Five Myths About the “Rapture” and the “Left Behind” Industry | Carl E. Olson | CWR
On the (short) history, (bad) theology, and (continuing) appeal of premillennial dispensationalism
This year has marked a sort of second coming of “the Rapture”. On June 29th, HBO launched a new series, "The Leftovers", based on the 2011 novel of the same title, written by Tom Perrotta, which follows the struggles of various characters living in the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of millions of people. “And then it happened,” states the novel's Prologue, “The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world.” The twist is that Perrotta apparently uses the Rapture as a plot device, but does not adhere to the dispensationalist belief system which features the Rapture (more on that below).
The recent movie, “The Remaining”, however, is completely dedicated to the “left behind” theology, as co-writer and director Casey La Scala explains:
And ever since I was a kid, I wondered what would happen if the Rapture were to happen and all of the sudden we were in seven years of hell. So, I went through Revelations and I got to the sixth trumpet, in which the Abyss is opened and the demons are released, and I said, ‘There it is!’ ... In the process of writing The Remaining, once I was sure the project would stand up to an evangelical base, I did a lot of work on making sure the rules of the Rapture were biblically accurate.
If La Scala really did refer to The Apocalypse as “Revelations”, then readers will be forgiven for questioning the depth of his research and knowledge of Scripture. Then again, being “biblically accurate” has never been a strong suit of the “left behind” theology (again, more on that below).
And then there is the new “Left Behind” movie, in theaters this coming Friday, starring Nicholas Cage (yes, he's still acting—or at least appearing in movies). The verbiage is boilerplate and sensational, a combination that has been an essential part of Rapture fiction since British author Sydney Watson published a trilogy of end times novels a hundred years ago—Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915), and In the Twinkling of an Eye (1916):
In the blink of an eye, the biblical Rapture strikes the world. Millions of people disappear without a trace. All that remains are their clothes and belongings, and in an instant, terror and chaos spread around the world.
With all of this eschatological excitement in the pop culture air, it's not surprising that I've received e-mails and questions about the newest round of Rapture roulette. The biggest question is simply, “Are the 'Left Behind' books and movies compatible with Catholicism?” Others follow. I addressed those and many, many other questions several years ago in my first book, Will Catholics Be Left Behind? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today's Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius Press, 2003; e-book). I also write a number of articles about the “Left Behind” phenomenon, including pieces about the unoriginal nature of the Tim LaHaye/Jerry B. Jenkins novels, a short history of the “left behind” theology, a comparison of dispensationalism and Catholicism, and a rather scathing review of the Glorious Appearing, the twelfth Left Behind novel.
With that in mind, I am reposting an article I wrote in late 2003 for Crisis magazine, which examines five of the central myths, or misunderstandings, about the Rapture and related matters. I've not updated it (for example, there are a total of sixteen Left Behind novels, and they have sold around 65 million copies in all), but the main points are still just as good today as they were then.
Three years ago I mentioned to a Catholic friend that I was starting to work on a book critiquing the Left Behind novels and premillennial dispensationalism, the unique theological belief system presented, in fictional format, within those books. “Why?” she asked, obviously bewildered. “No one really takes that stuff seriously.”
That revealing remark merely reinforced my desire to write that book, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”? (Ignatius, 2003). Other conversations brought home the same point. Far too many people, including a significant number of Catholics, do not recognize the attraction and power of this Fundamentalist phenomenon. Nor do they appear to appreciate how much curiosity exists about the “end times,” the book of Revelation, and the “pretribulation Rapture”—the belief that Christians will be taken up from earth prior to a time of tribulation and the Second Coming. In addition, I hoped to pen the sort of book I wish that I, as a Fundamentalist, could have read while studying and approaching, by fits and starts, the Catholic Church.
In the course of writing articles, giving talks, and writing the book, I have encountered a number of questions and comments—almost all from Catholics—that indicate how much confusion exists about matters of eschatology, not to mention ecclesiology, historical theology, and the interpretation of Scripture. The five myths I present here summarize many of those questions, and I seek to provide basic and clear answers for them.
“The Left Behind books represent a fringe belief system that very few people take seriously.”
Exactly how many copies of the Left Behind books must be sold before the theology they propagate can be taken seriously?