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"What do you mean?"
"A whole bunch of people, just gone! I've been everywhere. I'm telling you, dozens of people are missing. Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind. These people are gone!"An elderly woman in first class, looking more than bleary-eyed, held her husband's sweater and pants in her arms. "What in the world?" she said. "Harold?" Harold was gone. Evaporated into thin air. Or something.
Harold is just one of millions of born-again Christians and all children (whether Christian or not), from early teens down to those not quite born, disappeared. The world fears some alien attack or some incredible nuclear disaster and never figures out the common denominator. So, appointing the newly installed president of Romania, Nicholae Carpathia, as Secretary General of the United Nations (because he made a moving speech about peace and disarmament) the planet's nations agree to give up their sovereignty, their weapons, even their names. Nicholae splits the world into 10 regions and orchestrates a seven-year truce between Israel and its enemies. A new era of peace and prosperity supposedly has begun.
But wait. Not all is right. A backslidden fundamentalist pastor, who sees the error of his ways only after he has been left behind while almost everyone he knows is raptured, pulls together a ragtag group of new believers opposed to Carpathia. They call themselves the Tribulation Force, and they know who Carpathia really is: the Antichrist. Duh-da-duh-duh!
For those of you who have seen the Left Behind video or the movie that is currently in theatres(1) or read the dramatic Christian thriller upon which they are based,(2) you recognize all this. It is the fictionalized account which purports to tell the amazing story of "The Rapture," that moment preached about by fire and brimstone folks who quote Paul in First Thessalonians to remind us "the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."(3)
The original Left Behind volume was published in 1995 and seven sequels have followed so far. I have heard that some 30-million copies have been purchased which puts this into the Harry Potter-like publishing stratosphere. Three-million copies of the video have been sold; the film version is in theatres as we speak. Jerry Jenkins, the co-author of the books with TV preacher Tim LaHaye, calls himself "the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of." And he is probably right. The result has been a flood of questions to me and other mainline pastors around the nation: "Have you read it? Have you seen it? What do you think of "Left Behind?"
For what it is worth, similar questions have been around since the beginning of Christianity. In the first-century church, folks believed that Jesus was coming back in their lifetime. The Apostle Paul believed it. The church described in the book of Acts believed it to the point that they sold their houses and everything in them without regret because who needed jewelry and silverware and real estate if they were leaving to join Jesus in heaven in a matter of days or months or even years?
Of course, as we all know, Jesus did not return then. The result is that every generation since has looked for the same thing the early church did - the return of Jesus at any moment. And the preaching has been the same: Are we ready? God forbid we be "left behind!"
The issue received extra attention a little over a year ago as our calendar had its odometer roll over - Y2K. There was that flood of people into Jerusalem who believed the millennium would mark the second coming of Jesus and the end of time. They wanted to be in Israel so they could see the event live and in person.
CBS News did a "60-Minutes" report(4) featuring apocalyptic writer Hal Lindsey, the author of the hugely-popular best-seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth.(5) That book told of how the birth of modern Israel signaled that we were in the "end times," that the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic portions of scripture predicted that the Antichrist's arrival was imminent, that Christians would soon be raptured (taken up to heaven by Jesus) before all the bad stuff started happening, but after seven years of "tribulation" Jesus Christ would return to earth and usher in a thousand-year reign of justice and peace. It sold millions of copies. Now, the author was leading 200 pilgrims on what could be called a doomsday tour of Israel. The TV program showed him conducting a Bible study about the battle of Armageddon. Hal was saying that the struggle would be incredible: "In the first attack, a quarter of the population of the earth is destroyed. Blood will stand to the horse's bridle for a space of 200 miles." That is a LOT of blood!
The members of Lindsey's tour group needed no convincing. They believed that all the prophetic signs were pointing in that direction - earthquakes, famines, floods, "wars and rumors of wars." These are the last days. Soon comes the Rapture, the instant calling to heaven of all good Christians, while everybody else will be left behind. We have seen the bumper stickers for years: "Warning: In case of the Rapture, this car will have no driver." Perhaps that is part of God's judgment on unbelievers - all these out-of-control vehicles careening every which way and mowing down any reprobate who happens to be left in the road. And that is precisely the way the Left Behind books and movie portray it. Then there are the bumper stickers in response: "In case of the Rapture, Can I have your car?" Uh huh.
Well, as we know, Jesus did not return with the advent of the year 2000, and most folks were not surprised. Despite all the hype, that was not even the real beginning of the new millennium - after all, the calendar would have started with the year ONE, not ZERO! But even that is deceptive because when the calendar creators of the Middle Ages began to publish their calculations, they got some things WRONG. According to all we can find out, Jesus was not born in the year ONE, but actually four to six years earlier! If you wonder about the start of the third millennium signaling the return of Jesus and the Rapture, that would have been perhaps in 1994 or 1996. If it occurred back then and you and I missed it like the Left Behind folks, I might be worried. I say MIGHT BE, because all those people who were sure they were going to be "raptured" out of their cars are still here too! Go figure.
One little aside about the Rapture. I know you have heard about it, and before this Left Behind series ever came out. I noticed it as we sang during Kirk Nite on Wednesday, "Near the Cross:"
Be my glory ever;
When my raptured soul shall find,
Rest beyond the river.(6)
Lots of people take great comfort in that thought. And even more take great satisfaction in the idea that good people will be rewarded and evil people will get clobbered - understandable. So saying, you need to know that, for centuries of Christian teaching, the church never envisioned things this way. This concept of a Rapture in which Christians are snatched away from the troubles of this world at the return of Jesus comes from a fellow named John Nelson Darby, a lawyer turned minister who was a member of the Plymouth Brethren sect in England in the middle of the 19th century. Darby preached something called Dispensational Premillennialism which said that all of history could be divided into seven eras or "dispensations" and that the present age, which he called "the age of the church," immediately preceded this "Rapture." Darby's excuse for a Rapture was that a seven-year period of terrible tribulation was coming and the church was going to be spared that misery. Once the tribulation was over, then a thousand-year-long reign of God (the Millennium) would follow. The "Rapture" idea does not come from the book of Revelation, despite what the producers of Left Behind say in their publicity - we have already seen that it comes from Paul and Darby's literal reading of that one tiny passage from I Thessalonians:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.Two problems. First, the imagery should be understood as poetic, not photographic (the same problem that lots of folks like Hal Lindsay have in reading the book of Revelation) - it was a wonderful word of hope for Christians who were terribly worried that friends and relatives who had died would miss the return of Jesus - Paul says NO, they will be included too; they will not miss out. The second problem is that Darby has taken texts from different sources (the Rapture from Paul and the Tribulation and Millennium from Revelation), and joined them as if they were a seamless whole. That is an interpretive no-no; as someone very wise has said, "A text without a context is a pretext."
This idea of a Rapture, despite all we hear about it, has hardly any biblical support. The reason it is as widely discussed in our day as it is is that a fellow by the name of C.I. Scofield, another lawyer, became enamored of Darby's theology, and published a study Bible (the Scofield Reference edition - you may have one in your home) which included all the teaching about the dispensations in the notes. It was a popular Bible, and thus, lots of people who never heard of Darby DID learn about the Rapture in Scofield's notes. The point is this: if you are worried about the Rapture, regardless of the Left Behind series, DON'T! If the Bible doesn't, you need not either.
One other aside: it may surprise you to learn that the book of Revelation never mentions the Antichrist. Antichrist is a word which occurs only in John's letters in the New Testament(7) and describes a particular individual or a group of people who oppose God and God's purpose. Depending upon which period of history you might be seeing, the Antichrist has been variously identified as Hitler, Mussolini, Napoleon, and in the Middle Ages by the Reformers, often the Pope. Now, in Left Behind, the Secretary General of the U.N. A better understanding of Antichrist is not so much a person as a principle, any principle which is actively opposed to God.
OK, the Bible does not teach a "Rapture," as the Left Behind series presents it. BUT the Bible does clearly teach that Jesus is coming again. The church around the world affirms it over and over in the Apostles Creed: "I believe in God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, etc. etc...He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence HE SHALL COME...to judge the quick and the dead." But, so saying, the return might not be in the way that traditional understanding has taught (and I can promise it will not be the cause of massive traffic accidents because of driver-less vehicles - what kind of God would cause such a mess?). So saying, I am satisfied to leave the details in the Lord's hands. I am content to know that, one day, whether individually at the end of my earthly journey or as one of a great band of believers at the end of history, he is coming for me, and I will see him face to face.
Jesus himself once spoke to the question. We read it a moment ago: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." OK.
At the end of the film version of Left Behind, one of the main characters, a TV reporter by the name of Buck Williams, reflects on all he has seen and heard. He is not quite sure how to process everything, but he finally says, "I don't have all the answers. But for now, faith is enough." 'Nuff said. 'Nuff said.
No, the world has not seen the last of Jesus Christ. Yes,
he is coming again. We need no "rapture;" we will encounter him
at the end of our lives or at the end of human history, whenever
that might be. There will come a day when the aim of God, the
dream of God, the purpose of God will be realized. There will
come a day when EVERY knee shall bow...and EVERY tongue will
confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.(8) I have said it before and I
say it again:
1. Cloud Ten Pictures in association with Namesake Entertainment, Left Behind: The Movie, © 2000, Peter Lalonde, Paul Lalonde, Joe Goodman, Ralph Winter, Producers
2. Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind : a novel of the earth's last days, (Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 1995)
3. I Thessalonians 4:16-17
4. 12/22/99 broadcast produced by Michael Rosenbaum; Copyright 1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved.
5. With C. C. Carlson, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970)
6. Fanny Crosby, 1869
7. I John 2:18, 22; I John 4:3; II John 7
8. Philippians 2:10-11