Yet another film about Christianity that should be left behind

Did these folks really deserve to be left behind?

Did these folks really deserve to be left behind?

This week a new Hollywood film is being released that purports to tell of the opening stages of the Christian apocalypse.  According to the account of the end-times popularized by the “Left Behind” series of books, the final days begin with an event known as the rapture.

It is a kind of global culling of humanity, with some percentage of us taken up to heaven before things down here on earth start to get nasty.  Picture a lot of chaos, planes dropping out of the sky.  Then cue the Anti-Christ and the ominous Darth Vader music.

The problem with these pop-culture treatments of Biblical scripture – as I’ve written before – is they tend to offer big-bang special effects and lots of ominous mythologizing, without attempting to grapple with the profound and sometimes deeply troubling theology that lies behind the story.

The actual story in the Bible goes something like this.

Some period of time ago, God created man in his image.  He quickly became disappointed with us, not because we did something evil, but because we challenged his primacy.  We disobeyed, ate a piece of fruit from the tree of knowledge, learned to distinguish between good and evil, and God hastily decided we were just a little too much in his own image.

So he kicked us out of the Garden of Eden and from that time onward we’ve been — according to the Christian scripture — undergoing a kind of weird field test.  The world is a moral and physical obstacle course, a cosmic SAT exam, the result of which will produce our salvation or eternal damnation.

It’s important to understand that in the Christian faith, both outcomes are in God’s hands, or in the hands of his son Jesus Christ.  They created earth, they created heaven, they created hell.  Christ is the judge, the jury and (yes, even though it makes us uncomfortable) the executioner.

The niggly part for modern audiences is that the moral equation underlying this story doesn’t make much sense any more.  We still love the idea of Jesus and heaven.  But we really dislike big parts of core Christian doctrine, including the idea that Christianity is the only path to salvation. All those billions of Hindus and Buddhists?  No rapture for you.

In fact, the Bible is explicit about the fact that winning salvation is really hard even for Christians.  Even some people who try their best won’t make the cut.  When asked by his disciples why the path is being made so hard, Jesus responds that a lot of people just aren’t meant to be saved.

In fact, Jesus explains, he teaches in slightly muddley parables expressly so that the wrong sort of human won’t grasp the truth about proper faith.  “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you,” he tells his immediate followers.

“But to those on the outside everything is said in parables  so that, they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.”

This idea about Christianity, that it is a religion of the select, of the chosen few, used to be quite popular among believers.  The Puritans who helped settle North America were convinced that they were among the very small handful likely to make the final cut.

But these days, watching a movie like “Left Behind,” we find our modern sensibilities offended.

Why are these flawed but essentially good people, the ones not saved by God, judged unworthy?  Why are the children left to suffer?  Why doesn’t God stop messing around and save everyone, or call it quits on this whole weird moral experiment?  At the very least, why doesn’t he send us a clearer sign that he’s the right god and all the other gods are the wrong gods?

I mean, seriously, those of us who spend a lot of time reading the Bible think it’s one of the greatest books ever created.  But as a life-or-death instruction manual meant to keep your feet out of the fire?  Let’s be honest, it’s worse than those foreign-language pictograms that are supposed to help you assemble an Ikea bed.

Serious theologians – and serious Christians – grapple honestly and ethically with these questions.  This is why Christianity is such a fascinating faith.  It is a religion that balances comfort and terror, certainty and unknowability, in almost equal measures.

But I suspect that unthinking, Cliff’s Notes versions of the Bible, like this movie and the books it was based on, will actually be a turn-off for most Americans, especially young ones, who are getting their first taste of Christianity’s worldview.

They will see God cavalierly dropping planes out of the sky and causing widespread havoc and fear — just as they saw God drowning the entire world’s population in last year’s film “Noah” — and find that it looks less like a good and moral faith and more like a scene from the Middle East on the nightly news.

24 Comments on “Yet another film about Christianity that should be left behind”

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  1. Derek Keith says:

    You can’t be serious! How come you seek to slag off the sincere and fervent efforts of our Christian brothers and sisters in Christ?
    The Bible refers to ‘one another’ over 100 times, i.e. Love one another, serve one another, pray for one another, fellowship with each other, be kind to each other, tender – not harsh, forebear, or have patience for one another etc…. you see all relational. Yet your comments are harsh, judgemental and typical of the academic thinking that wants to sugar-coat God so he can be more easily tasted by a disinterested world. There are some horrible films out there where your criticism would be truly justified but I would certainly not use your understanding of the bible to judge the ministry of another. Perhaps we should first take the plank… and by the way there was a flood where all but eight of the population of planet earth were wiped out. We would not be here at all but for the righteousness of Noah – perhaps we should think and act more like him?

  2. Jim Bullard says:

    First let’s get something straight. There is nothing in the Bible about the rapture. Nothing, zip, zilch, nada. The rapture is an idea that was born in the fevered mind of John Darby in 1830. It is fantasy, on a par with the zombie apocalypse, except that sane people don’t believe in the zombie apocalypse and (sadly) a lot of otherwise sane folks do swallow this idea hook, line and sinker. Hey, the books sell in the millions and make the author rich (what was that Jesus said about the rich never getting into heaven?) so why not movies too? Anything for a buck. My thoughts on this movie when I heard about it? I was extremely disappointed in Nick Cage. He’s too an good actor to be wasted on this tripe.

  3. Kevin Snyder says:

    Brian Mann: Your lack of understanding of the doctrine of redemption is truly Biblical in its scope. Or perhaps you DO understand, and are deliberately lying. Either way – stick to movie reviews.
    Salvation and heaven are easy. Just love Jesus and thank Him for paying the price for your admission to Heaven. That’s it. You’re in.
    Anything He asks of you on this Earth is a request. You can’t lose salvation, once it’s been gifted to you.

  4. Brian Mann says:

    Hi folks –

    Some of the comments that are coming in to this review suggest that I have my understanding of Biblical “redemption” wrong, arguing that the experience of Christianity is all about love and that salvation is easy.

    I think Christianity is a hugely complex, rich and fascinating faith, but it’s not easy. That’s why theologians (and non-theologians like me) have been grappling with its nuances for two thousand years.

    Yes, Christ says immensely loving and beautiful things. But he also teaches clearly that those who do not follow his path are like branches of a tree that will be “thrown into the fire and burned.”

    He also makes it clear that many people will in fact experience this fate and perhaps are event meant for some reason to experience this fate. (See the quote above.)

    This is troubling enough stuff that even in the Bible you find people questioning God about the morale and ethical meanings of his judgments.

    (See Abraham’s conversation with God before the destruction of the cities of the plain. See Jesus’ own words during the crucifixion.)

    Movies like “Left Behind” and “Noah” grapple clumsily with parts of this challenging moral and spiritual formula. We see people being “saved” and we see people drowning or being, well, left behind.

    And we find ourselves asking Why? How does this make sense? My point, ultimately, is that these films raise ethical questions about Christianity that they are unable to help us think through.

    That said, if you are of the opinion that Christianity is a simple faith unburdened by any of these provocative questions, then that’s fine. It goes without saying that everyone is free to interpret their faith as they see fit.

    –Brian, NCPR

  5. Ken Hall says:

    Jim Bullard, I agree with your assessment of the “rapture”; however I would toss the whole of “religion” into he same kettle of “power, control and money”. As for your assessment that Nick Cage is a good actor I disagree. He has displayed some talent in a few past movies; however, it appears to me that some time ago he became bitten by the 1% infatuation, likely when his income moved him into those esoteric and ethereal economic environs, whereupon he became enthralled with the accumulation of very expensive “things” such as islands and mansions coupled with an estimated $30million/year lifestyle. These choices led him to become involved with the production of numbers of very poor movies simply to enable his continued high flying way of life and attempt to payoff high back taxes and outstanding debts.

  6. Derek Keith says:

    Gentlemen-What part of Christianity do you think is hugely complicated? For those who think like this let me remind you how simple it is.
    Man sinned – God redeemed – and Jesus is coming back one day to claim those who have received the free gift of salvation thanks to His death and resurrection. Nothing to do with us, our knowledge, our works, our allegiance to our pet doctrine or our precious opinion. Everything to do with our beautiful God, His love for all of us and the gift of grace through the amazing work of the cross. All we have to do is receive it. That’s it! End of! Fine!
    Please don’t think me arrogant, it’s just that it’s taken me over 60 years of Christianity, 25 years of obsessive bible study and the baptism of the Holy Ghost to come to this simple conclusion . As for the claim that what we describe as ‘the Rapture’ not being the Bible – how about this?
    1 Thes 4:15-18 NKJ
    For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
    Is this not a perfect description of ‘the rapture’?
    One other thing, there is another ‘one anther’ and that is ‘admonish ‘one another’ in love’. This is what I do and not some form of theological ping pong that divides us even more, therefore one word of advise I will offer is this. Ask yourself this question before you criticize any ministry “could God have His hand on this?” If the answer is even 1% yes then keep you thoughts and criticism to yourself – from an old man with years of mistakes to call upon.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    The movie is fiction. The Bible? Who knows? But this much is certain. The Bible is a lot like fiction in that it tries to make points that might result in changing peoples thoughts and behavior.
    Odds are that much of the written Bible was based upon oral stories told long before anyone knew how to write, stories told around a fire when people still lived in caves.
    There is in my view a basic theological problem with most if not all religions. It is the very idea of beginnings and endings. This same problem crops up in scientific views of the Universe. There may very well have been a Big Bang but for any big or small bang to have happened, there would have to have been an infinite number to have taken place – and an infinite number to take place after the current bang morphs into the next big bang. You simply cannot get something out of nothing. God could? No. If there is a god, then God always was, is and always will be. A creator god would always create. Things get really silly when you start thinking God always was but one day got the idea that god was tired of doing nothing and started creating because god was getting really bored doing nothing. Equally silly is thinking nothing existed prior to the Big Bang.
    The problem is us and us thinking everything is about us. The entire universe exists just for us. Really? If you think that, you might just as well think characters in a novel are of the opinion that the author wrote the novel just for them.

  8. Brian Mann says:

    Derek –

    You’re welcome to join the conversation any time and it’s wonderful that you bring your decades of experience to the table. But it’s not okay to urge others to keep their views to themselves, so long as their opinions are expressed civilly.

    This is a place of conversation, not silence.

    As I said, I’m entirely comfortable with you holding your views about the Bible and its teaching about salvation, though I find them pretty untenable theologically.

    –Brian, NCPR

  9. Derek Keith says:

    This was a piece of advise – it’s your freedom to accept or reject it. All I can say is that if you knew what I knew then you would be a follower of Jesus too. The fact that you obviously don’t can mean one of two things.
    1. You are smarter than me
    2. I am smarter than you but not smart enough to undermine your confidence in your own smartness

    Like my advise Salvation is free. You see knowing what I know I don’t understand why people don’t check out God before they pop their clogs. That’s not smart at all.

  10. Jim Bullard says:

    Ken, I have to confess that I don’t go to movies much so I can comment on Nick Cage’s more recent efforts. Never the less I remain disappointed in him.

  11. Mr. Kent says:

    Good article. Interesting. There remains the question never asked-Do religious beliefs do more harm than good? We have thousands of years of wars and atrocities in the name of some religion or another and all receive the blessing of their ” God. ” Atheists do not seem to have the need to forcefully spread their belief nor do they appear to push that view on others. And no, Hitler was not an Athiest, he was a cultist which is just religion. And the question – why does any man need a belief in God to do good things in his life? It is sad if that is the only reason a man would do good. It does not say much for man.
    Deism seems to have the healthiest approach to the whole mystery and perhaps the one most sensible.
    I don’t see a big difference between politics and religions. They both use the same strategy to win someone over, and that is to scare you as much as possible as to what will become of you if you don’t believe in me.

  12. The Original Larry says:

    People ought to learn the difference between advice and advise before they start handing out the former so freely.

  13. oa says:

    Good advice, Larry!

  14. Will Doolittle says:

    I was watching Fox News the other day and this theme surfaced, that Islam is a religion of violence, that the Koran teaches it, yadda, yadda. I don’t doubt that there’s a lot of violence in the Koran (I haven’t read it) and Islam is touted as the best religion, the path to salvation, yadda, yadda, the same stuff that’s in the Hebrew and Christian Bible, aka the Old Testament. Isn’t that the truth of these old texts, that they reflect life as it was then — violent, sexist, and full of rah-rah our team is the best and the others should get stamped on and stamped out rhetoric? Isn’t that one effective way to promote your cause over other competing ones — by claiming that yours is the path to bliss while the others will lead to something hot and horrible?

  15. Peter Crowley says:

    Father Patrick Ratigan, pastor of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church in Saranac Lake, gave a good, simple homily this Sunday about the balance between God as a loving parent and a just judge. Commenters here seem to be focusing on either God’s mercy or his justice, but not the balance of both.

    The homily was built off that day’s Bible readings, Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-43 (You can read them at, which compare Israel to a vineyard. Despite God’s careful cultivation over many generations, the vineyard consistently bears wild grapes, violent people. As a loving parent, God mourns that his special efforts toward his demonstration plot haven’t succeeded, but ultimately, as a just judge, he takes away his special treatment, tears down the vineyard’s walls and leaves these people to fend for themselves. This echoes a frequent message from Jesus and, shortly afterward, from St. Paul: that God chose to no longer single out the Hebrew people and to instead reach out to the whole world equally.

    Brian and I have talked religion and theology quite a bit, and I treasure those conversations. His roots tend to be on the Calvinist side, focusing on how God will only save a small number of people, whereas mine are Vatican II Catholic, focusing more on God’s love. Ultimately, I think the truth lies in a middle balance point that all of us here are swinging around — Father Ratigan’s balance between the loving parent and the just judge.

  16. Peter Crowley says:

    I should add that I completely agree with Brian that pop-culture movies like “Left Behind” and “Noah” (which I haven’t seen and don’t want to) often give a skewed view of religion, which is kind of lame and hurtful in a culture when people tend to have little real experience with religion. Oh, well.

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’m sticking with Nihilism. The only real choice is to understand that everything ultimately is meaningless but choose to live as if every act large and small matters. The certainty of organized religions is ridiculous and unsupportable.

  18. Mervel says:

    Well my theology does not accept a rapture per-se. Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and many other major Protestant faith’s believe that Christ will return of course and that indeed He is the Way the Truth and the Life, (not a Way), but not in some sort of slow progression of removals of individuals . We also believe that Christ is merciful beyond measure that it is possible that those who do not know Christ can still be saved by Him and indeed we are not to poke into these mysteries, not to speculate. We are told to worry mainly about our own salvation and to spread the Good News.

    So I think it is important before we get a cartoon description of Christianity, both in the original post on this thread and in these movies that we really look at the Faith itself and its 2000 year unbroken history. The bottom line is this is a faith of love that is lived in reality through the supernatural act of Christ and the Holy Spirit creating faith in people and working through the sacraments; not just an instruction book of rules. But just as a reminder no branch of Christianity teaches that you can earn your way into heaven; Christ saves us through His Work; Catholic’s believe we cooperate with that work, many Protestants believe that it is all faith alone, but neither accept that our salvation is following some rules, but that it is a relationship with a living God through His Son.

    As far as these movies go; well theology does not make a good movie, the Saving act that changed the world on Good Friday is in general not news worthy and really Mel Gibson aside, does not make a great modern movie. I don’t think we should have high spiritual aspirations or expectations from Hollywood.

  19. Mervel says:

    Actually it is a condemnation of our own Churches, of my own Church; that we have become so ineffectual and out of touch and so unreal to so many people, that they sadly do get their spiritual beliefs and ideas through movies marketed to them for a profit.

  20. Mervel says:

    For full disclosure I did read several of the Left Behind book series. They were very poorly written, but somewhat of a cheap thrill, I mean I read them and enjoyed them like you would a cheap show that requires little thought. They were mildly anti-Catholic, nothing toxic but it was there. They sold a ton of those books though.

    As an aside there was an interesting movie called “The Rapture” in 1991 starring Mimi Rogers. Its a little higher quality than these and addresses some of the same issues.

  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Apparently Brian Mann is unaware of our North Country connection to Christain Apocolyptic thought…but there is one, a major one.
    William Miller who preached in Hampton NY on the VT border was an early doomsayer. Check it out:

  22. Mervel says:

    Yeah upstate New York in general has spawned many of the various religious movements of the 19th century.

  23. Nature says:


    If you could convince me that life meant nothing; that would really be something!

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    convince me that life has meaning. meaning is an abstract principle, does it exist outside of our own experience? or is it something we impose on existence?

    that isn’t to say that we human creatures don’t crave meaning, we want there to be meaning and it makes us feel good (or bad) to assign some importance to events, objects, ideas, creatures, etc. I fight all the time for principles that I attach meaning to.

    but the idea there is a god or God proves nothing about meaning – in fact, if you look at the Judeo/Christian/Islamic God it seems reasonable to believe He doesn’t find a lot of meaning in existence. He is willing to wipe out large parts of His own creation at a whim. So, yeah there might be some meaning for him – the amount of meaning as in a sand castle washing into the sea.

    I hate to see creatures in pain or environmental devastation or any number of things – I want my life to have meaning, but at the same time I realize that in the end I will cease to exist and everything and everyone that I know will fade from existence and that none of it REALLY mattered. The lucky thing is that I have awareness for this brief bit of time and I can enjoy perception, and people and existence. Is there beauty in the world? Only if I choose it to be. My choice, beauty or ugliness, love or hate. My choice. And your choice. The choice is the thing.

    First there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is a mountain.

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