“People look to me and say, ‘Is the end near, when is the final day?’
What’s the future of mankind? How do I know, I got left behind.
How am I supposed to know hidden meanings that will never show
Fools and prophets from the past, life’s a stage and we’re all in the cast.”
~ Ozzy Osbourne, ‘I Don’t Know’ (1980)
In exploring and critiquing the underlying theology upon which Left Behind is based, it is important to make clear my realization that many Christians do not believe in the notions of Rapture and Tribulation. Many educated Christians take the side of the vast majority of reputable Bible scholars who say that the Book of Revelation was intended to be an allegorical and devotional account of what early Christians at the close of the first century CE believed would befall the Roman Empire . But whether it makes more or less sense for a professing Christian to take this position is, I think, debatable. What are the theological implications of saying that Jesus could see the future only in a limited sense, and that his foresight did not extend very far into the future? For secular and critical Bible scholars, this does not pose a dilemma, because they know the New Testament was not written by either Jesus or his closest followers. But for the majority of lay believers, the New Testament is supposed to be divinely inspired.
Whenever Jesus delivers a dissertation on the end-times in the Gospels, the speech is always directly linked to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. His end-times missives are always intended to refer to events predicted to take place within the next few decades. In Jesus’ time, there was a great deal of incendiary doomsday preaching in the midst of Jewish persecution at the hands of Rome, which was having a difficult time deciding what to do with this section of their growing empire. The inference that the Temple was in danger was not an outlandish one to make; it did not take a divine prophet or seer to perceive that a bad situation was brewing and getting worse as time went on. And in the New Testament scriptures, the Temple’s destruction is clearly predicted to take place within Jesus’ own generation.
In the Olivet Discourse, featured in every Gospel except that of John, Jesus talks with his disciples about the signs which will immediately precede the apocalypse. When Jesus states, “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34; cf. Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32), he is speaking specifically about the coming of the Messiah and the concurrent destruction of the Temple, events which the early church believed would cue the end of the world and the final judgment. On the basis of the above-mentioned verses and others (for example, Matthew 16:28 and John 21:21-22), some biblical inerrantists have actually gone so far as to posit that John the Apostle, Jesus’ closest follower, is still alive today and waits for the Second Coming in hiding somewhere, his physical body miraculously conserved by God for the last two thousand years .
Even the most hidebound of fundamentalists must have some dim understanding in the back of their minds that the validity of their faith is seriously threatened if in fact Jesus predicted that his return would come during his disciples’ generation, a promise he obviously failed to deliver on. This is why Christian apologists must resort to mental gymnastics when their backs are against the wall on this topic. They will argue, for example, that the words “this generation” (genea) in Matthew 24:34 and its parallel passages should actually be understood to mean “this nation” or “this race,” as in “this nation shall not pass till all these things be done.” My response to this apologetic maneuver is threefold:
1. Greek language experts do not agree with this translation. In the particular context of these verses, genea is translated as “generation” by scholarly consensus. This is supported by the context of other passages that use the word. For example, when Jesus calls the Pharisees a “generation of vipers” (Matthew 12:34; 23:33) he is not referring to either a nation or a race. The term “you generation” or “this generation” must refer to “you people who are living right now.” Also, how would it make sense to say, “This race [or nation] will not pass till all these things be fulfilled” if “these things” are part and parcel of the trying-by-fire to be endured by the nation being addressed?
2. The context of Jesus’ Olivet sermon on the end-times shows that the speech is clearly prompted by the disciples’ question concerning the fate of the Temple. The discourse comes right after the scene in which Jesus and his disciples come out of the Temple, which the disciples are openly admiring. Jesus tells them, “See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2; cf. Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6).
This comment, referring directly to the Temple, prefaces Jesus’ sermon on the end-times that follows. The Olivet Discourse is a long answer to the disciples’ question: “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3; cf. Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7). Jesus then proceeds in verse after verse to describe the various signs that will signal the coming of the Messiah, as well as what the end-times will entail (war, persecution, earthquakes, famines, celestial disturbances, etc.) All of this great tribulation centers on Rome’s destruction of the Temple in the first century CE.
3. When Jesus tells his disciples, “this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled,” he makes no attempt to clarify that he is not referring to them. Obviously, if the disciples did not think that Jesus was talking about them, they would not have asked what signs they should look for in the first place. Suppose you encounter a modern doomsday prophet who believes the world will be destroyed 3000 years in the future. If you ask this prophet what signs you should be looking out for, he would say that you need not bother looking for anything. Our generation will not live to see the signs of the end foretold by this prophet. On the other hand, if a doomsday prophet does outline specific signs for which you should be on the lookout, he is tacitly saying that the end will come at some point during your lifetime. This is exactly what Jesus is purported to have done in the Olivet Discourse. He laid out a description of the signs he wanted his disciples to look for.
Even the evangelical authors of Left Behind subtly admit that Bible passages such as the Olivet Discourse and others similar to it pose a potential difficulty. This admission is voiced by the internal monologue of Rayford Steele, one of the main characters, who feels who feels some understandable confusion about apocalyptic theology while reflecting on the vanishing of millions of people all over the world:
So Jesus said he was coming quickly. Had he come? And if the Bible was as old as it seemed, what did “quickly” mean? It must not have meant soon, unless it was from the perspective of someone with a long view of history. Maybe Jesus meant that when he came, he would do it quickly. Was that what this was all about? Rayford glanced at the last chapter as a whole. Three other verses had red letters, and two of those repeated the business about coming quickly .
Biblical prophecy buffs fail to understand that their arsenal of tortured rationalizations for why Jesus failed to live up to his apocalyptic promises have effectively eliminated their own claimed ability to discern anything of significance in advance. By refusing to come to terms with what the biblical texts actually say about which generation will be the last, evangelical prophecy “experts” can make the texts apply to any stretched-out interpretation of current events. Bible prophecy is for this reason a completely useless exercise. Christian prophecy experts have nothing to offer but highly-subjective applications of vague symbols to current events that can just as easily be associated with the equally-vague predictions of Nostradamus.
In order for a prediction to be worthy of the name, it must make an unambiguous claim. The self-proclaimed prophet should, as a prerequisite to be taken seriously by anyone, explain what his or her prophecy means in exact terms, including what exactly is going to happen. Any prophecy that follows this criterion becomes empirically testable and falsifiable. Hence the reason we rarely if ever see such standards met by self-described prophets. Simply spouting a string of vague statements about some future state of affairs, into which any number of subsequent events can be shoehorned, does not pass as meaningful prediction. On this basis we can safely conclude that the majority of “prophecy” found in the Bible is content that no intelligent person should take seriously.
But in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus does what very few biblical prophecy passages do: He offers a testable and falsifiable claim.
If someone claims that there is an invisible heavenly realm that guides all worldly events toward a preconceived denouement, how can anyone possibly go about testing that claim? The believer may dress up the claim with highly sophisticated word usage that employ advanced theoretical physics, the way physicist and Christian theist Frank Tipler does in his book The Physics of Immortality, for example . Such a realm may or may not exist, but there is no known test or data available to us by which we may arrive at a definite conclusion either way.
On the other hand, if someone tells us – as Jesus reportedly did 2000 years ago – that the present generation will experience the end of the world and describes all the signs that accompany it to boot, we have before us an eminently testable and falsifiable claim. This is precisely why the promises attributed to Jesus are damning to the credibility of the Christian faith. And yet mainstream “orthodox” Christians ironically criticize preachers like Harold Camping (who predicted that the Second Coming of Christ would occur on May 21, 2011) and fringe denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses for doing exactly what Jesus himself did, namely setting dates for end-times that never happen at the promised time. Why is it that Jesus’ own words debunk Christianity in the same way and for the same reason? Robert M. Price offers these thoughts:
[H]ow can fundamentalists not see that the New Testament writers made the same mistake [as the Jehovah’s Witnesses]? They cannot afford to see it. They have altogether too much invested in their beliefs. It is a prime case of cognitive dissonance. They refuse to face a devastating truth because, no matter how guilty a conscience one may have, it is better than having to admit how wrong one was and to have to start over again .
The Olivet Discourse is not the only Gospel passage in which Jesus predicts the Messiah’s return and the end of the world within his own contemporaries’ lifetimes. A striking example is found in Matthew 10:23: “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.” In other words, Jesus’ disciples will not even be finished preaching in the cities of Israel when the end comes.
Elsewhere, Jesus makes this extraordinary declaration: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his Kingdom” (Matthew 16:28; cf. Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27).
These verses are the reason for the existence of a Christian end-times school of thought known as Preterism and its close cousin Transmillennialism. According to Preterist doctrine, the end-times scenarios described by Jesus have already happened. The Second Coming is a matter of past history as far as the Preterist is concerned, having come to pass as promised in the first century CE . Their interpretation of scripture is heavily symbolic and allegorical, but the verses quoted above form the foundation of their very salient point that anyone who is looking forward to a futuristic Second Coming yet to take place has no way of intelligently making sense of these passages without damaging the credibility of Christ’s words. How else, asks the Preterist, can one make sense of Jesus’ bold statement that people who are standing in front of him as he speaks are going to be alive when the apocalypse arrives?
The upshot of all this is that the worldview presented in the novels of LaHaye and Jenkins is not even validated by the Bible itself, which is supposed to be the primary text which inspired the series. The characters in Left Behind would be completely justified in rejecting Jesus on the grounds that he was a failed prophet, because although he does return in the story, he does so more than 2000 years after the time he explicitly stated he would in the Bible. Christians who subscribe to Preterism and Transmillennialism would agree.
Obviously, LaHaye and Jenkins reject Preterism. They hold to the opposing theological interpretation known as Dispensationalism, which is rife with its own internal difficulties . But an astounding number of people take the Left Behind series and its Dispensationalism quite seriously, as evidenced by the fact that total sales of the books have surpassed $70 million. The popularity of the series is potentially alarming, because dispensational Christians, LaHaye and Jenkins included, teach and believe that these are much more than fiction novels based on their religion. They believe these books portray future events that are actually going to happen. Left Behind purports to be a primer on true prophecy dressed up as fiction. But the window-dressing of fictional storytelling through which the authors convey their judgmental doomsday beliefs turns out to be a thin disguise, stripped away by the novels’ die-hard biblical literalism. It is to this aspect of the series that we turn next.
1. Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament, Great Courses audio (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2000), Lecture 23; Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), chap. 1.
2. The idea of a 2,000 year-old Apostle John living to witness modern times has been used by Christian end-times novelists David Dolan (The End of Days, Springfield, MO: 21st Century Press, 2003) and James BeauSeigneur (The Christ Clone Trilogy, New York: Warner Books, 2003-2004).
6. In response to the success of Left Behind, Christian authors Hank Hanegraaff and Sigmund Brouwer have together written a trilogy of interesting apocalyptic novels, The Last Disciple (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), The Last Sacrifice (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006), and The Last Temple (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2012). These novels are based on the Preterist viewpoint and set in the time of Nero in the first century.