"Left Behind" Books and Movie

Lutheran pastors have reacted:

"Totally against Lutheran and Christian beliefs." � An ELCA interim pastor who found them in the church library.

"Blatantly evangelical, Christ-centered, and theologically sound." � An ELCA pastor who'd listened to all eight books on tape.

Back in February 2001 the "Left Behind" series was getting a lot of attention because of the release of the eighth book in the series and the movie of the first. This article is a compendium of comments on the LutherLink computer network, mostly in the "ELCA RESOURCE CENTERS" meeting and the eclectic "TABLE TALK" on the topic of this controversial series. General consensus seems to be that the series does not support Lutheran doctrine; it�s often compared to "The Thief in the Night" and "The Late Great Planet Earth," and people need to keep in mind that they�re reading (or watching) fiction.

It seems the end times come and the "saved" are taken up from the earth, with those left behind engaging in a cataclysmic fight with the forces of evil (but you never know who the evil forces are). One man left behind is a pastor, and people of varying religious and non religious affiliation are left. Some start to band together to fight the forces of evil. One thing missing from this book and the rest of the series is the very biblical second coming. The theory is that there is a time period of travail and during that time those left must battle evil, or be "infected" by it. Jesus does not return. Lutherans should read this as theological fiction. Some of it is based, as much fundamentalism is, on snippets of the Scriptures. Much is taken out of context. The book is driven by fear. Reading it is scary, in many ways like reading science fiction.

There are some good values upheld in the series. Ministry is done by people who are not "ministers." The church -- indeed, civilization -- has to start over, and there are some interesting sub-plots and implications of this whole idea. People make messes of their lives, and this is presented as their own fault for the decisions and indecisions they make.

Several of the main protagonists have conversions at various stages in the story, and the ramifications of decision are portrayed in some intricate ways. Parts of the story are elegantly worked out. Other parts, such as the giant wasps, are a bit servile and pedestrian. To me, prophecy is not always literal.

The series is an interesting exercise in how things might work out if the prophecies are combined and incarnated in a fundamentalist way. Yet, Jesus does not come to save, God is not loving and forgiving, or even flexible in a loving and forgiving way, in the world view of the authors.

I think that more than most books, the Left Behind series shows how a writer or writers creates a world, presents a world view, and that this perspective could change how others see the world.

C.S. Lewis said that when he wrote "The Screwtape Letters" he had to get inside the devil, to think like he thinks, and he hated himself when he did that. Maybe we need something like this every once in a while, to see how evil works and how insidious it is, and how hateful we can be. We don't have to like it. We don't even have to agree with all of it.

The only "good" I would see in the books is the emphasis on spreading the message of God. We don't talk about God's Word enough, that I'd agree with.

What's Happening
Some pastors use the books as a jumping-off point for some meaningful study of the book of Revelation, employing other resources on that topic.

One reports he really struggles with the "Left Behind" books, but admits they do provide teaching moments for the church: "It is important to talk about this phenomenon and not just let it go. Revelation just has much to tell us about worship of God, and some of our liturgy as Lutherans comes from Revelation."

Another is more specific:

  1. Read, study, understand and teach the Book of Revelation. Do it using Marva Dawn's book, Bruce Metzger's tapes, and the Millennial Madness tapes, the very best and cheapest history of end-times prophecy through the ages that there is. There is no substitute for being an expert on apocalyptic literature, including Daniel, Ezekiel, and the parts of the gospels involved.
  2. Read the books and watch the tapes. Realize the allure and the fright they cause. Make opportunities for people to ask questions in groups. Next advent take the opportunity in sermons to make the difference between Christian eschatology and what these folks are trying to say.

On an informal basis, talk to members about what they're reading and read with them the book of Revelation. Point out that there is no reference to a "rapture" in Revelation, and that Revelation calls itself an "apocalypse" not "prophecy" in any case. Look also at the prophets who do not claim to "tell the future" (check out those Old Testament prophets or John the Baptist, for that matter); rather, they claim to speak God's words for God's people at the moment and of consequences for their actions. Explore with them if they really believe that God will not protect a person from the anti-Christ if they do not pray (or have not prayed) a particular prayer. This is stated near the end of the first book.

Can the series be used for good?
Resource center director: "One of the best Bible teachers in our synod -- someone who has been to seminary and has an MDiv in Biblical Studies from one of our Lutheran Seminaries -- was brought back to the church through Hal Lindsey's "Late Great Planet Earth." It was through her questions and the intelligent and thoughtful answers of a Lutheran pastor that she was drawn into the Christian faith. So, while we don't condone this series, I think it is important that we know about them, and how to respond with compassion and clarity."

One pastor reported: "My mom and my sister are reading them. I told my sister I hadn't read them because they were really bad theology and I didn't care to invest my time in that. She called me a few days later and told me I had to read it so that I could help her sort through the "bad theology," so I borrowed a copy and read it and we've been discussing it since. She figured out on her own that the stories are focused on fear and "what if I'm not good enough," and she said that wasn't how she lived her faith � that she had to believe God was still present and that there was hope in the midst of suffering (and her family has seen suffering in some dramatic ways). I told her the focus on ourselves and what we do is the bad theology, as well as the misinterpretation of Scripture since Revelation isn't prophecy and prophecy isn't "predicting the future." I've sent her Marva Dawn's book, and I'll let you know what comes of the discussion.

For myself, I think this sort of scare tactic would only work for those who are affluent or not currently suffering in any significant way. People who live the conditions that the early church did are already suffering and know that Revelation is a message of hope in the midst of terrible times. When people see things around them but do not suffer, they can be scared by these stories that "God will make you suffer" so that you can learn who God really is. What a terrible picture of God to promote through mass media!

The material presented here was developed as a result of online discussions on LutherLink, the online network for ELCA leaders. Pastors and resource center staff from all over the country contributed. The art work is "The Four Holy Men" (1526) by Albrecht Durer.