Hollywood's Rapture Problem

Hollywood's Rapture Problem
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The verdict is in: the latest cinematic iteration of Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins's apocalyptic rapture thriller is an absolute car wreck.

Ridiculed as "breathtakingly clunky" and "profoundly moronic," Left Behind is crippled by "sub-par production values, howler-filled dialogue and terrible performances." Its critical reputation appears unsalvageable. Meanwhile, the film's box office receipts -- less than $8 million at present -- suggest that it may be a dud among lay audiences as well.

No one is surprised, of course. At least not anyone who saw the film's poster with its painfully-airbrushed depiction of Nicolas Cage (fresh off his Wicker Man fame). But, then again, this is a Christian film. It's a tool designed to "plant a seed" in the minds of unbelievers; a depiction of doomsday intended to scare the lost into the fold without "getting too preachy."

Surely Christians embrace such a noble project, right? Not exactly.

Jeremie Rinne at The Gospel Coalition expresses deep doubts over the film's theological bona fides and cautions viewers against getting hoodwinked by "emotional effect." Over at Patheos, a much less charitable Fred Clark blasts the film's horrendous doctrine and its failure to connect with how human beings actually think and talk. An even less charitable Zach Hunt tears the film a new one, stating plainly that "nobody is getting left behind (because the rapture is never, ever going to happen)." Huffington Post released a podcast featuring several Christian scholars who simply shake their heads at a misguided understanding of scripture. Jackson Cuidon at Christianity Today, lampoons the film's absurdity and rejoices that it contains only "the slightest, most infinitesimal amount of Christianity possible."

For anyone confused by this disconnect -- that is, in which Christians bash an ostensibly Christian film -- let me explain.

People love to hate the rapture. Yes, Christians too. The idea that Jesus will make a penultimate, airborne appearance before the Second Coming in order to harvest believers to Heaven just in time to escape a 7-year period of earth-shattering tribulation is hardly the default position of the church. In fact, as opponents of dispensationalism (the source of rapture theology) love to point out, the idea did not make its appearance until a full 19 centuries after Christ's resurrection. Opponents view dispensationalism as a "pop eschatology" that causes well-meaning Christians to misinterpret God's real plan for the world. Common caricatures of dispensationalists include Christians who read the newspaper through the lens of Bible prophecy ("The Arab Spring was predicted in Isaiah 19!"), who shrug off societal ills with a callous fatalism ("Let the world burn, I'm outta here!"), and who quietly hanker for "wars and rumors of wars" that will shorten the time to lift-off.

These caricatures bring endless smiles to the faces of those who see themselves as more refined in their eschatological views. Celebrated theologian N.T. Wright, always elegant in his derision, gazes sympathetically (and condescendingly) upon those poor souls who still believe in a "pseudo-theological version of Home Alone."  Of course, eschatological mockery between Christians is nothing new. Halfway through his majestic History of the Church, Eusebius digresses long enough to slam Papias, one of the earliest church fathers, for believing (like most early Christians) in a literal return of Christ and the establishment of a physical kingdom based in Jerusalem that would last a thousand years. This "man of small intelligence," as Eusebius describes Papias, totally misinterpreted what Jesus and the apostles were teaching. Thankfully, Eusebius really understood the truth about the end. Or so he claimed.

But it's not just snobbish rapture-haters who are at fault. Many rapture-lovers revel in being outliers, welcoming the mockery that comes with it. Harboring a penchant for apocalyptic date-setting, an "all-roads-lead-to-Armageddon" attitude, and overblown analysis of events in the Middle East (not to mention an utterly atrocious graphic sensibility) some -- but certainly not all -- dispensationalists rightfully deserve criticism. The Left Behind franchise itself seems determined to use bad CGI and cringe-worthy plot development to destroy every ounce of credibility that dispensational theology has left.

If their message is indeed true, wouldn't they be better served by taking a more thoughtful, more caring, and less flamboyant approach? In the meantime, it seems they are making a laughingstock of the Gospel and damaging the credibility of our faith before the eyes of the world. And that is never a good thing.

When it comes to eschatology, both sides seem to be missing the point. So focused on "outing" the other as heretics and/or fools, they lose sight of the fact that our faith even has an eschatology unlike the naked and static philosophies that animate much of the outside culture. And not only do we have eschatology: we have one in which our God triumphs over evil and restores the cosmos to its rightful order.

Rapture-lovers often savor the destruction of the world without stopping to consider whether the world, despite its warts, needs our help. And they go too far in trying to market eschatology -- the ultimate graduate course in Christian doctrine -- to a culture that doesn't even know who Jesus is or what he offers. Worst of all, their marketing tactics are horrendous.

Rapture-haters meanwhile tend to diminish the importance of eschatology in Christianity and its repeated emphasis in scripture. They spend too much time bashing dispensationalists without considering that their own acceptance of orthodoxy implies a conviction that a Jewish man murdered two thousand years ago actually resurrected from the dead, actually floated up to Heaven, and will actually return someday to rule over mankind and re-create the heavens and the earth. Taken in this larger context, the rapture doesn't look all that strange.

These elements of the Christian faith will always be a bit absurd by the standards of scientific reason. But to the extent that our faith aims toward a telos that comprehends, according to our revealed scripture, the ultimate hope of all that is true and perfect, we should proudly -- yet humbly -- bear public witness of that telos in a way that is lucid yet also properly prioritized.

Eschatology is embedded in our faith and it does matter. However, we must integrate its meaning into our daily lives and communicate its message, intelligibly and with the proper tone, to a world that stands in desperate need of hope.

Unfortunately, Left Behind is not that message.

Robert Nicholson is the executive director of The Philos Project.

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