Is 'Left Behind' in left field?
August 29 2002 by Ken Walker , Associated Baptist Press

Is 'Left Behind' in left field? | Thursday, Aug. 29, 2002

Thursday, Aug. 29, 2002

Is 'Left Behind' in left field?

By Ken Walker Associated Baptist Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The "Left Behind" novel series has given Christian fiction new respectability. Last year's installment, "Desecration," dethroned John Grisham from a seven-year reign at the top of bestseller lists.

The 10th and newest volume, "The Remnant," logged 2.4 million orders in the two months prior to its July 2 release.

But the novels have also renewed discussion of end-times theology. Theologians have a special discipline for interpreting what the Bible forecasts about the end of the world. It's called "eschatology" - from a Greek word for "last" - literally the "study of last things."

As readers of the "Left Behind" novels know, lead author Tim LaHaye believes Christians will be taken from the earth in a "Rapture" that precedes seven years of suffering, known as the "Great Tribulation," for those who are left behind.

Based on their reading of Bible prophecy - particularly the New Testament book of Revelation - LaHaye and co-author Jerry Jenkins predict that this period will include the rise of an anti-Christ who will demand loyalty from all humans, including acceptance of an identifying "mark of the beast" on their hand or forehead. A series of plagues and suffering will ensue until Jesus comes back to establish a 1,000-year reign on earth.

The "Left Behind" phenomenon has catapulted such discussion not only out of seminaries and into churches, but also into society at large. Only half of those reading the books are evangelicals, meaning a whole new audience is now grappling with similar questions.

Uncertainty since last Sept. 11 has only heightened doomsday fears. A recent Times/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that prophesies in Revelation will come true. Nearly a fourth think the Bible predicted the terrorist attacks, specifically.

Concerned about influence of the "Left Behind" series, Roman Catholic leaders recently endorsed a book aimed at clearing up "confusion" over teaching about the Rapture.

Even some Southern Baptist professors who share many of LaHaye's views say his imaginative fiction is no substitute for exacting scholarship when it comes to formulating an end-times view.

"It's dangerous to take any of your theology out of a novel," said Danny Akin, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "The ultimate authority is the Bible, but I don't dissuade people from reading the books."

Akin said he particularly encourages his students who hold a different end-times view to read the books. "A well-informed minister should be reading the 'Left Behind' series, because his people are," Akin said.

Akin said he subscribes to the books' general theological viewpoint, but he quibbles with points at which he says the authors take liberties with the biblical text.

In earlier novels, believers are portrayed as receiving a cross on their heads that only Christians can see. That "fanciful" picture goes beyond what the Bible says, Akin said.

The series also portrays locusts as stinging humans, which Akin considers a confused reading of Scripture. While these locusts do appear in the ninth chapter of Revelation, he said, a careful reading shows that the creatures spoken of are in fact demons released from the abyss.

"But let's be fair," Akin said. "The books are novels. These aren't biblical, theological works."

Fellow Southern Seminary professor Russell Moore agrees. Although he has read only excerpts, he said the novels shouldn't be viewed as authoritative in the way they interpret Scripture.

The anti-Christ plays a prominent role in the novels' story line, but the Bible doesn't give many specifics about the character other than to predict his existence, said Moore, a theology professor who recently moderated a seminary forum on Israel and the end times.

"There are some issues of the end times that we don't know," said Moore. "To be fair, with a novel you have to do some speculating. But readers should have a discerning eye."

If people aren't careful, they can get caught up in the kind of speculation Moore encountered as a teenager in his native Biloxi, Miss. A revival evangelist warned his congregation to avoid supermarkets that used price scanners, saying they could be linked to Revelation's "mark of the beast."

"We know there will be a mark of the beast," Moore said. "But we can't have a mark when the beast hasn't been revealed yet."

The problem with jumping on the bandwagon of any particular interpretation is that it undermines serious discussion of end-times issues, said Craig Blaising, executive vice president and provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

"There's a serious impoverishment of Christian life when that happens," Blaising said. "Sometimes these things are made into a major matter of division and they shouldn't be."

The Southern Baptist Convention's "Baptist Faith and Message" statement doesn't promote a particular end-times view, he noted, but it does affirm belief in Christ's return and a bodily resurrection.

Blaising said preoccupation with the Rapture often leads to faulty speculation on the date of Christ's return - a practice Paul Boyer chronicled in his 1994 book, "When Time Shall Be No More."

Blaising also said the novels' major premise, that people without Christ are "left behind," picks up on a trend since the 1970s to view the Rapture as a "judgment" doctrine.

People's greatest fear shouldn't be missing the Rapture, Blaising said, but spending eternity apart from God. "The real message of the Bible is you better come to faith or you could die in sin," he said. "But our culture is disinclined to believe in hell and inclined to believe in earthly trouble."

A Samford University research professor said he believes the earthly travails outlined in "Left Behind" aren't going to happen at all. Professor Bill Hull said LaHaye's interpretation is a minority view among theologians and that it developed relatively recently.

English evangelist John Nelson Darby, who led a series of campaigns in the United States beginning in the 1860s, is credited with formulating the theological system called "dispensationalism." It gained popularity with the publication of the influential Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, with its extensive footnotes outlining Darby's scheme, and again in the 1970s with Hal Lindsey's popular book, "The Late Great Planet Earth."

Hull, one-time dean of Southern Seminary's theology school, said he views the theology underpinning the "Left Behind" series as "a massive misunderstanding" of Scripture.

"I think (LaHaye) has misinterpreted the whole Bible," he said. "It's not what Jesus, Peter, Paul or John preached."

Hull discounts LaHaye's account of "a secret Rapture where unbelievers don't know why people have disappeared." Revelation 1:7 says that when Christ returns, "Every eye shall see him."

"I've not found any of 10 Bible commentaries that interpret that verse the way LaHaye does," Hull said.

Hull hasn't read the "Left Behind" series, but he is familiar with LaHaye's theology as outlined in non-fiction books, including "Revelation Unveiled."

Hull said LaHaye forms his theology by tying together unrelated passages and taking certain passages literally that could be intended as symbolism.

Other Bible passages seem to indicate that God will never neglect or abandon his children on earth, he said.

"I would say the Bible doesn't have enough verses to dominate any particular view," he said. "I believe the end times will be characterized by the triumph of Christ, that it is God's purpose to redeem the world through Christ, and history will come to that conclusion."

(EDITOR'S NOTE - Bob Allen contributed to this story.)

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8/29/2002 12:00:00 AM by Ken Walker , Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments
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