The enormously popular “Left Behind” series of novels–the publisher, Tyndale House, claims to have sold more than 10 million copies–provides the latest example of Americans’ fascination with the apocalyptic writings in the Bible, especially the New Testament book of Revelation. Throughout church history, but especially since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Christians have speculated wildly about the end of time. Martin Luther, who had triggered the Reformation, thought that these speculations were pointless, that they diverted the believer from the true business of following Christ, and he believed that the book of Revelation should not be included in the canon of Scripture. Luther lost that battle, and Christians ever since have unleashed all sorts of theories about the sequence of events leading to the end of time, the identity of the Antichrist (a cunning, diabolical world leader), and the timing of the millennium, the 1000-year period of righteous rule predicted in Revelation 20.
In America, always the most fertile soil for such speculations because a majority of Christians want to read the Bible literally, not allegorically, those speculations have had a profound effect. The Puritans believed that Jesus would return at any moment, but in the meantime they were obliged to build a godly society–a “city on a hill”–here on Earth (more precisely, in the howling wilderness of Massachusetts). Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers believed that Christ had already returned to Earth, her followers were convinced that she was the female incarnation of Christ, and life now in the millennium required that the followers of Jesus abstain from all sexual relations. John Humphrey Noyes also believed that we now live in the millennial age, but that this new millennium allowed sexual license; his followers practiced what Noyes called “complex marriage,” where members of his Oneida Community were allowed to copulate freely with other members of the community without regard for the constraints of marital fidelity.
Speculations about the end of time have also made their way into popular culture. The most famous example in recent decades is a 16-millimeter film called A Thief in the Night, produced in the early 1970s by Mark IV Pictures in Des Moines, Iowa. Written and directed by Donald Thompson, the film has been widely distributed around the world in such venues as churches and Bible camps. By the end of the 1980s the producers estimated that the film had been viewed by 100 million people; even if you cut that number in half to account for hyperbole, an audience of 50 million would be the envy of any Hollywood producer.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I must add that Thompson was once my Sunday school teacher and that my late father, an evangelical minister, played a crucial role in securing production money for the film. He also played the role of the good–evangelical–pastor in the movie itself.)
A Thief in the Night returned to the apocalyptic theme that other filmmakers had tried before: portraying an event called the rapture, when the true believers would suddenly be taken into heaven and those left behind–the title of Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ series–would face all manner of judgments and tribulations predicted in Revelation, including persecution, the emergence of a one-world government (hence the persistent evangelical suspicions of the United Nations and the European community), and the dreaded mark of the beast, some version of the numerals 666. All these predictions are based in the book of Revelation, but what made A Thief in the Night different was Thompson’s skills as a filmmaker. Whereas previous portrayals–I remember a church film called Missing Christians, for example–had shown the true believers ascending into the sky by means of crude harnesses, Thompson was more subtle, effectively portraying the sense of panic and desolation that overtakes those who were not caught up in the rapture. The film, despite what many would see as its hokey pretext, is convincing, even harrowing. Its intended effect is to persuade those who are not evangelical Christians–those who haven’t been “born again” or who haven’t “given their lives to Jesus”–to repent and be “saved.”
The “Left Behind” series is part of this genre. The books move the book of Revelation into what I would characterize as camp fiction. Within the first few pages of the initial volume, the true Christians–who are always distinguished from more liberal Christians, those who do not read Revelation literally (or at all)–simply disappear, leaving behind their “unsaved” relatives as well as their clothing, spectacles, and hearing aids. (The rapture apparently provides a bonanza for Goodwill Industries.) A woman in labor finds that her fetus disappears in the process of childbirth; the doctor delivers an empty placenta as the shocked father witnesses this strange occurrence on the fetal monitor (both LaHaye and his wife, Beverly, are ardent anti-abortionists). The remainder of the novel traces the efforts of an airline pilot, Rayford Steele, to locate his family, most of whom have been “raptured,” and to deal with life during the tribulation.
One final note to place this series into context. For centuries, those who read Revelation literally have argued over when the millennium, this 1000-year period, would occur. Would it take place before Jesus returns to Earth or after? Those unfamiliar with this discussion will, no doubt, regard it as trivial, but it has had enormous implications, especially throughout American history.
In the early part of the 19th century most Protestants believed that Jesus would return to Earth after the millennium, which, to use theological language, made them postmillennialists. The corollary to postmillennialism is that Christians need to be active in creating the millennial kingdom here on Earth. Postmillennialism, therefore, animated many of the social reform movements of the antebellum period: abolitionism, the temperance movement, the missionary impulse, the female seminary movement, and women’s rights. All were energized by the conviction that believers were responsible for reforming society according to the norms of godliness and thereby constructing the kingdom of God here on Earth–more precisely, here in America.
By the latter decades of the 19th century, however, evangelical Protestants began to have second thoughts. The carnage of the Civil War, massive industrialization and urbanization, and the influx of non-Protestant immigrants made America look less and less like the millennial kingdom they had so confidently predicted earlier in the century. Accordingly, they latched onto a new method of biblical interpretation imported from Britain called dispensational premillennialism, which said, in effect, that postmillennialism was wrong. Jesus was not going to return to Earth after the millennium, as postmillennialists believe, but before the millennium, which means that Jesus could return at any moment. This is premillennialism.
I call premillennialism a theology of despair because it says, in effect, that the world is getting progressively worse and that there’s little hope for reform. The best that a believer can do is try to convert as many individual souls as possible, but the millennial realm will have to wait for the return of Jesus. “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel,” the famous Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody said late in the 19th century, “God has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can.’ “
Premillennialists therefore largely gave up the task of reforming this world. They look forward to the return of Jesus to get the true believers out of this mess, at which time the tribulation will chastise the enemies of righteousness who have been “left behind.”
The “Left Behind” series is unmistakably premillennial.