kw: book reviews, nonfiction, theology, eschatology
prescript: I used NIV for most Bible quotations in this article
When the Left Behind novels began appearing about ten years ago, they caused a minor sensation, and made a lot of money for Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Then 9/11 happened, lots of people realized we just might be in the midst of WW3, uncertainty abounded and, predictably, the ongoing series, originally slated for seven books but with a ninth volume just released, was expanded to twelve (now fifteen with three prequels), and Messrs. LaHaye and Jenkins got rich. So far as I know, only a handful of people actually believed in Jesus as a result of reading any of the books. Mainly, lots of more-or-less lukewarm Christians got their attitude adjusted. However, the basically Arminian message primarily affected those who were uncertain of their standing in the first place.
My own stance about the series is that its theology is very narrow, and after the first volume, there is just too much derring-do! I'll give a summary of my understanding later, but I want to get to the book on the table. In Left Behind? The Facts Behind the Fiction LeAnn Snow Flesher, a professor at American Baptist Seminary, strips the Left Behind message to its essentials and shows how it distorts Biblical texts.
Tim LaHaye's theology is dispensational, futurist, and pre-millennial; a development (an over-develoment, I'd say) of John N. Darby's dispensationalism as popularized by C. I. Scofield. In the process, she compares it to the eschatology of Protestant theology, which is mainly supersessional, historical, and preterite (I couldn't tell whether millennial or not). Professor Flesher does a good job of outlining the theological points, though her continued use of the epigram "Darbyite, futurist, premillennial" and variations thereof strikes me as ad hominem name-calling. I am very familiar with Darby's theology, and Scofield's, and she is actually reporting an extreme over-literalism attributable to later generations.
As an aside, Darby developed two valuable tools for understanding the Bible: Dispensationalism and Typology. Both must go together, or you get a one-sided theology. Tim LaHaye's error is disregarding typology. I believe the error of Protestant supersessional theology is disregarding dispensations.
OK, rough slogging ahead: let's unpack some of these terms.
Dispensation: one translation of οικονοµιa, which most naturally translates "economy". The related verb means "to dispense resources". Theologically, a dispensation is a particular method that God uses to deal with people to carry out His overarching purpose; while a particular time period may be characterized by a particular economy, the time period is not the dispensation.
For example, in Romans 5:14 Paul wrote "...death reigned from Adam until Moses...", then in 5:21, "...as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign thorough righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Thus, prior to Moses, who introduced the Law, was one period, and that after Jesus came is another; we know that between these, God dealt with Israel according to the Law given by Moses, as John wrote (1:17), "For the law was given through Moses; grace and reality came through Jesus Christ." In these three periods—pre-Law (or Conscience), Law of Moses, Grace in Christ—God and His people related to one another in three different ways. Today, God relates to people who have heard of neither Christ or Moses via the Conscience, to Israel (primarily the Jews) according to Moses' Law, and to the church according to Grace, but his principle economy in this, the church age, is Grace. Though each age has its characteristic economy, they can thus exist simultaneously.
Supersession: the principle that the church supersedes Israel, and God has done away with the Law as a principle in dealing with Israel. Typically, this includes the belief that the responsibilities and blessings of Israel now inhere to the church, and probably has a lot to do with most churches' reliance on a professional clergy (priests, by any name), which is more in accord with the Israelite economy. John 1:17 is used to support supersession, but this interpretation is countered by Romans 9-11, particularly 11:1, "...has God cast away his people? Absolutely not!..." Supersessionism and dispensationalism are mutually exclusive.
Futurist and Historical: ways of interpreting predictions by the Biblical prophets. Futurists believe many or most predictions have yet to occur, sometimes invoking "partial fulfillment". Historicists believe nearly all predictions were fulfilled in times future to the prophet, but it our own past. An example of "partial fulfillment" is the "little horn" of Daniel 8: actions of the tyrant Antiochus IV fulfilled part of the prophecy, but not all; those of Titus in AD 70 did not add to the fulfillment, so futurists look to a future tyrant to complete the prophecy. Some historicists state that the portions of the prediction that Antiochus didn't fulfill constitute a mistaken prediction, others that we must be missing something in the historical account that would show all things were fulfilled. Preterite refers to a mainly Historical approach.
Millennialism: belief in a period of a thousand years (literal or spiritual) during which Christ will reign. Pre-millennialists believe that period is a literal 1000-year future kingdom of Christ on earth, post-millennialists (properly intra-millennialists) believe it refers to the church age with Christ ruling in the hearts of His people, and amillennialists or non-millennialists believe "the thousand years" mentioned seven times in Revelation (and nowhere else) is a figurative expression only.
Typology: the emphasis on figurative, metaphorical, and allegorical language, particularly in the Old Testament, as instructions for later ages. In other words, in Genesis 24, for example, Abraham sent a servant to find a bride for Isaac. This is explained typologically as God the Father sending the Holy Spirit to gain the Church to be the bride of Christ. Typologists (I am one) point to Paul's language in Romans 5:14: "Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come." The Greek word for pattern is tυpος or "typos". Paul frequently used typology and allegorical interpretation of the Old Testement.
There is an added element here, the matter of the Rapture. This is the whole point of the first "Left Behind" book. The verb "caught up" in 1 Thess. 4:7 is rapto in Latin. From this we get "raptor", describing hawks and other birds that snatch up their prey. The emotion of rapture means being caught up in a feeling. Many Christians believe God's people (or some of them) will be snatched off the earth by God at the end of this age.
Then there is the matter of timing. Jesus spoke of a time of distress, saying in Matt. 24:29: "For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again." The KJV and other versions say "great tribulation", whereas NIV uses that term only in Rev. 7:14, though the Greek is the same. Will the rapture occur before this great distress, during it, after it, or some combination? Ms Flesher apparently doesn't believe in a literal rapture, and devotes a chapter to showing that the verses that are used to support both rapture and the timing thereof don't all refer to the same thing. Her reasoning is sharp and clear, showing that it takes a mixing of portions of NT texts into OT texts to make the case as LaHaye would have it. Such amalgamation is not "rightly dividing" the word!
LaHaye and Jenkins promote the rapture of every "true believer" just prior to a 7-year "tribulation". The definition of such true believers, however, is performance based. The basis of one's status with God is godly behavior, not possession of God's life. Perhaps they assume conversion must produce rapid spiritual advancement, or it isn't genuine. As a result their viewpoint is seen as Arminian, even though I suspect they think of themselves as Calvinists.
They also promote a literal world ruler they call the Antichrist, and build a plausible-sounding case for the events that culminate with a "last battle" and the public appearing of Christ. The author of Left Behind? clearly shows the shortcomings of the narrow theology underlying the series. Actually, after the third volume, I thought the theology was getting pretty thin on the ground, with more and more emphasis placed on the exploits of the Tribulation Force. Ms Flesher shows how LaHaye's theology gets him into a few "can't have it both ways" pinches, and shows that it is destructive of faith. In its place, however, she has little to offer.
As I mentioned above, Protestant theology sees little or no distinction between Israel and the church, while extreme dispensational theology makes too great a distinction, not between Israel and the church, but in the application of verses that are meant literally for the one and typologically for the other.
Leaving out a clutter of verses, here is a (very sparse) sequence of events according to a balanced dispensational theology:
- Time runs out for the current world order. A ruler arises who unites many nations in Europe (both Western and Balkan), the Middle East (primarily Turkey), and north Africa; whether politically or economically doesn't really matter. Eventually, he makes a significant treaty, which may refer to Jerusalem, but may not. I'll call this united territory "Therionia", using the Greek word for "wild beast," and call its ruler Therion.
- Christians are in various conditions, some more mature and faithful, and others more selfish and childish. Many "still have a lot to learn." Christ snatches away the spiritually mature, leaving others to be taken later. This is to be understood according to the principle of firstfruits and harvest.
- Therionia prospers (It is centered in Rome, not Babylon/Baghdad). At some point Therion takes a blow to the head and dies, but arises again (maybe three days later, maybe not). As a result, an associate of Therion promotes him as a god and demands he receive worship. This false prophet we can call Pseudas.
- Most likely, the Jews received permission or took the initiative to rebuild the temple. Perhaps the Dome of the Rock was destroyed in a battle, and Saudi Arabia wasn't strong enough to retake its site. This will become eminently possible once the oil economy of the world winds down in another generation or two, and could happen any time should the Saudi oil fields be subject to widespread terrorist attack. However, the "desolation of the temple" may have a meaning we haven't guessed yet. Whatever, a shocking sacrilege is perpetrated by Pseudas and Therion.
- Religious persecution ensues. Not just against Jews and Christians, but against all faiths. Refugees will flock to a place called "the wilderness", somewhere that Therion has no authority. This could be in Asia, Africa, or the Americas, but my bet is on North America because this flood of refugees could be better assimilated there (low population), and the culture is the most tolerant. It may be everywhere outside Therionia, however, according to capacity.
- God begins to respond overtly with supernatural disasters: burning 100-lb hailstones, bloody lakes and rivers, etc. The Western hemisphere and Asia(+Southern Africa?) are two parts of the world. I believe Therionia is "the third part" mentioned in the Trumpet plagues. This period begins with the arrival of the two witnesses.
- The Bowl plagues follow, covering a rather short period of time, certainly a year or less. They extend the Trumpet plagues to all the earth. Jesus had warned that if this time were not cut short, not even the elect could survive.
- The two witnesses are killed. 3.5 days later they arise; probably they are killed by stealth, at night, but arise at midday, for they are seen to ascend to the sky. This is the most likely time for the remaining people of God to be caught up, just preceded by the first resurrection, which includes all Old and New Testament people of God who have died.
- Christ's people appear before his judgment seat, where he chooses those who will accompany him into battle, and who will be remanded for further maturation.
- Christ and his bride ride into battle, but nobody fights. He speaks, and it is all over. Therion and Pseudas are sent straight to the lake of fire, and those who followed them against Christ die. Satan is bound in "the abyss", wherever that may be. Christ gathers the remaining people, all who are not His already, to separate sheep and goats, depending on how they treated the refugees ("my brothers") who fled Therionia, and those who couldn't escape. The sheep become citizens of the millennial kingdom.
- The millennium begins, and Christ reigns with His bride at his side. This is also called the "wedding feast of the lamb." Whether the thousand years are literal or not is unimportant. Primarily, it is also the period when the people of God who received salvation but didn't grow spiritually can grow to maturity. They are outside the city, Jesus called it "outer darkness." This is not for condemnation, but for discipline and training.
- I'll skip the condition of this kingdom age; large swaths of the Old Testament refer to it.
- At the end of this period, Satan is released, to give the citizens of the kingdom a final test; those who fail die of divine fire. Satan is cast into the lake of fire.
- The dead arise in the second resurrection to be judged. The "dead in the sea" refers to the demons. At this point, you'd think everyone whose name is not in the book of life is already with Christ. Anyway, each individual is checked against the book of life, and away they go to the fire.
- Though the earth has been beautified, "the old heaven and the old earth pass away" and a new heaven and new earth appear. The new Jerusalem descends from the new heaven to rest on the newe earth. By inference we understand that at this point, everyone who needed further instruction during the kingdom age has become full grown, and all God's people are with Him. Thus begins eternity, not in heaven but on earth.
In the above points, I would not be at all surprised to find that some things I expect to occur literally turn out to be types or antitypes (meaning fulfillment of a type, not its opposite). Darby once wrote that prophecy is not given to enable us to prophesy, but to recognize events as they unfold. Nobody living in the year 9BC would have guessed that Quirinius was about to require a census that required people to register in the town they were born in, forcing a young couple just a year or two later to visit Bethlehem for a few weeks, thus fulfilling seemingly conflicting prophecies, that the Nazarene would be from Bethlehem! Matthew probably didn't get its significance until Jesus told him. How sad that, though the scribes in Jerusalem knew the prophecies, none of them went with the Eastern astrologers to see if the celestial sign they had seen indicated the Messiah had been born. How many will recognize the genuine signs of the end?
Also, I do not call the evil ruler Antichrist. This term is used only in the epistles of 1 John and 2 John, referring to those who teach a non-divine Christ.
The hardest part of all the above for most Christians is the "outer darkness" matter. Nearly all Christians are taught that this term refers to hell. They don't consider that the lake of fire won't be dark, not by any means! Part of genuine hell is being seen for what you really are!! Also, with the sun shining seven times its present brightness, the moon as bright as the sun, yet the holy city needing neither sun nor moon because of the brightness of God and the Lamb, that "darkness" is a relative term. When you are in a glorified body, made to endure—even to revel in—almost infinite brightness, anything less is quite a letdown!
I think of it like this. I was a rather poor college student for two years. I dropped out and worked. A year of this adjusted my attitude, and I returned to college part time, working first full time, then half time. I had quite a mishmash of transferred courses when it came time to declare my intention to graduate at Cal State. Just days before graduation, my most recent adviser discovered that I was missing a required course in History! I had 240 credits under my belt (124 were sufficient), but I needed a lousy 2-credit course to finish. Well, I had to take that course. I like history, and it was not arduous, nor even particularly difficult, but it was in its own way a real suffering. I'd been in the class of 1969; I graduated in 1972. Those three years, particularly that last semester, were like a thousand! Happy Millennium!!!
Sometimes a younger believer will come for counseling about some distressing matter, usually a recurring sin. I can tell there is a certain slackness of attitude, at least in this one area. I give advice I was once given in a similar situation, "You have to be transformed," referring to Romans 12:2 and 2 Cor. 3:18. My response had been, "It took Jacob 100 years to get transformed." The answer was, "He did not have the benefit of the indwelling Holy Spirit. You do. In this matter, at least, it should take at most a few months." The brother was right. So when I get the expected response, I know what to say. On occasion, however, someone will say, "I don't think I can get through on this, not even in fifty years." Then I respond, "OK, do you think a thousand years is enough?"
Left Behind? does a valuable service to the Christian community, but I was disappointed in the alternative presented.