Left behind at the end of the world?




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Left Behind is a series of novels that describe the end of the world or end of the age that is expected by some Christians. They read the New Testament book of Revelation as literally as a newspaper or a scientific report, and they accept some assumptions, such as “the rapture.” The Greek word translated “Revelation” is “Apocalypse,” which is the best title for this strange book in the New Testament. I urge that we always call that biblical book the Apocalypse of John because it doesn't reveal much.

Apocalypse is one type of literature in the Old and New Testaments. It contrasts with other kinds of literature: history, parables, poetry, stories, songs, prophesy, and more. There are few examples of apocalyptic, while far more examples of history, parables, poetry, songs, prophesy.

Core belief
Apocalyptic writings believe passionately that the world has become so evil, that the only way for God to triumph is for God to directly set things right without human help. The roots of this symbolic writing followed the trauma of the crushing of Judea in 587 BCE. The siege is described in Lamentations. The Temple built of stone was leveled! Jerusalem burned! Most people driven into exile in Babylon. People were as crushed as their Temple, but one of those exiles was Ezekiel. His book has strange, symbolic images that are the seeds of the imagery of the apocalyptic. In much of Ezekiel he prophetically preaches how to live in the worst of times. It worked; the Jews remained faithful. Some returned to Judea and rebuilt the temple. Apocalyptic appears fully in the book of Daniel, which was written after the most horrible event — the desolating sacrilege — in 168 BCE.

"The Desolating Sacrilege"
In 333 B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquered the entire area, and his successors began to impose Greek culture and language. A few generations later the ruler of the area around Jerusalem was Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who gained the throne by intrigue. To stop Jewish religious practices he sent his troops into the Jews’ holiest site, the Temple in Jerusalem, and there erected an altar to Zeus. The people called it the desolating sacrilege. After such an abomination all Temple worship stopped.

Two different reactions
There were two reactions to this horrifying event.
First was apocalyptic; second was to take action with a revolt.

Apocalyptic passion and belief said this abomination was so horrible that only God could make it right. The Old Testament book of Daniel is the result, as well as short apocalyptic sections in a few other later Old Testament books.

The other reaction was to take direct action. The Maccabean family started a guerilla war against the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes and won! The amazing history of that war is in the books of first and second Maccabees in the Apocrypha. It is a classic guerilla war in which the Maccabean fighters knew the geography very well and used that knowledge to beat the formal armies of Antiochus. Then in battles the smaller Maccabean army beat the hellenist army.

In the New Testament apocalyptic is found in two places. It is the book of Revelation that I call "the Apocalypse of John," and it is the "synoptic apocalypse" in Mark 13 that was copied into Matthew 24 and Luke 21. The Apocalypse of John after letters to seven Churches is apocalyptic. In the first century the Roman authorities could not understand that it attacks worship of the Emperor.

In contrast to the apocalyptic waiting for God, the letters of the New Testament reveal people living the best of life in the worst of time with little thought about the apocalyptic.

These two radically different ways to confront awful reality continue for over two thousand years! Do we wait for God to intervene or do we take matters into our own hands and with God’s help and guidance do the best we can? You may dismiss the Apocalypse with Luther's it is "neither apostolic nor prophetic" or Jefferson's "as the ravings of a maniac."

Left Behind novels are apocalyptic
The series of novels in the Left Behind series represent the apocalyptic view. Some preachers and some denominations concentrate on an apocalyptic end of the world. They believe it is coming very soon. Much of this expectation focuses on the Middle East around Jerusalem, claiming that the end of this age will begin there with Jesus' physical return. Many of them believe that the temple mount will be involved and there will be a battle at Armageddon. Christ will lead his followers to eternal joy who will enjoy seeing all others horribly doomed. This stimulates among some people passionate expectation and financial contributions.

This apocalyptic view was popular in the United States during the 19th century when charismatic preachers led followers to expect an end of the age and of the world often on specific dates. Always, as in the Old Testament book of Daniel, those dates came and nothing happened. As in Daniel, new dates were set, but again it did not happen. Here is a summary of that history. But this "pre-millennial" idea that the world was not redeemable was not popular with the optimism of frontier people.

The alternative, like the Maccabean revolt, was faithful people took direct action. When conditions became intolerable, leaders, who were often charismatic, led reforms. The Protestant Reformers Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Fox, and others revolted against church and social conditions and renewed Christian faith and life. The labor union movement was one of several reactions to abysmal conditions in the work place that led to greatly improved working conditions and higher wages. Twelve-hour work days were reduced to eight, and railroad crews got eight-hour breaks between shifts of driving locomotives. Many churches cooperated with the trade union movement to confront work and urban tyrannies. The civil rights movement eliminated legal discrimination and legally secured the vote. Feminism, which is condemned by many fundamentalists, secured many rights for women not available earlier, and questioned patriarchal assumptions. In these and many other situations people have responded not by waiting for an apocalypse, but rather by working together to change conditions.

Some of these movements have involved bloodshed and violent reactions, while others have been nonviolent and transforming like the Birmingham bus boycott.

In summary, apocalyptic believes only God can fix the problems of the world, while most of the Bible, including the prophets, teach that with God's guidance and grace we must work with others to fix the problems of the world.

Jesus in the New Testament like many of the prophets of the Old Testament called people to act in this world and in this life for justice and peace guided by God, rather than wait for an apocalypse. Jesus says something intriguing in Luke 11:20: "If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you." He suggests that when he heals, when he teaches and people hear and act, the kingdom has come! The new age has dawned! This view is in the gospels and in Paul's letters.

The Old Testament prophets were preachers rather than foretellers of the future. Here are a few representative passages:

Amos 5.21-24:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Hosea 6.3-6:

Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea 11.1-4:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

Micah 6.6-8:

“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Isaiah 61.1–4:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion —
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

These words are like most of what the prophets said, they are about living in this world and in the present time — "they shall repair the ruined cities." They do not foretell the future. Jesus read the opening lines of Isaiah's poetic vision to start his ministry as reported in the gospel of Luke 4.14–22.

Copyright © 2004 John F. Yeaman