Many Bible-believing Christians worried “The DaVinci Code” would blur the line between fiction and what the Bible says about the life of Jesus. But a new book says millions of evangelicals are buying a marginal and fairly recent theology behind the “Left Behind” novels as if it were gospel truth.
In Left Behind?: The Facts Behind the Fiction, author LeAnn Snow Flesher unearths theological underpinnings of the fiction series, challenges the authors’ claims they present the correct view of Bible prophecy and provides alternative methods for understanding the message of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation.
Flesher says the 14 novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, who have sold more than 60 million books, have become for many Americans a way for interpreting and coping with the terrorist attacks of September 2001. While many readers view Left Behind as harmless fiction, Flesher, professor of Old Testament at the Baptist Seminary of the West, believes the novels do more harm than many pastors assume.
They “perpetuate a massive misunderstanding of the nature of Scripture and how Scripture should be studied,” she writes. They “create and support a separatist worldview in which all who disagree are deemed ‘the enemy.'” Finally, she says, “the mixed-up working theology of church members may thwart (and likely already has thwarted) healthy forward movement in congregations.”
Premillennial dispensationalism, a view developed in the 1800s by Irish preacher John Nelson Darby and popularized in America in the 20th century by footnotes in the Scofield Reference Bible, provides the novels’ theological basis.
According to Darby, history can be divided into seven dispensations, in which God deals with people in different ways, typically corresponding with the various covenants recorded in Scripture.
While professing to take the Bible “literally,” Flesher says, LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ method of interpretation requires significant changes or additions to the biblical text.
They note, for example, a dichotomy between Jew and Gentile, each with distinct roles and relationships to God. Flesher says that stands in stark contrast with New Testament passages that equate the church with the seed of Abraham.
They promote a “Christ against culture” perspective, where God’s purpose for this age of the church is not to Christianize the world but instead to gather the remnant of elect from the nations of the world. Premillennial dispensationlists believe they are the “true church” that will be raptured, while secular humanists and mainline liberals will be left behind to suffer during a great tribulation.
Rather than addressing theological issues of the times in which they were written, LaHaye and Jenkins interpret apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation as prophesying events occurring today. “In their thinking, contemporary people are the ones who will see the coming of the Antichrist, as he takes over the world, established a one-world economy, proclaims himself God, desecrates a rebuilt temple, and rules from a rebuilt Babylon,” Flesher writes
The authors, she says, envision it happening soon. They view the European Common Market as a move toward a one-world economy. They claim Babylon has already been rebuilt. They talk of the Jewish community planning to rebuild a third temple and reinstitute animal sacrifice. Liberalization and secularization of the church is their basis for a one-world religion.
Flesher says the authors draw isolated verses from several different Bible books, written by different authors in different time periods, and ignore the meanings those verses had in their original context. They string them together in a way that essentially creates a new text with a new meaning.
One place where Flesher says LaHaye and Jenkins take a huge leap is their interpretation of Rev. 12:13-14, where a woman clothed with the sun flees the dragon by receiving wings and flying into the wilderness where she is to be safe and nourished for three and a half years.
LaHaye and Jenkins recast the scene to having her flee to a 21st century, high-tech military compound in the ancient city of Petra. She says the literary invention is a major distortion of the Bible text.
“The book of Revelation does not contain a call to arms, and it does not contain any examples of human combat,” she writes. “The imposition of military preparations and strategies on the image of the woman fleeing to the desert does serious violence to the biblical text and can easily lead readers of the fiction series, which is touted as presenting biblical truth, to believe Daniel and Revelation are a call to arms.”
“By weaving numerous biblical texts together and creating a fictional story line to communicate their interpretation, they have shifted the fundamental message of John of Patmos away from nonviolent resistance to a call to arms. The Left Behind series does not teach the power of suffering love as revealed through the cross but instead promotes a message of military resistance.”
Flesher says LaHaye and Jenkins depict trained theologians as ignorant buffoons who cannot understand their “prophecy teachings.” They believe lay people are better trained than their pastors in Bible prophecy, because they read the books. Premillennial dispensationalism isn’t taught at most seminaries, because most don’t consider it sound scholarship. Many pastors, therefore, know less about the view than their parishioners and frequently do not know how to respond.
“Revelation does not predict a time when tribulation will begin,” Flesher writes. “Rather, it responds to the tribulations of the time, namely, the intense sustained persecution that culminated in the destruction of the temple (due to revolt) and the sporadic persecution that continued until John’s day, some of which John himself had experienced and which he anticipated would become even more severe.”
Due to the series’ success, Flesher says, elements of the Left Behind authors’ belief system “have permeated Christian culture and the larger culture.”
“Some readers may wonder why so much effort is being put into critiquing a fiction series,” she writes. “While Left Behind is indeed fiction, the novels reflect and promote a theological belief system that is held to be the truth by a small segment of the Christian community.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.