapture Fever. Culturally, they have sounded an uncertain trumpet. They need a lot more Louis Armstrong, figuratively speaking.
January 10, 2001
Gary North is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded free of charge at www.freebooks.com.