Krish Kandiah: Why Left Behind is best left alone


We are seeing a resurgence in biblical movies lately with Darren Aronofsky's Noah and Ridley Scott's forthcoming Exodus: God and Kings. On the small screen The Bible TV series was also a huge global hit this year with over 100 million viewers in the US alone and unprecedented numbers of DVD box set sales.

But to say there are mixed views among Christians about these productions would be an understatement. Some of the publicists try to engage the Church by telling us this could be the biggest spiritual event in living memory, while many Christian critics slate all of these films as having poor production values, taking license with the biblical texts or even bringing Christianity into disrepute.

For the most part, I have viewed them opportunistically. When major league directors like Aronofsky or Scott decide to retell a biblical story, this is a great chance to have a conversation with them and their global audiences about the gospel. When Christian television producers like Mark Burnett and Roma Downey make films to help a new generation engage with the Christian message, I want to cheer them on for having a go. Yes, some of the films are a little cheesy, or use apologetic approaches I struggle to endorse, but I feel I have more in common with people that want to try and share their faith than with people who seem to do very little themselves except criticise.

But the release of Left Behind leaves me feeling more than a little uneasy. Tim LaHaye's series of 12 books were a publishing sensation in the 1990s. Several of the books made it to number 1 in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly or USA Today's best seller lists. I view the books as a Christian version of the Dan Brown novels – mass market popular fiction, told in a way that will engage a large audience. It takes skill to write in a page turning manner and it is no mean feat to have sold as many books as either Brown or LaHaye. To critique the Left Behind books on stylistic grounds is like trying to appraise authors like Stieg Larson, Clive Cussler or even EL James on their literary merit. Thy're not trying to win the Man Booker or Whitbread literary competitions, but they have massive popular appeal.

I imagine the Left Behind movie will do a reasonable job of translating the books to the big screen. The budget seems to be quite large so reasonable special effects may well in place, and the inclusion of Nicholas Cage sets a benchmark of respectability about the film.

But to be honest it's not the production values, the special effects or even the acting that is making me feel uneasy. Rather it is the theology that drives the movie's plotline that gives me most cause for concern. It is the same theology that drove the Christian B-movies of the 1970s like A Thief In The Night which also depicted the final stages of the 'end times.' The particular theological view has a long name – 'premillennialism' – and it is worth exploring this to help us navigate the message of the film, especially if your non-Christian or Christian friends may actually watch it.

Here is a mini crash course in some theological terms you may not be familiar with:


The old joke goes, "if you don't know what eschatology is, don't worry ,it's not the end of the world". Funny, because it is. According to Professor Alister McGrath, eschatology deals with "a network of beliefs relating to the end of life and history, whether of an individual or of the world in general". Eschatology is derived from the Greek word for last – eschaton. So eschatology is the study of the last things or the 'end times'. Strictly speaking, the Bible refers to the time after the ascension of Jesus onwards as the 'end times'. Therefore in one sense we are talking about our familiar experience 2,000 years after the ascension of Christ. However when most people refer to eschatology they often are referring to what is going to happen surrounding the return or 'second coming of Jesus'.

The millennium

For US Christians, what happens when Christ returns has been a hot topic and many seminaries have strict doctrinal statements that specify what their faculty needs to believe in order to teach there. There are lots of variants but there are three common sets of belief all of which relate to the 1,000 years referred to in chapter 20 of the book of Revelation; otherwise known as the "millennium."

"He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time." Revelation 20:2-3

The fact that the only reference to the so called "millennium" is in the most unusual of New Testament books which is filled with symbolic and figurative language, may already mean warning lights are flashing for you. Hold that thought for a moment as we explore the three traditional main views relating to this passage.


The central idea in this view is that through mission and evangelism Christ's influence on our fallen world will expand and increase. Like a mustard seed growing to become the largest tree, the kingdom of God will exert a greater impact on our world as things get better and better. This increasing influence is the Millennial reign of Christ and does not need to last a literal thousand years. At the end of this Christ will come again then there would be the final judgment to determine who will live forever in the new heavens and earth or in hell. This was a popular view in the 18th century and was held by theologians such as Jonathan Edwards. This view has been less popular since the First World War and it in light of current global events it is difficult to find Christians today that hold this view today.


Although there are a lot of variations on this view, the general thrust is to take the complete opposite view of Postmillenialism. Things in our world are going to get worse and worse. Global conflict, plague and pestilence are headed our way, this is known as the great Tribulation. After this Christ returns and reigns on the earth for 1,000 years. There are a range of opinions among Pre-millennialists as to what happens to believers, which is where Left Behind fits in. Tim LaHaye seems to hold a view known as "Premillennial Pre-tribulation Dispensationalism". (Yes I know that is one killer scrabble scoring word). People that hold this view believe that at a key moment just before the tribulation, Jesus will return in secret to evacuate Christians from the planet at an event called 'the rapture.' Then the tribulation will start properly, with terrible events on the earth. During this time there will be a mass conversion of Jewish people that will lead to lots of evangelism and a large conversion of the 'left behind' unbelievers. After the seven years Jesus will come back, bringing with him all the believers who were raptured out before the tribulation. Christ will start his 1,000-year reign on earth before the resurrection of the dead before the day of judgment.

This very specific view has been widespread particularly in America among certain denominations and was popularised initially by the Schofield Study Bible, and later by movies such as A Thief in the Night. Many Southern Baptists, for example, would hold this view.


This view understands the language in Revelation 20 (just like most of the book of Revelation) to be figurative and is wary about applying things too literally. This view takes its cues primarily from a synthesis of the clearer parts of the Bible rather than affixing a privileged position to Revelation 20. Drawing on a host of clearer Bible passages including 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-52, Amillenialists don't believe that Jesus will have a literal millennial reign over the earth separate to his current reign or the final expression of God's reign when his kingdom is fully established in new heaven and earth. This is the most common view among British and European Christians and is held by evangelicals such as John Stott , Leon Morris and NT Wright.

So when a film like Left Behind takes a very particular, and in my view questionable, reading of the Bible as its central tenet, perhaps you can see why it might make me uneasy. If you are going to make 'biblical films' (and I know the jury is out on their efficacy) then at least make a film that attempts to be faithful to the central narrative of the Bible, rather than launching a polemicised film for mass consumption.

Will I watch it? Probably, because so many Christians base their theology not on what they understand the scripture to say but on what celebrity preachers are saying and half-baked movies are feeding them, and I would like to ensure that there are those who will question that effectively. Will I watch it? Probably – because it may well impact my friends and neighbours exploring the faith, those in the media reporting on it, and the general population's view of Christianity. I know it may well scare people away from the faith, but I also trust that our God is sovereign and I have known people who were helped to faith through films such as the Exorcist and the Omen trilogy. So even horror and fear can be a means of grace to some people. Will I watch it? Probably, because if it does cause a stir, I don't want to be left behind.