`Beam Me Up' Theology. (the Debate over `Left Behind')

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, September 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

`Beam Me Up' Theology. (the Debate over `Left Behind')


Dart, John, The Christian Century


THE HUGELY POPULAR "Left Behind" series of novels continues to frustrate mainstream pastors and biblical scholars who object to an "end-times" theology they consider just as fictional as the books' genre. The readers are real, however. The tenth and most recent volume in the series, The Remnant, picked up 2.4 million orders in the two months before its July release.

In a little-noticed resolution passed overwhelmingly by the 2001 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), delegates declared that the theology of the series is "not in accord with our Reformed understanding" of the New Testament Book of Revelation. The resolution urged pastors to lead their congregations through studies of the novels if they are causing "confusion and dissension."

In addition, the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod said the books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are "filled with very serious errors about what the Bible really teaches." A critical analysis in December 2000 by the late A. L. Barry, then-president of the church, remains on the synod's Web site.

By contrast, the Assemblies of God Web site carries a friendly interview with LaHaye from 2000, along with the denomination's stance on "the rapture" as a "blessed hope." For the sinner, "to be left behind will involve indescribable suffering as God judges a rebellious and disobedient world," according to the Assemblies' doctrinal statement.

Recently joining the fray was evangelical scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary, a prolific author of New Testament studies. In the August issue of Bible Review magazine, Witherington noted the popular appeal that apocalyptic literature has in unsettling times. "Unfortunately, not all apocalyptic thinking is good apocalyptic thinking, and this is especially true of the so-called dispensational theology that informs these novels," Witherington wrote. "The most distinctive featue of dispensational theology is what I call the `Beam me up, Scotty' belief."

In a similar vein, Bill Hull, a Samford University research professor, told Associated Baptist Press recently that "dispensationalism," in which God tests humans in certain time periods, remains a minority view among theologians. The ideas, spread in the 1860s by English evangelist John Nelson Darby, gained popularity with the publication of the influential Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, which contains long footnotes outlining Darby's views. A dispensationalist precursor to the "Left Behind" series was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth--a record-breaking best seller in the 1970s.

The supernatural plot in the LaHaye-Jenkins novels, published by Tyndale House, has true believers taken from the earth in a "rapture" that precedes seven years of suffering--the great tribulation--for those left behind. Drawing on images in Revelation, the books predict an Antichrist demanding universal loyalty and acceptance of a "mark of the beast" on their bodies. Plagues and suffering ensue until Jesus returns to establish a 1,000-year reign on earth. …

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