I’ve been pretty outspoken, recently, about the travesty that is the “Left Behind” reboot.
Can you blame me? It’s a story where peacemakers are demonic and Jesus saves the world by becoming a mass murderer. Cinematically speaking, Left Behind is to orthodox Christianity as Nickelback is to music. But rather than attack the movie via soundbite polemics, I want to treat this seriously and thoroughly because the theology presented in Left Behind is heretical and, for reasons that will follow, dangerous.
Before I begin, there is one thing that we need to be in agreement on:
The Bible is not self-interpreting!
Even the slightest moment of self-analysis reveals that we all do the work of interpretation to varying degrees. So when someone says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” what they actually mean is, “The Bible says something that I have interpreted in a certain way, I believe my interpretation, and that settles it.”
I do not mean for this to sound divisive or condescending, but all interpretations are not equal. The problem, in fact, with most contemporary Christian spirituality is that it is so delighted by its own perspective. We have bought the lie that if everyone is equal, then they are equally right in their theological perspective. We would gladly confess that a surgeon knows more about surgery than a fiction writer, but we throw ourselves into hysterics in trying to deny that a theologian knows more about God than a surgeon. I say this, not to lend credibility to my own perspective but to point out that this perspective is not my own; rather, I am thinking with the saints — the church mothers and fathers, throughout history.
(In contrast, the pre-millennial dispensationalism presented in Left Behind has only been around for about 200 years — a short scant given the great history of Christian thought).
I’d also like to acknowledge that there are mysteries in the Bible that will never be solved this side of the eschaton. My desire, here, is not to reduce those mysteries but to make one very important distinction that I believe is fundamental to our understanding of the Gospel.
Allow me to frame it in this way:
What is our ultimate hope?
What is it that we are anticipating?
Surprised by Hope
In the last great picture in the Bible (Revelation 21), John the Revelator paints a picture of the holy city — the new Jerusalem.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man.
I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence but which way is the holy city traveling?
Yes, in the same way that the Son of God came down and the Holy Spirit came down, the heavenly city, prepared as a bride for her husband will come down.
The reality is that all of Revelation and, in fact, all of the New Testament is pointing to this: the Kingdom of God, the New Jersusalem comes down.
It is coming here!
It is time where God dwells among mortals, they will be his people and God will be with them. I find it interesting that the Bible, which begins in a garden, ends in a city — cities, which always speak of human culture and civilization. What you get at the end of the Bible is not a restored garden paradigm but a city where human culture and human civilization operates the way that God always intended it to. What makes this city so special is that it is constituted by the presence of God’s very self. The rule and reign of God is fully established.
For 2000 years, Christians have been praying the prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by your name, Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Contrary to some popular rewrites, that prayer does not say, “Beam me up, Scotty!” It would be a cruel twisted joke if Jesus dangled that prayer out in front of us like a carrot and told us to pray for something that was never actually going to happen. Stunningly the prayer that Jesus prayed and gave us to pray is actually going to be answered, according to Revelation. Imagine that.
Our great hope is NOT, “We’re going!”
Our great hope is, “It’s coming!”
All Things New
I should also point out that when Revelation speaks of a new earth it is best understood as a “renewed” earth — not “different” earth. Based on conversations about the film, I find that many Christians have this idea that when God comes to judge the earth, God is going to get rid of it and start all over. However, this is contrary to the entire New Testament.
Take Paul for example:
When a person comes to Christ, what happens? “He/She is a new creation. Old things pass away and behold all things become new.” Now I don’t know how this happened for you, but when I became a Christian — a new creation — God did not physically obliterate my old body and start over with a brand new one. I was still me, but I was a transformed me. God took the raw elements of what had been distorted by sin and restores it to it’s intended purpose. In the same way that a Christian becomes transformed and renewed, that is what God is going to do with the earth.
I hear Christians talk a lot about the world not being my home. Well…that depends. If by “world” you mean the lust of the flesh and the pride of life, etc., that is true. But I need you to see that the hope of the Gospel has never been about a distant place called heaven. Isaiah talks about the glory of God in heaven flowing into the earth and covering it like the waters cover the sea. That is really going to happen! There is a day coming in which there will be no distinction between heaven (where God has always visibly ruled) and earth (where God’s rule will become equally as visible and demonstrative). The hope is that the Kingdom of God comes now, making all things new. It’s such a beautiful image.
Gnosticism Impersonating Christianity
Why does any of this matter? Am I wasting my time with trivialities or is something serious at stake here? As I see it there are 2 significant problems at play here. One is obvious, the other is more subtle.
I’ll start with the subtle problem.
The kind of dispensationalism presented in Left Behind underwrites a sort of body/soul dualism that is foreign to Christianity. According to this line of thinking, the body is bad and temporal, but the soul (which matters most) is good and eternal.
This is classic Gnosticism. This is precisely why the Gnostics (who believed the body was bad) could not affirm that Christ assumed a body in the incarnation.
Christians, on the other hand, believe that Christ assumed a body for the sake of redeeming our bodies (not just our souls). The creeds remind us of this when we say each week, “We believe in the resurrection of the body!”
What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat our bodies. If we think our bodies are bad, well…that can have disastrous results. The headline of this report, alone, serves as proof that we need to be reminded that our bodies matter.
Now to the more obvious problem.
What we believe about the future, greatly affects our lives in the present.
When Christians put an emphasis on being snatched up, and it’s all about escaping and us going away, it has really problematic implications for how we approach our daily lives. Bad theology about the end times can create really bad lifestyle choices in the present. For starters, Left Behind causes us to neglect creation care. Why bother with such projects if God is just going to destroy the earth anyway.
It also causes us to neglect the needs of our neighbors and the least of these.
While I was on staff at Frazer, our student ministry raised money to feed an entire orphanage in Ethiopia. Our church is building a community for the deaf in Haiti. The success of things like the Passion Conference is tied to their commitment to end hunger, end poverty, end disease, end oppression. But if you hold to an escapist mentality, then there is no justification for doing these things. What is the point if we could get snatched away at any moment? Why bother to enact real change in the world if you believe that the world is already condemned?
Martin Luther once said, “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” While that’s a metaphor, there is so much good theology in that. On the contrary, Dwight Moody, once asked, “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?”
Moody has a point, EXCEPT THE SHIP ISN’T SINKING!
God is in the process of redeeming. That is what God does. God is coming and bringing God’s kingdom here. So we need to roll out the red carpet.
So go be a change agent in the world! Go participate in the work of God’s cosmic redemption! We are, in that sense, Kingdom colonists. Our job is to colonize earth with the life of heaven — now twiddle our thumbs until we get snatched away.
To quote Martin Luther King:
“It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who cant eat three square meals a day. Its all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New New York, the New Atlanta, the New Philadelphia, the New Los Angeles, the New Memphis Tennessee.”
This is our hope and our mission!
(Patrick Craig is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School)