I originally intended for this to be a stand-alone post, but once the words started flowing, I discovered how much I wanted to cover… so prepare yourself for a cliff-hanger at the end and a continuation next week.
“Rayford Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched.” Thus begins the Left Behind series that debuted (can you believe it?) 25 years ago.
The saga created plenty of buzz in Christian circles when it first hit bookstores. People who had previously shied away from prophetic passages in Scripture now gobbled them up (with just as much confusion as before, but with heightened appetite). Many found themselves pondering terms like rapture, tribulation, and millennial reign for the first time. We might not have known we were taking a course in eschatology, but our basic framework for the unfolding of final events was being built page by page.
Assuming the novel reflects their personal beliefs, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins hold to a pre-tribulation, pre-millennial view, which pretty much says that believers will be raptured away from the earth before things go south (like the mark of the beast, famine, war, plagues, and martyrdom of the saints). This is what I grew up believing: “love Jesus, and you’ll miss out on the hard stuff.” Sounds great, right? Not at all a reflection of the experience of first-century Christians in the Roman Empire, to whom the apocalyptic book of Revelation was written.
In Annals, historian and senator Tacitus describes the reality of these believers:
First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned … Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd.
Neither does it particularly jive with modern-day martyrdom, the some 90,000 Christians slaughtered annually for their faith.*
Perhaps this whole “get out of suffering free” card isn’t as fail-proof as I had thought. Wayne Grudem writes the following in Systematic Theology:
It seems best to conclude, with the great majority of the church throughout history, that the church will go through the time of tribulation predicted by Jesus. We would probably not have chosen this path for ourselves, but the decision was not ours to make. And if God wills that any of us now alive remain on earth until the time of this great tribulation, then we should heed Peter’s words, “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14), and, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
This idea that Christians should be prepared to endure suffering is also seen in Paul’s words that we are fellow heirs with Christ, “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). And we may remember that from the time of Noah to the time of the martyrdom of the early apostles, it has frequently been God’s way to bring his people through suffering to glory, for this he did even with his own Son. “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10). It is from the Savior who himself has suffered more than any of his children will ever suffer that we have the admonition, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer … Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
To be honest, I don’t know how spiritually well-prepared the American church is (myself included) for any kind of tribulation. I mean, we’re falling apart over being asked to wear masks, for goodness’ sake. My own faith hasn’t yet been tested to a major degree, and while I can hope that I’d remain firm in the face of torture—or worse, the torture of my family—I feel the need to pause and examine myself. Is Christ really worth more to me than anything? Rushing to answer in the affirmative without deep thought will rob me of a chance for the cross to expand in my life. I don’t want a false positive, and I don’t want inch-deep conviction if I have to stare down the barrel of a gun.
This questioning isn’t faithless; on the contrary, it is the kiln in which faith is solidified. Jesus expected His disciples to count the cost of following Him. We’ve already seen in our study through John’s gospel that individuals who neglected this step eventually walked away when things got rough.
The Lord made lots of statements that have wound up on t-shirts and coffee cups, but one I have yet to see is Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters [in comparison to his love for Me], yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” This is a hard saying, friends, and it requires a pervasive experience of the gospel’s goodness and of Christ’s supremacy.
Back to the question of Left Behind: will believers have to endure the tribulation? Not sure. As one of my favorite pastors said, “I don’t know when the rapture will happen—pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib. I’m not on the planning committee; I’m on the welcoming committee.” The truth is, we can’t be sure how things will shake down in the end. All we can do is our best to be found faithful in whatever scenario God sees fit to give us.
I was raised on “better safe than sorry.” Just in case we will be here for the days of unimaginable difficulty, how should we prepare? (Or if we manage to make it home beforehand, how might we ready the next generation?)
*According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary