Yes, the above phrase refers to the common (and mostly American, I should add) interpretation of those Scriptures referring to the Second Coming of Christ, perhaps made most familiar by the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. But I believe it wasn’t LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ writings on end times and prophecy (Left Behind and before) that started it all, but Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. This view is pre-Tribulational, meaning a belief that Christ will return for His people at an event called “the Rapture” (“we shall be caught up together to meet Him in the clouds”), before the seven-year outpouring of God’s judgment, referred to as “the Tribulation.” Pre-millennial refers to the belief that the seven-year Tribulation must be completed before the actual return of Christ to the earth (as opposed to the “in the air” return referred to in Thessalonians), when He deals at last with the forces of wickedness advancing on Jerusalem, and ushers in a thousand years of peace (brought about by His literal reign on earth).
That’s a very short primer, completely off the top of my head, on Pre-Tribulational, Pre-Millennial Eschatology. Imminent just refers to the belief that Christ’s return—the Rapture, or catching away of God’s people—could literally happen at any moment.
Chris Walley’s suggestion is that this popular view effectively kills any interest many American Christians might have in science fiction (perhaps fantasy too, although I think this concern is most relevant to speculative writing with a futuristic bent). I think it’s a question worth raising. Even if we believe Jesus CAN return at any moment (and I think Scripture teaches that we should be ready, whether that means for His literal return, or for Him to take us home, because this life holds no guarantees), and even if we believe that He WILL return at any moment (a little more tenuous, in my opinion), can we really KNOW that He will be back today? This week? This year?
Even, gasp, this century?
The world seems to be spinning so morally out of control that it scares many people to think that God won’t give us a quick rescue. After cutting my teeth on the standard fundamentalist pre-Trib, pre-millennial view, I was pretty freaked the first time I had to consider an alternate viewpoint. But I can’t remember that upbringing seriously interfering with my enjoyment of science fiction … my views on God, the universe, and everything often clashed with secular writers’ philosophies on various issues, but somehow I’ve always been able to suspend disbelief of actual setting for the sake of the story. I’ve since learned that not all Christians can do that.
So do I think Left Behind damages the cause of science fiction in Christian circles? Not necessarily. Of course, I get far less ruffled over the flaws of the Left Behind series than I once did—partly because I’ve met Jerry Jenkins and read the first book for myself (I’ll cover that on another day), but partly because I know God can and will work through almost anything. Lots of people have come to Him because of that series. People have also come to Him through “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which is considered blatantly heretical by the churches I grew up around. If God can speak through a braying donkey and a prophet bent on cursing His people, I’m sure He has no problem using any one of us, no matter how skewed our interpretation is of His Word. And I know He has no problem keeping those who are His, however they’re drawn to Him.
Back to the question of an imminent return of Christ. I think we have to say that no, we can’t know when. In fact, the more I study Scripture, the more I lean toward a delay of at least a couple more decades, just enough for the Church to get past the flush of eschatological passion fanned by Hal Lindsey’s books, and for many people to go back to saying, “Well, look, since the days of the early church, all things have remained the same … He isn’t coming after all!”
And my suspicion is that the world will become far more hostile to Christianity in general before the time is near. Even the Left Behind prequels speculate that things won’t really start to happen for an unspecified period of time yet.
The key word here is speculate. “What if,” as Madeleine L’Engle said in the quote I used yesterday. This leads me to a question posed by my good friend and neighbor, James, in a private comment a few days ago. Why Christian science fiction? Well, I ask in return, why not? If all of story can be defined as “what if,” then speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, allegory, and the like—just takes the “what if” a little farther than other flavors of fiction.
I think the real barrier to Christians’ acceptance of science fiction (or any sort of speculative writing) is an underlying desire to reconcile everything in our own little worlds to the truth of Christ. Some of us feel this desire more strongly than others, especially in light of Scriptures such as the one about “casting down imaginations.” Yet I know people who are very dedicated Christians but see no contradiction in being fans of Star Trek or the old Robert Heinlein stories, even though Star Trek’s “theological” premise is that super-advanced aliens planted mankind on Planet Earth, and Heinlein was a hardened atheist. I wonder often if the fault, then, is with those of us who have a harder time seeing past the New Age or atheistic belief threading through those stories, who can’t just “unplug” our brains and let ourselves be entertained? Speaking personally, there was a time where I had to stop reading any sort of secular fiction because I was too sensitive emotionally and spiritually to the undercurrents in most of it, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate fiction that is redemptive if not Christian. (For instance—a movie that surprised me in this regard was “Hellboy.” No, I can’t really explain it, either. [very big grin] I guess I liked the fact that the Christian character was portrayed in a positive light, and that his faith is what gives the main character the motivation to make the choice he does at the end.)
Still, some of us long for, say, a Star Trek where a few of the characters live out an authentic Christian faith … for a rollicking space adventure where the reader isn’t getting bombarded with a relentless hatred of God, or gratuitous cursing or sex … for heroic fantasy where full due is given, sooner or later, to the Creator of the universe and the blood redemption offered through His Son. We aren’t asking for an idyllic portrayal of believers or the world around us, and all that might be beyond it—but to at least include that which is the strongest reality for us, as Christians.
Does that at least sort of answer your question, James? :-)