The movie ‘Left Behind’ starring Nicholas Cage and based on the books of the same name was released in cinemas in the US on October 3 2014 and comes to the UK in January 2015. ‘Left Behind’ is an apocalyptic thriller about the instantaneous disappearance or ‘rapture’ of Christians from the earth (leaving their clothes behind!) shortly before the end of time.
The movie’s Producer describes it as “a Bible-based movie, it’s a biblical story, it’s a true story—it just hasn’t happened yet.” But is this really what the Bible teaches? Will there really be a moment when the Christians will suddenly disappear to be with Jesus; leaving the cars they are driving to veer uncontrollably into other cars, and the planes they are flying to crash into the ground? I don’t think so.
It’s a new idea – For centuries the church believed in a single resurrection when Jesus would return, raise the dead, judge mankind and restore all things. The idea of a ‘secret rapture’ of Christians before a time of ‘tribulation’ is a fairly new idea, originating largely with J.N Darby and The Schofield Reference Bible in the early C18th. The word ‘rapture’ comes from the Latin rapio meaning ‘caught up’ and Darby and Schofield taught that Jesus would return twice, once to ‘catch up’ those faithful Christians living on the earth at the time of his return, and a second time to bring the tribulation to an end and usher in the new age. Now, novelty is not necessarily wrong, but it should raise the question: if this is clearly taught in the Bible, how did the church miss it for 1700 years?
It’s a flawed theological framework – the ideas of a secret rapture, a 7 year tribulation, a second (third?) coming of Jesus leading to the eternal age, form part of what is called ‘Dispensationalism’. A ‘dispensation’ is a period of time, and this framework taught by Darby and Schofield teaches that God has related to human beings in different ways according to the ‘dispensation’ they are in. So, God related to Abraham according to promise, and Moses according to Law and so on. There are a number of difficulties with this framework; firstly, the categories define by dispensationalists overlap significantly in the Bible and are therefore far from distinct or clear. Secondly and I think more importantly, each age comes to an end because people fail to relate to God as we should and therefore God tries a new way. Therefore, the current age will come to an end because the church will decline and dwindle, failing in her calling to relate to God as she should, and a new age will begin where God returns to his ‘Plan A’: the nation of Israel. This negative view of the church and positive view of Israel is a key teaching of Dispensationalism and yet is notably absent in the Bible. The NT in fact paints the opposite picture, that Israel failed in her calling and that “only together with [the church] would they be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40).
It’s not in the Bible – I have inferred this already but the idea of Christians being raptured leaving unbelievers on the earth for a time of tribulation is simply not in the Bible. There are two passages that are often used to argue this teaching:
i. 1 Thess 4:15-17 “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.”
The idea Paul is employing in this passage is of a Roman dignitary visiting a colony or province. The citizens would not simply wait in the city for him to arrive but would go out to meet him, in order to escort him back and welcome him into the city. So, as Tom Wright says “When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air’, the point is exactly not – as in the popular rapture theology – that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from the earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain.” This ‘meeting the Lord in the air’ is not a secret rapture of believers some time before Jesus returns, but is meeting him at the very moment of his return. So, what of the second passage
ii. Matthew 24:40-42 “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (cf Luke 17:34-37
To base the teaching of a ‘secret rapture’ on this verse is both weak and unconvincing. While at first glance it might appear to be a rapture, the passage does not state where those who taken go to – why should we suppose they have been taken to be with Jesus? Nor is it explicit which is a blessing and which is a judgement – is it better to be taken or left behind? (Should the old Cliff Richard song “Don’t get left behind” actually say “Don’t get taken away”?) There are eminent scholars on both sides of the argument, claiming on the one hand that “being left behind is the image of abandonment to destruction” (Nolland) and on the other that “being taken in this context means being taken in judgement. There is no hint here of a rapture” (Wright). It certainly isn’t unquestionably clear either way. Furthermore, the context shows that this event coincides with the return of Jesus and therefore cannot be a secret rapture some time before. So, according to the Bible, the basic idea of the Left Behind books & movie is flawed.
Having said all this, while I will not be going to see the movie (it has also had very poor reviews) – the Bible does teach us to be ready for Jesus’ return – to keep a short account with God and with each other and to not be building up treasures for ourselves in this life but to invest in the Kingdom of God. Are you ready?