Catholic, traditional Protestant writers criticize ‘Left Behind’ theology

Associated Press, July 26, 2003
Richard N. Ostling, Associated Press

Some Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants are attempting a counterattack against those fabulously popular “Left Behind” novels with plots depicting the End Times that will occur in the near future.

The Catholic bishops of Illinois, the state where the novels’ publisher, Tyndale, is based, charge that the novels are “anti-Catholic in content and form” because the scenario unfairly depicts a future pope who establishes a false liberal religion linked with the Antichrist.

Beyond denominational polemics, however, the bishops object because the novels reject traditional Christian beliefs about the End.

That tradition, which gets less publicity than the popular End Times preachers, is detailed by Carl E. Olson in “amillennialism.”

That theology says Christ’s millennial reign already exists spiritually, rather than being a future kingdom as predicted through a literal reading of the biblical Book of Revelation.

The same viewpoint underlies “Dispensationalist” theology that underlies the “Left Behind” series and similar books. He studied at Briercrest Bible College in Caronport, Saskatchewan, but converted to Catholicism in 1997 and now defends his newfound church in Envoy and This Rock magazines.

Olson objects that the popular End Times scenarios have a low regard for the church and Christian tradition.

In addition, he says, Dispensationalism recognizes “little or no continuity between the Israel of the Old Testament and the New Testament church.” In certain variants, even New Testament teachings are sometimes seen as not applying to Christians, only to Israel.

Dispensationalist teachers, Olson contends, “have inserted divisions and distinctions in Scripture, often arbitrary and artificial in nature,” that are not self-evident in the Bible itself.

One important problem, he continues, is that apocalyptic and poetic writings (especially Revelation) are interpreted as literal forecasts rather than as symbolic messages to the church.

Olson concludes that the literalist view “is a fabrication inconsistent in practice and misleading in theory.” The Christian position on the End Times, he says, has always been simply this:

“Christ will return with and for his saints; he will judge all of mankind; time will end; and eternity will begin.”

As Burge’s title implies, his chief concern is fellow evangelicals’ uncritical support for whatever Israel does and neglect of Palestinian justice claims.

He focuses hard on the widespread evangelical belief (shared with West Bank settlers and some other Jews) that Israel has a rightful claim to all territory between Egypt and Iraq’s Euphrates River because of God’s land grant in Genesis 15:18.

Burge says the Bible teaches that the gift of the Holy Land never required dispossession of non-Israelites from their homes and lands. In fact, biblical law is notable for giving full rights to non-Israelite neighbors, he says.

He also says in the biblical understanding, the gift of land is conditioned on faithfulness to God, citing for instance God’s words in Deuteronomy 4:25-40 just before the Israelites conquered Canaan. Religious infidelity, God warned, would mean that the nation would be destroyed, the promised land lost and the people scattered among the nations.

Both books are vigorous and interesting, but unlikely to make much of a dent in the End Times audience being built by radio and TV evangelists and popular writers.

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