Pt. 2 of Rob Bell, end times, and how Jesus got “left behind.”

In part one of this piece (here’s a link if you missed it), I gave my take on the fallout of the Rob Bell controversy within the Church. While I was direct about my basic criticisms of the book, I also wanted to be clear that I think Bell is on target in what I believe to be one of his central theses—that our misdirected emphasis with regards to eschatology (the study of last things) is hindering rather than furthering kingdom work in the world (a sad parody of what Christian theology of matters regarding the end should really be).

I also said that I don’t think Bell’s concerns necessitate his conclusions. I don’t think doctrines of divine judgment with regard to hell in particular are keeping people from participating in the kingdom of heaven on earth. But I do think the loss of emphasis on the resurrection of the body and the endless focus on speculative scenarios surrounding the Second Coming of Christ ARE in fact to blame for the problem Bell diagnoses. In the quick and severe criticism to Bell’s book in the evangelical world, this is a constructive alternative that I think we’ve missed. Unfortunately, we can be far quicker on the trigger to simply label and dismiss Bell than to engage what I think are genuine pastoral concerns. In expressing my own criticisms of Love Wins, my goal was not to merely join the chorus of the Bell-bashers but respectfully re-direct the conversation in a fruitful direction.

I have been, in my own little corner of the world, saying these things for a long time. It is tempting to do a long series of posts explaining where and how I think these end-times interpretations go wrong…but alas I am not. Not only would it take me months to say everything I would want to say, I really do desire more so to offer constructive proposals to misguided interpretations rather than simply attack them. If you are interested in any of that, I hope you will tune into the “End of the World as We Know It” series at Renovatus, as that is where I am trying to comprehensively re-frame a lot of our discussions about Biblical texts that drive these issues.

For today, I offer a relatively simple critique: Contemporary end times theology, especially in a North American context, often ignores what is plainly clear about the nature and character of the gospel en route to interpretations that are speculative at best. Thus the commands of Jesus to bless our enemies and pray for those who despitefully use or persecute us, or the call to lay down our lives with Jesus for the sake of the world rather than to try to conquer the world through the world’s means may seem ambiguous, while the end-times graphs and time-lines are said to be clear. Do not be deceived: the posture of God’s heart towards the world as demonstrated through Jesus Christ is not ambiguous. It is why I am willing to use pretentious language in the Osama Bin Laden posts on “the” Christian response—because I refuse to acknowledge that any variation of Christian teaching that does not encompass radical enemy love and a willingness to sacrifice for those we deem as enemies is worthy of the label “Christian.” These are not peripheral matters, these are fundamentals.

While I have an endless supply of criticisms towards a lot of the actual use of Scripture by these interpreters, I think it is worth noting that on a baseline level (even if you tend to be more sympathetic towards those eschatological views than I am), much of it simply does not reflect the tone and tenor of the gospel message. The teaching I have heard about these matters over the years seems to get increasingly triumphant and celebratory—with less of an emphasis on love for those who are outside Christ and more of a “we will show them one day here soon” kind of mentality. Even if you hang on to these kind of scenarios, you need to reflect seriously on whether or not the heart of God towards the world is really reflected in all of this.

I have had held this critique for years, but recently read a different take that deeply disturbed me. In Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, author Daniel Radosh shares his experience of immersing himself in evangelical subculture. There are chapters on everything from Christian music festivals, Christian comedians, Christian fiction, to Christian sex enhancement ministries. His observations are alternately hilarious and/or offensive depending on where you are standing. Being a self-professed “secular Jew,” I assume most any believer will have some fundamental differences with some of Radosh’s assumptions. But even where I differed, I was personally not only not offended but deeply compelled by his often incisive and always witty commentary on American Christian culture. Especially when it comes to end times, where Radosh offers his most important critique of the haughty tone he sees in evangelical culture. I think its worthwhile to hear an “outsider’s” critique.

Radosh contends that the popular Left Behind novels may be as influential to our generations understanding of the end of days as the Scofield Bible was 100 years ago. On a surface level, his critique of the actual writing is often laugh-out loud funny (i.e., reflecting on the names of Left Behind’s protagonists, such as Buck Williams, Rayford Steele, Steve Plank, Bruce Barnes and Dirk Burton, Radosh says “Apparently having a porn star name is enough to keep you from being raptured.”) But the critique quickly becomes more serious—and for me, more heartbreaking. Straight from the book:

Early in the series, The Tribulation Force, as the heroes call themselves, fight most of their battles with the weapon of prayer. Eventually they get guns. Really cool guns. ‘The thin, jagged, spinning bullet bores through anything in its path, gathers the gore around it like grass in a power-mower blade, and turns itself into a larger object of destruction.’ In the fourth book, Buck feels mildly guilty about killing a guard at an abortion clinic, but his partner tells him to shake it off: ‘If you shot an enemy soldier during battle would you turn yourself in?’ In the final volume, a horrified Jesus returns and admonishes the Tribulation Force, ‘Put your swords away, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’ Just kidding. Actually, what Jesus does is this:

‘Men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin…There innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.’

Building on such examples, Radosh makes the case that the tone from earlier evangelical accounts of end times seems to be shifting from deep concern/sorrow for those who face coming judgment than their earlier counterparts. Drawing from evangelical blogger Fred Clark, who has written a page-by-page dissection of the first Left Behind book, Radosh says

Clark builds a devastating case that the book’s glaring absence of sympathy for anyone other than its main characters is not just a failure of imagination on the part of the authors but a form of hatred. The heroes of the book, Clark declares, are sociopaths. They are men who arrive at an airport an hour or so after billions of people have vanished without a trace—with countless hundreds or thousands more dead or dying in the wreckages of suddenly pilotless planes—yet who make no attempt to help, or even inquire about the feelings of, a single person they meet. Instead they focus relentlessly on their own travel plans, jobs, and lives.

There is much more to Radosh’s critique, but especially of interest for me was his contrast to the pop apocalypse fiction of the 1972 film A Thief in the Night to its contemporary counterparts. Renovatus folks have heard me tell many times that these were the films that haunted not only my childhood but even my early adult years before some very intense spiritual healing took place in my life. Yet even though there was terror in those b-movies, Radosh claims these films were different in that

the terror inspired by A Thief in the Night was personal, not political. Focusing entirely on a handful of ordinary Americans, the most frightening scenes involve children who mistakenly think they’ve missed the Rapture when they come home to find their parents away. While scaring children may not be the most noble way of spreading the gospel, it’s worth noting that the film’s attitudes toward its unsaved characters is markedly different from those in Left Behind: It feel sorry for them. When people are sent to hell in a Thief in the Night and its sequels, viewers are meant to mourn the loss of their souls, not celebrate their defeat at the hands of the righteous.

(Part three to follow tomorrow)