Left Behind - revelation of what is to come?

Written by Ian on Tuesday 27/11/07

The authors of the series, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins read the last book in the Bible, The Revelation of Saint John, quite literally.

The main series of 12 books opens with the rapture, in which all Christians on are raptured to heaven. The remainder - non Christians - are then left to cope. Massive confusion results, exploited by Nicolae Carpathia, the future world leader, revealed eventually as the antichrist.

Rayford Steele, Bruce Barnes, Chloe Steele and Cameron "Buck" Williams come to realise why they have been Left Behind, and each accept Jesus Christ as their personal and living saviour. Together they form the Tribulation Force which thwarts the efforts of the antichrist. They lead many to Christ, and have some amazing adventures over the 13 books. However only one of them survives until the coming of Jesus... (I won't spoil things by saying who!)

Three more books were written later as prequels, following the life of main characters leading up to the rapture, and a sequel was written to cover the millennial kingdom between the second coming of Jesus (and the chaining of satan), up until the time satan is released before finally being cast into the fiery pit 1000 years later.

Let me tell you, if you haven't read the books, they are great. An excellent way to spend a few months, and uplifting too. I also enjoyed the films. The prequels were a little strained in my view, but the sequel was good.

Above all I applaud the great efforts of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

However I'm not so convinced by the theology. Is this the only way to read Revelation? Let me share what I found...

What is the distinctive message of Revelation?

First of all, this book contains a distinctive message to seven specific churches addressed by the author John. That these messages also apply to others, including us who read this letter, is taken for granted - in the same way that the other letters in the NT are read and applied today. The specific messages will be discussed below.

The remainder of the Book of Revelation is more controversial. Interpreting its message requires establishing a framework within which the message can be decoded. Commentators certainly do not agree on such a framework, and there seem to be four broad classifications of the approach taken to understanding the message: that it either refers exclusively to events in the era of the author (the preterist approach), exclusively to coming events (the futurist approach), to symbolically meaningful events of no particular historical accuracy (the idealist approach) or to events occurring during a span of history (the historial approach). I imagine that several combinations of these alternatives exist as well. In particular, the futurist approach may include classical dispensationalism, which believes that the entirety of the heavenly reign is yet to come, and progressive dispensationalism which considers that this began with the resurrection of Jesus , but the remainder of events are still to come.

I personally tend a little more toward the progressive dispensationalist viewpoint: I think that, like all of the Bible, it is written literally for 'today' and will describe whatever God feels we need to learn today - whether that is a review of the past or assurance for the future, but that this is to impact, and describe future events. We should understand that 'the message for today' changes frequently (daily!). The text still speaks to us today as it did to people 1900 years ago. By this, I mean that we must be careful when we restrict the inspired Word of God by suggesting it needs to be reinterpreted through the eyes of a first century reader. It seems this book was communicated to John in a vision. The issue is then not that he received direct knowledge, but concerns how much (re-)interpretation he did before he wrote it down.

Revelation, written as apocalyptic literature, transcend time and space, and as such we need to consider it as transcendent rather than solely tied to a literal first century interpretation. Part of this transcendency is the images which allow us to catch a glimpse of the ongoing heavenly battle between good and evil, and our place in this battle.

The Book of Revelation describes a future in which Christ returns again. It has visions of heaven, angels, the throne of the Lord as well as the occasion when evil is defeated, when those who are evil receive their just punishment. The majority of the book is certainly not a straightforward account of these happenings, but conveys this in the way that an impressionist painter works. Not only that, the use of symbolism through numbers, seven, four, 12 and 144 would be worthy of a mathematician. Since God inspired these words, and He knows the very hairs on our head, we have to conclude that it is better for us, in some way, to read this confusing account of the future than to read something as simple as a direct explanation. However there IS a direct and simple explanation where it matters: God wins! Although times may be tough, Christians who hold firm and overcome evil will be rewarded.

I believe this is also the only book which promises that the reader and the hearer will be blessed by reading it (1:3). If I remember correctly, it was Corrie Ten Boom who wrote that when her father became blind, he asked her to read Revelation to him daily, for this blessing.

However I note that she is very clearly against the futurist interpretation of Revelation - blaming the woes of the Christians undergoing persecution in China over the past 50 years in part on a pre-tribulatory rapture mentality (in a sermon published just before her death). The idea of pre-tribulatory rapture seems to be mainly a progressive dispensationalist belief.

So to summarise, I find that this book is concerned with the here-and-now in terms of how Christians fit into the battle between good and evil, how we resist false prophets, and how we withstand persecution knowing some of the events to come at the end of this age. Whether it is optimistic or pessimistic depends on the viewpoint. For the progressive dispensationalist, it is pessimistic in as much as the world is concerned, and the way things will progress, but entirely optimistic for Christians in the end.

What is God saying to us through Revelation

First of all the easiest part - the letter to the seven churches. These describe seven churches in character, something we can directly learn from: Ephesus is too legalistic and seem to have lost Jesus in their worship, Smyrna seems to be suffering for Jesus' sake, Pergamum has 'poison in the pews' (people who profess to be Christian but still hold on to other incompatible beliefs), Thyatira is overly tolerant of immorality, Sardis seems to be obsessed with reputation and outward things, Philadelphia, weak though it is, has no specific complaint levelled against it. Laodicea is lukewarm and worse than that, is rich. In all cases, the messages are clear that sin in the church will not be tolerated, but that He who overcomes will:

  • eat from the tree of life (2:7)
  • not be hurt at all by the second death (2:11)
  • receive some of the hidden manna (2:17)
  • receive authority over nations (2:26)
  • will be dressed in white and whos name will not be blotted from the book of life (3:5)
  • make a pillar in the temple of God (3:12)
  • sit with Him on His throne (3:21)

Obviously it's good to overcome evil! At least seven times (for completeness) it is said of this message to churches ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’. With that, how can anyone possibly doubt that churches today should try and learn from this?

There is not space here even to touch on the symbolism mentioned in the Book of Revelation, much less to debate the central players (whether the Roman Empire, the USA, the Catholic government or Microsoft), however as mentioned above, there are hard times, and the good eventually win over evil.

Christians are warned to be on their guard against things like false prophets, antichrists and a likely great deception. Basically Christians should keep their wits about them and be well grounded in truth, faith and knowledge.

The requirement to use knowledge of scripture as a defence against false teachings, and antichrists (where it seems many Christians will be deceived) was one of the major promptings which led me to study this further.


I loved reading the Left Behind series. Every new book that arrived, I grabbed up and almost could not put down.

I was caught up with the idea of the rapture, and the exciting times for those left behind.

Then when I studied Revelation I was actually disappointed to find that most Bible scholars actually do not share the excitement of this type of viewpoint.

What is true? I don't know, but I think that as Christians we all have the duty to read the book, look at some study guides and try and make sense of it. If you think
about it, this is an important and fundamental question.

However the answer should not change our behaviour one bit. We need to live in faith, like 132,Apologetics'