Before I read advance reviews of Left Behind or saw the movie, I hoped to title this article “Left Behind Can’t Save Souls, and It Shouldn’t Have To.” I wanted to say that the film is at least decently made and reflects the source material’s thrills and spiritual themes.
But the soulless film I saw this past weekend broke my heart.
I didn’t want to write that. Since first reading Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ series, I thought they’d make fine apocalyptic-thriller films while sticking to the novel’s spirit and message. As I’ve said before, the Left Behind novels are actually-awesome.
Any adaptation of the novels could have been sincere about the series’ evangelical themes and its chosen genre, an accessible potboiler thriller. But the Left Behind movie had another aim: to sell itself. And not even as a movie, but as rapture-insurance. To this end, the film forsook the novel’s plot and characters, rejected actual evangelism and any inspired vision of storytelling as mimicking God’s creative act, and sold its own soul for a bowl of cinematic pottage.
The Left Behind novels showed more humanity than the movie
Jackson Cuidan of Christianity Today was one of many critics who panned the film, but one of few who specifically accused the original novels of being un-Christian:
Central characters [in the Left Behind novels] were trumpeted as the saints of the new world but who constantly failed to live out anything marginally resembling real Christianity. […] The Left Behind books were not Christian.
They talked about Christianity, sometimes. But, at their core, they were political thrillers, featuring characters directly transposed from better Tom Clancy narratives—still violent, hostile, and un-reflecting, they just prayed a little more and took communion sometimes.
Cuidan’s last line is hyperbolic (I recall no instance of Left Behind’s heroes taking communion), and the first, plain incorrect. The Left Behind series may not reflect one’s preferred stripe of faith, but they showed actual Christian soul. The story reflected the Gospel completely and naturally.
Jesus did not take the Left Behind movie approach to storytelling. He showed us the real world made hyper-real—with familiar archetypes, magical realism, and all—but never unreal, alien, and soulless.Its story was violent, but people still struggled with how and when to fight. God’s judgments and miracles put everyone to the test. The potboiler-thriller characters doubt and struggle and weep and die, such as when airline captain Rayford Steele wrestles with his own depression and desire to kill the Antichrist for “prophesied” vengeance, or when Chloe Steele considers killing her own child to keep him from the enemies’ clutches and is later martyred for her faith.
If the movie had even tried to reach this threshold, it would have approached decency.
The book’s opening alludes to wars and rumors of wars, indicating a world ready for the end times. The movie bizarrely skips all that, showing instead a sweet little world in which even a Christianity-hating big sister takes her kid brother to a mall. So why does God bust in to ruin everything with the rapture? Only after this event do people actually start screaming and looting. Movie-Left Behind asks me to believe this nice world actually exists while also believing that this world is overdue for apocalypse.
Yes, the novels have some sentimentality, perhaps first shown when Steele enters his empty house and finds his vanished wife’s photos, possessions, and vacant flannel nightgown. But even that scene is more realistic than the movie’s dozen discomforting scenes showing impossibly sweet little families with impossibly decent family values, careening from these scenes to equally impossible, over-the-top disaster.
The novel spends the entire rapture on the plane flight. What you don’t see happening on the ground becomes more intriguing, allowing the story to stress the rapture’s impact on two characters. Jenkins even seems to have a little fun at the expense of readers who came for “in case of rapture” images by offering only, “Cars driven by people who spontaneously disappeared had careened out of control, of course.” As for the movie, it can’t wait to show such destruction. Riots, “in case of rapture” unmanned cars, and bizarrely, minutes after the rapture, an unmanned school bus falling off a bridge.
What snatched the movie’s soul?
As many reviewers have noted with tones of regret, these disaster scenes could have been decent. The first Left Behind book blows past the rapture so the series can fly into an apocalyptic world of magic, demons, plagues and other potboiler-thriller awesomeness with only few hints of sentimentality (more if you count the lack of swear words).
I can accept the filmmaker’s premise, using only the first 42 pages of the first novel and filling in the gaps with apocryphal minor characters. Although the film disregards the first novel’s more-interesting content that explains the rapture and names Jesus Christ as the culprit, preaches the biblical Gospel, shows people repenting, and predicts a seven-year tribulation and the coming evil Antichrist, it should at least show a believable world that’s ripe for rapturin’, and show believable humans and human responses to disaster, as other over-the-top disaster films do well.
But the Left Behind movie has no care for humanity or its own story, or even evangelical themes—vital elements that are never explained. I can only theorize that pragmatism forced these omissions. A mandatory-support philosophy often drives evangelical product-selling, and that philosophy seems to be at work here: We’ve made it, and that alone means you must dutifully come and see it.
Oh, and nonbelievers may get saved.
Lost in this machine is any regard for the actual purpose of evangelism—to preach the Gospel and call others to repent. Lost, too, is the purpose of stories—to imitate the Father as Creator as a way to explore him and ourselves. Also lost is the irony when the Left Behind Facebook page urges more “real” reviews from fans (because all those film critics are fakes?), when the actual movie shows nothing like real people and the real world.
If such a movie tells us “earthly” things and we do not believe (because the poor product is simply unbelievable), how will we believe when it tells us “heavenly” things?
Jesus Christ shared stories of soul and humanity
This movie’s approach is inhuman in its Gnostic denial of even partially realistic human beings. That’s not merely an artistic annoyance: it’s a doctrinal travesty. Such an inhuman approach to storytelling and evangelism can actually be a denial of Jesus Christ.
It was Jesus who asked his listeners to consider the relationship between his earthly tales and the spiritual truths they conveyed (John 3:12). Our Savior is making the obvious point that he has been speaking accurately and creatively about earthly things like being born as flesh and by flesh, and being unable to predict the mysterious path of winds.
This is how Jesus evangelizes and this is how he shares stories. Like his Father who created humans out of earthly materials, the eternal Son stoops to the real-life earth and subcreates truthful human stories. He uses similes, ironies, short examples, or longer parables with plots and realistic humans and twist endings. Listeners recognize their friends or their leaders or themselves, enough to get outraged, confused, or curious, or simply walk away smiling and pondering.
Jesus did not take the Left Behind movie approach to storytelling. He showed us the real world made hyper-real—with familiar archetypes, magical realism, and all—but never unreal, alien, and soulless. In Jesus’s imaginary-but-true worlds, people ate, drank, farmed, suffered, died, lived, hated, and reconciled. As the Creator he could not create anything less. As his imitators, Christians must reach for his standard. Otherwise we are acting less than human, acting less than his redeemed saints, and acting less like him.
A call for Christian films with incarnate truth and humanity
If Christians don’t eat and drink and farm and suffer and die and live in the real world, it doesn’t matter how much we say we care about saving souls. If we don’t recognize that something comes after biblical salvation—restored humans who imitate God in all things—then it doesn’t matter how much we say we want good movies. Our own religion will betray us, for deep down we will secretly believe that movies are meant for nothing but evangelism. And we will also believe that evangelism itself is worth nothing to the human soul but more evangelism.
On my side are the Left Behind novels. Even in their original story the rapture was just the warm-up act; the main event is the return of Jesus Christ, the eternal God-Man who lives incarnate as a man to this day and who will someday walk and reign over the real earth again. Why must our movies utterly ignore this prophetic truth—and the implications of our physical Jesus living in our physical world, both before in the first century and after his future glorious appearing?
The dramatic audio version of Glorious Appearing echoes this truth with surprisingly fantastical joy. Here the human heroes and their brilliant audio actors sell the unrestrained joy of Christ’s second coming. I listen to these stories and am thoroughly inspired, left longing in a way that the Left Behind movie(s) have neither the budget nor the motive to explore.
My hope is that more Christian film fans and makers would follow the lead of the Left Behind novels, that they would search the Scriptures, reject inhuman evangelism and storytelling, and imitate a better Storyteller.