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.