by Pastor Steve Wohlberg
An Amazing Fact: The nation was shocked by a tragedy in late March 1997 when 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult took their own lives. The cult members committed suicide by downing fatal doses of a lethal cocktail mixture of phenobarbital and vodka. Heaven's Gate members sincerely believed that Hale-Bopp, an unusually bright comet, was a sign that they were supposed to leave their earthly bodies (or "containers") and be raptured up to a spacecraft traveling behind the comet that would take them to a higher plane of existence. A message posted on their website stated that "Hale-Bopp's approach is the 'marker' we've been waiting for-the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to 'Their World' in the literal Heavens." They sincerely believed the comet marked their "graduation" from the Human Evolutionary Level. "We are happily prepared to leave 'this world'," wrote cult leader Marshall Applewhite (alias "Do"), who quoted selectively from the Bible and various episodes of Star Trek to support his teachings that they would be raptured to this invisible spacecraft.
All around the world, people are struggling to understand the Bible's end-time prophecies. Christians everywhere sense that Jesus Christ will soon return to planet Earth.
In the 1990s, Bible scholar Tim LaHaye and storyteller Jerry Jenkins teamed up to create a fascinating series of novels designed to make the book of Revelation more real to Christians today. Their first book, published in 1995, was simply called Left Behind. This single book sold so many copies that Barnes & Noble Bookstores voted it "One of the top ten best-selling books of the 20th century." USA Today has labeled it "Wildly popular-and highly controversial."
Because of this incredible response, LaHaye and Jenkins decided to expand their project into a sequence of 12 books. The Indwelling-The Beast Takes Possession, was listed as a New York Times Bestseller. The Mark-The Beast Rules the World, became an immediate runaway hit. Amazingly, the entire project is now being called "The best-selling series of all time." On February 2, 2001, Left Behind: The Movie, produced by Cloud Ten Pictures, is scheduled to open in theaters across America.
A Gripping Saga
The story begins with the sudden vanishing of Christians into thin air, which is commonly called the rapture. The rest of mankind, having been left behind, suddenly wake up to the nightmare of a world gone mad. Mass confusion hits as unmanned cars veer out of control, pilotless planes crash, fires erupt, and total hysteria sweeps over the globe. "The disappearances" will usher the world into "a seven-year period called the Tribulation" (Tribulation Force, inside cover). In the midst of this universal panic, a mysterious and yet secretly evil Romanian man named Nicolae Carpathia (the Antichrist) rises to bring order out of chaos. "One of the most powerful and charismatic personalities ever" (Ibid., ix), Carpathia takes control of the United Nations. Discerning his inner wickedness is a brave host of new believers (a.k.a. the Tribulation Force) who are determined to resist his hypnotic power. Finally, this sinister world leader unveils his ultimate test of loyalty: the insertion of a high-tech biochip into the foreheads and hands of all people.
The Left Behind series follows the lives of certain fictitious characters who, having missed the rapture, are forced to struggle against the Antichrist, his global community, and ultimately against the enforcement of the mark of the beast.
Just as millions of Americans daily follow the lives of their favorite soap opera actors, even so millions of Christians are now following the lives of these imaginary Left Behind personalities as the saga continues to unfold. Even young people are being affected through a special version of Left Behind books just for kids, which includes a Tribulation Force Underground Kit.
Underneath the excitement and drama of this incredibly popular story, is it possible that something is just not quite right? Could it be that in the midst of Left Behind's focus on missing people, important Bible truths are also missing? If so, which ones? Paul wrote, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Accepted vs. Accurate
The Bible certainly does teach the exciting truth that Jesus Christ will return for His people. Jesus Himself said, "I will come again, and receive you unto myself" (John 14:3). The clearest text in the Bible about the rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Countless Christians know it by heart, and it is cited in Left Behind: The Movie. Paul wrote that believers in Jesus Christ will someday be "caught up ... in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thessalonians 4:17). What we must do is to carefully examine the timing of the rapture, for this is a crucial issue.
According to Left Behind, the return of Jesus Christ actually takes place in two distinct phases. First, Jesus returns silently and secretly to catch away true believers. This begins the "seven-year period called the Tribulation." During the Tribulation, this diabolical man known as the Antichrist rises to enforce the mark of the beast. At the end of the Tribulation, our Lord returns visibly, which is called Christ's "glorious appearing."
Therefore, according to Left Behind, the rapture comes first, and then, seven years later, is the second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of the world. With minor variations, this scenario is now accepted by millions of Bible-believing Christians around the globe as an accurate picture of end-time events.
There are three mighty pillars that stand out in this teaching, and it is safe to say that the entire Left Behind project rests firmly atop each one of them.
- Pillar 1 - The rapture does not take place at the visible second coming of Jesus Christ, but seven years before it.
- Pillar 2 - Those who miss the rapture will have a second chance to accept Jesus and be saved.
- Pillar 3 - True believers today will not have to face the Antichrist or the mark of the beast.
We wish to follow Paul's counsel to "Prove all things" by carefully examining these pillars, in the light of Scripture, while watching out for any signs of structural cracks.
Pillar 1 says that the rapture and the second coming do not occur simultaneously. Paul clearly states in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 that "We which are alive and remain shall be caught up." Although the exact word "rapture" doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible, the idea comes from those two words "caught up." A simple comparison of verse 17 with verse 15, which says, "We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord," makes it very clear that believers will be "caught up" at "the coming of the Lord."
At this point, we must carefully examine what the Bible says about His coming. Will believers be caught up at a silent and invisible coming of the Lord before the Tribulation, as taught in Left Behind? Or will believers be caught up at the deafening "glorious appearing" of Jesus Christ at the end of the world?
Right in between verses 15 and 17, Paul wrote, "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump [or trumpet] of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first" (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Left Behind describes this as a silent and secret event, yet doesn't it sound rather loud and noisy? There is a shout, a voice, and a trumpet.
A long time ago, Jeremiah recorded a prophecy regarding the coming of the Lord that clearly parallels 1 Thessalonians 4:16. He wrote: "The Lord shall roar from on high, and utter his voice from his holy habitation; he shall mightily roar upon his habitation; he shall give a shout, as they that tread the grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth. A noise shall come even to the ends of the earth; for the Lord hath a controversy with the nations, he will plead with all flesh; he will give them that are wicked to the sword, saith the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Behold, evil shall go forth from nation to nation, and a great whirlwind shall be raised up from the coasts of the earth. And the slain of the Lord shall be at that day from one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth: they shall not be lamented, neither gathered, nor buried; they shall be dung upon the ground" (Jeremiah 25:30-33).
Both Jeremiah and Paul describe a coming of the Lord during which there is a loud "voice" and "a shout." Jeremiah provides additional information by saying that the Lord will "mightily roar," and then he says that a "noise" shall be heard worldwide. None of this sounds like a silent and secret return of Jesus prior to the Tribulation.
A Thief in the Night
Paul said this tremendous "day of the Lord" will finally arrive like "a thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Many interpret this to mean that Jesus will come like a silent thief to steal believers out of this world. Then cars will crash, planes will collide, sacked quarterbacks at football games will vanish, and babies will be missing from their cribs. The popular Christian film A Thief in the Night, which is similar to Left Behind: The Movie, also presents this perspective. Yet is this really what Paul is saying?
Again, let's take a closer look at Scripture. Paul wrote: "For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape" (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3).
Do you see what Paul is saying? Jesus' coming as a "thief in the night" does not mean He will come quietly and invisibly to steal believers out of this world, as is taught in Left Behind. Rather, it means He will come unexpectedly, bringing "sudden destruction" upon the unsaved. It is not secret, only sudden. Notice again what Paul said: "But ye, brethren, are not in darkness that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness" (verses 4-5). Did you catch that? Jesus does not come as a thief in the night to believers, but only to those who are of the night. Will those who are "of the night"-that is, the unprepared-be given a second chance to be saved? Paul wrote, "They shall not escape" (verse 3).
The apostle Peter also wrote about this same return of Jesus Christ as a thief in the night: "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10). According to Peter, this coming of Jesus Christ as a thief in the night is definitely not a silent and secret event that precedes a seven-year period of Tribulation. Rather, this day arrives suddenly, with "a great noise" (as also described by Jeremiah), and is clearly associated with the end of the world! A crack is forming in Pillar 1.
What about the rapture taking place "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye"? This is probably the second greatest text in the Bible now being used to support the idea of Christians vanishing prior to the Tribulation. Paul wrote, "Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
Is Paul saying that believers will mysteriously vanish from the earth prior to the Tribulation, while their loved ones blink? Not at all! He is saying that the dead will be raised and their bodies will be changed "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye." But when will this "moment" take place? Paul's answer is clear. It will occur "at the last trump," when "the trumpet shall sound," at the end of the world. This is that very same "great sound of a trumpet" Jesus said would be heard at His second coming (Matthew 24:31)!
Pillar 1 is disintegrating.
Waiting Until It's Too Late
As previously noted, Pillar 2 supporting the Left Behind project is the theory that those who miss the rapture will have during the Tribulation a second chance to be saved. This idea is dangerous because it leads some people to rationalize that "If the Bible is really true and if the rapture does take place, then I'll know for sure God is real. It may be tough, but I can still join the Tribulation Force during the seven years. Even if that Antichrist guy tries to kill me, I will resist the mark!"
While fostering this foolish attitude is certainly not the intent of the Left Behind authors, nevertheless, the secret rapture theory can easily lead people to adopt a "wait and see" philosophy, and thus put off making a decision to follow Jesus. Paul wrote that all who are not fully on the Lord's side when believers are "caught up" (1 Thessalonians 4:17) "shall not escape" (1 Thessalonians 5:3). As you can see, Pillar 2 has very serious problems.
Left Behind also teaches that the Church will not be here on earth for Armageddon. Is this true?
The word "Armageddon" appears only once in the Bible. It is found in Revelation 16, the great chapter describing the falling of the seven last plagues. Between the sixth and seventh last plagues, Jesus Christ thunders: "Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon" (Revelation 16:15-16).
Did you catch that? Jesus is talking to the Church! While the seven plagues are falling, and right before the battle of Armageddon, Jesus Christ has not yet come as a thief! Therefore He must come like a thief at Armageddon, and that must be the time when He comes to gather His Church.
Paul used the language of the military when, like a commanding officer, he urged the soldiers of the cross to "Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand" (Ephesians 6:13). How can we stand in "the evil day" if we have previously disappeared? Jesus Christ also said to the believers, "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. … But he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:9, 13, NKJV). Paul also advised the church that "we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).
Jesus will save His church-not from tribulation, but rather through it! Our Lord loves us and will strengthen us in the final times. That's why He promised: "I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (Matthew 28:20). We can trust Him in this.
What About the Seven Years?
The Bible text that serves as the foundation for the entire seven-year Tribulation theory is Daniel 9:27, which is the very first verse quoted in Left Behind: The Movie. It says: "He shall confirm the covenant with many for one week; and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice ... to cease."
A day in prophecy represents a year (Numbers 14:34; Ezekiel 4:6), thus the period of "one week" actually represents seven years. Millions are now applying this to a future seven-year period of Tribulation. "He" is interpreted to be the Antichrist, who will make a covenant with the Jews during the Tribulation.
What many don't realize is that there is a more logical interpretation that has far more biblical support. It has been taught by many credible Bible scholars who have written respected commentaries that are now in the libraries of pastors across America. One example is the world-famous Matthew Henry's Bible commentary. It doesn't apply Daniel 9:27 to the Antichrist at all, nor does it apply the "one week" to a seven-year period of Tribulation after the rapture. Rather, it applies the prophecy to Jesus Christ, who, after three and a half years of loving ministry, died "in the midst of the week," which ultimately caused all animal sacrifices to cease!
Here's the quotation from Matthew Henry's famous commentary: "By offering himself a sacrifice once and for all he [Jesus] shall put an end to all Levitical sacrifices."1 Another excellent Bible commentary written by Adam Clarke says that during the "term of seven years" (Daniel 9:27), Jesus Christ would "confirm or ratify the new covenant with mankind."2 Here's one more from the much-respected Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary: "He shall confirm the covenant-Christ. The confirmation of the covenant is assigned to Him."3
Take a careful look at Daniel 9:27 itself. God's Word says, "He shall confirm the covenant with many for one week." Notice that Jesus Christ Himself said, "This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many" (Matthew 26:28, NKJV). A perfect fit! Both use the words "covenant" and "many."
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the One through whom "the covenant … was confirmed" (Galatians 3:17; see also Romans 15:8, NKJV). In the midst of the week, after three and a half years, Jesus gave His life for us, "causing the sacrifice to cease." He was the final Sacrifice. No more sacrifices are to be offered (Hebrews 10:12). Period.
In my earlier book, Exploding the Israel Deception, Chapter 5 is called "The 70th Week of Daniel Delusion." There I give many more solid reasons why Daniel 9:27 doesn't apply to the Antichrist at all, but to Jesus Christ alone.
The entire Left Behind idea of a seven-year period of Tribulation after the rapture may go down in history as the greatest evangelical misinterpretation of all time. The whole concept is like a gigantic bubble. Once Daniel 9:27 is correctly understood and the pointed pin of truth is inserted, "Pop goes the seven years!"
A Life-or-Death Matter
I want to conclude by talking about Pillar 3, which states that true believers today will not have to face the Antichrist and the mark of the beast. It is right here that emotions fly and reason vanishes just as instantaneously as those disappearing Christians in Left Behind: The Movie. That's because the mysterious mark of the beast is a life-or-death matter. It concerns the destiny of the human soul. Admitting that the Church will still be on earth during the final great Tribulation means that Christians must someday face the Antichrist and the mark of the beast-issues over which they could lose their souls. Many people are deeply afraid of this, so they conclude there must be a secret rapture before the Tribulation. There just has to be!
A deep-seated fear of the mark plagues many people, though it need not be so. True Christians can learn a lesson from popular bumper stickers that say "Fear No Evil." We don't need to be afraid. We can trust in Jesus Christ, for He has promised, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (Matthew 28:20). If the fictitious Tribulation Force in the Left Behind novels can overcome the Antichrist and the mark of the beast with God's help, then so can we!
For those who are unwilling to even reasonably consider this issue, no amount of Bible evidence will convince them. Like a triple-bolted door in downtown New York, they are closed to the facts.
The result? Truth is left behind.
- Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. IV-Isaiah to Malachi, Complete Edition. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co. 1712, notes on Daniel 9:27, p. 1095.
- The Holy Bible with a commentary and critical notes by Adam Clarke, Vol. IV-Isaiah to Malachi. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, notes on Daniel 9:27, p. 602.
- Rev. Robert Jamieson, Rev. A. R. Fausset, and Rev. David Brown, A Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Complete Edition. Hartford, Conn.: S.S. Scranton Co., notes on Daniel 9:27, p. 641.