Has real hope been ‘left behind’?

Stephen Travis

‘The world belongs to those who offer it hope’, wrote French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Hope is fulfilled, declares the New Testament, in the final coming of Christ to complete what he began in Bethlehem and Nazareth, at Golgotha and the empty tomb.

So the church neglects its calling if its people do not learn the truth that Christ will come

  • to complete his work of rescuing humanity begun in his coming in Bethlehem
  • to hold humanity to account for the way we live our lives – the process of judgement which will determine our ultimate destiny
  • to abolish all evil
  • to renew the whole creation
  • to welcome his people into the permanent presence of God

These are great themes inviting exploration. But in this article I want to concentrate on one popular version of Christian hope which I believe to be seriously misguided and pastorally dangerous.

Left Behind

The Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is a publishing phenomenon. With over 50 million copies in print and associated materials such as videos and special edition computer software widely available, they have enthused and influenced readers of all ages in many countries. They embody in story form (and this is the secret of their runaway success) a rigid doctrinal position without ever announcing its true label. The result is that millions in the evangelical world are captivated by the message and assume that this is the only possible doctrine for a real evangelical to hold.

The proper label for the doctrine is Dispensational Premillennialism, or Dispensationalism for short. Far from having its roots in orthodox Christianity, it is in fact an interpretation of Scripture developed first by J. N. Darby, one of the early Plymouth Brethren, less than two hundred years ago. Here are some of its key features, followed by reasons why I believe it distorts scripture and undermines the hope of the New Testament. If you read through the dozen or so Left Behind books, you may not find all these feature in precisely this form. But the features are typical of Dispensationalism in general.

A unique programme for the future

This scheme was not known before Darby thought of it. It involves:

  • A period of apostasy before Jesus comes
  • Belief that Jesus will come in secret to take both dead and living Christians to be with himself – the so-called ‘secret rapture’
  • A seven-year period known as the 'tribulation', in which antichrist will rule the earth
  • Then Christ will appear from heaven openly, overthrowing Satan at Armageddon and ushering in his thousand-year reign (millennium) in Jerusalem, where the temple and sacrificial worship will be restored
  • After the millennium Satan will be loosed again and will stir up rebellion against God. His defeat will be followed by the resurrection and judgment of the wicked, and then the final, eternal state.

Comments on some of these details appear below.

A scheme of seven ‘dispensations’

These are distinct periods of history in which God deals with humanity in distinct ways. For example, a sharp distinction is made between the dispensations of Law (from Moses to Jesus) and of Grace (the age of the church), stressing that in the age of Law salvation is achieved through human works, not through faith. But throughout the Bible God’s salvation is always the result of his grace, received by faith and followed by the response of obedience. In Galatians 3 Paul argues not that law and grace are in conflict, but that the law serves to further the ends of the gospel.

A sharp division between Israel and the church

This follows from the separation of dispensations. The promises made to Israel in the Old Testament must be fulfilled literally, and must be fulfilled for literal, racial or national Israel. So all the Old Testament promises of peace and prosperity for Israel in the Holy Land will be fulfilled for Jewish people in the millennium. Even the promise of a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) is essentially a promise of Israel, and will therefore not be fulfilled until the millennium. The Christian church is quite distinct from Israel and cannot be the heir of God’s Old Testament promises to Israel. Since the church (on this view) was not predicted in the Old Testament, it is a kind of detour in the plan of God, which came about because racial Israel rejected Jesus’ message of the kingdom of heaven.

The effect of this is to reduce the age of the church to the status of the half-time interval in a football match. The real game concerns Israel – in the Old Testament period and the millennium. And since Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels was addressed to Jews, it cannot be applied directly to Christians. So the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer and much more cannot properly be followed until the millennium. The Acts and letters of the New Testament, by contrast, are for the church now.

This perspective destroys the Bible’s picture of an ongoing plan of God through history. It discounts the ways in which New Testament writers constantly see Old Testament promises to Israel as coming to fulfilment in the church – for example the ways in which 1 Peter 2:4-10 interprets a whole series of Old Testament images of Israel and sees them fulfilled among mostly Gentile followers of Jesus.

The rapture and the tribulation

Most Dispensationalists believe that Jesus may at any time come to gather into his presence both living and dead Christians. They will be ‘carried away’ to meet him in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18; Matthew 24:40). This is the ‘secret rapture’. (You can see it all in Left Behind – the Movie, as the rapture leaves the cars of Christian drivers out of control and causes a spectacular pile-up on the freeway). After Christians have been removed from the earth in this way, Jews and Gentiles left behind will experience the ‘tribulation’, a seven-year period of unprecedented suffering, after which Christ will come to establish his millennial reign.

Such a view contradicts the biblical insistence that Christians are preserved not from suffering but through suffering, in imitation of their Lord. And the idea that there will be two future comings of Jesus – one secret and one public – runs contrary to the plain teaching of Jesus and Paul. Passages such as 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 and Matthew 24:36-44 show clearly that Jesus’ coming to gather his people into his presence and his coming to judge the world belong to a single event.

The millennium will be predominantly Jewish

Under Christ’s rule, most Dispensationalists say, the nations of earth will be subject to Israel. The temple and its animal sacrifices will be restored. Old Testament prophecies underlie such ideas. But they take no account of the New Testament’s description of the church as God’s temple, and ignore the gospel message that the death of Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice which ended the need for all other sacrifices.

Support for political Israel

The Dispensationalists’ stress on the separation between Israel and the church has serious political consequences. Because, in their view, only racial Israel can inherit the Old Testament’s promises to Israel, they see the promises of ‘return to the land’ as being fulfilled in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Israel is a land blessed by God, established in fulfillment of divine prophecy, and therefore it can do no wrong. As the state established by God in the unfolding of his prophetic purposes it merits the unquestioning support of Christians. So anyone who protests about Israeli oppression of Palestinians is being anti-semitic and resisting the purpose of God himself (see Gary Burge, Whose Land? Whose Promise? reviewed in this issue).

The flaws in this approach are many. In particular, Dispensationalism takes the Old Testament seriously at the expense of the New. It utterly fails to take account of the way in which Jesus and the New Testament writers refocused the promises of God onto the believers in Jesus the Messiah, whether Jewish or Gentile. Whilst the New Testament speaks of a future by God’s grace for Jewish people (Romans 9-11), it is silent on the future of Israel as a political state. And even if one takes the Old Testament on its own terms, by what right does one give prominence to promises of Israel’s political dominance while ignoring the call of the law and the prophets for justice, mercy and protection for ‘the stranger in your midst'?

When people speak of how President Bush’s approach to the Israel-Palestine problem is influenced by ‘the Jewish lobby’, they forget that a much larger lobby in the US is that of Dispensationalist Christians who also want him to side with Israel at the expense of Palestine. So this issue of what kind of hope for the world Christians envisage is not merely a matter of abstract theological speculation. The position we take affects directly the plight of our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters, as well as the security of Israel.

Dr Stephen Travis is the Vice-Principle of St John's College, Nottingham and a Methodist Local Preacher.

Headline, Summer 2004 pp 21-22.