A fellow browser in a bookstore a few months ago asked me about the “Left Behind” novels that have set record sales in religious and secular bookstores the past few years.

I don’t know where the fellow was coming from, but he was evidently disturbed by the message and tone of these books.

Followers of the Christian religion have complicated the faith the last few centuries. There are groups that follow the “traditional” Christian beliefs, sometimes called mainline denominations or churches. Others have a different traditional view such as the Eastern (or Greek) Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

In contrast to the traditional followers are two variations that emphasize one of two ideas: philosophical rationalism and legalistic Christianity. The legalistic, sometimes called Fundamentalists, tend to take conservative views on social matters.

Fundamentalist Christians typically believe that the Bible is the Word of God, internally consistent, and free of error (meaning the original Greek and Hebrew scripts which no longer exist, and hence cannot be read or questioned).

They are the most vocal group in opposition to equal rights for homosexuals, abortion access, physician-assisted suicide, the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research and comprehensive sex-education classes in public schools.

About 150 years ago John Nelson Darby devised Dispensationalism. (The “Left Behind” books lean in this direction.) Darby’s teachings were popularized by Cyrus I. Schofield and his annotated Bible.

Most Christian Zionists subscribe to Dispensational Premillennism, an approach that divides history into seven Bible-based eras. This approach says that God’s covenant with Israel–including promises of land–is still in force today. Many dispensationalists, therefore, support the political state of Israel in Palestine as belonging to the sons of Abraham (the Bible’s first Jew).

The dispensationalists believe history is divided into seven historic events, all prophesied in the Bible (according to Darby and Schofield). When Israeli statehood was declared in 1948, dispensationalists considered this an important prophetic event. The world was getting closer to the Second Coming of Christ.

In reality the British were forced out of Palestine, and the United Nations ordered two countries be placed in Palestine, one for Jews and one for the Palestinians. Fifty-six years later the Palestinians are still without a land.

Central to Dispensationalism is the belief that all Israel will be saved and become Christians.

As theologian Stephen Sizer writes, it is the belief “that the boundaries of the land promised to Abraham and his descendants will be literally instituted; and that Jesus Christ will return to a literal and theocratic Jewish kingdom centered on Jerusalem.”

Many Jews like the first part of that, but reject the last part. Christ was not their Messiah, hence Jews continue to wait.

The concept of a Rapture (central to the “Left Behind” series) is from a literal interpretation of First Thessalonians 4:16-17, where Paul says: “For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

This taken as it was meant, figuratively, simply means Christ will overcome all the evils of this world. It was not meant to scare people to God–as the “Left Behind” books seem to do.

The “Rapture” is the mistaken notion that in the last days of our world, believing Christians will be removed from the earth. It is literally explained as the time when Jesus calls the faithful to heaven and believers are physically taken up, leaving the unbelievers to go through Armageddon and other horrors.

The word “rapture” does not appear in the Bible and is foreign to the spirit of the Bible.

I guess if I took time to read those novels or even take their message seriously, I might become as disturbed as the fellow in the bookstore.

Britt Towery is former Southern Baptist liaison to the China Christian Council. He now directs the Tao Foundation, an organization promoting integrity in missions, and lives in San Angelo, Texas. His column appears weekly in the Brownwood Bulletin

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