Scripture, rapture and Apocalypse:
‘Left Behind: World at War’
As one year ends and another begins in the church’s liturgical cycle, the Scripture readings remind us that Christ has died, he has risen, and he will come again in glory, at a time we do not know, to judge the living and the dead.
This apocalyptic theme often appears in both literature and cinema. On the weekend of Oct. 22, “Left Behind: World at War” opened in 3,200 Protestant churches around the country with a simultaneous release on DVD. It is the third film in a series based on the best-selling “Left Behind” novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.
There is a difference in how Catholic and some Protestant theologies view the end times.
Like its predecessors, “Left Behind: World at War” has a clear message firmly rooted in a form of Protestant theology that believes that the end time, bringing with it death, destruction and fear, really is upon us because the anti-Christ is trying to take over the world. All you need to survive is to accept Jesus once and for all and read the Bible.
Catholic theology invites us to accept Jesus and read the Scriptures as well, and the Advent liturgy reminds us that we are to await Christ’s coming in continual conversion and faithful anticipation.
A new world order under the leadership of Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie) is practically accomplished as a result of the rapture (millions of people disappeared in an instant) and his campaign for global peace through food control. Following the adventures of the same key characters in “Left Behind” (2000) and “Left Behind II: Tribulation Force” (2002) we first encounter two new ones: the President of the United States, Gerald Fitzhugh (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and his vice president John Mallory (Charles Martin Smith).
They confer about the state of affairs as they shoot skeet, away from any listening devices. The President is confused about Nicolae because he seems benevolent but there are contradictory signs that he may not be as good as he seems. The men are also concerned about the militia. As Fitzhugh and Mallory return to the White House, their convoy is attacked and Mallory killed. Fitzhugh is rescued by two mysterious, masked people riding motor bikes.
In Chicago, the Reverend Bruce Barnes (Arnold Pinnock) presides over a Christian marriage ceremony held in secret between Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), who lost his wife in “the rapture” event, and Carolyn Miller (Jessica Steen). Ray’s daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens) and journalist Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron) are also married in the same ceremony. Together they hope to face the coming confrontation with the Anti-Christ with their faith and the Bible.
Ray has become Nicolae’s personal pilot, and a former girlfriend, Hattie (Chelsea Noble), who now works for Nicolae, knows Ray is now a Christian. As Ray and Carolyn are about to board a flight, Hattie threatens to expose Carolyn who hides a Bible in her baggage. Nicolae attributes all the world’s ills to human failures such as crop failures, food shortages and religious conflict, but this small group of Christians knows better; they know he is the Anti-Christ. They believe that all the events they are experiencing are explicitly foretold in the Scriptures, so it is God’s war they are fighting.
Fitzhugh discovers that a weapon of mass destruction is going to be released in the United States. He turns to Nicolae for help but becomes aware that Nicolae really is sinister and wants world dominion at any cost. When sickness breaks out, Chloe goes to Chicago to help victims, while Buck stays in Washington to help the president. He also discovers that the mysterious disease that is killing so many has been caused by Nicolae who had bacteria placed in shipments of Bibles sent all over the country.
As the drama reaches its climax the President is urged to repent and accept Jesus (though it is unclear what he is guilty of other than naivetÃ©) by Buck and his companions. He then decides that to save the world, he must destroy Nicolae. He goes to Nicolae’s headquarters (he has taken over the United Nations to serve his interests) and detonates a bomb that kills himself and Nicolae, the Anti-Christ.
The cinematic quality of the “Left Behind” franchise has improved with each film, and more explosions, violence and a somewhat convoluted plot up the ante as they strive to make sense to a contemporary audience.
But the simplistic way the films have the characters, especially Buck, explicitly preach conversion to Christ (and the audience) as a one-time event and the possession of a Bible as a kind of miraculous shield, make it difficult to take the films seriously. Despite Kirk Cameron’s appeal to his television fans from the ’80s and ’90s, the real star in all three films is Gordon Currie as the slimy, cool, Russian-accented devil Nicolae, or the Anti-Christ.
It is difficult to pin down the politics of the “Left Behind” films, but having the Anti-Christ/Nicolae take over the United Nations seems to be a determination that the usefulness of this organization founded after World War II, is finished. I was particularly disturbed, however, by President Fitzhugh in this newest film, solving the problem of the Anti-Christ by becoming in actuality a suicide bomber.
The theology of the films is decidedly based on this literal interpretation of certain passages in the Bible (especially Daniel and 1 Thessalonians) referring to what is known as “the rapture.” This scriptural theory is played out very clearly in the “Left Behind” series: as the end times unfold, those who are taken up to heaven in an instant are the ones who have professed faith in Jesus Christ. Those who are left behind must profess their faith in Jesus in the post-rapture times. They have seven years to do so before the Second Coming of Jesus.
The Catholic Church and other mainstream Christian churches do not interpret apocalyptic scriptural texts in a literal way. Instead, the Church teaches that there will be a general resurrection at the end of the world, when Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Rapture theology became an interesting theory after the Protestant Reformation (mid 16th-mid 17th centuries) but received its main impetus from the teachings of the Anglo-Irish evangelist and member of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby in the 1800s. Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted the end of the world based on their interpretation of Scripture many times, but we are still here. Like the Y2K scare of the year 2000, this kind of theology is the imaginative playground of conspiracy theorists, and people who want to frighten others into belief and good behavior.
While some Catholics find the “Left Behind” films entertaining, it is good to watch them and talk about them through the lens of our faith by recalling a few things that Catholics believe:
—The Catholic Church is the sole interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Tradition
—Our personal end time encounter with Jesus will occur when we die,
—God’s invitation to believe is founded in love and trust, not fear,
—Conversion, which is growing in holiness, is an on-going process because sin, both personal and societal, is a daily reality, as is God’s grace.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The “Revelation” of “what must soon take place,” the Apocolypse, is borne along by the songs of the heavenly liturgy but also by the intercession of the “witnesses” (martyrs). The prophets and the saints, all those who were slain on earth for their witness to Jesus, the vast throng of those who, having come through the great tribulation, have gone before us into the Kingdom, all sing the praise and glory of him who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb. In communion with them, the Church on earth also sings these songs with faith in the midst of trial. By means of petition and intercession, faith hopes against all hope and gives thanks to the “Father of lights,” from whom “every perfect gift” comes down. Thus faith is pure praise. (par. 2642).
For more information on the Catholic view of the end times by Bishop Kenneth E. Untener, visit http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0993.asp .
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