Good Books - Bad Theology
There is a series of fictional books about the earth's last days. The so called Left Behind books have sold millions, and now a major motion picture based on them is coming out. The books are good fiction. They are easy to read, and the plot development keeps you reading. However, these books are based on the theological error of predispensational millienialism. Now how many people know or even care what that is? How many would ever pick up a theological textbook entitled Predispensational Millinealism? How many people will sit down and listen as a TV preacher tells about the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the 1000 year kingdom? But how easy, how fun it is to pick up a novel that tells a delightful little story based on the theological assumptions of predispensational Millinealism!
So am I saying don't read the books? Nope. I'm saying enjoy the read but reject the bad theology. But that will be hard to do unless you are clear on what the proper theology of the end of the world is. This Second Last Sunday of the Church Year addresses many of the errors in the Left Behind series.
The most prominent error in the series is that the end is not really the end. These books teach that Christ returns, not to end the world but to set up an earthly kingdom in Jerusalem that will last for 1,000 years. That means everybody alive on earth at the time gets a 1,000 year warning of when the real end of the world will be. How wonderful that sounds! Your loved ones who right now have no interest in Christ or His Church will get a second chance when Christ returns. There will be this mighty kingdom in Jerusalem with Christ Himself on the throne and all the nations subservient to Him. Now who will be able to resist that? No more will the church be weak and ignored by the world. We'll be in! We'll have made it! Lots of people will want to jump on the bandwagon then!
Is this what Christ is describing in our text? What does He say will happen when He returns in clouds with great power and glory? The sun will be darkened; the moon will not be able to give off reflected light, and the stars will be falling from the sky. And Christ doesn't say the heavenly bodies will be shaken, but "the powers in the heavens will be shaken." What Christ describes, using Old Testament imagery is the dissolving of the created order, a return to the chaos that was there when God first made everything from nothing.
When Christ returns visibly He doesn't bring an earthly kingdom; He brings the end of the earth. Peter describes it this way: "The day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up." There is no second chance people not for your loved ones, not for the unbelieving nations, not for you. What you have here and now is the only chance anyone has. The Word going out from a feeble church with feeble pastors is the only Word of grace and forgiveness anyone is ever going to hear. Once the sun and moon fail, the stars start falling and the powers of the heavens start to shake, it's all over.
The Left Behind books have a lot about the modern nation of Israel in them. That's because dispensational millineialism wrongly equates the modern nation of Israel with the Old Testament people of God. As Israel in the Old Testament was the special people of God and whatever nation defended Israel was blessed by God, so today whomever is friends with Israel will be blessed. The place of modern Israel in the Middle East is a complex political issue. When you make it a religious issue, you get Crusades and holy wars.
I don't know whether the Left Behind series does this but the theology behind the books say the fig tree Jesus refers to really stands for the nation of Israel. The fig tree was often considered a symbol of Israel. Jesus says that once the fig tree buds within that generation the end of the world will come. Modern Israel was founded in 1948. A generation is about 40-50 years. Therefore, Jesus should return between 1988 and 1998. That's why a book was published 88 Reasons the Rapture will Happen in 1988. That's why there was so much religious fervor among American milliniealism during the Gulf War of the early 90's, during the millennium celebration last year, and even today in connection with the unrest in Jerusalem. It all comes from associating modern Israel with the fig tree here.
The Gospel of Luke blows such theories to pieces. Luke records more of what Jesus said. "Behold the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near." There is not some secret meaning behind the fig tree. This is a simple illustration about the signs of summer. You know that summer is near each year when you see trees starting to bloom. The reason Jesus emphasizes the fig tree is that tree was known by people then and now as a sure sign of summer. Other trees often bud prematurely and so are caught by a killing frost, not so the fig.
Secondly, Jesus is pointing us to signs that reoccur. Our bulletin translation, which had many millinnialist on the committee by the way, makes it sound like Jesus is saying when you see the sun darkened, the moon not shining and stars falling, you will know the end is near. No, Jesus is making a general statement. Literally He says, "whenever you see a fig leaf out you know summer is near; likewise whenever you see these signs you know the end is near." Fig trees budding are a reoccurring sign.
What reoccurring signs are we to look for? Not the signs that immediately usher in the end of the world. They happen once and then BAM! the end! The disciples, you'll remember from last week, had asked, "what will be the signs when these things are going to be?" Jesus answered by telling them about wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, earthquakes and famines in various places. These are the fig trees budding. These are the things that whenever we see them, we are to remember the end is near.
But Christians of all eras have seen these signs! That's the point. Jesus has left us signs that continually point us to the end of the world. Regularly, we are reminded that our Lord could come any day. He has not left us signs that pinpoint the end of the world. Signs that we can calculate years and dates from. The church which thinks the Lord has left such signs ceases to be the hoping church and becomes the calculating church, she ceases to be the church living by faith and begins to live by sight.
Finding definite signs for Christ's return in the politics of the world, makes for exciting reading. This is what draws people to these books. However, there is a theme in these books that also draws them but bothers them at the same time. It is evidenced in the title Left Behind. Might I be one who will be left behind? And who are those in danger of being left behind according to these books and millennial theology in general? Those who haven't given their heart to Jesus. Those who don't really, totally, and completely believe in Jesus. These books and their underlying theology trumpet the power of faith. Contrast this with our Collect for this week. Our prayer comes from the realization that our faith is not perfect, our believing is flawed. The Lord must give us faith. Left to ourselves we do not believe perfectly and without all doubt. Our faith, on its own, can be reproved.
We know we do not believe as we should. We know we do not trust as we should. We know that our faith is not strong enough to be always ready for the return of Christ. If Christ looks down from heaven and only takes those who perfectly believe, those who have completely given their hearts to Jesus, He won't take us, will He? Can any of you say you believe strong enough, well enough, certainly enough? I can't. All I can ever pray is, "Lord I believe; help my unbelief." If my going to heaven depends on me holding on to Jesus, send me to hell right now. My heart is never perfectly aimed toward God. I don't always trust Him as I should. Look at our Introit. What does the Psalmist base his prayer for relief on? On the Lord's mercy and His faithfulness, on His righteousness not ours: "O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in Your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief."
Where does Jesus leave the matter of whom gets left behind? Does Jesus say when He returns He will send His angels to the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens to gather believers or those who have given their heart to Jesus? No, He says His angels "gather His elect." Should the elect be fearful that they are going to be left behind? Should the elect scan the heavens anxiously thinking if they don't spot Jesus immediately coming with the clouds, they will be missed by Him? Not hardly. Your salvation rides on Jesus' work and election, on His choosing, on His preserving you in the faith, on His gathering of you.
Ah, but how do I know if I'm one of the elect? Our Lutheran Confessions tell us to seek our election in the wounds of Christ not in the faith in our hearts. Look at the wounds of Christ crucified depicted on our altar. For whom did the drops of blood drip down from His head? For whom did He suffer there so terribly? For whom did He keep the Law? For good people? No, Paul says in Romans it was for ungodly people. For people who never sin? No, Paul says while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. For only some people in the world? No John tells us that Christ is the atoning sacrifice not only for our sins but the sins of the whole world. For whom did Jesus die on the cross? For you dear sinner. Whose sins does the blood of Jesus Christ cover? Your sins. Ask the wounds of Christ if you are one of the elect and what will they say? Yes.
Where do the wounds of Christ bleed for sinners today? In your heart? In your believing? If you think that, then you are doomed to looking inside of yourself to see if you have enough believing going on in your heart. No, the wounds of Christ, the fountain filled with the blood, the blood of Jesus that cries for your pardon flows today in the forgiving Word, in the Waters of Baptism, in the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. Your election is firm and certain through these Means of Grace. These words of Christ will never pass away, nor will anyone connected to them. No one standing in their Baptism, trusting in their Absolution, or believing in their Holy Communion will be left behind for they trust not in their works or even in their believing but in what God in Christ works and believes about them!.
Friends, the Left Behind series makes everything a matter of your choice. Scripture makes everything a matter of God's choice in Christ and declares Christ makes His choice known in Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion. The books are good reading but bad theology. The Bible might be "bad" reading in the sense that it's not as entertaining but it's perfect theology. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Last Sunday in the Church Year (11-19-00) Mark 13:24-31