Is Left Behind biblical?

Nothing has captured the Christian imagination in recent times as much as Left Behind. It's a best-selling novel, a blockbuster series, and the motivation for a sequence of multi-million dollar movies. Left Behind claims to be based on biblical end-time prophecies--the secret return of Jesus, the instant disappearance of Christians, and an evil Antichrist who takes over the world.

Left Behind first appeared in 1995. Co-authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the book became such an instant best-seller that the authors and the publisher--Tyndale Publishing--decided to make it into a series of 12 installments. Of the 11 volumes printed so far, most have hit the best-seller lists of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Barnes & Noble even gave the accolade, "The best-selling series of all time."

In February 2001, Left Behind: The Movie hit theaters across the United States. A second movie, Tribulation Force, based on book No. 2 in the series, which has the same title, was released in 2002. With one more book ahead, and at least one more movie planned, Left Behind fervor continues to escalate around the world. It's not unusual to see full displays of the entire Left Behind series in airport book shops and department stores. And this is not just an American phenomenon. The novels have been translated into many languages worldwide.

Basic theology

The basic theology of the series is this: First, a "secret rapture" causes the instant disappearance of all true Christians, who are suddenly caught up from Earth to heaven. This is followed by a seven-year period of tribulation that overtakes all who are "left behind." An inwardly evil man--who looks like Mr. Nice Guy, but who is really Mr. Sin, that is, the Antichrist--quickly rises to bring order out of chaos. As the saga continues, a group of new believers who accept Jesus Christ after the Rapture see through Antichrist's disguise and thus become the Tribulation Force against the Man From Hell. The sinister Antichrist--called Nicolae Carpathia in the novels and movies--then turns his weapons of warfare against the Jews, who are still considered to be God's chosen people. At the end of the tribulation, as the climax of the drama, Jesus Christ returns visibly to conquer Carpathia and his global network of supporters, save the Tribulation Force, and deliver the Jews at Armageddon.

Although the Left Behind series is clearly fiction, its core ideas are now embraced by many Christians the world over, having been exposed to them over the media, in magazines, books, seminars, seminaries, and on the Internet.

The "core ideas" may be summarized as follows:

1. A secret rapture, which removes God's church from Earth to heaven.

2. A seven-year tribulation for all who are left behind.

3. The rise of Antichrist, who takes over the world.

4. A final battle between Antichrist and the Jews, who are delivered at Armageddon.

Are these teachings biblical?

The secret rapture

Secret rapture is the cornerstone of a theological school known as Dispensational Futurism. Its basic tenet is that all of God's Old Testament promises made to the nation of Israel are still intact, but can only be literally fulfilled after the "present dispensation of the Church" comes to an end. This "Church age" that began at Pentecost will continue until the Rapture, when Christ returns secretly to take His church to heaven. Once that is over, God can then fulfill His promises to the Jews.

While secret rapture advocates use several passages to support their views, such as Matthew 24:40, 41, we will concentrate on 1 Thessalonians 4:17, as it is this that is emphasized frequently by the Left Behind authors. In this passage, Paul states that when Christ returns all living believers will be "caught up." According to Left Behind and Dispensational Futurists, "caught up" here means to vanish without a trace. This event is interpreted as one that will be obviously noticed, but not understood, by the majority of the world. Jesus will supposedly return silently, secretly, invisibly, unnoticed by the world, to snatch His Church from Earth to heaven. After all the Christians disappear, the world will enter the cataclysmic seven years of tribulation.

But here's the problem: the context of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 reveals a return of Christ that is anything but secret! In verse 16, Paul clearly says that Christ will "descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God." (NRSV). Surely this description cannot denote secrecy and silence, but openness and loudness. Verse 15 refers to the descent of Christ as "'the coming of the Son of Man.'" The Greek word for "coming" is parousia, which is also used in Matthew 24:27 to describe the highly visible return of Jesus Christ--as the lightening that shines across the sky. Can lightening be secret and invisible?

Further, look at the context of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The context does not teach that those who are not "caught up" will be ushered into a seven-year period of tribulation. Rather, it teaches that they will experience "sudden destruction....And they shall not escape" (1 Thessalonians 5:3, NKJV). A careful study of 1 Thessalonians 4:15 to 5:3 reveals clearly that the Second Coming of Jesus does not result in a secret rapture leading to a seven-year tribulation; rather, the Second Coming is a visible, audible, glorious return of Jesus. At the coming of Jesus, the saints are raised from the dead and, together with the living saints, the redeemed of all ages will meet the Lord "in the air."

Seven-year tribulation

Dispensationalists also teach a seven-year tribulation after the secret rapture. They get this seven-year period from a speculative interpretation of Daniel 9:27: "And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease" (KJV).

There are two problems with the dispensationalist interpretation of this prophecy. First, they take the last week of the 70-week prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27, and place it in some distant future, at which time the Rapture is to occur and the Antichrist will emerge. But a study of Daniel 8 and 9 clearly reveals that the 70 weeks are a continual period to be fulfilled from the first to the 70th week in one historic time line. Sound exegesis and prophetic interpretation do not permit projecting the 70th week to some future period.

The second problem is a more serious one. In harmony with the day-year principle in prophecy (Ezequiel 4:6), "one week" means seven years. During this period, Daniel says: "Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week; but in the middle of the week he shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering" (Daniel 9:27, NKJV).

To whom does this "he" refer to? Dispensationalists interpret the "he" as the Antichrist who will appear in the future--Nicolae Carpathia of Left Behind authors--a future seven-year period that begins with the Rapture and continues with tribulation.

But here's another problem: Bible scholars of the past have consistently interpreted the "he" as Jesus Christ, and the "covenant" confirmed as the new covenant ratified by the death of our Savior 2,000 years ago (see Matthew 26:28), not as a seven-year peace treaty made by the Antichrist with the Jews after the Rapture.

Look closely again: Daniel 9:27 cannot refer to a peace treaty, but to the new covenant the Messiah will establish. In the Bible, the Antichrist never confirms any covenant. This is the exclusive role of the Messiah. In addition, Daniel 9:27 says, "in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice to cease" (KJV). The "midst" would be 31/2 years into the seven, which is the exact duration of Christ's ministry. After 31/2 years, by His death on the cross, Jesus did cause "the sacrifice to cease." He is the final sacrifice, and His death perfectly fulfills Daniel 9:27.

Seeing Christ as the "he" in Daniel 9:27, who confirmed the covenant and caused the Jewish sacrifices "to cease" by His death on the cross, is the only consistent position in biblical interpretation and eschatology.

The rise of the Antichrist

Dispensationalists also teach that the Antichrist is one evil person who will appear after the Rapture. But look at what the Bible says. The word antichrist is used only five times in the Bible, in 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; and in 2 John 7. All of these verses show that there is not just "one man" called Antichrist, but "many antichrists" (1 John 2:18, KJV). John also says, "They went out from us" (vs. 19), indicating that these antichrists arose from within the church, rather than from outside, and the apostle indicated that they were already at work in his time (1 John 2:18). Thus, in a general way, Antichrist represents those forces that take the name "Christian," but teach and practice doctrines that are unbiblical and contradictory to the position and role of Christ, and would not hesitate to persecute those who stand true and loyal to Christ and His teachings.

Bible prophecy also predicts the rise of a mysterious "little horn" (Daniel 7:8), the one identified by Paul as "that man of sin" (2 Thessalonians 2:3), and by John as "the beast" (Revelation 13:1). Most scholars apply these phrases to one and the same entity. Moreover Daniel 7:23 clearly defines a beast as a kingdom, not as one man.

Daniel's "little horn" would also make war with the saints, and prevail against them in Christian history (see Daniel 7:21). While this short article cannot give exhaustive proof as to why our Protestant forefathers were correct in their interpretation of this prophecy, it is a fact of history that for more than 400 years--up to the late 1800s--the majority of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Mennonite scholars applied the Bible's Antichrist prophecies, not to one future Mr. Sin who shows up after believers are raptured, but rather to the saint-persecuting organization of the Church of Rome.

"Luther proved, by the revelations of Daniel and St. John, by the epistles of St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. Jude, that the reign of Antichrist, predicted and described in the Bible, was the Papacy" (Merle D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 1846, Book II, Ch. XII, p. 215).

The final battle between Antichrist and Jews

Dispensational Futurism sees the primary earthly contestants at Armageddon being Antichrist and the nation of Israel, not the church. In fact, a clear separation between Israel and God's church is absolutely essential to the rapture-Antichrist-Israel scenario. If we can prove from the New Testament that in the Christian era God's Israel is the same as God's church, then we can show how wrong and unbiblical dispensationalism is.

First of all, the New Testament speaks about the reality of two Israels--an "Israel after the flesh" (1 Corinthians 10:18), and "the Israel of God" centered in Jesus Christ (see Galatians 6:14-16). Paul wrote, "They are not all Israel which are of Israel" (Romans 9:6, KJV). What he meant was that all who are of the nation of Israel are not God's Israel in the post-Cross era. In other words, a person can be a Jew, a literal descendent of Abraham, but through unbelief and living after the flesh, he or she may not be part of the Israel of God. Those who are part of God's Israel know God through personal faith in Jesus Christ (see Galatians 3:7, 14; 6:14-16).

In the Old Testament, Israel was clearly referred to as "the seed of Abraham" (Isaiah 41:8). In the New Testament, Paul told his Gentile converts, "And if you are Christ's, then are you Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29, NKJV). Thus believing Gentiles became part of God's Israel. Ephesians 2 is very clear: Jesus Christ on the cross broke down the wall of partition between believing Jews and believing Gentiles, and has mysteriously united them both into "one new man," or "one body" (Ephesians 2:14-17). Therefore this whole dispensational position of separating God's true Israel from His true church is contrary to the mission of the cross.

Further, Revelation 16:12-16 where Armageddon is mentioned does not speak of a battle between the Antichrist and the Jews; nor does the passage say that Christ comes in secrecy preceding this battle to rapture the saints. Instead, the passage describes the battle as the "battle of that great day of God Almighty"--one between the spirits of devils (including the Antichrist) and the forces of good. God's victory in the battle is ensured in the promise, "Behold, I come as a thief," referring to the Second Coming of Christ (Revelation 16:15, KJV; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:2).

The message of the Bible is clear. The way of salvation is now open to all, including the Jews. But at the second coming of Jesus, both the resurrected and living saints, will meet "the Lord in the air" (1 Thessalonians 4:17, KJV) in history's most glorious, public display of God's triumph over sin and death, over Satan and his evil agents. After the Second Coming, there is no second chance for salvation.

The Left Behind saga may be popular; its ideas going around the world. Yet solid biblical teaching is against every one of the four core positions upon which the phenomena of Left Behind is built. The Left Behind indeed leaves behind biblical truth and relies on human speculation and theological fantasy.

Steve Wohlberg is the Speaker/Director of Endtime Insights and the author of Truth Left Behind and Exploding the Israel Deception, which may be seen on his website: http://www.endtimeinsights.com. Pastor Wohlberg may also be contacted at: steve@endtimeinsights.com