Moltmann, Left Behind, and the Need for a Hopeful (Not Dystopian) Eschatology

The new Left Behind movie comes out next week: A reminder that now more than ever this world needs to hear a hopeful Christian alternative to dystopian pop-eschatology. #AreYouReady to offer some Moltmannian hope?

About 15 years ago a megachurch in a nearby city had some sort of “Rapture Ready” event (I can’t remember what they called it exactly). It’s goal was to make sure that we all knew that we were “ready” when the pretribulational Rapture came; that we would be “taken” and not “left behind” to endure the terrible events that would follow. Since the Rapture could come at any time, participants were encouraged to buy tape recordings of the event, so that their loved ones who didn’t make the cut would find the tape, listen to it, and have that post-Rapture “aha” moment where they could realize what was going on (after all, while they would have to endure the tribulation regardless, if they repented they could still escape the flames of eternal torment!).

I was a teenager at the time, and invited some friends to come over to my parents’ house to watch this event on TV (don’t worry – I made sure to get a tape recording too!).  Afterwards, one girl remarked to me that it seemed that the preacher was trying to “scare the hell out of people.” At the time I shrugged this off. Don’t some of us need this in order to turn to Christ? Besides, while I thought that maybe the “timing” of the Rapture was debatable, it didn’t occur to me to call into question the truth of the general narrative…

Most of us who were raised in American Evangelicalism have had some exposure to this brand of end-times doctrine. Even when I didn’t feel particularly strongly about it, I remember sensing that this approach was helpful because it motivated Christians to do evangelism and resulted in some unbelievers converting. It was explicitly taught at the Christian high school I attended, and seemed to be the assumed belief among many of the Pentecostals and other conservative Evangelicals I knew.

It’s been a widespread approach for a number of years, but the Left Behind franchise – with its books, movies (and now, of course, the movie reboot starring Nicolas Cage) – has further brought this dystopian story of the end into the forefront of popular apocayptic imagination. All based on a speculative, relatively recent, and hotly contested, interpretation of the Bible.

There are plenty of biblical, historical, and theological reasons to reject Left Behind’s Rapture theology (maybe I’ll dive into that in a future post).  What I want to focus on here is the general thrust of its message: The misguided theology informing Left Behind spreads fear and is about escaping this world; the Gospel of Jesus brings hope and is about redeeming this world.

Don't think Left Behind is dystopian? Here is an example of how Left Behind is being promoted on Facebook
Don’t think Left Behind is dystopian? Here is an example of how Left Behind is being promoted on Facebook

Moltmann’s resurrection-based hope theology stands in stark contrast to the Rapture theology of Left Behind. I shared here previously a selection from Ethics of Hope where Moltmann addresses the widespread (and very problematic!) escapism in our culture. In that passage, Moltmann claims that a “religious escapism” is becoming popular, which is focused on a “vague Gnostic religiosity of redemption”, where people feel at home in “the world beyond” and see themselves here on earth only as guests. My body may be destroyed, but my soul lives forever. This world may be destroyed, but my soul will go to heaven. This mentality comes in many forms, and is not inherently Christian. “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.” According to Moltmann, this type of thinking (like other forms of escapism – Christians aren’t the only ones who are guilty!) causes us to lose our love for this God-given life, which puts life itself into “acute danger because in one way or the other it is no longer loved but is delivered over to the forces of destruction.” (See my previous post to read the whole passage in context!)

Below is a short clip and transcript from the 2009 Emergent Village Theological Conversation, where Tony Jones asks Moltmann about this tendency of Christians to offer a less-than-hopeful vision of the future.

Tony Jones: Speaking of love…  you are obviously known  very much as an “eschatological theologian” and… in our context it sometimes seems to me that both liberals and conservatives have kind of a negative view of the end, the end times, Jesus’ return. For liberals it’s more of like, Our churches are shrinking, society is getting banal, and we are wringing our hands at things getting worse.” And for more conservative readings of the Bible, it’s when Jesus comes back, there’s going to be a shit-storm. Things are going to get really bad. And it seems to me: It was good news when Jesus came the first time; it is going to be good news when Jesus comes the next time.  But this is not the overwhelming consensus of what Jesus’ return, what the parousia will mean for us.

Jürgen Moltmann: Yeah, unfortunately not. If there is a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, there will be a new song and this is not the end, this is the beginning of the true creation! The new creation will be the eternal creation, world without end. So we must look forward not to the end, but to the beginning. The beginning is not behind us, it is before us! So, the best is still to come.

But this is perhaps true to a certain type of dispensationalism, which is not a Christian idea. It is the old Jewish idea that God created the world in seven days, so the world history will follow seven dispensations. And with every dispensation, the world will grow older and older, and our time is running out. It’s coming shorter and shorter to the end.  You can think about this without mentioning Christ. Christ had just one part in it, between dispensation five and six or six and seven. What is lacking is the new beginning which we experience in the resurrection of Christ. There is already a new beginning inside of world history, and this is the resurrection of Christ, in anticipation of the general resurrection and the new creation. And we experience ourselves being in Christ a “new creature.” So the new has already begun. The future of God is not far away, it is already beginning with the coming of Christ, with the resurrection of Christ. So, even if you read the prophets; prophet Isaiah: “Don’t remember the things of old, see, behold, I create a new thing. See, old and new are the categories of God’s working in world history, not one dispensation after another until we are through with these dispensations.

The coming of Jesus in history and in the future is good news! We look forward not to “the end”, but to new “beginning.” This insight serves as the foundation of Moltmann’s fully developed eschatology in The Coming of God:

Eschatology is always thought to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act: God has the last word. But if eschatology were that and only that, it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether; for `the last things’ spoil one’s taste for the penultimate ones, and the dreamed of, or hoped for, end of history robs us of our freedom among history’s many possibilities, and our tolerance for all the things in history that are unfinished and provisional. We can no longer put up with earthly, limited and vulnerable life, and in our eschatological finality we destroy life’s fragile beauty. The person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself. If eschatology were no more than religion’s ‘final solution’ to all the questions, a solution allowing it to have the last word, it would undoubtedly be a particularly unpleasant form of theological dogmatism, if not psychological terrorism. And it has in fact been used in just this way by a number of apocalyptic arm-twisters among our contemporaries.

But Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic `final solutions’ of this kind, for its subject is not `the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end. `The end of Christ – after all that was his true beginning’, said Ernst Bloch. Christian eschatology follows this christological pattern in all its personal, historical and cosmic dimensions: in the end is the beginning.
Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, x

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