I finally got around to watching the Left Behind films. While I, as a Muslim and a liberal, didn’t expect them to be my cup of tea, I was nonetheless surprised and disturbed by their content. I must confess to finding its dispensationalism scripturally and intellectually suspect, but the films’ theology is not what disturbed me the most. It’s rather their cheerful, Dr. No-esque vision of global conflict, and the way the particulars of the films implicitly endorse a welter of fringe ideologies and conspiracy theories that give me pause.
While the consensus among Muslim scholars historically seems to have been that an everlasting punishment awaits those who reject God’s message as disclosed in the Qur’an and in Muhammad’s life, there has always been a minority that argued forcefully against this position using Qur’an and Hadith.
Without a doubt, the Qur’an discusses the punishment that awaits the wicked in the next life in the most chilling terms, but the semantic fields of the terms employed for this fate’s duration include both the concept of eternity and that of a long but finite period of time. Perhaps most intriguingly, the Qur’an goes out of its way to underline the eternality of Paradise while not doing so with Hell. There are also a number of Hadiths describing a future time when Hell will be empty.
So this stance is not unheard of among Muslims (e.g., this succinct overview by Imam Sadullah Khan of UC Irvine of evidence against an eternal punishment in classical sources, or this less orthodox philosophical argument by Edip Yuksel). Perhaps the most famous past proponent of Hell being a temporary abode for all is the great 13th-century theologian Ibn Taymiyya; an ironic fact, given the role played by other aspects of his thought in inspiring modern extremist movements not exactly known for their ecumenical leanings. That this dissent was cited by his critics as proof of his heterodoxy illustrates both how firmly most Muslim theologians seem to have accepted the exclusivistic doctrine of salvation and how, in my opinion, dubious the authority of scholarly consensus in secondary matters of dogma can be.
I don’t do eternal hell (for anybody, even neo-cons), but at the same time I don’t find the fact that others do terribly threatening. Disappointing, yes, but not in itself menacing. So far as I am aware, a sociological link has yet to establish even the most hell and brimstone of eschatological positions to disengagement from mainstream civic life, much less political extremism. Thus, so long as their expectations of my fiery end do not inspire attempts to hasten my journey there, people of other religious persuasions are quite welcome to believe I’m hell-bound. I disagree, and even if I’m wrong I have never understood the appeal of Pascal’s Wager anyway. (On this, I’m with the atheists: no god that damns anybody eternally can be trusted, much less loved.)
Getting back to Left Behind, I’m disturbed by how almost Nietzschean the films are in turning conventional Christian morality on its head. It is richly ironic that many of the shrillest accusations of barbarity on the part of Islam and Muslims come from these ideological quarters given how incredibly, well, “jihadi” the tone of these films is. The films relish war, retribution, and the scourging of the infidel.
Perhaps most problematic (politically as well as theologically) is how the villains of this film are literally peacemakers. Those seeking to eliminate war, hunger, hatred, and other ills of modern civilization are portrayed as Satan’s dupes. The Arab-Israeli conflict is deemed to be part of God’s plan and, more importantly, any attempt to end it through means other than subjugating the Arabs by force is portrayed as sacrilege.
I was also struck by how blithely the films distort international political reality to deliver their ideological manifesto against internationalism that does not toe their narrow ideological line. Given current and foreseeable geopolitical realities, a far more credible candidate than the UN for the dubious distinction of “one-world government” would seem to be the United States. In keeping with the conspiracy theories that warm the hearts of zealots everywhere, this film presents the United Nations (under the name of the “Global Community”) as not only working for the the Devil but being all powerful, dwarfing the United States in power and influence. Last time I checked, the UN did not have large military bases dotting the globe. Nor has the UN in recent memory imposed its own leader on the United States over the popular will, as did the United States itself when it essentially overruled the world by ousting Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali over petty political grudges in 1997.
If we must resort to conspiracy theories, let’s at least follow the money trail and look at who really wields power today. If a Satanic New World Order is indeed under way, surely it’s being run by the Multi-National Corporations and other minions of the great, all-knowing Market in which so many of the Right today seem to have mystical faith. The UN’s efforts at consolidating and streamlining governance seem to me but a drop in the bucket beside the standardization and loss of national sovereignty being imposed on developing countries by neo-liberal globalization.
The first installment of the series has a high-minded UN program to feed the world turn out to be a sinister plan for world domination through consolidation and control of the food supply. You see, the Devil wants us all to be getting our stuff from the same place, so he can better control us. Without ascribing demonic links, how does this differ all that much from the business plans of, say, global juggernauts like Monsanto or Walmart? One could go on an on about the sinister political subtexts to these films.
My hope is that other, more spiritual and less ideologically driven Christian filmmakers step up and offer more mature and nuanced readings of these prophecies and eschatological issues.