With the recent release of the rebooted but far from upgraded Left Behind movie the “end times” are coming back into popular discussion. The movie made under half of their $16 million dollar budget over the weekend by bringing in $6.3 million (which may just pay for Nicolas Cage’s salary on the film) and is sitting at a not so respectable 2% critic rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. Needless to say, the movie is not being received well even in much of the Christian world where it is being heavily marketed. A review of the film in Christianity Today says, “Left Behind is not a Christian movie, whatever ‘Christian Movie’ could even possibly mean…We tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.”
Sigh. Sadly it is no surprise that a “Christian” movie is not doing well among critics and at the box office.
However, what is always doing well among Christians is debates and discussions about the “end times”. The reason films like this can have the audience that they can is that Christians have pretty tightly held and deeply set beliefs about what is going to happen. Rewind the Internet back to the time when Love Wins by Rob Bell came out and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Specifically the “Left Behind” (or dispensationalist) thread of theology has a pretty strong hold in Western Christianity. The idea behind this theology is that the world gets in the fast-lane to its highway to Hell and people go crazy, world governments rise up, planes fall from the sky and you have to use a tattooed bar code to buy groceries all while Christians are whisked away to the safety of their mansions and Jacuzzis in the sky.
I get why this concept is popular. It is wildly exciting and, by all accounts, should make a really good action film. People love to hear about good people getting rewarded and bad people getting punished. What’s even better is when you “know” you are one of the good people and believe you have front row tickets to sit back and watch it all burn.
However, this dividing up of the world where Christians go one way, everybody else goes the other or Christians get blessed while everyone else on Earth is cursed is honestly a tough fit with much of how Scripture and the New Testament are interpreted and understood outside of our Western/American/Evangelical Tradition. Especially when you watch a movie like Left Behind and realize the violence, horror and genuine human suffering that takes place when the rapture happens it can be a tough sell for many Western Christians as well.
One of the more popular verses that comes up when discussing the Left Behind separation of the Christians and everyone else is Jesus parable about the sheep and the goats. The Gospel according to Matthew recounts the parable this way:
“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
Matthew 25:31-46 (CEB)
Seems pretty straightforward right? Maybe not so much. I was reading the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog which is one of my favorite blogs that gets me out of my Western Evangelical theological bubble. Back in July he was reading and reflecting on the writings of the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov and wrote this on the blog:
“On first reading of the parable of the sheep and the goats, one might deduce that human beings will be irrevocably divided into two classes, the sinless and the sinful. “But no one is perfectly sinless except the ‘Sole Sinless One’ and the Most Pure Mother of God,” objects Bulgakov, “just as no human beings are so utterly sinful that no trace of good can be found in them” (p. 462). Pure evil does not exist in man. Every person is a sinner, a mixture of good and evil. The difference between human beings, between the greatest saint and the most cruel murderer, is relative, not absolute. Every human being needs the saving Blood of the Crucified…Each person will discover that he is simultaneously sheep and goat—simul iustus et peccator; each will discover that he compounds the incorruptible Imago Dei and the undying worm and inextinguishable fire.”
The thing that throws all our judgments and desire to divide up between righteous and unrighteous is the game-changing, world upending and cosmos restoring resurrection, justification and glorification of Jesus. When humanity is seen through the lens of Jesus (and this is what the Church is supposed to do) we are simul iustus et peccator which is a Latin phrase that means “simultaneously justified yet sinners”.
We are both sheep and goats.
The Left Behind movie and dispensational theology relishes in the division of humanity into sheep and goats and the knowledge that we can “know” who is who. But, what Sergius Bulgakov asks us to realize is that we can not even make that judgement on ourselves. We are at the same time a fluffy, peaceful sheep and a wild, defiant goat. We all need the salvation and redemption provided by God through Christ. When we realize we are both sheep and goat, that we carry the image of God around in a fragile, cracked clay jar, we can begin to see that reality in others as well. We know that we belong in with the goats just as much as the person next to us yet we both have grace and mercy offered to us in equal measure because of God pouring it out regardless of our level of righteousness, doctrine or chosenness.
Then, the world becomes less a place we want to escape but more of a place that we want the image of God to shine through.