"Left Behind" comes out this week, an apocalyptic thriller starring Nicolas Cage. Based on the best-selling book series, the movie revolves around "the rapture": a belief that one day all Christians will suddenly vanish, disappearing from the earth to go be with God, while the world they "left behind" plunges into apocalyptic destruction.
Americans may find "Left Behind" to be best-selling entertainment, but is it biblical? I say no. In fact, as a follower of Jesus I find the rapture to be not just a little bit off, but actually upside-down and backwards.
When Jesus comes, here are a few reasons why I want to be left behind.
A Recent Invention
The rapture is new to the Christian scene. It arose in the late 1800's, when Margaret MacDonald, a fifteen-year-old Scottish girl, claimed to have it revealed to her in a vision. Her vision was then picked up and popularized by the famous British preacher J.N. Darby, during his extensive travels in America.
All love to the high school prom queen and traveling street preacher, but this is a suspiciously short track record for nearly 2000 years of Christian theology.
Okay, so it's new. But does it have any biblical support? Let's take a look at the two passages most frequently cited and see if they hold any weight.
Don't Get Taken
The name "Left Behind" comes from the words of Jesus, when he says:
"As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man . . . Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left." (Matthew 24:37-41)
Pretty straightforward, right? Son of Man shows up. Some are taken. Some are left behind.
The problem is this: taken means killed.
If you lived "in the days of Noah," getting taken by the flood wasn't a good thing. It didn't mean being rescued, it meant getting taken out. Dead. Gone. Killed. Knocked over by the judgment of God. Wiped out by the flood.
Jesus confirms this when he says, smack-dab in the heart of this passage, that before the flood came people were partying it up in the empire: eating sushi and drinking wine, throwing glitzy wedding bashes, rockin' out and living high off the hog.
"They knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away."
If you lived in Noah's day, you didn't want to get taken. You wanted to be left behind.
So when rapture enthusiasts say they can't wait to get "taken," I can't help but think of Inigo Montoya's penetrating slogan from "The Princess Bride": "You keep on using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means."
Jesus tells us that taken means judged; left behind means salvation.
I, for one, want to be left behind.
The King's Arrival
The second passage most often used to support the rapture comes when Paul comforts people who've lost loved ones with the hope of resurrection. When Jesus returns, we're told, the trumpet will sound and:
The dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)
At first glance, this could look like "the rapture." But if the rapture is such a recent theological invention, how was this passage historically understood?
N. T. Wright gives some helpful context. In the ancient Roman Empire, when the emperor came to visit a city, upon word of his arrival those loyal to the emperor would leave the city to go out and meet him, in order to join the triumphant procession back in.1
So the picture here is similar: the earth is under siege, under the corrupt power of sin, destruction and death. But Jesus, the "good emperor," is returning to "liberate his city," to deliver God's world from the dark and disastrous powers that now hold sway.
When Jesus comes "down from heaven" in verse 16, his loyal followers go out to meet him "in the air" – not to stay floating in some ethereal sky-space like mutant birds, but to join his victorious procession to liberate the world.
Jesus comes not to whisk us out of earth and into heaven, but to establish God's just and righteous kingdom on earth as in heaven.
Once again, "Left Behind" gets it upside-down: our redemptive hope is oriented not "away from" this world, but "towards" it.
Don't get "taken" by rapture theology; you want to be "left behind." The irony is that "Left Behind" is not just a little bit off, it is completely backwards. Our hope is not "in the air," it is in Jesus' redemptive kingdom "for the world."
The danger of "Left Behind's" impact is this: it uses fear to set up an "us vs. them," "save yourself," escapist hope of "beam me up Scotty and get me out of this world." But as I show in my new book, The Skeletons in God's Closet (shameless plug ), God's mission is not to get us out of earth and into heaven or hell, but rather to redeem earth from the destructive power of sin, death and hell.
Our hope is not escapist or fear-based for our own self-preservation. It is courageously loving, sacrificially suffering, redemptively hopeful for the world
When Jesus comes to establish God's kingdom, I for one want to be here.
I want to be left behind.