Confession: decades after the craze first started, fully aware of the problematic implications of its theology, I have starting reading Left Behind. I figured it would be a good thing to do, considering its historic popularity, and also because much of my generation (myself included) has been scarred by rapture nightmares evoked by the series. I’m about to finish the first book, and I just returned from picking up the second at my local library. (I also checked out The Brothers Karamazov–I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but I also needed it to cover up my more shameful selection on the walk back to work.)
It’s actually worse than I thought it would be. Danielle had to endure constant interruptions from her own book while we ate dinner together last night. “How can you think that verse refers to the anti-christ?!” “Why are these conversion narratives so homogenous?!” “Paul’s talking about the resurrection, not the rapture, you idiots!” (After this interjection Danielle mentioned something about Christian love…) I guess there are worse books out there right now (Twilight, anyone?), and I do consider Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins my brothers in Christ, but it’s hard for me to read Left Behind unemotionally, because (1) it’s hard for me to read any theological work unemotionally, and (2) they’re messing with my favorite branch of theology!
When I tell people about my interest in eschatology they usually assume I’m asking the same questions Left Behind purports to answer, just coming up with different answers. “Oh, so are you post-trib? Post-mil? Preterist? What’s your expected timeline of the last days?” I suppose there’s some validity to hashing out possible answers to those questions – theology always has practical implications – but the reason I love eschatology isn’t because I think it’ll help me predict the future.
I love eschatology because it helps us imagine (through a glass darkly) a redeemed world consumed with the presence of God. It rejoices in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and also in the anticipation of our own. It gives us space to ponder, imperfectly, bigger questions. Where are we going? What does it mean that all of creation will be redeemed? What role will memories and relationships have in the eschaton? How do we live, now, in the tension of the already/not-yet Kingdom of God?
I don’t like Left Behind (so far) because the theological questions are so settled. “Here, watch this video our pastor recorded before the rapture, pray for, like, five minutes, and then you’ll be saved.” And the Christians all knew exactly what was coming before it happened – down to the last detail. You’ll find that on said pastor’s tape. Plus, the Bible has apparently become so perspicuous that, within a week, the new post-rapture Christians can figure out the whole shape of the last days. But… really? Did Israel know exactly what to expect the Messiah to be? (Answer: no.) And if a God-incarnate-baby came in place of a military hero, how can we think we know exactly how He’ll come again?
This Evangelical brand of theological simplicity, of almost arrogant knowing, seems to come from another eschatological mistake: we’ve misimagined our place in redemption history. We think we know everything about God, so there’s no room to be ever-growing in both our answers and our questions. But what if we don’t have everything about God figured out yet? What if we don’t even have the Bible figured out yet? What if our minds are still awaiting full redemption, too? What if God’s story isn’t over yet? What if it gets even better? A true study of eschatology is a joyful act of faith that it will.
I’m all about art as a way to do theology, so here’s an (incomplete) list of reading, viewing, and listening that has stretched my eschatological imagination beyond Left Behind. I recommend it all!
- The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
- The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
- Revelation 21-22 (The Bible? Who would have thought…)
- the last chapter of Original Sin: A Cultural History, by Alan Jacobs – But read the whole thing first. I like that Jacobs, after spending so much time talking about the implications of sin, closes his book picturing the story of redemption as a literary comedy.
- Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]), by DavidCrowder*Band – An evangelical band basing their whole last, epic album on the Requiem Mass? Yay, ecumenism (a sign of the end times??)!
- “The End” (the last episode of Lost) – I don’t agree with all of their implied theology, but the eschatological reunion at the end is beautiful. And, come on, the title of the episode is eschaton in English!
- “End of the World” (Parks and Recreation season 4, episode 6) – This is mostly a satirical (and really funny) take on rapture predictions like Harold Camping’s, but the soundtrack to the last scene makes the whole thing seem genuinely eschatological. A song called All Will Be Well (Gabe Dixon Band) at the end of an episode about the end of the world? So great.
- The Return of the King, of course (although I’m not sure what the excess of endings says about Peter Jackson’s eschatology…)