Why the “Left Behind” series should be left behind

This is an extended version of part of a lecture I gave on Revelation today. I thought it was old news, but apparently it is not, if student reaction is any indicator.

Problems with the Left Behind Series

Hermeneutical (Interpretive)

  1. This series is not really fiction but a combination of theology and “proleptic documentary,” like an advance DVD, because it sees biblical “prophecy” as “history written in advance” (Left Behind, p. 214). The correspondence between the books and the commentary by LaHayve and Jenkins (Revelation Unveiled) is revealing, but not surprising.
  2. It treats the Bible as a puzzle to be pieced together into a script about the future, with various texts from various books  taken out of context and linked to current or expected current events. The method has sometimes been called biblical “hopscotch,” and the result is a patchwork quilt with scenes from Revelation as the most prominent and thematic aspect of the quilt.
  3. It claims to be literal but is not or is only selectively so. A better description would be correlative (as opposed to literal or analogical).
  4. It misunderstands the nature and function of both prophetic and apocalyptic literature, and it grossly misinterprets certain key texts. Prophetic is not merely predictive, and apocalyptic is heavily symbolic. It is more like a series of political cartoons than a documentary.
  5. It finds aspects of the second coming that are not in the Bible—e.g., two comings of Jesus, a rapture in Revelation.
  6. It imposes a foreign, 19th-century theological, interpretive construct onto the ancient biblical texts: dispensationalism.
  7. It assumes that we are on the brink of the rapture and tribulation, and that is really all that matters.

 Theological

  1. It misunderstands the NT references to the “end times.” For the NT, the “end times” is the period between the two comings.
  2. It reduces the gospel to “God and Jesus and the Rapture and the Glorious Appearing,” amounting to an unhealthy preoccupation with the details about events surrounding Christ’s second coming.
  3. It reduces the reason for conversion primarily to fear.
  4. It reduces discipleship to (a) faith in Jesus’ death in order to avoid being left behind or destroyed, (b) evangelizing others so they won’t be left behind or destroyed;  (c) correlating “Bible prophecy” with current events; and (d) preparing to die or kill for the gospel/kingdom.
  5. It is escapist and therefore has no ongoing ethic of life between the times, between the first and second comings. There is no compulsion to love one’s neighbor: to practice deeds of mercy, work for peace and justice, etc. Contrast the hope of imminent return and ethic in 1 Thessalonians, which actually has an ethic for life in the hope of the second coming.
  6. It is inherently militaristic. Anything resembling “pacifism,” international cooperation, or disarmament is satanic, and believers are called to participate in a literal war that is guaranteed victory by the return of a conquering Jesus. Christian heroes join this Jesus, carrying and using Uzis and the like.
  7. It is inherently anti-Catholic. The only good, saved Catholics are those who are basically Protestant.
  8. It fails to see the church as empire’s alternative rather than its chaplain or its warmaking opponent.

 Political

  1. It privileges the state of Israel in an uncritical way.
  2. It is suspicious of anything like the work of the United Nations.
  3. It sees wars in the Middle East as part of God’s plan, in effect, therefore, as a good, a desideratum.
  4. It is uncritically pro-America.
  5. It inculcates a survivalist and crusader mentality into the minds of its readers.

An alternative approach to Revelation will be posted later.

15 Responses to “Why the “Left Behind” series should be left behind”

  1. bulbul says:

    An excellent summary, though some points should be expanded upon. For example the subject of conversion – not only is the reason for it as presented by LB highly suspect, I would also submit that the conversion as experienced by the characters in LB is no conversion at all. And then there’s the way LaHaye and Jenkins treat women.
    I assume you are familiar with Fred Clark’s long-running deconstruction of the first book (http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/left_behind/index.html) which also covers the literary aspect of the series. Short summary: World’s Worst Books.

  2. MJG says:

    Fair points. I’m not attempting to be exhaustive–that would take a book, and there are already a few of them.

    Besides the literary aspect, fellow NT scholar Craig Hill calls the whole approach guilty of mangling the Bible beyond recognition. That’s most important to me.

  3. [...] 1) “Why the ‘Left Behind’ series should be left behind” [...]

  4. J. B. Hood says:

    You could have included another category, Michael: “Literary”. The prose is awful; one lit major friend of mine called LB and its genre “Illiterature”.

  5. MJG says:

    J.B.–

    Good point. I’ve read all twelve and don’t disagree, but I’m not sure that their being bad lit constitutes an equally weighty theological reason for leaving them behind. Bad aesthetics can mean bad theology, and aesthetics is important theologically (see, e.g., the work of Hart and of Begbie), so your point is well taken, though perhaps not equal to the other three categories.

  6. Susan says:

    FOR PRETRIB RAPTURE REPEATERS

    Congratulations! You are now fulfilling the Bible which says “Come now, and let us repeat together.”
    Be sure to repeat what Walvoord, Lindsey, LaHaye, Ice etc. repeat what their own teachers repeat what their own teachers repeat etc. etc. etc.!
    Repeat that Christ’s return is imminent because we’re told to “watch” (Matt. 24, 25) for it. So is the “day of God” (II Pet. 3:12) – which you admit is at least 1000 years ahead – also imminent because we’re told to be “looking for” it?
    Also repeat the pretrib myths about the “Jewish wedding stages” and “Jewish feasts” (where’s your “church/Israel dichotomy” now?) even though Christ and Paul knew nothing about a “pretrib stage” and neither did any official theological creed or organized church before 1830!
    You should read “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty” on the “Powered by Christ Ministries” site to find out why you shouldn’t repeat everything your pretrib teachers repeat.
    Do I have to repeat this?

    (Just saw the above web piece. Interesting, right? Susan)

  7. MJG says:

    Susan,

    Interesting, yes, but not very insightful or helpful. Sarcasm and deconstruction only go a certain distance. Which is why my subsequent post is important and a few more are yet to come.

  8. [...] out what Michael Gorman has to say about leaving behind the “Left Behind” series. Thanks to Michael Bird for pointing out that Gorman has a blog! I really enjoyed his two previous [...]

  9. Brian says:

    on the literary issue and theology aside, after about the third book, the story begins to repeat itself (lots of flash backs and revisiting past events to fill in space) and goes on and on and on – one wonders when it’s going to end – when they have their financial goals met?

  10. John says:

    I am an ordained minister who went to a non-denominational college. I believe the Left Behind series is an excellent into for people interested in the last days. It should be read as a fiction story based on Biblical facts. It is not meant to scare anyone into evangelizing their friends out of fear. If the series is read as it was meant to be, and not a thesis on the last days, it will serve its purpose. Some of you who say you are at Dallas Theological Seminary need to read ‘Things to Come’ by Pentecost. It is taken from his doctorate thesis at DTS. I am ashamed at some of the comments I read when I saw they were from DTS students. Gorman needs to pray to God to show him the truth in Revelation, Daniel etc.

  11. MJG says:

    John,

    I respect your right to see the series this way, but I think you are misguided in several respects. First, the books are not based on “biblical facts” but on a particular way of reading biblical images and texts—a way that most Christian scholars reject. Second, there is no clear line between fiction and a “thesis on the last days” in these books, as a reading of LaHaye’s commentary on Revelation will demonstrate. Third, while it may be true that the authors don’t intend to scare people into evangelizing, I think it is clear that they want to scare people into believing, and that is the point that I and others have made.

    Blessings,

    MJG

  12. Clay Knick says:

    This was excellent. Hope you will continue writing on this in some way.

  13. MJG says:

    Clay,

    Look for my book Reading Revelation Responsibly this fall.

    MJG

  14. […] it is highly symbolic. Or as Michael Gorman describes it, prophetic/apocalyptic texts are “more of a political cartoon than a documentary.” To use these ancient texts as a sort of secret futurist code is to distort them into serving a […]

  15. […] movies and books claiming they are based on biblical Christianity, check out this 2009 article on “Why the Left Behind Series Should Be Left Behind” by Michael J. Gorman.  BTW – I’m attracted to any writer who explains his goal as […]

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