By Dirk Eichhorst
It is troubling that Hollywood often produces films that are blatantly anti-Christian. Even more troubling is when Christians with good intentions produce a film that tries to tell the truth, but is dangerously off in its theology. LEFT BEHIND is the latest film that tackles eschatology (the study of end times), and claims to be biblical. Yet the film misinterprets and misapplies significant portions of prophetic Scripture. Can this kind of misleading teaching in a film potentially do more harm than a blatantly anti-Christian message?
Released on video in October 2000, LEFT BEHIND hit theater screens February 2, 2001. Based on the best selling book by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, LEFT BEHIND was produced by Peter and Paul LaLonde, the same duo that produced the APOCOLYPSE, REVELATION, and TRIBULATION trilogy with Jack Van Impe and John Hagee Ministries. For LEFT BEHIND, the LaLonde brothers re-teamed with Cloud Ten Pictures, who released TRIBULATION. But even with a budget of $14.7 million, the most money ever put into a Christian film, LEFT BEHIND falls short of being a first-class movie. Although the writing is an excellent adaptation of the novel, and is close to the best we’ve seen for a Christian film, there remain some weak moments that minimize the illusion of reality.
Before we point out some of the eschatological inaccuracies in LEFT BEHIND, let us say that we applaud the effort. It is no secret that the producers of this film are very excited about it and are, for the most part, we believe, genuine in their desire to proclaim the truth. They love the Lord, and are well meaning. Their films have improved both technically and artistically with each new venture. LEFT BEHIND is the first film that just begins to approach the look and feel of a Hollywood film, and it does offer some good scenes and dialogue. The acting is fairly good across the board, especially from Brad Johnson, playing Rayford Steele. But as the strongest character in the film, even he comes off as a Bible-thumping turnoff after he’s saved, and delivers the usual “there’s something bigger than all of this” kind of talk. Worst of all, of course, is the film’s misleading eschatology. We can therefore applaud the effort while not applauding the result.
THE TIMING OF THE RAPTURE
LEFT BEHIND is clearly a story told from the pretribulational perspective. In the film, the Rapture occurs before the signing of Antichrist’s seven year covenant with Israel (Daniel 9:26), before the great tribulation (Matthew 24:21-22), and before the sign in the sun, moon, and stars (Matthew 24:29 and Joel 2:30). But a straight forward, face value reading of Matthew 24 reveals that the Rapture will not occur until after all of these things, and that the Rapture will be a cutting short of the persecution of the saints and the Jews. The timing of the Rapture as depicted in LEFT BEHIND is the key flaw to its entire eschatological message. Placing the Rapture before the seven-year period (the Seventieth Week of Daniel), sets up a foundation that knocks everything else on the timeline out of place and out of order.
Speaking of time, there is no designation in the film as to how much time must elapse between the Rapture and the beginning of the seven-year period. This amount of time is thus purely a guess on the part of the filmmakers. If the Rapture does occur before the seven year period, who is to say that the seven year period must then begin immediately afterwards? Or the next day? A week later? A year? How about ten or twenty? Who’s the authority here? Certainly not the Bible. Order of events is the key issue.
Granted, in the prewrath position, we do not claim to know when, in time, the Rapture will take place. No one knows that day or hour, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36) But we do know the sequence of events as given to us in Daniel 9:24-27 and 12:1-13, by Christ in Matthew 24, by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 & 5:1-10, and 2 Thessalonians 2, and supported by the Revelation to John. Again, a face value reading of these passages shows that the Rapture occurs after the beginning of the seven-year period, after Antichrist sits himself on the throne, after the persecution begins, and after the sign in the sun, moon, and stars.
In LEFT BEHIND, a videotape is shown to the characters that was made three years before the story takes place. In it, a pastor explains the disappearances, saying that “those who placed their faith in Christ have been taken to heaven.” He then goes on to quote 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, which states: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall 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” (emphasis added). Notice the very apparent events that are mentioned: “the Lord will descend…with a shout”, with the “voice of the archangel”, and the “trumpet of God”, and the “dead in Christ shall rise.” This passage indicates that the coming of our Lord will be a vividly audible and visual experience, not a silent occurrence as depicted in LEFT BEHIND. The film contradicts what it has shown us by quoting this passage.
We learn in Matthew 24:29-31 that the gathering together described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 will occur immediately after a cataclysmic sign in the sun, moon, and stars. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (emphasis added). Where were these signs in the film? Not just those signs, but Jesus tells us that we will see Him at His coming! Matthew 24:30, which immediately follows the verse just quoted, says “…then the Sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (emphasis added). None of this is depicted in LEFT BEHIND. The film reduces the Rapture to a silent, secret, confusing event, when in fact the Scriptures clearly teach that the whole world will recognize Christ at that time. Finally, in verse 31, the very next verse, we learn that now is the time we will be gathered together: “And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (emphasis added). It is difficult to argue the simple, plain, clear, audible, visual nature of all these events, described in chronological order by Christ Himself!
Rather than concentrating on ordering of events, the film capitalizes on the popular speculations of what will happen to the people “left behind” at the Rapture. All of the classic events happen: cars with missing drivers causing accidents, babies and young children missing, airplanes going down, etc. The film then takes its audience through the characters’ struggles to explain these strange disappearances. Solutions range from selective disappearance, to blood type, brainwaves, DNA, aliens, alternate dimensions, Nostradomus prophecies, accumulated radiation, and more. According to Scripture, none of this guessing will happen. We will all know it is Christ. We just saw that in the passage quoted above: “all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (verse 30, emphasis added). There are so many back-to-back signs given in Scripture announcing the coming of Christ that it is difficult to understand how anyone reading the Word of God plainly could miss them.
THE MISREPRESENTATION OF EZEKIEL 38
Another key event that is misrepresented is the surrounding of the nation of Israel by a mighty army. In the first scenes of the film, Israel is attacked by a huge wave of unidentified enemy fighters and tanks. It seems a hopeless battle, as bombs drop mercilessly from the sky upon the land. Then suddenly, without Israel firing even one missile, the planes explode in midair until all of them self-destruct. Israel is saved from certain doom by some unknown force. Later, Ezekiel 38 is given as the reason for Israel’s protection in that case.
It is true that Ezekiel 38 depicts the Lord’s coming to the rescue of Israel from a mighty army. But in the context of Ezekiel 38, we can see that this is not just some random attack from an unknown enemy that is suddenly destroyed in midair. It is talking about the time when Gog (Ezekiel’s name for Antichrist) surrounds the nation of Israel, bringing all his allies with him to “capture spoil and to seize plunder” (v 12). This occurs right after the midpoint, when Israel is “living securely” (v 8), and is the beginning of the great tribulation.
The identity of these attackers is very specifically mentioned in verses 4-6: the Lord will “turn you about, and put hooks into your jaws, and I will bring you out, and all your army, horses and horsemen, all of them splendidly attired, a great company with buckler and shield, all of them wielding swords; Persia, Ethiopia, and Put with them, all of them with shield and helmet; Gomer with all its troops; Beth-togarmah from the remote parts of the north with all its troops – many peoples with you.” Verses 8-16 depict Antichrist’s plan to invade and plunder the land at the midpoint; the beginning of the great tribulation. But Antichrist’s final fate is made clear in the verses that follow, which point to the destruction of Antichrist and his armies: ” ‘And it will come about on that day, when Gog comes against the land of Israel,’ declares the Lord God, ‘that My fury will mount up in My anger. And in My zeal and in My blazing wrath I declare that on that day there will surely be a great earthquake in the land of Israel… And with pestilence and with blood I shall enter into judgment with him; and I shall rain on him (Antichrist), and on his troops, and on the many peoples who are with him, a torrential rain, with hailstones, fire, and brimstone. And I shall magnify Myself, sanctify Myself, and make Myself known in the sight of many nations; and they will know that I am the Lord.'” (vs 18-19; 22-23, emphasis added). Again, it is clear that it will be well understood that the Lord is the rescuer here. None of the specific supernatural destruction described in Ezekiel 38 is hinted at in the context of the scene depicted in the film. According to Scripture, this description of the deliverance of Israel occurs at the very end of the seven-year period, not before it all begins.
Furthermore, during this scene, the film depicts the sky turning dark just before the attacking mystery planes are destroyed. We wonder where that sign in the sky came from? Surely it is not meant to be a variation on the sign in the sun, moon, and stars of Matthew 24:29? And if it’s not, what sign is it supposed to represent? It seems to be a random use of a sign that is not even mentioned in Scripture. One is almost given the impression that the signs and events can be mixed up and occur at random times; that you can put them wherever you want them.
Lastly, since the pretrib position espouses an imminent return of Christ, and that no other prophecy need be fulfilled prior to His coming, how can the writers of the film attribute the supposed fulfillment of Ezekiel 38 to the attack at the beginning of the film? In the film, this attack happens before the rapture, before the signing of the covenant, before everything. Thus, they are inadvertently teaching that Ezekiel 38 must be fulfilled before the rapture. Whoops!
THE ONE (?) WITNESS
At the end of the opening scenes just discussed, a strange, prophet-like “man” appears to Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron), and says “War will continue until the end. Desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for seven years.” Then he walks away, leaving Buck standing there bewildered.
It seems this “man” is supposed to represent one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11: “And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth” (v 3). Twelve hundred and sixty days is equal to forty-two months, or three and a half years, or half of the seven-year period (the Seventieth Week of Daniel). The question then is, do the two witnesses appear in the first half or the second half of the Week? The film depicts the arrival of at least one of the witnesses before the Seventieth Week even begins.
The Bible is very precise about numbers and timetables. It is difficult to gauge from the film just exactly where the Seventieth Week begins. Is it when the witness shows up in the first scenes? Is it when the Rapture occurs? Is it when plans for the temple are presented to an Israeli scientist?
In any case, the Bible is clear as to the timing of the arrival of the two witnesses. We have already seen in Revelation 11:3 that they will prophecy for 1,260 days, or half of the seven-year period. We also know from Revelation 11:7-12 that they will be killed by Antichrist at the end of their ministry, and then raised back to life after three days. Immediately after these events are described, we are told the second woe is past, the third is coming soon, and the seventh angel sounds his trumpet (vs. 14-15). By knowing that they will die and be raised again just before the seventh trumpet (which we know from the context preceding Revelation 11:15 occurs at the end of the Seventieth Week), it is obvious without question that their ministry is during the second half of the Seventieth Week, if the book of Revelation is taken sequentially. Remember, Christ’s outline of end time events in Matthew 24 lines up perfectly with the events described in Revelation chapters 6-8, so there is no reason not to take Revelation 6-8 sequentially. According to Revelation, then, the seventh trumpet occurs just after the Seventieth Week is over, meaning the two witnesses were resurrected just before that, meaning that that they must have been around immediately prior to that, meaning that the time of their prophecy must have been the second half of the Week.
We are also told in Revelation 11 that the witnesses are here for two purposes. One is to “prophecy” (v 3), the other is to “smite the earth with every plague, as often as they desire” (v 6). In their “prophecy”, they will proclaim the approaching condemnation, the Lord’s wrath, against those who submit to Antichrist as king. With their plagues, they will be part of the wrath of God released upon the wicked. Since Antichrist’s true identity will not be revealed to the world until the midpoint (Daniel 9:27, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4), there would be no reason for the witnesses to be around in the first half of the Week.
So again we see that the timing of the arrival of the witness(es) depicted in the film is askew. The two witnesses will appear during the second half of the Week, not the first half.
ARE ALL THE END TIME EVENTS DEPICTED IN THE FILM WRONG?
The filmmakers do get some biblical facts straight, to a point. They correctly say that, according to Daniel 7, Antichrist will control ten kingdoms, which will control the world. They correctly say, according to 2 Thessalonians 2:4, that Antichrist will seat himself in the rebuilt temple, claiming to be God. They correctly state that Antichrist will, according to Daniel 9:27, confirm a covenant with the many for seven years. And they correctly say that Jesus Christ alone is the way to salvation, although even this is watered down as maybe just meaning “God” is enough. When Ray confronts Buck after they view the tape, he says “If you don’t put your faith in God you will be deceived”. Later, when Buck finally does pray, he merely asks God to forgive him and direct him, but he never mentions Christ and His cleansing blood or and His redemptive work on the cross. The gospel message and its true meaning is very loosely portrayed.
Despite the accurate quotes, we have already seen that the timing and ordering of the eschatological events strays from the biblical outline. The film’s writers determined the sequence of events. The order of events, outlined by Christ in Matthew 24 and echoed in Revelation, are ignored. It is these inaccuracies of the film’s eschatology that makes it so questionable. Hollywood films are obviously stories, most of them fictional, and yes, they can degrade, deceive, and challenge biblical thinking. But LEFT BEHIND, being touted as Truth, is in the position to deceive many into thinking this is what the Word of God says concerning end time events, that this is how it will happen, and that all Christians believe it to be this way. The film is a tragic error that will cost far more than its budget in false teaching.
Perhaps the eschatology of this film can best be summarized by a line from within the film itself, spoken by Buck Williams, played by Kirk Cameron: “The scriptures are so vague, they could mean anything.”
One wonders if the whole film was built around this perspective.