The huge-selling series of apocalyptic Christian novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that started with "Left Behind" reaches title No. 10 with the Oct. 30 release of "Desecration." Tyndale House plans a first printing of 3 million copies, and a $5 million budget to promote the series.
These fictional scenarios spin forth from a strictly literal interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. In that passage, the Apostle Paul said that in the end times Jesus will descend from heaven, deceased believers will arise and those still living "shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."
(Some ignore Paul's next words, which tell Christians they won't know in advance when the end will occur, and have no need to.)
As interpreted literally, the event in which believers are "caught up" in the clouds is called the "Rapture" (not a biblical term). Nonbelievers are, well, left behind.
Many people suppose that's the only way evangelicals and other biblical conservatives understand this passage and the overall end times.
But a radically different view comes from the Rev. N.T. Wright, canon theologian of London's Westminster Abbey, who is among the most effective conservatives in current debates on the historical truth of the New Testament. Writing in Bible Review magazine, he assails "distorted" popular interpretations of 1 Thessalonians 4.
The Rapture belief so widespread in America "appears puzzling, even bizarre" to British Christians, he says. He considers "Left Behind" a "pseudo-theological version of 'Home Alone,"' one that may frighten children into a twisted faith.
On Jesus' end-times sayings, Wright takes a far more poetic view than most American evangelicals. He spelled this out in a major work, "Jesus and the Victory of God" (Fortress), published in 1996, the same year as the original "Left Behind."
In Wright's view, Jesus' statement about the Son of Man coming in the clouds (Mark 13:26) refers to Jesus' vindication as he comes from Earth to heaven, not the reverse. And he thinks parables about a returning king speak of God's advent "within space-time history," not an end-times occurrence.
Wright does not deny the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which he regards as a "vital" Christian doctrine. He thinks the New Testament teaches generally that "some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God's new creation."
That is, God will someday remake heaven and earth, overcoming the mortality and corruptibility of the old creation and affirming its goodness. "When that happens, Jesus will appear within the resulting new world."
He emphasizes the promises of Colossians 3:4 ("when Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory") and 1 John 3:2 ("it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is").
"Genuinely biblical thinking," Wright argues, recognizes that Paul did not intend to teach anything more about the "end" in 1 Thessalonians than what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 or Philippians 3:20-21: When Jesus comes again, those who are still alive will be transformed so their mortal bodies become incorruptible and deathless, and they will be in Jesus' presence.
From that basis, Wright proceeds to interpret 1 Thessalonians 4 as "a brightly colored version" of those promises about Jesus' reappearance, employing "rich metaphors" that the "Left Behind" novels misunderstand.
Paul gives us "a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world" that the future will bring, he writes, not "literal truth."
Wright objects that the "Left Behind" theology not only distorts the nature of the Bible's apocalyptic writings but also encourages Christians to await the end and opt out of efforts to improve the here-and-now.
For instance, he asks, doesn't "Left Behind" allow people "to pollute God's world on the grounds that it's all going to be destroyed soon?"
Those seeking the opposite side can find a lavish assortment of pro-Rapture material in Christian bookstores and across the Internet.
On the Net:
"Left Behind": http://www.leftbehind.com/portal.asp
Bible Review magazine: http://www.bib-arch.org/br2.html
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