Friday, 3 October 2014


(sigh) Here we go again.

Just when you think that a particularly pernicious little doctrine may finally have breathed its last, somebody comes along and tries to give it the kiss of life via the blockbuster movie treatment.

It is worse still when it is a movie that has a (former?) Hollywood A-lister in the lead role and so is likely to attract more than the usual amount of interest from the wider cinema-going public.

I suggest it might be former A-lister because the cynic in me wonders if Nicholas Cage would be seen dead in a Christian movie unless his career was on its uppers. But I digress.

The movie, of course, is Left Behind which is released in the UK tomorrow.

 The plotline is predicated upon belief in the so-called Pre-Tribulation Rapture which (for the benefit of the few remaining uninitiated out there) holds that the translation of the Church described in 1 Thess 4: 13-17 constitutes a distinct and separate event which transpires seven years before Jesus comes back properly as it were.

The timing of this event thus, rather handily, allows the final generation of the "Gentile Church" to escape that rather nasty business known as the Great Tribulation.**

Apparently that is only meant for Jews.

The Pre-trib Rapture arose in the early 19th Century out of a Western cultural mindset that it seems had forgotten the travails of previous generations of saints and begun to think that comfortable, peaceful, Christian living was the norm whilst it was suffering for your faith that constituted something of an aberration. 

This is comfy-armchair theology bigtime, and it can only be arrived at by using the kind of hermeneutical principles that would render the Bible an entirely meaningless book if employed in other areas of the Christian faith (you can find my scriptural objections to the teaching by accessing the Last Days section above).

However one could be forgiven for thinking that a glance at the evening news alone these days would suffice to demonstrate that Christians in the current day are scarcely immune to the kind of tribulation portrayed so vividly in Revelation chapter 13.

Yet the Left Behind logic seems to run something like this:

Fate of Middle Eastern Christians today: beheaded.
Fate of Western Christians tomorrow: raptured

So all fair and above board there then.

Now it is only right to point out that the diehard pretribber would wish to chip in and say that the doctrine maintains that those atrocities being committed in the Middle East and elsewhere today are only examples of ordinary tribulation whilst the Great Tribulation is to be understood as something entirely different.

Now on one level this is correct.

 Jesus Himself said that it would be a time of "great tribulation, such as has not been seen from the beginning of the world until now" (Mt 24:21).

But it seems most likely to me that what our Lord meant was that the difference in the future Tribulation is one of scope, (in that it appears to affect the whole planet) rather than the actual degree of suffering involved for any individual.  

Afer all, there can scarcely be a difference in intensity for the individual believer caught up in each. If you are a Christian in Iraq today trying to survive and maintain your faith in the midst of the horrors of rape, torture, crucifixion and beheading then life is pretty much as bad as it can possibly get. Anti-Christ can do no worse to you.

 For you, great tribulation has come already, and it can only be relieved by safely getting over the border (see here).

It follows then that tribulation ought to be seen as normative for Christian believers in this present age and no compelling reason can be offered why we should escape the future worldwide type when past saints have so regularly had to endure localised versions of it which were often just as horrific.

One of the most depressing aspects of Left Behind is that the movie's budget and high-profile star are likely to give it much greater prominence than other (much more amateurish) Left Behind movies of the past.

That means we face the likelihood of increased derision from a bemused world in the coming weeks, as well-intentioned believers seek to interest their friends and neighbours in their pet eschatalogical theory.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't mind being laughed at over the things in the Bible that are true. If the creation account, Joshua's long day and the resurrection of Jesus are considered sources of mirth to the unregenerate heart then so be it. Facing ridicule over those things was included in the job description.

 However I draw the line at being mocked over something that I don't actually believe.

But most worrying of all is the effect upon Christian believers themselves, for here is a doctrine that has bred so much complacency in the heart of so many over the years.  

It was not meant to be that way, of course. The Pre-Trib Rapture was often sold in the past with the promise that it was the only eschatalogical viewpoint that encouraged Christians to be spiritually prepared ("Rapture-ready") at all times for the return of Jesus since it could happen at any moment.

Firstly, this is nonsense since other viewpoints must of necessity also exhort us to maintain spiritual alertness.  Given that anyone of us could fall under a bus at any moment and so meet Jesus that way, then everyone ought to aim to be "Death-ready" at least.

Secondly, who has actually seen any evidence that this Pre-trib belief is nurturing a generation of razor-sharp spiritual warriors poised like a coiled spring to meet Jesus in the air?

Mostly all I see are slumbering saints.

I do not know whether the coming hardships of the European and American Churches will turn out to presage the final Tribulation or not, but I do believe that persecution is coming our way.

 This means that whilst in previous generations the Pre-Tribulation Rapture could be dismissed as harmless nonsense, it can be no longer. This is a very bad time for pastors to be filling the heads of their flocks with the notion that they will not be required to suffer for their faith.

The likelihood is that they will, and perhaps soon. 

 What is urgently needed is therefore for the Western Church to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee, and indeed we had perhaps begun to notice encouraging signs recently that this may actually be starting to happen.

 The last thing required at this point is the delivery of another shot of spiritual sedative courtesy of Left Behind and the complacent theology that lies back of it. 

 Instead now is the time for those charged with preparing God's people for future trials to be exhorting their flocks to vacate the cinemas and begin populating the bible studies and prayer meetings instead. 

 This isn't Star Trek, and there isn't going to be an emergency beam-out seconds before the looming disaster.

So it really is best that these escapist fantasies be left behind.

** Some will have guessed already that all of this assumes a Dispensationalist and Futurist understanding of the relevant scriptures. You Preterists just move along now, nothing for you to see here.