Many Christians believe that the prevalent pretribulation rapture interpretation of the end times has always been the historic position of the Christian church. The Left Behind series of books and movies have captured a large audience of Christians, most of whom have never studied the Bible's prophetic scriptures in depth. Since eschatology (end times theology) is a fascinating topic, the Left Behind series has had a huge influence on the prevalence of belief in pretribulation rapture theology. Now, David Malcolm Bennett has written a comprehensive examination of how this theology began, in his new book The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology. The book is based upon Bennett's doctoral thesis on the same topic, which explains the length of the book - at just over 400 pages. However, the text is not just a dry scholarly exercise, but is an important examination of the origins of a popular Christian eschatology.
Left Behind eschatology
The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology ultimately is not the story of how the Left Behind series originated, but how the theology behind the books came to be taught throughout Christianity. For the actual theology taught, Bennett has compared the teachings in the non-fiction books of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Paul Benware, John Hagee, Mark Hitchcock, Thomas Ice, Grant Jeffrey and Chuck Missler, who make up the primary contemporary advocates of the theology. Left Behind eschatology is dispensational, meaning that God changes His interactions with humanity during different ages. These ages are often described as Edenic, Antediluvian, Civil Government, Patriarchal, Mosaic, Grace, Millennial Kingdom, and Eternal State. The eschatology interprets Israel and the Church as being two separate entities. As such, prophecies from the Old Testament refer to Israel and prophecies in the New Testament usually refer to the Church. However, prophecies given to the disciples will be interpreted as pertaining to either the Church or Israel, depending upon how such prophecies fit into their eschatology. The book of Revelation is interpreted as referring entirely to the future (after chapter 4), as opposed to a preterist (all or most of the Book of Revelation occurred during the early centuries of the Church) or historicist (most of the Book of Revelation is a prediction of Christian history) perspective. Another characterization of Left Behind eschatology is the idea of imminence - that the rapture could occur at any time, regardless of fulfillment of end time prophecies. The most distinctive characteristic of Left Behind eschatology is that Christ's return is actually in two stages - a first secret return to rapture the Church and a second visible return as He comes in glory and judgment. Although most teachers of the theology cite 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 in support of their secret rapture, they often ignore the loud shouts and trumpets that accompany those passages. Following the rapture is a 7-year tribulation period, characterized by great suffering of the "tribulation saints" and the outpouring of God's wrath. Left Behind eschatology usually fails to distinguish between tribulation caused by the ungodly and the righteous wrath of God's judgment poured out on the ungodly. A key person during the tribulation will be the antichrist, a world leader who will deceive the world into thinking he is the Christ. The Jewish temple will be rebuilt, following which the antichrist will desecrate the new temple. After the great tribulation, Jesus will return in glory, defeat and antichrist and his armies and usher in His millennial reign on earth. After the Millennium, Satan is released, His rebellion is crushed and the dead are judged.
Analysis of Left Behind eschatology
Bennett examines the key elements of Left Behind eschatology and their origins. Here is his list of those key teachings:
- a futurist interpretation of Revelation
- a total, on-going distinction between Israel as the chosen people and the Church
- a belief that Jesus Christ would return soon and perhaps imminently
- a rapture, in which the Church is taken to heaven either before the tribulation or before it reaches its worst stage; this also might be secret;
- a two-stage return of Christ prior to the Millennium;
- an Antichrist-led tribulation which will last for seven or three and-a-half years, or for an unspecified period of possibly similar duration
- a Millennium, in which Christ will reign on earth
- the return of the Jews to Palestine prior to Christ’s coming
The early Church
Although proponents of Left Behind eschatology cite supposed examples of their key teachings from the writings of the early church leaders, there is sparse and inconsistent evidence of such teachings from the Church fathers. For example, the entire concept of the rapture is taught by none of the church leaders through the first 300 years of the Church. In contrast to Left Behind eschatology, early Church leaders taught that the Church would be persecuted during the great tribulation, rather than escaping humanity's evil through some secret rapture. In addition, none of the early church leaders taught a two-phase return of Jesus.
Latter Church teachings
Bennett goes on to examine the teachings of numerous Church leaders from the Reformation to those who first taught aspects of Left Behind eschatology. It was during this time that the Roman Catholic Church was thought to represent the Babylon of Revelation, along with Pope as the antichrist. A two stage return of Christ was taught by some reformers, although they did not teach a pre-tribulation rapture, but a second return of Christ at the end of the Millennium.
The first Left Behind-like eschatology was taught by Morgan Edwards, a Welsh/American Baptist preacher, in 1742. Of the eight key teachings, Edwards fully taught six and partially taught a seventh. The only teaching that Edwards taught against was the imminence of the rapture.
Numerous other teachers taught and expanded Edwards' eschatology. John Darby was one of the first proponents who accepted all eight key teachings of Left Behind eschatology. Darby's promotion of this eschatology resulted in numerous other church leaders subscribing to the theology during the 19th century. Among those was Scofield, whose Reference Bible and commentaries popularized the newly established eschatology. Scofield's 1888 dispensational work, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth established new ways of "dividing" the scriptures, although the King James rendition of "dividing" was really meant as "accurately handling" or "interpreting" the scriptures, as opposed to dividing it into pieces. The events of the great wars and the emergence of Israel in 1948 reinforced the ideas of dispensational eschatology. Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth greatly popularized the message, leading to further promotion by the contemporary popular teachers of Left Behind eschatology.
David Malcolm Bennett is an excellent writer, and his book, The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology is a thorough, well-researched examination of the origins of pretribulation rapture theology. Although the book is based upon a Ph.D. thesis, it is an interesting examination of the subject, along with numerous references cited for those interested in further research. If you are interested in a thorough examination of the history of pretribulation rapture theology, Bennett's book is an excellent choice.
- Book Review: Left Behind Answered Verse by Verse
- Book Review: End Times Passover: Etymological Challenges to Millenarian Doctrines
- Book Review: Why Christians Will Suffer "Great Tribulation"
- Will Christians Go Through the Great Tribulation?
- Will Christians Suffer the Wrath of God?
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