Rayford Steele switched his fully loaded 747 to autopilot en route to a 6 A.M. landing at London's Heathrow airport. His passengers had window shades down, pillows and blankets in place. For now the plane was a dark, humming sleep chamber for all but a few wanderers and attendants.
As Rayford opened the cockpit door to take a stroll, the senior flight attendant nearly bowled him over. Grabbing his arm she sobbed, "People are missing. A whole bunch of people, just gone! Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind!"
The world over, millions of people had disappeared in one cataclysmic event. Vehicles, suddenly unmanned, careened out of control. People were terror stricken as loved ones vanished before their eyes. In the midst of global chaos, airline captain Rayford Steele must search for his family, for answers, for truth.
This is the heart of the best-selling novel Left Behind, a Christian view of the earth's last days according to Biblical prophecy. Christians believe that Christ ascended into heaven after His death and resurrection and that He will one day return for His people. Those not taken to heaven with Him will be left behind to suffer a period of tribulation, destruction and pain.
But what exactly is a Christian? And what do they believe about God, about "salvation," and about being "saved" from such an event?
Let's let the Left Behind characters explain...
"Salvation," Rayford murmured to himself. Another ten-dollar church word that had never really impressed him. He knew his wife's new church was interested in the salvation of souls, but the closer he got to the concept, the more he had been repelled. Didn't salvation have something to do with confirmation, baptism, testifying, getting religion, being holy? Whatever it was, he hadn't wanted to deal with it. But now he was desperate to know what it meant.
Rayford searched out his wife's pastor, Bruce Barnes, who was also left behind. Here Bruce explains salvation to Rayford and his daughter, Chloe.
"I was raised in the church. My parents and brothers and sisters were all Christians. I loved church. It was my life, my culture. I thought I believed everything there was to believe in the Bible, so I assumed I was covered.
"But I was living in sin while pretending to be devout. I hardly ever read my Bible except when preparing a talk or lesson. 'Christian,' I knew vaguely, means 'one like Christ.' That sure wasn't me. I had never believed and received Christ for myself. So when Jesus Christ returned for His true family, I was left behind."
"So," Chloe said, "this believing and receiving stuff, this living for Christ and letting Him live through you, that's what Christians mean when they talk about salvation, getting saved?"
Bruce nodded. "From sin and hell and judgment.
"First, we have to see ourselves as God sees us. The Bible says all have sinned, that there are none righteous, no not one. It also says we can't save ourselves. Lots of people thought they could earn their way to God or to heaven by doing good things, but that's probably the biggest misconception ever. Ask anyone on the street what they think the Bible or the church says about getting to heaven, and nine out of ten would say it has something to do with doing good and living right.
"We're to do that, of course, but not so we can earn our salvation. We're to do that in response to our salvation. The Bible says that we are saved by grace through Christ, not of ourselves, so we can't brag about our own goodness.
"You see, Jesus took our sins and paid the penalty for them so we wouldn't have to. The payment is death, and He died in our place because He loved us. When we tell Christ that we acknowledge ourselves as lost sinners, and receive His gift of salvation, He saves us. A transaction takes place. We go from darkness to light, from lost to found; we're saved. We become sons of God, just like Jesus, and we have what Jesus has: a relationship with God, eternal life, and because Jesus paid our penalty, we also have forgiveness for our sins."
Rayford sat stunned. He felt he had found exactly what he had been looking for. It was what he had suspected and had heard bits and pieces of over the years, but he had never put it all together.
"Now let me leave you with one little reminder of urgency," Bruce said. "This is your decision, but I need to tell you that you don't have any guarantees. People die every day in all kinds of tragedies. I'm not going to push you into something you're not ready for, but just let me encourage you that if God impresses upon you that this is true, don't put it off. What would be worse than finally finding God and then dying without Him because you waited too long?"
If you want to receive God's gift of salvation right now, you can pray:
Dear God, I believe in You, and I believe everything You say in the Bible is true. I believe the earth's last days are close, and that the only way anyone can be saved is to trust in Your Son, Jesus Christ. I believe Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin. I believe He rose again to new life and ascended into heaven. I believe He gives eternal life to all His people, that He will come back for them one day, and I want to be among them. I believe that by placing my faith in Christ alone I will never be left behind. Amen.
Suggested Bible reading: Book of John, especially John 1:12-13; 3:13-21; Romans 3:9-12, 23-27; 4:24-25; 5:6-11; 8:1-4, 12-17; Ephesians 2:1-10; 2 Peter 3:8-10.
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