You look on the news. The BBC is reporting millions of missing people. They have just vanished. They have gone, and you have been left behind.
Science fiction? Not exactly, because there are people out there who actually believe this is going to happen. There are churches in Jersey – even at least one Anglican Church – where this kind of strange message is being promulgated.
It is a strange kind of Christian theology – called “dispensationalist theology” – which is more akin to the peculiar Gnostic sects of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
In this story, those who have vanished have been “taken up”. It takes its thinking from the book of Revelation, one or two paragraphs in the gospel of Luke, and notably this paragraph from Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians, both, it need hardly be said, treated as "proof texts" and taken out of context:
1st Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we which are alive and remain shall be CAUGHT UP together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
"I tell you, that on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left." Luke 17:34-35, NRSV
This example of the teaching is from an American site, but it is pretty much the same wherever it is taught:
“Literally, the lord Jesus Christ will Rapture (catch away) every saint from upon the earth, into the air to meet with the Lord in the clouds. Our loved ones who have died in the lord and gone on before us will be there. It will be a great time of rejoicing and gladness, knowing that our suffering and hardships and journey upon the earth is done. Home at last!”
“However, all those who have rejected Christ will be left behind upon the earth. Immediately following the Rapture, the tribulation will begin upon the earth. The tribulation will last for seven years, during which period the man of San, the Antichrist, will rise to power. He will be a world dictator wielding incredible lying wonders and signs the Bible says.”
“If you have been left behind and are reading this, then you have now entered the Tribulation period. If you are wise you will receive Jesus, the Christ, immediately; believing that He died, was buried and rose again three days later for your sins and mine. Only by receiving Christ and being born anew by the Spirit of God, can you understand all that is going on. You may have missed the Rapture, but thank God you don't have to go to Hell. The choice is yours.”
A long series of books by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have detailed the story after the rapture. Entitled the “Left Behind” series, they dramatise global calamity, the rise of an Antichrist figure, and the torments that those “left behind” have to face to win through – unless they go over to the dark side.
It has been hugely influential, with copies in the Jersey Library, and selling in the Christian Bookshop in the Central Market, although the last time I looked in. there were no longer any copies for sale.
The roots of dispensationalism appear in the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800–82) and the Plymouth Brethren movement in the 1830s of Ireland and England, and have been propagated through works such as Cyrus Scofield's Scofield Reference Bible, a version of the King James Bible, with footnotes promoting this peculiar understanding.
The Bible is divided into different “ages” or “dispensations”. Usually there are seven divisions. (1) innocence, from the creation of Adam to the Fall; (2) conscience, from the Fall to the flood; (3) human government, from Noah to Abraham (4) promise, from Abraham to Moses; (5) law, from Moses to the death of Christ; (6) grace, from the cross to the second coming; (7) the Kingdom, or Millennial Age, or Personal Reign of Christ, ending with "Satan loosed for a little season" but quickly defeated. After the millennium are the "new heavens and new earth of eternity”
The age we are living in is the sixth, and the rapture marks the beginning of the seventh.
The message in which suddenly empty cars crashing on motorways and kids will be coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been “left behind” can be a frightening one, especially for young children.
Even for adults, it is a theology of fear. If you are not good enough, you will be “left behind” to suffer. In this respect, there are certain similarities between the thinking and Dante, where in Purgatory people suffer various kinds of torments so that they may purge their souls of evil.
Although these people will be few in number:
“The reason "why?" you were left behind is simply because you are not a born-again Christian. It's that simple. We often refer to being born again as being "saved." So if you've been left behind, you need to get saved. Yes, you can still get saved, but it is highly unlikely. 2nd Thessalonians 2:11 clearly teaches that God Himself will send a "strong delusion" after the rapture to prevent people from seeing the truth.”
But part of the story also involves the Jews, who will begin celebrating sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, and where the final conflict and conflagration will begin. This can have dangerous political effects. For instance:
“Apparently because of the influence of dispensationalist theology, "Dick Armey, the retired House majority leader, promoted the removal of all Palestinians from their ancestral land to an unpopulated desert.”
“Similarly, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe supported the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank by citing Genesis and calling the debate on the issue "not a political battle at all.’It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true.'” (1)
Why worry about conflict in the Middle East, when it is a precursor to the end times Why not hurry the conflict along?
There is also another effect. If the world is going to its doom, then as well as politics, ecology suffers. Why worry about climate change when it is a “sign of the end times”? As Tom Wright comments: “is not the Left Behind mentality in thrall to a dualistic view of reality that allows people to pollute God’s world on the grounds that it’s all going to be destroyed soon?”
The “Left Behind” books are fictional works which present their authors’ imaginative depiction of the end of days; they are a strange mixture of 19th century thinking entwined with modern technology, as for example in this summary:
“In Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind (1996), the almost salvation worthy remnant forms an underground opposition movement that struggles to evade the mark of the beast on their bodies. At the same time, they disseminate their faith through the Internet and underground churches while coordinating acts of sabotage and assassination. In the twelfth and nominally final title Glorious Appearing, Jesus himself arrives to slay hundreds of millions of armed GC warriors, cast Satan into the lake of fire, and send the unbelieving "goats" of humanity to their eternal doom.” (2)
The existence of books promoting what is, in essence, a kind of Christian Gnosticism, is a concern in Jersey, especially when the series is available in the Jersey library and has been sold by the Christian Bookshop Mission.
It demonstrates a contingent of Christians in Jersey who promote what is a theology of fear, of a fear of being “left behind” and going to hell. And I suspect it is not just members of a congregation. There are Ministers who are preaching this variant on “hell fire and damnation”.
I first came across this kind of theology back in the 1970s with “The Late, Great Planet Earth”. This was a best-selling 1970 book by Hal Lindsey. The foundation of modern Israel in 1948 is seen as a key factor in the timetable. Lindsey sees an increase in the frequency of famines, wars and earthquakes, as key events leading up to the end of the world, and also the EU becoming a "United States of Europe", which in turn he says is destined to become a "Revived Roman Empire" ruled by the Antichrist.
He also foretold a Soviet invasion of Israel (War of Gog and Magog), which of course would be difficult now when the Soviet Union has ceased.
I didn’t give that book any credence then, but I noted two things. Firstly, those who did believe it were either those with cast-iron certainty in their faith – they were “born again” Christians – or more often those who believed it were fearful and could not be sure, however much they had undergone an experience of being “born again”.
I think the success of this thinking is that it taps into core anxieties. For Lindsey, it was the European Union, for “Left Behind”, it is anxieties about the stories of wars and earthquakes, and the tinder box of the Middle East.
This provides a coping mechanism for believers, which makes sense of the suffering we see in the world today: it is part of God’s plan for the end times. "The Rapture" becomes a substitute for other concerns, a way of getting back control in a society and world which often seems beyond our control.
1) “Learning from Left Behind? A Call for Coherent Accounts of Scripture. Brock Bingaman, Anglican Theological Review, 2009
2) Glorious Appearing: The End of Days (Left Behind Series No. 12)/rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series/Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America. John Shelton Lawrence, -Journal of American Culture, 2005