This week Left Behind opened in theaters everywhere. For the uninitiated, the film is a spiritual thriller based on a series of best-selling novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Many of its scenes will seem familiar to viewers who have been to apocalyptic film night in the basement of the Baptist church. Like the scenes where people start to figure out that their family members are missing, leaving their personal belongings behind (“Their shoes, their clothes, their glasses – it’s crazy! We’ve been left behind!”). Or like the scenes where people huddle around a set of plans for rebuilding Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
What is different about Left Behind, however, is that the quality of production is much higher, with better filming, better actors and better effects. The quality ought to be higher, because it is the most expensive Christian film ever produced, at a cost of nearly $20 million. Naturally, the producers are eager to make good on their investment. To that end, Christians are being encouraged to show Hollywood their clout at the box office by going in record numbers. There has been a campaign to get churches to sponsor the film at local theaters, in the hope that Christians will use it as a way of introducing their friends to the gospel.
I have no idea how many people will go to see Left Behind. But if people do go in record numbers, the main thing it will show Hollywood is that Christians like bad movies. What makes the film bad is not its theology, although there are some difficulties in that department. In particular, I do not believe that the Bible teaches a pre-tribulation rapture, which is the entire premise of the movie. This view is based on combining Matthew 24 (“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left”) and 1 Thessalonians 4 (“We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”) with a particular interpretation of what Revelation teaches about the final tribulation and the reign of Christ in the new millennium. My worry is that the film will give many people the impression that a pre-trib rapture is standard Christian teaching, when in fact it is a minority position in the history of the church. Another theological difficulty is that the film focuses on the tribulation rather than on Christ himself, which is where the Bible always places its emphasis when it speaks about the Second Coming.
But bad theology is not what makes Left Behind a bad film. No, what makes it bad is the plot, which is totally unbelievable. I am not speaking primarily here of the spiritual things, but of the secular things. Some are small things, like the National Guardsmen who threaten to shoot Americans on sight if they are out after curfew, but somehow have time to shuttle private citizens door-to-door during a state of national emergency. Others are more significant, like asking us to believe that genetically engineered crops could solve world hunger, or that a group of business tycoons could so manipulate the United Nations as to end up joining the Security Council. Then there is the antichrist himself, Nicholae Carpathia, a young man who looks fresh out of college, but manages to rise from relative obscurity to become world dictator in less than a week. By contrast with the absurd conspiracy theory that drives the plot, the Rapture itself seems thoroughly plausible.
I suppose the plot of Left Behind probably is no more fantastic than the average plot in a James Bond or Jack Ryan film. What is different, however, is that Left Behind claims to communicate spiritual truth. Even worse, the film leaves the impression that some of these fantastic events are specifically prophesied in the Bible. As the world begins to unravel, we are told that everything from the worldwide food shortage to the conspiracy at the U. N. can be found in Ezekiel 38, Daniel 7, or 2 Thessalonians 2. But of course the Bible contains none of this information. Like most biblical prophecies, prophecies about the end times are full of mystery. Often they are intended to convey general impressions rather than to communicate specific details.
The temptation, of course, is to fill in the details. The Left Behind novels are a creative attempt to imagine what the world might be like in the years leading up the final judgment. But Christians should remember that God has already told us everything we need to know. To try and say more is to doubt the sufficiency of Scripture, and ultimately to undermine the literal truth of God’s Word.
If Left Behind has one redeeming feature, it is a scene mid-way through the film. It takes place in an empty church, where a man wearing casual clothes is sitting inside the pulpit, throwing a ball against the front wall of the sanctuary. Who is it? It’s the minister, of course. Everyone else in his congregation is gone, but he’s been left behind! (My heart went out to the man: His parishioners turned out to be holier than he was, and now there is no one to hear him preach). We overhear him talking to God, saying things like: “What a fraud I am!” “I know your message, and I knew your word.” “But knowin’ and believin’ are two different things.”
It is one of the most authentic moments in the movie, certainly much more believable than the scene where Kirk Cameron receives Christ on the floor of the men’s room at the U. N. It is also a worthy subject for Christian film: not speculation about the tribulation, but a man on his knees, wrestling with his sin.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org