A couple of Sundays ago, we watched the movie “Left Behind” (starring Kirk Cameron, from 2000) as part of our “Faith and Film” series. Our lively and interesting discussion after the film left me thinking about an important issue:
How do you go about reading the Bible? That is, what do you expect to find when you open the Bible’s pages?
Our expectations of scripture have a tremendous influence on our discoveries in it.
Let me summarize my thoughts about the entire “Left Behind” franchise this way: I do not agree with the basic assumptions made by the books or the movies, that there will be a “rapture” (whatever that means) followed by seven years of “tribulation” (whatever that means) all centered on the portion of real estate we call Israel. Why do I disagree with these beliefs? Because I believe more in the kingdom of God than I do in the fear of the apocalypse. The kingdom of God is already here but has not yet arrived in its fullness; the fear of the apocalypse simply does not have roots in the present-day, real world.
In any case, one of the things that struck me about the “Left Behind” movie was how its characters used the Bible to support their beliefs. For instance, the characters interpreted a reference to Ezekiel 38 as an explanation for why Israel was miraculously saved from enemy attacks at the beginning of the movie.
Several of us have been reading through the Chronological Bible, an arrangement of scripture that attempts to put the Bible’s events into chronological order. Today’s readings are very significant: in 586 B.C., after many warnings by God’s prophets, the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army. It was such a dramatic, catastrophic event that it was recorded three times in the Old Testament – and twice in the same book (2 Kings 25:3-7, Jeremiah 52:6-11, Jeremiah 39:2-10).
The fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile are so important in the Old Testament that an enormous amount of scripture is dedicated to interpreting and explaining that ancient event. Most of the books of prophecy – including Jeremiah and, yes, Ezekiel – are focused on that one tragedy. Jerusalem was the capital city of the Promised Land; it was home base not just for the Israelites but for God himself. How could it possibly be conquered by enemy forces? The prophets are unanimous in their analysis: the fall of Jerusalem was not because God was weak or defeated; instead, it was God’s judgment on his people for their betrayal of him.
When you read books like Ezekiel in their entirety, you cannot walk away thinking that everything was great for Israel. God’s judgment was certain, and the Babylonian onslaught was how he brought that judgment on his people.
There is very little room for the “Left Behind” interpretation of Ezekiel 38 that says, “Everything will be great for Israel; it will not be harmed by any of its enemies!” That simply runs contrary to the basic, essential meaning of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Israel was going to be punished, but God promised that a remnant of his people would survive and would return to their homeland someday. And that happened a few generations after the Babylonians came to town.
All of that historical and theological background must inform any of our interpretations of the book. We cannot approach the Bible with the expectation that it will reveal the secrets of the end times. We cannot approach scripture expecting it to show how the modern state of Israel is the most important nation on earth. We cannot approach the Bible expecting to find support for “Left Behind” and the like. To do so is biblically and historically inappropriate.
It matters how you read the Bible. Read it, and read it well!