National Lutheran News

“Left Behind” novels should be left behind, theologian says

Barbara Rossing

Barbara Rossing

Barbara Rossing says series misunderstands Book of Revelation

A series of novels based on a literal reading of the last book of the Bible came in for some intense negative scrutiny at the hands of a Lutheran Scripture scholar during February.
Dr. Barbara Rossing, Associate Professor of New Testament in the ELCA’s Lu-theran School of Theology at Chicago, de-livered three lectures on the Book of Revelation at Community Lutheran Church in Edina, February 9-11. She plans to read all twelve of the “Left Behind” novels and then write a theological critique of the series.

So far, ten books have been published. Some have sold more than two million copies, leading one observer to joke, “The author had better hurry and spend his royalties, in case what his books describe actually comes true on the schedule he predicts.”

The premise of the series, based on a literal reading of the Book of Revelation, is that a time of tribulation is coming, during which only a remnant of Christians will be saved. “Left behind” refers to the doctrine of “rapture,” popular in many evangelical and fundamentalist congregations but rarely taught among Lutherans. It teaches God will snatch the saved remnant away from the earth (“rapture” them) before the plagues described in Revelation are unleashed.

In her Edina presentations, Rossing argued exactly the opposite, claiming that Revelation is not about “rapture” but rather describes “rapture in reverse,” since it tells of God leaving heaven to dwell with believers on earth. Rossing also reminded her audience that rapture theology is based on one obscure Bible verse, which does not even appear in Revelation.

Anticipating her written theological critique of the book series, which is yet to be formulated, Rossing offered a preview. She said:

* The book series misunderstands the real intent of Revelation, treating it as predictive of the “end-times timetable.” Instead, she said, Revelation was written to critique the emperor worship of the Roman Empire, which persecuted Christians as early as the end of the first century. She compared the book’s writer to “Dorothy’s dog Toto in The Wizard of Oz, who pulls back the curtain and exposes the ‘wizard’ for the fraud he really is.” Revelation, she said, is “an apocalypse,” which means a pulling back of a curtain to reveal what’s hidden. In this case, she said, “it’s the bogus promises of a morally bankrupt empire.” The message to the faithful, Rossing explained, is, “You don’t want to worship this.”

* The “Left Behind” books embrace Christian Zionism. “They teach that the end-times clock began ticking when the state of Israel was established in 1948.” Christian Zionism believes God will use the Jewish state to fulfill prophecy, but that only Jews who become Christian will escape annihilation. Said Rossing, “This belief shows no concern for the Palestinians and their rights, and actually sees their existence as a detriment to prophecy fulfillment.”

* The series teaches “a perverse ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church)” by contending that God will save only a few and destroy everyone else. Rossing argued the evidence of Scripture is that God wants everyone to be saved, not a select few.

* The “Left Behind” series stresses individual conversion, while the witness of Scripture is that whole communities need to repent.

Rossing maintained that reading Reve-lation, a book which was likely written around AD 90, “is like reading somebody else’s mail. The book was actually written to members of seven Asian cities. For us, it’s like finding letters hidden in the attic of a house you bought at auction.”

Rossing suggested the last book of the Bible is useful to modern readers because:

* Its critique of a godless world empire has unique relevance in the 21st century, in which Americans are tempted to try to rule the planet.

* The Book of Revelation speaks for the marginalized, a message important for a culture where the gap between rich and poor is growing.