This will be a longer post, but I want to be thorough and offer some helpful material as I interact with Dispensational teaching. If you want my quick summary, skip to the bottom.
The Left Behind series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, has been a popular book series since the mid 1990’s. The first in the series, simply entitled Left Behind, debuted in 1995, and was made into a movie in 2000 starring Kirk Cameron. These books hit the Christian market in my childhood, and the movies began coming out during my youth. I vividly remember the opening scene of the Left Behind movie when the rapture occurred and Christians were just…gone!
Anyhow, various books and movies hit the Christian market all the time, and as much as we would like to believe that anything marketed as “Christian” can be trusted, that just sadly isn’t the case. The modern Christian media industry is just that…an industry. Whatever sells the best is what gets pushed and emphasized. Publishers are not so much concerned with whether a book/movie is true to the teachings of Scripture, as much as they are concerned with what will sell and make a profit.
So, the task of the consumer becomes: Should I consume this? Is this book/movie teaching something that is in line with the Bible? Is it teaching something contrary to the Bible?
When we stop asking those discerning questions, and we just take in whatever is marketed as “Christian,” we can really set ourselves up for heartache, misunderstanding, and stunted spiritual growth.
So, should Christians read Left Behind…?
What does Left Behind Focus On?
The story itself picks up in the “modern day” —which, at the time, was the late 1990’s, early 2000’s. The story opens just as the rapture is taking place. The word rapture biblically means to be removed from the earth and taken into heaven to be with God.
So, the story opens with every Christian on the earth being secretly taken to heaven. They all just vanish. There is no announcement. No one sees Jesus anywhere. One moment, the Christians are there, and the next, they're gone! Everyone else has been…Left Behind!
That's when the story really gets going. With the disappearance of all the Christians, the world is thrown into chaos. That’s when the AntiChrist figure comes to power. In the story, the AntiChrist figure becomes the leader of the United Nations, and thereby gains control over the world. We also see a group of characters come to faith in Jesus in the midst of the chaos, and they start evangelizing others, preparing them for the years of tribulation that God is going to pour out on the earth. Also, alongside these new believers in Jesus, God begins to work again—although separately—among the Jewish people.
The books and movies are fast paced, and action packed. That’s probably why they have gained such a wide audience.
What is Left Behind Based On?
This is really where we need to pay attention because Lehaye and Jenkins aren’t just telling a thrilling story, they are offering an interpretation of the Bible, the gospel, and of the End Times.
The entire series is based upon an interpretation of the Bible called Dispensationalism. “Dispensationalism is an evangelical theological system that addresses issues concerning the biblical covenants, Israel, the church, and end times. It also argues for a literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies involving ethnic/national Israel, and the idea that the church is a New Testament entity that is distinct from Israel.”
Now, that may be more than you bargained for, but it's important. Without understanding the foundation of the story of Left Behind, we place ourselves in a dangerous position…because, again, it's marketed as “Christian.” And not only as “Christian,” but to the average reader, the series is presented as the sole Christian understanding of the End Times.
But, in fact, there are 3 major Evangelical positions on the timing and events of the End Times, and dispensationalism is not among them. That fact, in and of itself, is incredibly misleading.
The three main Evangelical positions are: Premillennialism, Amiliennialism, and Postmillennialism.
Anyhow, here is a basic breakdown of Dispensational Theology.
“As a system Dispensationalism is linked with the teachings of the Anglo-Irish theologian and Plymouth Brethren minister, John Nelson Darby (1800-82). Based on his study of Isaiah 32, Darby believed that Israel would experience earthly blessings in a future dispensation that were different from what the church would experience. He advocated for a strong distinction between Israel and the church. Darby also popularized the idea that the church would be raptured or snatched to heaven just prior to the seventieth-week of Daniel. Early Dispensationalism began in Britain but then experienced great popularity in the United States. Darby and other Brethren ministers brought Dispensationalism to America.”
So, to put that into perspective, the dispensational understanding—on which the Left Behind series is based—doesn’t show up until the late 1800’s, and it comes from one man’s interpretation of 2 biblical texts.
Darby argued that Scripture lays out 7 dispensations (periods of time) in which God is working, but He is working in different ways.
Dispensationalism…taught that the various dispensations involved 1) A test for mankind, 2) A failure, and then, 3) A judgment. This then would be followed by another dispensation. These seven dispensations are (1) Innocence; (2) Conscience; (3) Human government; (4) Promise; (5) Law; (6) Grace; and (7) Kingdom.
Distinctives of Dispensational Teaching
“Dispensationalism is primarily about a hermeneutic for Bible interpretation, especially involving Old Testament prophecies concerning ethnic/national Israel. And it involves certain beliefs concerning Israel and the church.”
Before we press on, let's define Hermeneutic: This is the study of a [biblical] text that is concerned with communication, meaning, and understanding.
Hermeneutics, then, is “The task of finding out the meaning of a statement for the original author and for the first hearers, and thereupon to transmit the meaning to modern readers.”
It means reading a text, like the Bible, and working to figure out what the original author meant to say to his original audience, and then rightly applying that original message in the modern day. We cannot just make up a meaning.
(1) The Bible uses multiple terms like “Jew” and “seed of Abraham” in multiple ways, but maintains a distinction between ethnic Israel and the New Testament Church. They are not the same.
(2) Dispensational theology uses a hermeneutic in which the New Testament reaffirms and does not reinterpret the Old Testament. In other words, Dispensationalism says that the New Testament maintains the distinctions between Israel and the Church.
(3) Dispensationalism teaches that the unconditional promises made to ethnic Israel in the Old Testament must be fulfilled to ethnic Israel in the future. In other words, dispensationalism does not recognize full spiritual fulfillment of Israel’s promises in the Church.
(4) It teaches a distinctive future for ethnic Israel.
(5) It teaches that the New Testament Church is a distinctive organism. It is not tied to Israel, nor is it the same as Israel.
(6) Dispensational theology interprets history as the gradual implementation and outworking of the kingdom of God, which includes both the Kingdom of Israel and the New Testament Church.
Is Dispensationalism Faithful?
The question is, then, is a Dispensational reading of the Bible right? Is it faithful to how God wrote His Word?; is it faithful to what the original authors meant to say?; does it get the gospel right?
These are the important questions for any interpretation of the Bible, and without going into too much detail —which is very possible — we need to see that Dispensational theology is wrong on the basis of how it interprets Scripture — and therefore...
Left Behind is not a faithful treatment of the Biblical Story.
First, it lacks historical support.
Dispensationalism doesn’t show up until the late 1800’s, 1800+ years after the birth of the Church. There is a reason why the early Church, the medieval church, the Reformation church, the colonial church didn't teach dispensationalism…because it's made up.
When some new idea or new reading of the Bible shows up that rejects the centuries old traditions of the Church, we ought to be very wary of such a reading. It must be thoroughly tested to see if it can stand.
Second, its hermeneutics are bad.
A Dispensational reading of the Bible does not faithfully honor the original author’s intention. Instead of seeing that Isaiah was seeing the effect of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, Darby decided that Isaiah 32 was about some future restoration of Israel, separate from the Church. This idea is alien to Isaiah 32 and has to be imposed upon it.
It demands a literal interpretation of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament promises to Israel, and rejects spiritual/theological interpretations of those promises. Dispensational interpretations seem to reject clear New Testament teachings such as…
Romans 11:25-27 - “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be My covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
Dispensationalism teaches that all Israel will be saved literally, which ignores Paul's project in Romans, which is to shows the spiritual fulfillment to both Jew and Gentile in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:7 - “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
Paul sees the promises to Israel, through Abraham as spiritually fulfilled in full in the Church through Jesus Christ.
Galatians 3:28 - “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Here, we see that no distinction between Israel and the Church remain because of Jesus Christ. In Him, distinctions fade as true unity is achieved. The Church is the true Israel of God in Christ. Dispensationalism totally misses, or ignores this, because of its insistence on literal interpretation.
Third, it adds to Scripture: There is no Secret Rapture in the Bible.
Dispensationalism severely misinterprets New Testament texts, building entire theological systems on those bad interpretations. For instance, a secret rapture of the New Testament Church before the tribulation is central to Dispensational theology but is nowhere found in the Bible.
That’s how the Left Behind story begins, with all the Christians disappearing, leaving everyone else behind. But nowhere does the Bible teach this. It comes from the very bad interpretation of two verses.
1 Thessalonians 1:10 - “...and to wait for His Son from heaven, Whom He raised from the dead, Jesus Who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
Dispensationalists then pair that 1 Thess. 1:10 with Revelation 3:10 which states, “Because you have kept My Word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”
They take these two verses, strip them of their biblical context, ignore the author's original intent, impose a literal interpretation (so they would say), and viola! A secret rapture of the church before the tribulation.
Without getting too far into the weeds, the only reason Dispensationalists “find” a secret rapture in these two verses is because John Darby believed and taught that God needed to finish His unfinished work with Israel during the End Times. So, the Church gets removed, and God can now finish with Israel. The problem is that such an understanding of the Bible is not only wrong, but it has to mishandle the actual texts of the Scripture in order to make it work.
1 Thessalonians is a letter from Paul to a young church that thinks it has missed the return of Jesus. Some false teachers led them astray, and now their faith was struggling. Paul writes to correct and comfort them. The Church had not missed Jesus’ return. In fact, in 1:10, we are still waiting for it! And, when Jesus does come back, 1 Thess. 4:16, we will all know it. Jesus will appear in the sky, a loud cry will be heard, and the dead in Christ will rise first. There will be nothing secret about it! And the wrath to come refers not to a temporary earthly tribulation…that's not why Jesus died on the cross. Our salvation is from the eternal wrath of God that will be poured out in hell. That’s the coming wrath Paul mentions in 1:10.
And in Revelation 3:10, Jesus is speaking to a persecuted Church that is standing strong for Him. He does not promise to remove them from suffering, He promises to keep them in suffering. Pastor John Piper says this, “God’s promise to keep us from the hour of trial probably doesn’t mean that we are taken out of the world, but rather that God will keep us from the faith-destroying effects of the hour of trial. He will guard us. He will protect our faith. In fact, 1 Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). I don’t think it’s a New Testament teaching that God rescues his people from trial, but He protects them through trial.”
Whats more, the Bible does not promise that Christians will be spared from suffering. It actually says quite the contrary…
Acts 14:22 - "...through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God."
Romans 8:18 - "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."
2 Cor. 4:16-18 - "So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self[d] is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."
1 Peter 4:12-13 - "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed."
So, does the Bible teach a rapture? Yes. Absolutely. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 clearly says Jesus is coming back for His people. But there is no secret rapture as Dispensationalism teaches. That is purely made up on the basis of bad Bible interpretation.
Dispensational theology adds this to the Bible, which is a direct violation of the Bible itself (Rev. 22:18-19).
Fourth, its Biblical theology is Bad.
“Biblical theology is an approach to reading the whole story of the Bible while keeping our focus on the main point of Scripture: Jesus Christ...It helps us get the story right by putting King Jesus at the start, in the center, and at the end of the Bible’s one true story.” (Roark and Cline)
The dispensational understanding of the Bible sees the Bible itself as two distinct stories: God’s dealings with Israel, and God’s dealings with the Church. The two never intermingle.
In fact, as we noted, Darby taught a secret rapture of the Church before the end times tribulation in order to make room for God to finish His work with Israel.
But such an approach to the Bible fundamentally misses the intention of the Bible itself. To arrive at the conclusion that God has two distinct plans operating at the same time, you must add that to Scripture, because it cannot be seen in the Scripture itself.
Dispensationalism essentially says Scripture has two equal points of emphasis: Israel and Jesus.
In an interview about rejecting Dispensational theology, leading Biblical Theologian and Pastor, Jim Hamilton states the following,
“.. I read G. E. Ladd’s New Testament Theology, [and] it made sense to me when he said that Jesus chose twelve Apostles to reconstitute a new Israel around himself. That undermined the hard and fast distinction between Israel and the Church that dispensationalism maintains. Further overturning this distinction is the pervasive way in which the New Testament authors present what Jesus has done and is doing in the church as the typological fulfillment of the Old Testament, which means that the church is a typological fulfillment of Israel (this does not nullify a future for ethnic Israel). I think Dispensationalism puts blinders on people and keeps them from seeing the typological interpretations of earlier Scripture pursued by the biblical authors in the Old and New Testaments.
Then I studied Revelation as I preached through it, and I didn’t see a pre-trib rapture. Then I studied Daniel as I preached through it, and I didn’t see a pre-trib rapture. Then I studied through and preached Revelation again as I wrote Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, and I became convinced that dispensationalists are not interpreting Daniel’s seventieth week the way that John does in Revelation. The emphasis on literal fulfillment fails to account for the typological and symbolic ways later biblical authors interpret earlier Scripture.
People (not just dispensationalists) make rules about how to interpret the Bible, but the biblical authors don’t follow those rules. So I don’t hold to or teach those rules. I want to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors.”
As with many “Christian” things for sale today, Left Behind must be evaluated on the terms of Scripture itself. And on those terms, it fails.
It is certainly not a sin to read these books; and a biblically-informed, discerning Christian can easily read them, enjoying the story while seeing the inaccuracies. But, in short, Christians should steer clear of the entire series because: It is based on faulty Dispensational Theology. The story of Left Behind cannot exist without dispensational teaching.
And dispensational theology is faulty/defective because…
It lacks historical support.
It is based on the wrong interpretation of one man.
It mishandles the texts of the Bible.
It adds to Scripture.
It misunderstands the story of the Bible.
Hope this is helpful...