You have heard me rant before about “Rapture” theology and the other nastiness that goes with it. You have also heard me target popular culture references like Left Behind. I figured if I were to be truly fair about this, I had to actually go see the movie instead of just take shots at it. So that is what I did yesterday.
I went in with a totally negative attitude, and though there was certainly enough within the movie to justify that negative attitude, I was also determined to come away with something positive to say. And there were two redeeming elements.
First of all, I loved the spunk of the teen girl “Chloe Steele.” Her take on religion seemed to start in a sensible place. One of her main issues was that she could not believe in a God that used hurricanes and earthquakes to show God’s love for humanity by destroying the bad people. Now of course, the fact that she is left behind points to the bias of the writers that being sensible and religious don’t go hand in hand.
Secondly, there were some nice moments of people realizing they needed to do something more meaningful with their lives. I would disagree with the writer’s premise that it just simply meant believing in Christ, but I do like the fact that characters were turning away from the things that had become obstructive to more meaningful relationships with other people.
Here is the problem—both of those silver linings point to the greater theological problem of this kind of theology. The God that is represented in the larger picture of scripture is not a God that would single out these people who were making meaningful changes in their lives for some kind of eternal torture. God has a history of raising sinful people like Moses, Elijah, David, Paul, Noah, Rahab, Mary to become heroes of faith. In this movie, and in this kind of theology, those are exactly the kind of people that are Left Behind. Not only that, but there were many demonstrations of these being genuinely good people, but the point was made in this movie that it doesn’t matter if you’re good, it only matters if you believe this very limited and absurd theological premise. I found it particularly disgusting that the movie took the Muslim character and made him into a great person, only to drive home the point that God hates him because he doesn’t agree with the mean-spirited theology of Tim LaHaye.
Beyond the theological problems, the movie just wasn’t very well done, so that made it even more painful. However, I did learn something important. If I am going to stand up in the pulpit on Sunday mornings and rail against something like this, I need to actually spend the time trying to understand it.
I believe that the reason this kind of theology has gotten so much attention is because it offers something to Christians who are feeling abandoned by the larger culture. The opening scene of the movie was quite telling, when a fanatical conservative Christian woman accosts a man because he doesn’t believe what she does. This scene becomes the metaphor for what many Christians have been feeling. They see that the power they once had to influence is slipping away, and they desperately want someone to listen to them. I think you could even go one step further and say that part of what is happening here is an identification with the stories of oppression and violence towards God’s chosen people in scripture, and the need to find an oppressor so that primarily white, wealthy, privileged peoples can find a means of identifying with the victims of the past and claim their place as God’s people.
It speaks to deep seeded needs we all share: The need to feel that we are heard…The need to feel that we are going the right way…The need to know that we are special…The need to know that we are loved.
However, I am convinced that the true beauty of the gospel is that it reminds us that God can fill those needs for each of us, without putting other beloved children of God down in the process. I suppose that what I see as the darkest part of this theology is that it completely lacks faith and hope. It lacks a faith that says God has enough love for all of us. It lacks hope that God’s kingdom is coming even amidst the devastations of the world around us.
Perhaps what is most telling is that this theology is built upon this passage of 1 Thessalonians 4 that says Christ will come again and will gather us all up in the air with him. What it doesn’t pay attention to, is that this whole passage of scripture begins reminding the Christians at Thessalonica that death is not something to fear—that the troubles they face are not something to fear. Ultimately, they are not to fear because they have hope. This kind of theology sucks all hope out of the Good News of the Gospel. For that alone we should know that this is not the Good News of Jesus Christ, but a farce.