Left Behind vs. Lord of the World
People will be speculating about the end of the world until it actually arrives. In my day we've had the Y2K scare, an obsession with zombies, that thing about the Mayan calendar in 2012, anxiety about climate catastrophe, a pandemic, and fears of nuclear war. And that's just the secular stuff! Back when I was a kid in a Lutheran congregation heavily influenced by Evangelicalism, apocalypticism had a more religious flavor. I was exposed to loads of end times predictions and dispensationalist sensationalism (say that ten times fast!). Current events were interpreted in light of biblical prophecies, typically the ones in the Book of Revelation about Christ's Second Coming. Suspicion that various global figures could be the Antichrist abounded. None of these ideas were specifically Lutheran, but they were in the Protestant water.
This whole mindset was encapsulated in the Left Behind series, which portrays the rapture of all "true Christians" to heaven, the rise of the Antichrist, the establishment of an evil one-world government, the creation of a universal religion masterminded by an ex-Catholic priest, the persecution of people who became "true Christians" after the rapture, various disasters said to be predicted by biblical prophecy, and the Second Coming of Jesus. These (frankly trashy) novels were extremely popular in my youth, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I was an enthusiastic reader.
Teenage me thought that the Left Behind mindset was simply a part of good-old-fashioned Christianity, so it came as something of a revelation (pun intended) when I went to college and met Christians who didn't think we were necessarily living through the end times and that the rapture might happen at any moment. It wasn't long before the eschatological beliefs I was brought up with began to look kooky, irrational, and unbiblical. Left Behind-style dispensationalism doesn't have a very long history, and it doesn't fit very well with either biblical prophecy or current events. Furthermore, everyone who has ever tried to set a date for the Second Coming of Jesus has gotten it spectacularly wrong.
Yet, expectation of the Second Coming clearly is a central teaching of historic Christianity. I found non-dispensationalist (but still Protestant) authors who helped set my thinking on a better path, but it wasn't until I encountered Catholic teaching that things really began to make sense. The Catechism provides a helpful summary of biblical prophecy as interpreted by the magisterium of the Catholic Church:
Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. (675)
So yes, there will be an Antichrist who subjects the Church to a "final trial," but that isn't going to involve a rapture. Yes, many Christians will apostatize, but the Catholic Church will not sponsor this "religious deception." Exposure to the Catholic view of eschatology revealed how distorted my perspective had become after years of dispensationalist influence.
Once I had become Catholic and settled into a better understanding of eschatology, I heard about a Catholic novel about the end times: Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World. Published in 1907, this book covers a lot of the same ground as Left Behind. The rise of the Antichrist? Check. The establishment of an evil one-world government and universal religion? Double check. Persecution, disasters, and the Second Coming? Check, check, and check.
Yet, Lord of the World also differs substantially from Left Behind. For one, it is much better written. Furthermore, though there are plenty of apostate Catholics and even an ex-priest who devises the liturgy of the new religion, the pope and the Catholic Church remain faithful and provide the only way to cling to Christ in a world running after Antichrist. Most obviously, there is no rapture, and Christ's actual return is implied to happen at the very end of the novel but is not described in detail.
Because I read Left Behind first, I'm initially tempted to say that Lord of the World is like its reflection in a funhouse mirror. But that gets it exactly backwards. Left Behind is the distortion, not Benson's book. True, the Second Coming didn't happen when and how Benson predicted, but accurately predicting details was never the point. The purpose of the novel is to imagine how the end of the world might look so we can prepare ourselves for it, whether or not it happens in our lifetimes. True, the same could be said of Left Behind, but its authors heavily imply that the end is nigh (i.e. the turn of the last century), while Benson projected the end a hundred years into his future in order to discourage speculation about current events. The authors of Left Behind weren't wrong to try to imagine what the coming of Antichrist and the return of Christ might look like, but their imaginings are based upon faulty biblical interpretation and bad ecclesiology. When you correct the theological underpinnings of Left Behind, you get Lord of the World (or perhaps Michael D. O'Brien's Father Elijah and its sequel). That doesn't mean that Lord of the World is a perfect novel or that it's above theological critique, but it does mean that Benson's vision is authentically Catholic in a way that corrects the errors found in Left Behind.
What are we to make of all this, other than the fact that Left Behind is wrongheaded and Lord of the World isn't? How is this relevant to our lives as Christians? I'll give the final word to the Catechism, specifically the paragraphs that follow the one I quoted above, in which the Church exhorts us to be on our guard against the spirit of Antichrist at work in every age:
The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism.
The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God's triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world. (676-677)
Greg and I discussed Lord of the World in the latest Book Club episode of the Considering Catholicism podcast. Give it a listen, but don't expect a discussion of Left Behind anytime soon!
My name's Cory Lakatos. I grew up Protestant and became a Catholic as a young adult. Now I work for a Catholic parish and am involved with LANE, One Whirling Adventure, and Considering Catholicism. On this blog, I share my perspective on things Catholic, especially topics I considered in the process of converting.