“I know you all want answers, and believe me, so do I.“
– Captain Rayford Steele, Left Behind 2014.
I was a child of the late 90’s and an evangelical Christian so, naturally, I read the wildly popular Left Behind novels (and I loved them). Even though I eventually moved on from the unique theology that made them possible, I never quite let go of the feelings they afforded me.
That might be the reason I was fairly disappointed this weekend when I discovered that the newest Left Behind movie is hardly better than the one starring Kirk Cameron back in 2000. The new installation barely holds up in a comparison over production value and seriously underplays anything that might represent normative Christianity. Ultimately, however, the movie failed to deliver on the very elements that make the rapture exciting.
Look. Rapture is bad theology, in my opinion, but it excites us because it serves to answer two critical questions facing contemporary Christianity in the West: (1) why is the culture shifting so strongly away from traditional Christian influence and (2) why isn’t God acting?
The rapture explains in one breath why society is “going to hell in a handbasket” on the view of traditionally-minded (read: Christendom-minded) Christians and the reason for God’s relative silence in the modern age. God once showed up to things like duels between priests, set altars on fire, and went before the people in a pillar of smoke, but where is God now?
Where is God when the causes of both natural and human phenomena are laid bare before the all-perceiving eye of scientific inquiry?
Well, rapture has the answer. You see, society has to get worse, much worse, before God will choose to step in, and God isn’t acting because God has planned this present period of silence before ushering in a glorious age of signs and wonders.
Wonders which just so happen to include the downing of airplanes unlucky enough to have Christians for pilots.
We love the idea of the rapture because it seems to answer these crucial questions, but we also love it because we love a little vindication.
I myself used to feel it -“could this be it?” “Might this be the moment I’m proven right, i.e. that God exists?” Not every rapture-affirming Christian feels this way, or feels it all the time, but the aggregate effect on the audience in the theater last Sunday seemed to indicate that it isn’t exactly rare.
The tragedy of the rapture theological strategy, however, is the inevitable demonization of humanitarian and environmental efforts (and even peace processes in the Middle East). A belief that God is reserving extravagant divine action for a later date undermines the extravagant activity of God already at work, while a belief that society’s only direction is down necessarily construes any development away from “traditional” priorities in negative terms.
Concern for social justice becomes distraction from salvation and concern for the environment an irrelevance.
The explanatory power of rapture theology may be enticing, but it isn’t the only answer to our concerns. We don’t have to see a societal shift away from Christendom as a bad thing (there are a lot of good reasons to think that Christendom was a problem in the first place), nor must we relegate divine activity to the future.
God is acting. Even now. Spiritual experiences might have 100% correlation to chemical processes in the brain and miracles might have coherent physical explanations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are illegitimate spiritual experiences and illegitimate miracles.
But, honestly, pointing out the activity of God in the here-and-now, caring for the environment, etc. etc. isn’t as sexy as the Apocalypse. It sounds (ironically) so much cooler to simply watch the world burn.