Last weekend marked the release of the new Nicolas Cage movie, Left Behind. So far the reviews are less than stellar. Shocking, right? I don’t have a problem with the premise of this movie. There have been all sorts of movies based on myths and fairy tales, and some of them are really good. My problem is with the people who think this is actually going to happen.
You might say, “It’s just a harmless movie. Who cares if people think it’s real?” Well, I care because it’s not harmless. People have been duped by end times prophecies over and over again throughout history. And in many cases people have ruined their lives in the process. I myself came very close to ruining my life because of my beliefs about the rapture.
I first learned about the rapture when I was eight years old. I was sitting on my bed reading a Christian comic book about an atheist who witnesses the rapture firsthand. He is on board a plane when half the passengers vanish, leaving nothing behind but their clothes and eyeglasses. After the plane lands, he finds out people all over the world have disappeared. He gets in his truck and races home, past hundreds of car accidents, and discovers his wife and children are gone, too. Then he finally realizes what happened: The rapture! And he was left behind because he wasn’t a Christian.
Unless you grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, you might not be familiar with this chilling tale. The idea of the rapture comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 which says, “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds.” What happens next is a matter of interpretation, but fundamentalists have pieced together verses from, Daniel, Revelation, the gospels, and few other books into a narrative that they generally agree upon, and my comic book followed that narrative.
After the rapture is a period of seven years known as the tribulation. During this time the antichrist, who is controlled by Satan, rises to power and becomes dictator of the world. At first everyone loves him for restoring order and establishing world peace, but the peace doesn’t last long. Soon war breaks out in the middle east again.
At some point the antichrist suffers a head wound and dies. But shortly thereafter he rises from the dead, declares himself god, and demands that everybody worship him. No one is allowed to buy or sell anything unless they get the mark of beast (666) on their right hand or forehead, and millions of people who became Christians after the rapture are executed for refusing the mark. Later God sends all sorts of horrible judgments: plagues, earthquakes, hail, fire, blood, poison, darkness, locusts, demons… pretty much every terrible thing you can imagine. Apparently God is a bit of a sadist.
It was past bedtime when my mom entered my room. She asked what I was reading, and I told her all about the comic book. When I was done, she gave me a sober look and said, “You know, that’s really going to happen.” At first I thought she was kidding, but then she explained how the Bible predicted what would happen in the last days. At first I was terrified, but she assured me I wouldn’t be left behind because I had accepted Jesus into my heart. That was a relief. I continued to believe this fairy tale all the way into my twenties, and it had a profound effect on my life.
At the height of my Christian mania, I was convinced I wouldn’t see my 30th birthday. I knew the Bible verses about how no one will know the day or the hour of Christ’s return, but I figured it had to be within 10 years. After all, the prophecies about the end times were being fulfilled. Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, false prophets, wickedness, violence, disease, conflict in the middle east–it was all coming true!
Naturally, I was a big fan of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ novel, Left Behind. I had the first edition, and I remember the words, “First in a seven book series” on the last page. Of course, once it became a bestseller they milked that cash cow for all it was worth by stretching it into 12 books. Left Behind captivated me. Not because it was well-written (it isn’t), but because I thought it was based on future events.
After reading Left Behind, I became more passionate about my faith than ever. I read books like The Vision by David Wilkerson and The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. The latter suggested that Christ’s return would be within a generation of Israel’s reformation in 1948. That meant it would be very, very soon.
Because of all this, I was reluctant to make any long-term plans. I didn’t see myself ever having a career or a wife, and certainly not a family. Why waste time with college or dating when there were so many souls to be saved and so little time to save them? Fortunately, my brother talked me into taking some college classes. Expanding my reading list to books not found in the local Christian bookstore changed my life.
A few years of education helped me realize that the overwhelming majority of Biblical prophecies are so vague, they can be reshaped to fit any number of historical events. As with horoscopes, it’s all a matter of interpretation. And most of the prophecies that aren’t so vague have failed to come true. It became clear that the author of Revelation had no more foresight than Nostradamus.
Today I have a college degree, a job I love, a beautiful wife, and a wonderful son. But sometimes I wonder where I would be if I had clung to my doomsday beliefs. Maybe I’d be a missionary or something. More likely I’d be living alone, stuck in a dead end job, and spending my spare time reading Christian books.
I understand that most Christians know better than to put their lives on hold because they think Jesus is returning. But there is a subset of radical Christians who don’t know better. People like Harold Camping who swore the rapture would be in 2011. His followers quit their jobs and sold everything they had. They weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last.
Then there’s this homeschooling couple who stopped educating their children because they believed the rapture was imminent. Those children are just a few among thousands of children who are being told they have no future (other than Heaven or Hell).
Movies like Left Behind only encourage these people. Willie Robertson believes this movie is important because it will convert atheists. I seriously doubt that. Anyone who converts to Christianity after watching this movie was pretty close to converting, anyway.
What’s more likely is that it will radicalize people who already believe. For some of them, it will make the rapture seem so real that they will abandon their long-term plans, just like I did. They will waste years of their lives waiting for something that is never going to happen, and that’s a terrible waste considering this is probably the only life they will ever have.