This is one of the more interesting reviews I’ve read on the theology surrounding the Left Behind books. It was written by Iain D. Campbell and can be found at Nollie’s blog: Doctrine Unites!
A few excerpts,
Perhaps you are asking why we should spend so much time thinking about a work of fiction? It is not because I am endorsing all kinds of fiction, or even commenting on the literary value of this particular series. I think it is important to grapple with the Left Behind series because it is attempting, very persuasively, to produce an end-time scenario which accords with the details of biblical prophecy. In other words, although the precise characters and locations are fictional, the major world events – beginning with the Rapture, and including the role of Israel, the rise of AntiChrist, the wars and the earthquakes – are all understood by the authors to be predicted in the Bible. And amid the confusion and uncertainty that even evangelical scholars have about the Bible’s eschatology, a series like this can readily convince.
The theology of the series is interwoven skillfully into the narrative. The tape that was produced by the senior pastor of Bruce Barnes’ church, as well as the imagined Internet broadcasts of Tsion Ben-Judah give an opening to the authors to present their understanding of what the Bible teaches about the end of the world.
The eschatology begins with the rapture of the saints, with Christ coming for his own. There is a sudden, mysterious and secret coming of Jesus to take away all true believers. Some churchmen are left, because one can pastor a church and not be a true believer. It is interesting to note how wide the rapture is, according to the Left Behind series. All children under about 12 years of age are raptured, including unborn babies. Interestingly, in the series, the Pope is raptured; so countless thousands suddenly disappear as, in the thoughts of Rayford Steele, “Jesus had come for his people” (I:48).
The whole concept of a rapture is built largely around 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:52, which both speak of the resurrection of dead believers and the immediate ascension into Heaven of living believers at the same moment. La Haye and Jenkins interpret this to mean that “when the Christians who have already died and those that are still living receive their immortal bodies, the Rapture of the church will have taken place” (I:210). But they go further and say: “You may wonder why this has happened. Some believe this is the judgement of God on an ungodly world. Actually, that is to come later. Strange as this may sound to you, this is God’s final effort to get the attention of every person who has ignored or rejected him. He is allowing now a vast period of trial and tribulation to come to you who remain” (I:212). In other words, the Rapture, while immediately impacting on the believers, is also an attempt on the part of God to get the attention of unbelievers, so that they will be converted.
Of course, the world will look on and explain the events in some other way. In Book I, Nicolae Carpathia is quoted as saying, in response to the Rapture view, that he does not accept the theory “because I know many, many more people who should be gone if the righteous were taken to Heaven. If there is a God, I respectfully submit that this is not the capricious way in which he would operate” (I:255). So, in spite of God’s judgements being in the earth, the rulers of the world still refuse to submit to Him.
But those who do submit have to face the events that follow the Rapture. The Left Behind series suggests the following eschatological sequence:
- The Rapture
- Seven-year Period of Tribulation
- Glorious Appearing of Christ
Most of the narrative of the Left Behind Series is set in the envisaged Tribulation period, which is further divided into an initial period of 21 months (corresponding to the 7 Sealed-Scroll Judgements of Revelation 6:1-8:5. According to the Book of Revelation, these include the white horse, representing the rise of Antichrist, the red-horse of war, the black horse of famine and economic inflation, the pale horse of death, bringing in a plague which will result in the death of a quarter of the world’s population, the gathering together and sealing of 144,000 Jewish believers, an earthquake (6:12 – sixth seal) which will represent the wrath of the Lamb against the enemies of believers, and the seventh seal will introduce the second period of tribulation.
This second period is represented in Revelation 8:6 – 10:11 as a series of 7 trumpets bringing 7 trumpet-judgements against the world, the first of which brings showers of hail, fire and blood which destroys one third of the earth’s vegetation, the second turns the sea into blood, the third makes the waters bitter, the fourth darkens the sun, moon and stars, the fifth darkens the atmosphere with smoke, out of which come locusts to destroy the earth and to torment men for five months (9:5), the sixth brings a mysterious army of horsemen into view (9:17) and the seventh (Revelation 10) brings this period to a close.
We are now half way through the tribulation period, one aspect of which has been the sealing of the believers on their foreheads, which is referred to in Revelation 7:3. It first appears in Book 4 of the series, in an exchange between Cameron and Tsion Ben-Judah, who can see each other’s marks in their foreheads, but cannot see their own: “Yes”, Buck said, “Hey! This is like one of those puzzles that looks like a bunch of sticks until you sort of reverse it in your mind and see the background as the foreground and vice versa. That’s a cross on your forehead.”
Tsion seemed to stare desperately at Buck. Suddenly he said, “Yes, Cameron! We have the seal, visible to only other believers” (IV:193).
The first half of the tribulation period is said to end with the seventh trumpet. The second half of 42 months is said to be the Great Tribulation, and corresponds to the 7-Vials of Revelation 15-16, a period characterised by death and judgement. The two witnesses of Revelation 11 will continue preaching in Jerusalem for 1,260 days (11:3), when they will be killed, and their dead bodies will lie in the streets (11:8) for three and a half days, after which they will be resurrected. During the Great Tribulation the Antichrist and the Beast will continue to rule the enemies of the Lamb, an important point of which will be the assassination of the Antichrist by a blow to his head, from which he will recover (13:3ff) and be resurrected in a manner similar to the resurrection of Christ, and then be indwelt by Satan as he governs his wicked kingdom, eventually sealing his own with the mark of the beast, the number 666 (13:18). Without the mark, no-one can buy or sell; it is the pledge of complete loyalty to antichrist, and of control by him. It reflects the fact that Christ’s are sealed in their foreheads. It marks out the storyline of the latest book, Book VIII, The Mark. Book VIII suggests that you can only have one mark, either that of Christ or that of the Beast and Antichrist.
I want to say two things about this theology:
This eschatology is based upon a linear view of the Book of Revelation, that is, a view that regards all the judgements recounted in Revelation as following each other in strict chronological and consequential order. In addition, it is based upon a view that sees the events of the Book of Revelation as entirely future (hence it is often known as the futurist view of Revelation), with the rapture taking place before Chapter 4, and the tribulation events taking place before the Millennium, the thousand-year period of Chapter 20. In other words, the rapture is pre-millennial and pre-tribulation. This sets the theology of the Left Behind series in the context of Dispensational thought. Dispensationalism is a view of the Bible – and consequently of history – which sees the historical outworking of redemption as taking place in isolated units of time along the world’s historical timeline.
One major influence in popularising Dispensationalism in America and determining its course for the twentieth century was the appearance of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. It divided biblical history into the dispensations of innocency, conscience, human government, promise, Mosaic, Grace and Kingdom. With minor variations, this became the classical dispensational view. A revision of the Scofield Bible in the 1960s led to a revision of the movement as a whole; one of the most noted revisionists was Charles Ryrie, whose Dispensationalism Today was published in 1965. In it, Ryrie wished to counteract some misrepresentations of dispensationalism, arguing that although they recognised different epochs in salvation history, nonetheless the differences between dispensationalists and nondispensationalists are to be seen in three areas: “
(1) we believe in the clear distinction between Israel and the Church;
(2) we affirm that normal or plain interpretation of the Bible should be applied consistently to all its parts; and
(3) we avow that the unifying principle of the Bible is the glory of God and that this is worked out in several ways – the program of redemption, the program for Israel, the punishment of the wicked, the plan for the angels, and the glory of God revealed through nature” (DT, 211-2).
For Ryrie, this meant that the dispensations “are not stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace, but are distinguishingly different administrations of God in directing the affairs of the world” (DT, 16).
Dispensationalism has now entered a new stage with the rise of what has been called by its proponents progressive dispensationalism, which has modified much of the older view and downgraded much of the distinctions between the historic dispensations, seeing them not as isolated but as successive units of salvation history. One element of this is the attempt to clear dispensationalism of the charge of antinomianism (if the Mosaic era has nothing to do with the church era, how can the Mosaic law be of relevance to us today?). Progressive dispensationalists want to say that Mosaic covenant law has been replaced with new covenant law, although the basic problem of dichotomy still remains. It is still the case, however, that basic to dispensational thought is that this is the church age; that there was no church in the Old Testament.
Basic to progressive dispensationalism is the belief that most of Revelation is future, including the millennium of Revelation 20. During that 1000-year period, it is argued, Christ will reign on earth. The tribulation precedes the millennium, and the millennium represents the fullest manifestation of the Kingdom of God, and earthly, spiritual, national and political reign of Christ on earth in a renewed Paradise, without sin, death or demons, what progressive dispensationalists call “the goal of redemption” (PD, p283).
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Iain D. Campbell makes one particular point (later within the review) which I’d like your opinion on:
The unity of the Bible is safeguarded by a covenantal rather than by a dispensational approach to redemptive history.
Although Paul uses the word “dispensation” in several places to refer to the manner and the time of God’s working, he never uses the concept as a structural form; in other words, the Bible is not structured around isolated, or even successive dispensations. To be sure, there is clear progress in the march of history; the Old Testament looks forward, and the New Testament looks back; we look forward to something better than the best of what we experience here. But what unifies the whole of history, and what structures the whole of the Bible is not that God works at different eras and epochs, but that throughout them his work is the same, and his work is determined by the covenant of his grace. There is a covenantal unity in the Bible, which derives from the unity of God’s single purpose in history.
O.Palmer Robertson, in his The Christ of the Covenants, puts it like this: “Dispensationalism partitions the purposes of God, making one purpose relate to the physical, earthly realm, and another purpose relate to the heavenly, spiritual realm. The whole of the Christian faith cries out against such a distinction” (COTC, 214). Further, he goes on to argue that “the covenants are explicit scriptural indicators of divine initiatives that structure redemptive history. The dispensations instead represent arbitrary impositions on the biblical order” (COTC 227).
Do you agree?