Jürgen Moltmann on the Gnostic Escapism in Left Behind

Nic Cage in the New Left Behind

When I first heard that Nic Cage was going to be starring in an upcoming reboot of the Left Behind series, I thought it was a parody: Everyone’s least favorite actor teamed up with the cliché expression of American Christian pop culture. Surely this was just some internet joke or hoax? Sad to say, it’s not. “Relevant” magazine has been reporting on its upcoming release with what can almost be described as giddy anticipation, which I find difficult to comprehend (I’m sure they aren’t alone on this as far as Christian media goes…. But I’m afraid to look!). The theology represented in these books has been very influential among American evangelicals, where the “Rapture” (an event in which all the “saved” are taken up to be with Jesus, and everyone else is left behind to endure the tribulation) has captured the popular imagination. This all comes from a premillenial/pretribulational/dispensational reading of the Bible, which can be regarded as a relatively recent development in theology (within the last 150 years or so); historian George Marsden’s amazing book Fundamentalism and American Culture, chronicles this, along with much more (I highly recommend it!).

These fanciful theories about the end times are usually considered to belong in the realm of eschatology (doctrine of last things), a small subset of theology that many moderate Christians like myself tend to neglect; after all, this is the sort of thing that clearly divides Christians from one another and has seemingly little practical value. But for Jürgen Moltmann, Christianity is eschatological (I’ve shared his famous quote to that effect from Theology of Hope in this post). Moltmann’s eschatology focuses on the Christian hope of resurrection not on speculative theories that piece together various biblical passages into a timeline of the future. In his most recent book, Ethics of Hope (quoted below), Moltmann shares some helpful insights on “left behind” theology, which he uses as an example of dangerous religious escapism. Like other forms of evasion (religious folks aren’t the only ones who are guilty!), escapist theology is problematic in a world where the threat of universal death (whether by man-made or natural disaster) is a very real possibility.

   The threats of universal death exist and are felt, but the reactions to the threats are themselves life-threatening, because they do not ward off the threats but bring about the very thing that is threatened. It is like a kidnapping in which the victim does not defend himself but cooperates and gives himself up. A typical reaction of this kind is to enjoy life in the present at the cost of those who come later. ‘Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ — though then, of course, our children too! To run up unlimited debts means living at the cost of coming generations. Since they are unable to protest, it is easy to thrust the burden on them. So it is best to stay single, let alone to burden oneself with children. This hedonistic attitude is in actual fact the expression of an extremely nihilistic apocalypticism: we celebrate the end and bring it about — today! the banking crisis of 2008 was brought on by the greed for life in the here and now.
   Another evasion tactic is escapism. If a threat emerges, one ducks down and plays dead, hoping that one won’t be affected or at least won’t feel the blow. One resigns oneself, becomes indifferent. Nothing much matters if one no longer loves life, and then death no longer touches one either. One becomes apathetic, anticipating death in mind and heart, and then one no longer feels it physically when it comes. With an attitude like this, we no longer withstand the threats either; we surrender ourselves to them and by doing so actually make what is threatened happen.
    Here a religious escapism is coming to the fore especially in the present spread of a vague Gnostic religiosity of redemption. The person who surrenders himself to this religiosity feels at home in ‘the world beyond’ and on earth sees himself merely as a guest. So it is only by the way he is concerned about the fate of life on this earth. His soul is going to heaven, that is the main thing. In the body and on this earth, it was no more than a gust, so the fate of this hostelry really has nothing to do with him. Religious practices lauding an indifference to life are offered under many high-sounding names. A Western form of Buddhism has many adherents but has little to do with original Indian Buddhism. American pop-apocalyptic offers an especially dramatic escapism. Before the great afflictions at the end of the world, true believers will be ‘raptured’ — snatched away to heaven, so that they can then build the new world with Christ at his Second Coming. All unbelievers unfortunately belong to the ‘Left Behind’, the people who are not ‘caught up’ and who will perish in the downfall of the world (‘Left Behind’ is the title of an American book series read by millions). Whether people throw themselves into the pleasures of the present or flee into the next world because they either cannot or will not withstand the threats, they destroy the love for life and put themselves at the services of terror and the annihilation of the world. Today life itself is in acute danger because in one way or the other it is no longer loved but is delivered over to the forces of destruction.
Ethics of Hope, p 52-53

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