Five Myths About the “Rapture” and the “Left Behind” Industry

On the (short) history, (bad) theology, and (continuing) appeal of premillennial dispensationalism

This year has marked a sort of second coming of “the Rapture”. On June 29th, HBO launched a new series, “The Leftovers”, based on the 2011 novel of the same title, written by Tom Perrotta, which follows the struggles of various characters living in the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of millions of people. “And then it happened,” states the novel’s Prologue, “The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world.” The twist is that Perrotta apparently uses the Rapture as a plot device, but does not adhere to the dispensationalist belief system which features the Rapture (more on that below).

The recently released film, “The Remaining”, however, is completely dedicated to the “left behind” theology, as co-writer and director Casey La Scala explains:

And ever since I was a kid, I wondered what would happen if the Rapture were to happen and all of the sudden we were in seven years of hell. So, I went through Revelations and I got to the sixth trumpet, in which the Abyss is opened and the demons are released, and I said, ‘There it is!’ … In the process of writing The Remaining, once I was sure the project would stand up to an evangelical base, I did a lot of work on making sure the rules of the Rapture were biblically accurate.

If La Scala really did refer to The Apocalypse as “Revelations”, then readers will be forgiven for questioning the depth of his research and knowledge of Scripture. Then again, being “biblically accurate” has never been a strong suit of the “left behind” theology (again, more on that below).

And then there is the new “Left Behind” movie, in theaters this coming Friday, starring Nicholas Cage (yes, he’s still acting—or at least appearing in movies). The promotional verbiage is boilerplate and sensational, a combination that has been an essential part of Rapture fiction since British author Sydney Watson published a trilogy of end times novels a hundred years ago—Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915), and In the Twinkling of an Eye (1916):

The most important event in the history of mankind is happening right now. In the blink of an eye, the biblical Rapture strikes the world. Millions of people disappear without a trace. All that remains are their clothes and belongings, and in an instant, terror and chaos spread around the world. 

With all of this eschatological excitement in the pop culture air, it’s not surprising that I’ve received e-mails and questions about the newest round of Rapture roulette. The biggest question is simply, “Are the ‘Left Behind’ books and movies compatible with Catholicism?” Others follow. I addressed those and many, many other questions several years ago in my first book, Will Catholics Be Left Behind? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius Press, 2003; e-book). I also write a number of articles about the “Left Behind” phenomenon, including pieces about the unoriginal nature of the Tim LaHaye/Jerry B. Jenkins novels, a short history of the “left behind” theology, a comparison of dispensationalism and Catholicism, and a rather scathing review of the Glorious Appearing, the twelfth Left Behind novel.

With that in mind, I am reposting an article I wrote in late 2003 for Crisis magazine, which examines five of the central myths, or misunderstandings, about the Rapture and related matters. I’ve not updated it (for example, there are a total of sixteen Left Behind novels, and they have sold around 65 million copies in all), but the main points are still just as good today as they were then.

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Three years ago I mentioned to a Catholic friend that I was starting to work on a book critiquing the Left Behind novels and premillennial dispensationalism, the unique theological belief system presented, in fictional format, within those books. “Why?” she asked, obviously bewildered. “No one really takes that stuff seriously.”

That revealing remark merely reinforced my desire to write that book, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”? (Ignatius, 2003). Other conversations brought home the same point. Far too many people, including a significant number of Catholics, do not recognize the attraction and power of this Fundamentalist phenomenon. Nor do they appear to appreciate how much curiosity exists about the “end times,” the book of Revelation, and the “pretribulation Rapture”—the belief that Christians will be taken up from earth prior to a time of tribulation and the Second Coming. In addition, I hoped to pen the sort of book I wish that I, as a Fundamentalist, could have read while studying and approaching, by fits and starts, the Catholic Church.

In the course of writing articles, giving talks, and writing the book, I have encountered a number of questions and comments—almost all from Catholics—that indicate how much confusion exists about matters of eschatology, not to mention ecclesiology, historical theology, and the interpretation of Scripture. The five myths I present here summarize many of those questions, and I seek to provide basic and clear answers for them.

The Left Behind books represent a fringe belief system that very few people take seriously.”

Exactly how many copies of the Left Behind books must be sold before the theology they propagate can be taken seriously? Fifty million? That is the number that have now been sold, making the novels (consisting now of eleven books and supposedly ending with book twelve) the biggest-selling series of Christian fiction of all time. Then there are the two movies, CDs, children’s books, devotionals, greeting cards and a host of other products, along with a website that attracts hundreds of thousands of fans every month. 

That is only part of the big picture. The biggest-selling work of non-fiction (other than the Bible) since 1970 is dispensationalist Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (Bantam, 1970), which sold over forty million copies and established the blueprint for a number of other popular, self-described “Bible prophecy” experts, including Tim LaHaye, creator and co-author of the Left Behind series. LaHaye’s first work of “Bible prophecy” was The Beginning of the End (Tyndale, 1972), essentially a carbon copy of Lindsey’s mega-seller. In the years that followed, Lindsey and LaHaye, along with authors such as Salem Kirban, David Wilkinson, Dave Hunt, Grant Jeffrey, John Walvoord, and others, produced a string of best-selling books warning of the rapidly approaching pre-tribulation Rapture, the Antichrist, and the tribulation.

The success of these books and of the dispensationalist system is far from “fringe.” Far from it—they are quite mainstream, influencing even nominal Christians and non-Christians. It reflects a trend that has been steadily growing for several decades. While Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians dwindle in number and influence, Fundamentalist and conservative Evangelical groups continue to form and vigorously grow, making their mark increasingly in the secular realm. Many of these Fundamentalists—including “non-denominational” Christians, “Bible-believing” Christians, “born-again” Christians, Baptists, and Assembly of God members—are antagonistic towards the Catholic Church and her teachings, and a majority of them believe in some form of dispensationalism.

Southern Baptists, for example, make up the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and are quite dispensationalist. The pentecostal Assemblies of God, the fastest growing Protestant group in the world, is overtly dispensationalist, as its official doctrinal statement makes clear. Staunchly pentecostal and charismatic groups almost all hold to certain elements of dispensationalist theology, many television evangelists espouse some variation of it as well, and “Bible prophecy” books are always among Protestant best-sellers. Anyone who has watched the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), which claims to be the largest Christian television network in the world, is familiar with a whirling mixture of pentecostal preaching, dubious healings, energetic music, and preachers utilizing elaborate, wall-sized charts to explain the Book of Revelation and “end time” events.

Harvard historian Paul Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Harvard University Press, 1998), estimates that 30 to 40% of Americans believe in “Bible prophecy” and hold to eschatological beliefs such as those taught in the Left Behind novels. Admittedly, such numbers are difficult, if not impossible, to verify with any real accuracy. Still, it can be safely said that tens of millions of Americans believe in a “pretribulation Rapture” and would readily accept the Left Behind books as a fairly accurate, fictionalized depiction of the fast-approaching end of the world.

Catholic beliefs about eschatology are quite similar to those of Fundamentalists such as Tim LaHaye.”

Studying dispensationalism (as in studying almost any theological system) is like exploring the proverbial iceberg—the vast majority lies beneath the surface, out of sight, unnoticed by the unwary observer. On the surface, dispensationalists and Catholics appear to agree about the Second Coming, a future Antichrist, and a coming trial and time of apostasy. And, in fact, common beliefs about aspects of these teachings do exist. Although it comes as a surprise to many Fundamentalists, the Catholic Church clearly believes in the Second Coming, “a final trial,” and a “supreme religious deception . . . of the Antichrist” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 675).

As noteworthy as these agreements are, the differences between premillennial dispensationalism andCatholic doctrine are even more striking. Stripped to their bare essentials, these include three premises about the past and present, and two beliefs about the future.

The first dispensationalist premise is that Jesus Christ failed to provide the kingdom to the Jews during His first coming. Dispensationalists believe that Christ sought to establish a material and earthly kingdom, but the Jews rejected him. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), the ex-Anglican priest who formed the dispensationalist system, wrote, “The Lord, having been rejected by the Jewish people, is become wholly a heavenly person.” This dualistic notion was echoed and articulated by Darby’s disciples, including Cyrus I. Scofield (editor of the Scofield Reference Bible), Lewis Sperry Chafer, and many of the popularizers of the system. Leading dispensationalist theologian Charles C. Ryrie, in his systematic Basic Theology, gives this convoluted explanation, “Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus’ Davidic kingship was offered to Israel (Matt. 2:2; 27:11; John 12:13), but He was rejected. . . . Because the King was rejected, the messianic, Davidic kingdom was (from a human viewpoint) postponed. Though He never ceases to be King and, of course, is King today as always, Christ is never designated as King of the Church . . . Though Christ is a King today, He does not rule as King. This awaits His second coming. Then the Davidic kingdom will be realized (Matt. 25:31; Rev 19:15; 20).”

This supposed failure leads to the second premise that the Church is a “parenthetical” insert into history. Put another way, the Church was created out of necessity when the Jews rejected Christ. Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), whose eight volume Systematic Theology is the dispensationalist Summa, wrote, “The present age of the Church is an intercalation into the revealed calendar or program of God as that program was foreseen by the prophets of old. Such, indeed, is the precise nature of the present age.” The Church is not, in dispensationalist theology, the new Israel spoken of by St. Paul (see Gal. 6:16), but is utterly separate from Old Testament Israel. So long as the “Church age” continues, the Old Testament promises made to Israel are on hold, waiting to be fulfilled at a future time.

The third premise, so vital to dispensationalism, is the existence of two people of God: the Jews, the “earthly” people, and the Christians, the “heavenly” people. This is the language and theological vision established by Darby and taken up by leading dispensationalists ever since. In Rapture Under Attack (Multnomah, 1998), LaHaye notes that the pretribulational dispensationalist view is the “only view that distinguishes between Israel and the church,” and then remarks that “the confusion of Israel and the church is one of the major reasons for confusion in prophecy as a whole . . . Pre-Tribulationism is the only position which clearly outlines the program of the church.”

As LaHaye’s statement indicates, these premises result in the belief of the pretribulation Rapture—the sudden, silent removal of true believers from earth by God prior to a time of tribulation. This event is necessary because the heavenly people (Christians) must eventually be taken from the earthly stage so that the prophetic timeline can be “restarted” and God’s work with the earthly people (Jews) resumed. That work will involve seven years of tribulation, which dispensationalists believe will be a period of God’s chastisement on the Jewish people, resulting in the vast majority of Jews being killed, but also in the conversion of those remaining.

This, finally, leads to the second belief about the future: an earthly, millennial kingdom established by Christ for the Jews. Based on passages such as Revelation 20 and Ezekiel 40-48, this includes the assertion that animal sacrifices will be renewed in a rebuilt Temple. Some dispensationalists think these sacrifices will be symbolic; others believe they will have salvific value, befitting a theocratic government.

All five of these points are incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Christ did not offer an earthly kingdom, nor did He fail, nor was He rejected by all of the Jews; His Mother, the apostles, and the disciples were all Jews who accepted Him as the Messiah. The Church is not a sort of “Plan B,” but is, according to the Catechism, the “goal of all things” (CCC 760), reflecting the Catholic recognition of how intimately Christ has joined Himself to the Church (cf. Eph. 5). The Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New, and there is only “one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races, and sexes: ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’” (CCC 1267).

Flowing from incorrect, flawed premises, the idea of a “pretribulation Rapture” is foreign to Catholic theology. Based largely on St. Augustine’s City of God, the millennium has long been understood (if not formally defined) to be the Church age—a time when the King rules, even though the Kingdom has not been fully revealed and realized (cf. CCC 567, 669).

The Rapture is a biblical and orthodox belief.”

LaHaye declares, in Rapture Under Attack, that “virtually all Christians who take the Bible literally expect to be raptured before the Lord comes in power to this earth.” This would have been news to Christians—both Catholic and Protestant—living prior to the eighteenth century, since the concept of a pretribulation Rapture was unheard of prior to that time. Vague notions had been considered by the Puritan preachers Increase (1639-1723) and Cotton Mather (1663-1728), and the late eighteenth century Baptist minister Morgan Edwards, but it was John Nelson Darby who solidified the belief in the 1830s and placed it into a larger theological framework.

This historical background leaves the dispensationalist with two options: claim the pretribulation Rapture is biblical, but lay undiscovered for eighteen hundred years, or argue that it has been the belief of “true Christians” ever since Christ walked the earth. Ryrie, in his apologetic Dispensationalism Today (Moody, 1965), makes a case for the former by stating: “The fact that the church taught something in the first century does not make it true, and likewise if the church did not teach something until the twentieth century, it is not necessarily false.” LaHaye and others argue for the latter, pointing to passages such as 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, 1 Corinthians 15:51-53, and Matthew 24 as clear evidence for the pretribulation Rapture (those passages make several appearances, for instance, in the Left Behind novels).

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 is especially vital to the dispensationalist:

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.”

There are two serious problems with claiming this passage refers to the Rapture. First, neither it nor the entire book of 1 Thessalonians mentions Christ returning two more times, or makes any reference to such a distinction. Secondly, dispensationalists believe the Rapture will be a secret and silent event, yet this passage describes a very loud and public event. This is all the more problematic because dispensationalists insist that they interpret Scripture “plainly” and “literally,” allowing for symbolism only when such is the obvious intent of the author.

1 Corinthians 15 and its reference to “the twinkling of an eye” is often used as a proof text, but is equally unconvincing. The point of the passage is that Christians will be glorified at the Second Coming, not that they will be secretly whisked off the planet prior to the tribulation. It describes an event that will occur at “the last trumpet,” and states that “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52). Yet LaHaye and Left Behind co-author Jerry B. Jenkins, reflecting the usual dispensationalist interpretation, claim in Are We Living In the End Times? (Tyndale, 1999) that Matthew 24:29-31 describes the Second Coming, which will include “a great sound of a trumpet” (Matt. 24:31). So how can 1 Corinthians 15, which speaks of “the last trumpet,” refer to the Rapture when there is yet another trumpet to be sounded, several years later, at the Second Coming?

Some dispensationalists have admitted, at least in a backhanded fashion, the recent roots of the pretribulation Rapture. In an article titled “The Origin of the PreTrib Rapture,” (Biblical Perspectives, March/April 1989), LaHaye’s colleague at the Pre-Trib Research Institute, Thomas D. Ice, writes that “a certain theological climate needed to be created before premillennialism would restore the Biblical doctrine of the prettrib Rapture.” He continues: “Sufficient development did not take place until after the French Revolution. The factor of the Rapture has been clearly known by the church all along; therefore the issue is the timing of the event. Since neither pre nor posttribs have a proof text for the time of the Rapture . . . then it is clear that this issue is the product of a deduction from one’s overall system of theology, both for pre and posttribbers.” In fact, the Rapture as dispensationalists conceive of it was never part of the early or medieval Church’s theology, but is the modern creation of Darby less than two hundred years ago.

The Early Church fathers believed in the Rapture and the millennial kingdom on earth.”

This clever argument, used by Ryrie, LaHaye, Lindsey, and others, is effective in persuading those with little knowledge of historical theology or beliefs of the early Church. True, several early Christian writers––notably Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Methodius, Commodianus, and Lactanitus––were premillennialists who believed that Christ’s Second Coming would lead to a visible, earthly reign. But the premillennialism they embraced was quite different from that taught by modern dispensationalists.

Catholic scholars acknowledge that some of the Fathers were influenced by the Jewish belief in an earthly Messianic kingdom, while others embraced millenarianism as a reaction to the Gnostic antagonism towards the material realm. But the Catholic Church does not look to one Church Father in isolation, or even a select group of Fathers, and claim that their teachings are infallible or definitive. Rather, the Church views their writings as valuable guides providing insights and perspectives which assist the Magisterium––the teaching office of the Church––define, clarify, and defend Church doctrine.

Those early premillennialists did not hold to distinctively modern and dispensationalist beliefs, especially not the belief in a pretribulational Rapture and the radical distinction between an earthly and a heavenly people of God; such beliefs did not come about until many centuries later. The early Church Fathers, whether premillennialist or otherwise, believed that the Church was the New Israel and that Christians––consisting of both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Rom 10:12)––had replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people.

In attempting to prove the validity of their beliefs by appealing to early Church Fathers, dispensationalists always ignore the Church Fathers’ unanimous teachings about the nature of the Eucharist, the authority and nature of the Church, and a host of other distinctively Catholic beliefs. They also conveniently blur the lines between the historical premillennialism of certain early Church writers and the dispensational premillennialism of Darby and his disciples.

The Left Behind books are harmless entertainment that encourage Christians in their faith and help them understand the Book of Revelation better.”

Even when presented with the faulty theological premises underlying dispensationalism, some Catholics still insist that the Left Behind series is just good fun—a light read with a sound moral message. Some, however, go even farther and claim the books have changed their lives, provided answers about the end of the world, and made sense of the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation. Responding to my book, a Catholic reader wrote, “I personally believe that the dispensationalists have done Catholics a favor by alerting them to the serious times we live in and by encouraging them to search out the scriptures.” She never makes mention of Catholic scholarship or magisterial documents.

Another Catholic reader of the series told me, “You condemn these books because they are successful.” In fact, I have strongly critiqued the Left Behind books because they are written by a noted Fundamentalist, with serious animus towards the Catholic Church, in order to propagate a theology that is incorrect, misleading, and contrary to Catholic doctrine. Undoubtedly many people reading the books have little or no interest in the dispensationalist beliefs they are based upon and attempt to spread. But an examination of online readers’ reviews shows that for numerous people the Left Behind books are “Gospel truth” and biblically sound. One defiant reader put it this way:

I have a hard time understanding those who berate this or any of the books in the series. Except the fact that their [sic] blind to the truths revealed. You have to remember that this is Biblically based fiction. And the authors are trying to get a message out. Will you hear it?

One message of LaHaye’s that comes across clearly in books such as Are We Living in the End Times?, Rapture Under Attack, and Revelation Unveiled is that the Catholic Church is apostate, Catholicism is “Babylonian mysticism” and an “idolatrous religion,” and Catholics worship Mary, knowing little about the real Jesus Christ. It’s difficult to overstate the dislike, even hatred, LaHaye has for the Catholic Church, or to exaggerate the ridiculous character of his attacks. He condemns the use of candles in Catholic churches, insists there is hardly any difference between Hinduism and Catholicism, and emphatically declares that the Catholic Church killed at least forty million people during the “dark ages.”

When I asked LaHaye, via e-mail, why he never refers to Catholic sources or official documents in his writings, he replied:

Because I think that for centuries the Catholic Church has presented church history in a manner protective of “Mother church.” . . . I have seen more concern on the part of your church for Hindus, Buddhists, and other pagan religions than they do [sic] for those who love Jesus Christ as He is presented in the Bible and are committed to making Him known to the lost so they will not be Left Behind.

In other words, the Catholic Church is always wrong and does not deserve a fair hearing. LaHaye has not only revealed himself to be an anti-Catholic polemicist, but a theologian with a seriously skewed view of God’s salvific work. In a newspaper interview, LaHaye said, “We’ve [himself and Jenkins] created a series of books about the greatest cosmic event that will happen in the history of the world.” What is that “greatest cosmic event”? The Incarnation? The Cross? The Resurrection? No, the Rapture, a modern, man-made belief based on a distorted Christology and an anemic ecclesiology.

But don’t the books help people understand the Bible? According to contemporary Christian music star Michael W. Smith, “Left Behind has brought understanding and clarity to [the book of] Revelation, a book of the Bible usually seen as confusing and dark.” This echoes LaHaye’s assertion that St. John’s Apocalypse “gives a detailed description of the future.” But a perusal of dispensationalist interpretations of the Book of Revelation written over the last several decades suggests otherwise. Dispensationalists disagree about nearly major element of the book, including the identity of the Whore of Babylon (i.e., a reformed Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, Iraq, the United States), the mark of the Beast (i.e., computer chips, bar codes, social security numbers, laser technology), and numerous other entities, personages, nations, and events. 

More importantly, dispensationalists give little attention to the rich Old Testament allusions or the first century context of the Book of Revelation. To the contrary, Hal Lindsey proffers in There’s A New World Coming (Vision House, 1973) that “Revelation is written in such a way that its meaning becomes clear with the unfolding of current world events.” Considering that none of Lindsey’s interpretations of the book’s prophetic utterances have come to pass over the past thirty years—including his conviction that the Rapture would occur in the 1980s—one can only wonder at Lindsey’s unflagging confidence. Futurists such as dispensationalists have always been prone to read current events into the Book of Revelation’s mysterious passages, and prophetic speculators of the past connected it to the French Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the founding of the modern Israeli state in 1948. More recent events supposedly shedding light on St. John’s vision include the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War, and the conflict with terrorism and Iraq.

Far from being biblical and full of understanding, the dispensationalist interpretation of the Book of Revelation is equal parts spurious, subjective, and sensationalistic. This is not to say that the Book of Revelation has nothing to say to Christians today. Rather, it should be interpreted with the sort of humility and caution rarely found in the works of LaHaye and other “prophecy experts,” always keeping firmly in mind the Church’s teachings about interpreting Scripture, the historical and literary contexts, and the different senses of Scripture (see CCC 115-119).

The appeal of the pretribulational Rapture is understandable. The idea that those living today are “the generation” who will see Christ’s return is attractive and intoxicating. “My prophetic studies have convinced me,” LaHaye writes, in Rapture Under Attack, “ that we Christians living today have more evidence to believe we are the generation of His coming than any generation before us.” It’s no surprise that many people want to hear that they will not have to suffer much longer, or even have to die. Such promises of escape from suffering, illness, pain, and potential martyrdom are tempting, but aren’t an option for Catholics. Each of us will endure suffering, and the Church will, one day, have to endure a final, great trial: “ The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection” (CCC 677). The pretribulation Rapture, dispensationalism, and the Left Behind books, in the end, are long on promises and short on biblical, historical, and theological evidence.

About Carl E. Olson 1048 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.