Coming soon to a theatre near you (again) is the remake of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin’s first book in the multi-volume series Left Behind. These 16 stories convey their biblio-fictional interpretation of how John’s vision of the end of the world, as described in the book of Revelation, might play out in a twenty-first century context. But many readers and moviegoers may not understand the larger backstory conveyed in these books and movies.
I think we evangelicals have not fully considered the impact this brand of theology has made in terms of marginalizing, and even ignoring, the more holistic vision of life in the kingdom of God that Jesus came to teach and demonstrate. As a result, some of these end-times dogmas can actually work against the overarching message of Christ, unintentionally weakening the overarching biblical perspective on the moral life, holiness, witness, and Christ-like transformation.
The Hebrew scriptures, Jesus’ gospel, and the writings of the apostles all speak about the availability of a holistically transformed human existence — now, here on earth, before we die, and in spite of our burdens, trials, and tribulations. This is summed up in the gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus and John the Baptist proclaimed was “at hand,” or right in front of us, within arm’s reach. This is not simply a New Testament concept, but one that can be traced back to Noah, then Abraham, and ultimately Moses. Each received a promise, conveyed in God’s covenant loyalty, which included the means of entering a way of life, a moral existence that came with a vibrant, submissive, and willfully obedient relationship to God and his loving, life-giving, life-sustaining truth and power.
In part, Jesus’ mission on earth was to correct and revise these ancient offers, but also to empower those who seek to apply the way, the truth, and the life of God in and through every area of human activity. However, this understanding of active participation with God in everyday life can be significantly marginalized and even opposed by some interpretations of scripture rooted in John Nelson Darby’s esoteric dispensational theology, which encourages visions of impending doom and the destruction of all creation. Such apocalyptic doctrines tend to erode any hope of a better life “from above” that begins now and never ends.
Instead, the expectation of doom feeds a sense of fatalism that ignores many, if not all, of the benefits of applying the depth of moral instruction the Bible teaches that, if applied, will lead us into the flourishing peace God seeks to instill in our lives. Instead, we apply a “hang on by your fingernails until Jesus comes” mentality, resulting in an anemic Christian faith reduced to maintaining one’s position as a “survivor of the faithful.”
What becomes lost is both the desire and intention to engage our culture, workplaces, and neighborhoods as the “salt of the earth and the light of the world” — to serve as beacons of truth, goodness, love, and the hope for a better life made available now in God’s kingdom. In fact, when adding the doctrine of the rapture, which suggests all faithful Christians will be evacuated before (some say during, some say after) God allows the worst catastrophes to hit, there remains little motivation to devote one’s existence to the betterment of our lives on earth or the lives of those around us who would benefit from the new birth and new life Christ has made possible.
Instead of leading and manifesting a revolution of good over evil in and through every area of public life, Christians often turn inward, choosing instead to separate, isolate, and regrettably point a bony finger of condemnation at the world they see destined to certain ruin, punishment, and wrath. Such a theology tends to have little to no sense of confidence in God’s manifested power to transform either the individual or the group prior to death.
The effect is that the gospel of repentance and new life that Jesus articulated is marginalized to the point of becoming unfamiliar, even within the congregations advertising their allegiance to the same. The entire “gospel” is reduced to a single decision about one’s destiny in the afterlife, forsaking the biblical calling to live a righteous life, holy and pleasing to God, in faith, by his grace.
What is difficult about the doomsday theology, and what makes it easy for us to read it into our contemporary interpretations of the scriptures, is that our industrial media complex and its 24-hour news services keep us ever informed about the terrors and tragedies brewing around the globe. Bad news sells, in part, because it instills fear, and the media is there to create the fear and then provide the knowledge we seek to placate the fear they created. The larger the crisis, the larger the fear, the more we watch.
An endless addiction cycle forms and advertisers are more than willing to pay to engage such a captive audience. Thus, as we vicariously experience the many disasters and heartbreaks that plague our world through Darby’s obscure lens of dispensational theology, it becomes an unconscious, self-fulfilling prophecy that’s quite easy to believe. We are looking for why bad things happen, and Darby’s rationale tells us why. We sense the world is headed exactly where he predicted it would, and according to his dispensational interpretation of the Bible, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Not even God. The end is predestined. It’s written in stone, the thinking goes, because the Bible says so.
Well . . . that’s not what every Christian throughout history has believed or believes now about how God is running the universe. There is a significant contingent of orthodox Christian writers, speakers, biblical scholars, and theologians who have consistently and sincerely rethought and re-articulated Darby’s interpretation of impending desolation and despair. These Christians suggest that the New Testament articulates, instead, a message of transformative hope, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control that is still available now. Through the grace and power of God, it can be manifested in our individual lives and communities.
Taken as a whole, the Bible points to and creates a vision for what Psalm 23 and Psalm 118 highlight in particular. This life of peace, protection, and provision is also the centerpiece of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These passages and the truths they depict are often reduced and dismissed as flowery poetic mirages or fancy, idyllic dreams of a future life only available in the great by-and-by. Such a mistake risks missing the thrust of the entire scriptural tapestry.
The gospel of the kingdom of God manifests a visceral, experiential quality of life that can and will be engaged and practiced now by those who place their confidence in the ways of being laid plainly in the word of God, taught and demonstrated by Jesus, and testified to within the lives of Christians throughout the history of the church. This has not changed and will not change, regardless of how the future unfolds.
Transformation of our lives and our communities need not wait until everything is destroyed and rebuilt in some eternal state of sinless bliss. The moral truths of God, when applied, combined with God’s empowering grace still have the power to change the existential nature of human experience at every level, right where we live today. That is the eminent hope Jesus makes plain to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the good news he shared.
The tax collector, the prostitute, the soldier, the thief, the professor, the lawyer, the politician, the religious leader, the proud, the stubborn, the fearful, the arrogant, the lost, the broken, the poor, the weak, along with the powerful and the wealthy are each presented with the opportunity to choose a different life, a different existence, not after death, but in the very moment they encounter and receive the news of an alternative means on which to base their entire understanding of the purpose and meaning for their lives. The gospel is an omnipotent message of an all-encompassing worldview that demands a life change that starts now and never ends. Such a revolutionary reality is exactly what one would expect to proceed from the heart and mind of an illimitable God.
It’s ironic to consider that those who have so faithfully dedicated their lives to the edicts of scripture and its divine authority have also tended to let their interpretations of the end times overshadow the hope and power of Christ’s redemption, which the Bible expressly illustrates can and will revolutionize life in all its forms, making all things new. Yes, evil is real. Yes, pain and suffering can seem to be growing. Yes, the world is desperately in need of saving. But it is also true, as the apostle Paul became convinced, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39 NIV).
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