Last night I watched the 2014 movie Left Behind starring Nicholas Cage. The film is based on a mega-successful series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins about the so-called Rapture and what happens to those who Jesus has left behind. According to their website over 63 million copies have been sold.
The Rapture is a concept that first appeared in the early 20th century. It’s based on a very selective and highly interpretive reading of the New Testament Book of Revelation. In this modern reinterpretation, it is said that the book foretells a time around about now-ish when Jesus will suddenly take all of his faithful followers up to Heaven leaving behind the rest of us to face all sorts of horrors perpetrated by his archenemy the Anti-Christ.
The Nicholas Cage film is a remake of a movie of the same name made in 2000 starring Kirk Cameron. The Kirk Cameron version spawned two sequels.
One would assume that the makers of Left Behind are Christians and that their intention for the film was to make audiences eager to accept salvation through Christ, Jesus. In an interview about why he chose to be in the film, Cage explained that he did it for his brother Mike who is a pastor and a believer in the books and their message.
If that’s the case this movie fails miserably as far as I am concerned. Because Jesus, as portrayed in this film, is a total asshole. More than that, he is a true terrorist. spreading fear and horror across the globe. God is scarier than Godzilla. He’s more terrifying than any outer space aggressor from any alien invasion film I’ve ever seen. Freddy Krueger, Jason and even Chucky have nothing on Jesus Christ, at least as he is depicted in Left Behind.
Here are a few of the things Jesus does in the film. He steals people’s children away from them — a seven-year old disappears in middle of hugging her aunt and babies disappear from their mothers’ arms causing them to panic. Pilots vanish from airplanes leaving them to crash into cities below. Drivers go poof! and disappear from their from cars leaving them to careen wildly out of control maiming and killing pedestrians.
This opens up a lot of questions for me. For example, Jesus takes all the children. “No one’s seen a single kid since it happened,” says one character. So at what precise age does sinfulness become possible? Does it vary from person to person? Is the same action that is sinful when performed by an adult not sinful when performed below a specific age?
Would, for example, a 12 year old who has committed murder ascend to Heaven during the Rapture? If you found an 12 year old alive you’d just know they must have done something really bad, right? Would you be able to solve unsolved murder cases by checking to see which of the suspects have not been taken up? Is there a certain number of sins one must accumulate in order to be damned for eternity? What if you’re just one sin over the limit? Or does everyone who repents get taken up no matter what terrible things he has done?
The film does not answer these questions. But I’ve got even more.
Most of this movie takes place on an airplane in which Nicholas Cage portrays the co-pilot Captain Ray Steele. On board is a devout Muslim who doesn’t get a name in the script. The guy is not portrayed as a terrorist or anything like that, but a righteous and pious follower of the teachings of Islam.
Of course, the Muslim is left behind. But why? He is portrayed as being very devoted to God and is the first one to suggest that the survivors on the plane say a prayer together. From his mode of dress, I tend to assume this character grew up in an Islamic country. He probably knew about the existence of Christianity but, I’d assume, knew about as much about what the Bible says as I do about what’s in the Koran. In spite of his apparent goodness and devotion to God, Jesus refuses to take him up because he was unlucky enough to have been born in a part of the world where his message didn’t get through.
That’s cold, Jesus. You’re like some heartless Tarantino character.
The fact that the Muslims got left behind raises another set of questions. Since Islam is the second most popular religion, if Jesus took away all the real Christians, then Muslims would easily dominate the planet in numbers alone, followed by Buddhists. Is this really what the Christian God wants to happen?
A bit later in the film we find that the local church Cage’s character’s grown-up daughter goes to is empty except for the pastor. The pastor tells Captain Steele’s daughter that he was not taken up because even though he could quote the words of scripture chapter and verse, he did not truly believe. Are all the churches empty or just the ones where people believed exactly the right things? We are not told.
Which raises yet another set of questions. In my own life I’ve seen many of my own various beliefs wax and wane. For a while there I deeply believed in punk rock, but later on I questioned that belief and lost it. I’ve been in relationships wherein I believed, for a time, I had found true love that would last forever only to later conclude I’d been mistaken in that belief.
So perhaps our preacherman believed deeply in Jesus when he joined the ministry but lately had been having doubts. If the Rapture had happened during a moment when his belief returned briefly, would he have been taken up?
Captain Steele’s daughter asks the preacher, “You expect me to have faith in a God who took my mother and father? A God who crashes planes?” This, to me, is a key question and one that the film bravely raises but then never adequately answers.
To me, the answer is definitely negative. If a God as nasty as the one depicted in Left Behind existed, if Jesus was as evil as he appears to be in this movie, it seems to me that any truly ethical person would be compelled to fight as hard as possible against them, even if it meant spending eternity in Hell.
Had I somehow managed to get chosen by God to ascend to Heaven on the Day of Rapture there is no way I could condone what he did to my friends, family members and the rest of humanity after taking me away. Imagine a small child seeing the torments her mother had been condemned to suffer. How could you possibly love Jesus after he crashed a jumbo jet into the apartment building the rest of your family lived in? There’d be a rebellion in Heaven!
The ending of the film is well staged and exciting in spite of a few pretty dodgy computer generated effects sequences. But it brings up another set of somehow even more disturbing questions. (Spoiler alert)
After Captain Steele bravely manages to land the plane with no help from God who keeps doing shit like lobbing another jet airliner whose pilot and copilot have both vanished at him, there is a tense moment in which it appears that the plane might explode before all the passengers can escape. Is God really that awful he would allow them to land and then just blow them up? Or is he so entertained by their plight that he lets it seem like it’s going to go ka-blamm-o just for the jollies it gives him to watch everybody scramble for safety?
Or is the God depicted in Left Behind powerless against such things? He seems to have some quite strict limitations on his supposedly limitless powers. Which, I suppose, can at least give us hope that a weakness might be found that those left behind can use to defeat him.
It also had me wondering, how many Christians believe in a God like this? The books have made authors LaHaye and Jenkins mega-millionaires. Their popularity means that someone out there must believe this shit. That’s kind of scary.
Watching the film reminded me of my own struggles with Christian doctrine as a teenager. I didn’t come to Zen Buddhism as a sneering, snarky Sam Harris/Richard Dawkins type atheist. I actually wanted to believe. I went to several churches with the full intention of one day devoting my life to Christ and his teachings.
Yet when I started to hear stories of the Rapture and the Anti-Christ and all the rest of it, I decided that Christianity was hopeless and made no sense at all. Much, much later I learned that lots of Christians reject the kinds of ideas of God portrayed by folks like those who wrote Left Behind. But by then the damage had been done and there was no turning back for me.
As a film, Left Behind was not that terrible. It was compelling and had some genuinely exciting moments. But as a propaganda piece it fails miserably. I cannot see why anyone would ever want to believe in a God like that. Perhaps those who already do believe in that sort of God feel somehow vindicated at seeing those who they feel malign their faith suffer. But is that something a loving God would want to encourage?
So many questions.
But for real horrors, watch the video for the movie’s theme song:
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April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
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