Crawford Gribben, Rapture Fiction and the Evangelical Crisis (Darlington, United Kingdom, Evangelical Press, 2006); 144 pages; ISBN: 9780852346105.
Historian Crawford Gribben has joined the chorus of pastors and theologians who have sounded a warning about the evangelical crisis of our day. In the recent past a number of noteworthy books have been published addressing an array of issues troubling the church. From the charismatic extremes of televangelists such as Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland, to the mega-church trends of Bill Hybels and Joel Osteen, evangelicalism has experienced enough bad theology to leave it in a state of crisis.
One area in particular that has negatively shaped the church is that of the rapture novel. Many would be familiar with names such as Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye, but such authors are not new to Christian history. This genre of fiction has been on the market since the beginning of the last century and has long had an impact on those who read them. By evaluating the gospel content of such rapture fictions over the last number of years Gribben has added one more to the list of growing concerns.
Rapture Fiction and the Evangelical Crisis is primarily a book about the gospel. While Gribben assumes a critical stance towards dispensational premillennialism, his primary aim is not to dismantle it as a theological system. Rather, the author is concerned with the content of the gospel as it is found (or not) in rapture fictions. Gribben pays particular attention to the gospel in the Left Behind series. Because of this emphasis, even those who find themselves in agreement with dispensationalism can gain much insight without having to feel put on edge. Gribben’s tone is irenic and he writes with great care for fellow believers. Having been reared in the Brethren movement, Gribben writes with a degree of empathy for the people he has “left behind.”
Gribben is more than qualified to write such a book. At the time of publishing, he was lecturer in Renaissance literature and culture at the University of Manchester and is a visiting scholar at Westminster College, Cambridge. One area of interest for Gribben has been the history of millennialism, a topic that was the focus of his doctoral dissertation. He has since published books and articles in scholarly journals dedicated to various aspects of millennialism since the Reformation. Specifically Gribben has focused on millennialism in Puritan thought and the phenomenon of rapture fiction. The breadth of knowledge that he brings to bear in this short volume should prove to be an incredible resource for any seeking to gain a better understanding of the influence of rapture fictions – in particular Left Behind.
Rapture Fiction is divided into seven chapters; the first three primarily historical and the final four theological. Chapter one briefly explains the dispensational origins of the doctrine of the rapture and its subsequent popularity in evangelical circles due to its place in Christian fiction. Gribben notes the staggering statistics regarding the popularity of the Left Behind series and offers some sociological reasons why such popularity exists.
Chapter two builds on the first as Gribben offers more historical detail about dispensationalism, particularly its origins with the Brethren in Ireland and one of their founders, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). The biographical sketch of Darby details the background to one of Christianity’s most interesting figures who has significantly changed the shape of popular eschatology. Interestingly, Gribben argues against the commonly held critique that Darby received his doctrine of the rapture from an ecstatic charismatic woman who conjured it in a vision. Instead he offers convincing proof that the rapture may be traced back to the theology of a Jesuit named Manuel Lacunza. Whatever the origin of the rapture, what Gribben does make clear is that Darby was a convinced Calvinist who had a high view of the gospel. Unlike Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the authors of Left Behind, Darby believed in the sovereign work of God in salvation and the great soteriological doctrines of the Reformation. As Gribben observes, “The problem is that the Left Behind novels are un-doing Darby’s work by prising the rapture apart from the gospel and pushing the rapture back into its pre-evangelical confusion” (42).
Chapter three traces the origins of the rapture fiction genre, the earliest of which can be found around 1905. Gribben explains the significance of early rapture novelists such as Sydney Watson who wrote a number of novels in the early twentieth century. Watson, like Darby, was strongly concerned about the gospel as he wrote during the crisis of modernism. “Watson’s novels therefore emerge from an English evangelicalism that…retained the social concern…of the nineteenth century evangelical reformers while beginning to define itself in opposition to the theological mainstream” (47). Gribben traces rapture fictions from such origins down through the writings of Frederick Tatford, Salem Kirban, Lindsey, LaHaye and Jenkins.
The latter half of the third chapter gives greater detail to the rise of popularity surrounding Left Behind and its various spin-off series. Gribben offers summaries of a number of the novels showing how each story line is written against the backdrop of current events. Left Behind offers theological explanations for current political events such as the Cold War and the forming of the United Nations. The person of the Antichrist will come out of a one-world government based in Europe. After the rapture, the Antichrist will assume total power of the world and will begin to persecute those who come to faith during the “great tribulation.” The political intrigue involved in these novels is just as striking as the poor theology. Gribben’s summaries are laced with concern over areas of theological failure. In a particularly insightful criticism of an evangelicalism that will believe just about anything, Gribben notes, “Evangelicals have lost the capacity to judge whether the novels’ theological presuppositions are actually true” (61).
The heart of Rapture Fiction is the fourth chapter entitled, “Left Behind and the Gospel” that evaluates the gospel content of Left Behind. Gribben begins by noting areas where the series is theologically correct. He observes, “Theologically, the novels are at their best when…they simply echo Scripture” (67). There can be detected in the books an emphasis on the need for good preaching and teaching, as well as on a gospel that is free of works based righteousness. But sadly this is where the novels finish with their orthodoxy.
Gribben highlights particular areas where Left Behind is doctrinally weak. He notes that underage children are raptured regardless of whether they believe the gospel, the priority of man’s faith over God’s sovereignty in salvation, the “sinner’s prayer,” free will, second chance theology and baptismal regeneration – what Gribben calls “the most profound challenge to the biblical gospel” (78).
Chapter five, as with the other chapters in Rapture Fiction, begins with a quote from one of the Left Behind novels: “I must clarify that the Scriptures do not refer to us who become believers after the Rapture as Christians. We are referred to as tribulation saints.” Gribben responds by saying, “Perhaps the most interesting thing about the quotation with which this chapter begins is that its claim is simply not true” (81). If one were to look for this term in a concordance they would “discover that the expression ‘tribulation saints’ does not occur anywhere in Scripture” (81). This is just one of a number of perplexing problems Gribben finds in the novel, paying particular attention to ecclesiology and the Christian life in chapter five. Not only will there be no “Christians” after the rapture, but there will also be no ordinances as they are only for the “Church age.” Regarding the Christian life, Left Behind is largely individualistic and offers no real sense of community within the context of the church. Gribben comments, “It might be that the demands of the genre have outweighed the demands of truth. The novels’ spirituality might then owe more to the entertaining and experience-oriented spirit of the age than to the sanctifying and empowering Spirit of God” (90).
In Chapter six, Gribben again offers his agreement with certain of the doctrinal emphases of Left Behind. That there will be a future return of Jesus Christ to the earth is a fact of the Christian faith that cannot be denied. In this, all true Christians of any eschatological position are in agreement. Speaking of Rapture Fiction, Gribben says, “Nothing that this book argues, therefore, should be understood as playing down the unparalleled significance of the fact that Jesus Christ will soon return to the earth” (99). The difference, however, is that “this book does argue that evangelicals influenced by popular rapture fictions should re-think what his coming will involve in the future and what it requires in the present” (99). The rest of the chapter is a positive theological argument detailing the nature of Christ’s return and why a proper understanding of the gospel plays an integral part in preparation for it.
The seventh and final chapter explains how the eschatology outlined in chapter six should impact Christianity in relation to the gospel, the church and the Christian life. It leaves its reader with a sense of expectancy and joy that every Christian should have in the return of their Saviour. It provides a blueprint for how Christians are to live in light of such “blessed hope.” Gribben concludes the chapter on a positive note saying, “Evangelicalism is in crisis; but the doctrine of the Second Coming, better understood, is not a cause of the current malaise. Jesus Christ is returning, and he will not be disappointed. In the midst of the darkness of ecclesiastical decay, the returning merchant discovers a ‘pearl of great prince’, which he sells everything to posses (Matt. 13:45-46). The pearl is the church; the merchant the Saviour; and the call for reformation is clear” (116).
In the appendix Gribben provides a brief sketch of the various interpretations of Scripture regarding redemptive history and eschatology. He summarizes the various camps of dispensationalism, as well as New Covenant Theology, Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology and paedobaptist Covenant Theology. A slight quibble might be had at the choice of D. A. Carson and John Piper as New Covenant Theologians, as neither have really come out and claimed that view for themselves. Names such as John Reisinger or Tom Wells might be a better choice. Be that as it may, Gribben handles the views well in such a short summary.
Another quibble are the two typographical errors this reviewer noted. On page 102 the word “that” is repeated twice and on page 126 the word “that” is misspelled.
Aside from these small matters of critique, Crawford Gribben has given his readers an excellent introductory resource to rapture fictions and their negative impact on evangelicalism. Though the book is short, it is well written and offers a foundation that Christians can stand on to evaluate what they read. May Rapture Fiction have a large audience and may the advice given by its author be heeded as we labour for reformation in the light of our Lord’s Second Coming.
Ian Hugh Clary is a Master of Divinity student at Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College in Toronto, Ontario.
 See for instance John F. MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel; Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis; James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?