“Left Behind” Is Left Behind

The rapture is declining, according to Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The nineteenth-century notion that Christians will escape the planet before widespread tribulation heralds the world’s end — a notion popularized by John Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible, embraced by many churches and even U.S. presidents, and popularized by the Left Behind series — is taking a back seat to something else. In this new history of the future, Christians trade the escape hatch for the hostile takeover, in a movement called “Christian Reconstructionism,” a theocratic politics that critics call “Dominionism”: ushering in God’s kingdom not by serving others but by ruling them.

While these two theories — one of relinquishment, one of power — seem to be polar opposites, they share many themes. They both seek easy resolution to discomfort with social norms and ills. They both envision a home where divine rule is forcefully visible, whether in heaven or on earth. Neither tolerates ambiguity. They both externalize sin to outsiders. And neither shies away from violence, whether catastrophes for the unsaved or capital punishment for sinners.

Mainline ministers, meanwhile, ignore such disturbing visions — at least until November. Then the liturgical year’s end in Christ the King flows into Advent’s annual Second Coming emphasis, and we once again confront texts on which predictors of the Christian future base their case. It’s tempting to spend more effort debunking bad popular theology than following Paul’s and Jesus’ own trains of thought.

But if we take Jesus’ teaching in these Gospel passages seriously, we find a clear, oft-repeated message not of self-serving theories about the future, but of pursuing the ends and ethics that Jesus himself exemplified. These include service, mindfulness, steadiness, humility, and accepting responsibility for this earth and its inhabitants. Accompanying these are other scriptural texts portraying God’s loving care for all creation. Consider this Gospel message:

  • Matthew 23:1-12 (November 2): Speaking up about the hypocrisy of the religious elite of his own day, Jesus does not urge his followers to seek to supplant them. Instead, he urges, “The greatest among you will be your servant,” since “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (vv. 11, 12).
  • Matthew 25:1-13 (November 9): Jesus commends the five wise bridesmaids who do not neglect their role, saying, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v. 13 — see a variation of this saying on November 30).
  • Matthew 25:14-30 (November 16): Jesus’ parable about the householder leaving his servants in charge emphasizes the servants’ responsibility to carry on their lord’s work while he is gone. Those who do so are rewarded, and the one who shirks is not.
  • Matthew 25:31-46 (November 23): Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats spells out what he expects of followers: to care for the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned as they would care for Jesus himself. Such work has no continuity with either escapism or empire-building.
  • Mark 13:24-37 (November 30, first Sunday of Advent): Jesus’ discourse about the future asserts that preparation for the future means faithfully pursuing our work as servants.

God’s loving care for this earth’s creatures is further emphasized in these passages:

  • Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37(November 2) describes God’s satisfying thirst and hunger, and renewing parched lands for fruitfulness.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13(November 2) reminds Christians of Paul’s own toil for them.
  • Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16(November 9 alt.) describes Wisdom as seeking out those who desire her.
  • Amos 5:18-24(November 9 alt.) portrays God as refusing religious activities characterized by injustice, and proclaiming, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
  • Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20(November 9 alt.) commends desire to learn wisdom’s ways.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18(November 9) assures the grieving that the dead will participate in Jesus’ reign on earth.
  • Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12(November 16 alt.) meditates on time, compares humans to ephemeral grass, recognizes the inevitability of toil, and prays that God’s servants’ work may prosper.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (November 16) reminds readers once again to keep awake and sober, wearing faith, love, and hope of salvation.
  • Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 (November 23) asserts that it is God who shepherds, by looking out for the weakest of the sheep, and particularly by protecting them from the powerful.
  • Psalm 100(November 23) calls all the earth to worship God, whose steadfast love endures forever.
  • Psalm 95:1-7a(November 23 alt.) proclaims God’s single-handed sovereignty over the earth’s depths and heights, the sea and land, and all inhabitants.
  • Ephesians 1:15-23(November 23) reminds readers that we are not placed in charge, nor do we leave the earth behind. Rather, Jesus is already ruling over all.
  • Isaiah 64:1-9 (November 30), a lament from exile, prays for redemptive divine presence, calling God the potter and Israel the clay, the “work of your hand.”
  • Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19(November 30) likewise prays for restoration, promising, “Then we will never turn back.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:3-9(November 30) tells Christians that the faithful God will strengthen them for blamelessness.