A friend from a very liberal Christian background asks you if you know anything about the Left Behind books. When you say, “yes,” she then asks you if you think these books represent the biblical view on the end times. Using material from the Bible, Erickson, and one other systematic theology book, answer her question as best as you can. Give your own opinion on the nature of the rapture and the tribulation.
Many Christians have read and loved the Left Behind series of books, creating a virtual cottage industry of spin-offs and products. A dozen books imaginatively portraying the book of Revelation as a fictional story, this series has certainly left an impact on contemporary evangelicalism. Nevertheless, is its interpretation of Revelation and the end times in general biblically accurate? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Their views are errant in three central end times beliefs.
The theology underlying Left Behind can be termed "dispensational pretribulational premillennialism." But what do these three terms mean? Paul Enns summarizes this eschatological system well: "Dispensational premillennialists believe that the church will be raptured (1 Thess. 4:13-18) prior to the Tribulation period; God will judge the unbelieving Gentiles and disobedient Israel during the Tribulation (Rev. 6-19). At the end of the Tribulation Christ will return with the church and establish the millennial kingdom on earth." He also provides the fundamental elements of this view: "Dispensational premillennialism can be identified through two basic features: (1) a distinction is made between God's program for Israel and His program for the church; (2) a consistently literal interpretation of the Scriptures is maintained." Actually, their literal interpretive method is what leads to the distinction between Israel and the church. These elements are what distinguish dispensational premillennialism from historic premillennialism.
However, both their interpretive method and their separation of Israel and the church are faulty. To give just one example, we can compare Hosea 1:9-10 and 2:23 with Romans 9:23-26. The Hosea texts refer to the restoration of literal, national Israel. But the Apostle Paul deliberately takes these two prophecies about the future salvation of Israel and applies them to the church. Because the church is the body of Christ, she has now become the people of God. Essentially, the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the coming of Christ. Galatians 3:7ff shows us how to understand this relationship. By being united to Christ through faith, those in the church are the descendents and heirs of Abraham. The church is "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16). Dispensationalism is simply biblically untenable.
Nevertheless, can their view of the rapture and tribulation be found in Scripture? Again, the answer is no. Millard Erickson says, "The pretribulational position involves several distinctions that seem rather artificial and lacking in biblical support. The division of the second coming into two stages, the postulation of three resurrections, and the sharp separation of national Israel and the church are difficult to sustain on biblical grounds." The main text used to support the pretribulational rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. However, dividing this coming from the next chapter as well as 2 Thessalonians 2 depends upon already adhering to the unbiblical distinction between Israel and the church. There is no reason to even use the word "rapture" at all. This text is referring to the second coming of Christ. The pretribulational rapture cannot be supported by the Word of God.
Additionally, we should not relegate the great tribulation to the end of this age. Jesus referred to the great tribulation in his Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24 (also in parallels Luke 21 and Mark 13). Verse 21 states, "For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will." This great tribulation is tied to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 1-2), which was fulfilled in 70 AD. At the same time, this fulfillment was typological, pointing forward to the increased tribulation in this age which climaxes in a great tribulation before Jesus' return. Herman Hoeksema says,
In the narrowest sense of the word this phrase [the great tribulation] calls to our mind the period immediately before the coming of Christ. . . . Nevertheless, we must never conceive of this great tribulation as standing all by itself. For that is not the case. It is merely the climax, the ultimate manifestation of the power which always was filled with bitter hatred against the church of Christ in the world.
He concludes, "We must, therefore, not forget that this great tribulation is in process of formation all the time, throughout this entire dispensation. In a wider sense, it includes also those minor persecutions, terrible enough in themselves, but minor in comparison to the final tribulation, to which the people of God have already been subjected." In a sense, we are in the tribulation now, but it will culminate before the second coming of Christ.
Finally, the premillennial perspective in Left Behind is incorrect. The primary biblical text utilized is Revelation 20:1-10. Following the return of Christ in chapter 19, Satan is bound for a thousand years so that he would not deceive the nations any longer. The resurrection of believers occurs before the millennium, whereas the resurrection of unbelievers happens after the millennium. However, it structurally makes more sense to see a shift from Revelation 19 to Revelation 20 as a change in perspective, a recapitulation. Jesus inaugurated his kingdom through his first advent, binding Satan (Matthew 12:25-29, see also Luke 10:17-20). Christians experience a spiritual resurrection at conversion and look forward to a physical resurrection when Jesus returns (John 5:25-29). The millennium is a symbolic description of the church age between Christ's comings.
Therefore, amillennialism provides the most biblical end times view, not dispensational pretribulational premillennialism. The church is the Israel of God, there is no rapture before a future great tribulation, and we are living in the millennium now. While these truths may not produce riveting fictional stories, they are what God has revealed in His Word.
Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 389.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 1230.
Herman Hoeksema, Behold, He Cometh! An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2000), 267.