EschatologyTheology & Spirituality

Left Behind Theology and Atheism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Over the past week or so, the Christian blogosphere has lit up with discussion of the new Left Behind film. Plugged In gave the film 4/5 stars, claiming it will force you to “wonder what’s up with your own spiritual condition.”Christianity Today, by contrast, called it “garbage, slapped with the Christian label on it,” and “a disaster flick injected with the slightest, most infinitesimal amount of Christianity possible.” The Gospel Coalition argues the theology undergirding the film is scripturally unsound, and the Orthodox Christian Network claims the rapture holds “no historical pedigree at all” within church tradition. 4

What I want to do in this article, rather than do a movie review or to exegetically debunk left behind theology, is to raise questions as to what it means to practically live out its theology.A full critique of a theological system must not only engage its scriptural and traditional foundations, but also its fruits, how a theology “lives.” For every systematic theology entails a practical theology, or, as Stanley Hauerwas says from another angle, “every education is already a moral formation.” In this article I will argue that rapture theology, like broader American popular religion, amounts to a nihilistic narrative that is little different than atheism. In its denial of the significance of the material world, like atheism, Left Behind theology results in a world divorced from its own creation.

Growing up, I was a believer in the rapture. It was never something I had reasoned out, it was just what I was raised to understand Christianity to be. Christianity’s end goal is heaven, in which our souls are saved and we are united with Christ and our loved ones. The rapture fits neatly within that scheme, as Christ will snatch his people up into heaven, and we will be “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”(1 Thess. 4:17).The lyrics to Jim Reeves’s “This World is Not My Home,” exhibit the kind of worship that results:

This world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

Oh Lord, You know I have no friend like you
If heaven’s not my home then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore7

This earth-is-not-my-home salvation scheme leads to a denial of the created-goodness of the material world. The entire biblical narrative can be explained centered on the biblical theme of God declaring the world “very good,” from creation, to fall, and to redemption. It is thus no accident that God cares about how Israel enacts justice in their politics, how they relate to their surrounding cultures, and how they go about the mundane details of pots, pans, and pigs. It is no accident that the Jewish people were awaiting a messiah to bring a Kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Most poignantly, it is ultimately no accident that God became incarnate, flesh-and-blood, to “reconcile the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). Finally, in the most incredible act in history, God defeats sin and death in Christ’s earthly resurrection from death to life, becoming the “firstfruits” of those who “in Christ shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). For Christians, the ultimate hope is to be found in our future resurrection, in which our bodies will be raised incorruptible, free from sin and death. “Heaven” is thus not our home, but is an intermediate state in which we await our resurrections into the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev. 21:1).

Within the deep wells of this narrative, Christians who believe in the resurrection are called to drink. God himself is one who works, and thus our vocations, whether street-sweeping or salesmanship, reflect the image of the Creator. This incorporeal God became human, giving us his body and blood to nourish us for the journey. This kingly God establishes a kingdom on this earth, putting the world to rights so that we might be putting-to-rights-people here on earth.This holy God gives us undeserved grace, so that we might give grace to our enemies. And this redeeming God calls us to look forward to the new heaven and new earth, in which our strivings for justice and reconciliation in the present will be brought to fruition in the second coming of our Lord.

Why then must American popular religion consistently demand that the Christian hope is found in disembodied, heavenly bliss, when our God is continually working to redeem the world, not neglect it? Why must the statistics of Christian (not American) belief in the resurrection hover around 60-70%?I submit that this emphasis on other-worldliness is a significant idolatry, a rejection of the God who created. Not only this, but also a rejection of our very humanity, in which God creates us to be his image-bearers, called to reflect God’s character and purposes into his creation.

In rejecting the goodness of creation and the purposes of what it means to be human, left behind theology and American popular religion amount to a nihilistic narrative. It is nihilistic for it presumes that the mundane details of everyday life are insignificant to God. More than that, it neglects God’s heart for beauty and justice in this world. It ultimately denies the goodness of work, the rest that comes when justice reigns, and the awe-inspiring majesty of creation. The implications of its theology forms us into people that accept the status quo, for we are just “a-passin’ through.” Indeed, as I have previously noted, worldviews such as these that deny the eternity of embodied creation end in death. Heaven-is-our-home theology is thus bed-fellows with atheism, for both affirm that death is the end of the world. Rather than being the antithesis of atheism, left behind theology and atheism are two sides of the same coin, both rejecting the God who creates and redeems.

In this article, what I am not arguing is that those who believe in rapture theology or atheists cannot live robust moral lives. What I am arguing is that their worldviews do not allow for a narrative that supports good works, social justice, or the mundane Monday through Friday work week. Both atheism and American popular religion lead to the death of the created world, and thus a denial of all that the Lord has declared “very good.”10 

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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