Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Subcultural Apocalypse: A Critical Analysis of the "Left Behind" Series

This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend the end, of our elaborate plans the end, of everything that stands the end, no safety or surprise, the end.

~ The Doors, 'The End'

The belief that the biblical apocalypse is right around the corner in the present day is very central (and even close to the center itself) in the fundamentalist denominations of Christianity. This centrality was present in the early church as well two thousand years ago, to the point where the Second Coming of Christ (the Parousia) threatened to crowd out the first coming. There is some danger in this emphasis, whether one is a member or a well-wisher or not. With the first coming of Christ, we are introduced to the “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” (on the surface at least) from whom one can learn all manner of wise teachings. But with the Second Coming of Christ, we see a very different personage, an ominous figure with a robe soaked in blood ready to judge the wicked and throw those who have accepted the Mark of the Beast into a lake of fire and sulphur. For the average moderate believer and curious outsiders, the realization that they are among those whom the strong believers think are going to have a part in this lake of fire is not long in coming.

Indeed, the Jesus of the Second Coming is the Superhero Jesus, not at all the Spiritual Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Not only that, but he is a butt-kicking superhero very much like The Punisher (Marvel Comic’s Frank Castle), whose motto suddenly becomes “The time for mercy is over, you had your chance.” But is it really possible to take the reasoned urgings of eminent theologians like Jack Van Impe and Jimmy Swaggart seriously? Do these believers in the Second Coming really expect Jesus to blame Bertrand Russell for not being able to glom on to the likes of Jerry Falwell, or to blame Noam Chomsky for somehow failing to be impressed by the polemics of Jack Van Impe? The deeper the devout believers immerse themselves in this apocalyptic fervor, the world they envision begins to look like something out of Planet of the Apes: an all-around nightmarish scenario of epic proportions.

Welcome to the world of Left Behind.

The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is a bestselling series of novels about the end-times as envisioned in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. The saga begins with the “Rapture of the Church,” an event in which all believing Christians vaporize in the twinkling of an eye and are translated into heaven. The ensuing story follows the lives of several people who find themselves left behind to face the “Tribulation,” a time when all remaining people left on earth must endure great terrors and judgments dropped upon them by God. For all those not raptured away to heaven by Christ, there is still a second chance to live for Christ in the post-rapture world, an opportunity the main characters take advantage of quickly.

(It is already interesting to note that, according to the rules of this story, those who are left behind in the very beginning were not Christians, or at least not the right kind of Christians. Considering that these books are mostly read by Christians, this gives the term “lost audience” a whole new meaning. Still, the popularity and success of the series is testament to the fact that the premise works).

There are 12 books in the main series, with three prequel novels and an “epilogue” novel bringing the total to 16 books. The twelve main books cover a period of seven years, the period of time over which the Tribulation is supposed to span. In this sense, the series is similar to the Harry Potter series, only much worse. The series kicked off with the first book in 1995 and came to an end twelve years later with the release of the final book (Kingdom Come) in 2007. I have read up to and including the seventh book (The Indwelling), as well as the prequels, and my critique here reflects that stage in my progression through the series.

The sprawling epic of Left Behind is the adventure story of a lifetime and at the same time represents a carefully-calculated fundamentalist scare tactic. Readers will recognize the fire-and-brimstone motifs often used by fear-mongering preachers, but instead of hell, these novels try to instill the terror of being left behind at the Rapture. The message is that not only should you get saved to avoid hell, but you should get saved now simply in the interest of avoiding the Tribulation. Why, our authors ask by way of the unfortunate protagonists, get saved after the Rapture and thus have to worry about the depredations of the Antichrist? The characters exist for the sole purpose of serving as examples of what kind of people the reader should hope to avoid becoming. This is the foundation of fear and intimidation upon which these books’ success has been built. For the apathetic non-believer who is credulous or on the fence with regards to religious questions, reading about how horrible life on earth will be during the Tribulation will certainly have at least a subconscious effect, and the authors know this. Guilt is a major theme throughout; while there is a good deal of character development in the first book, much of this development is all about the guilt the characters feel over not turning to Christ before the Rapture, and the narrative dwells considerably on their regret over having to live in a world without their family and close friends and the commodities they took for granted. To add to this guilt and regret, the authors burden their characters with fear. By becoming Christians the characters know that prosecution will soon be in the works, that they have taken upon themselves the possibility of just one more way to die, namely martyrdom. It is a world without children; all babies and small children disappear in the Rapture because they are below the “age of accountability.” Strangely enough, however, not all “Christians” disappear. In these novels, denomination is everything, and is a matter of life and death.

On the other hand, these books read much like comic books (which, I hasten to add, is not necessarily a bad thing). They are very corny and mildly entertaining, which is good enough to make them something of a “guilty pleasure” for me. I recommend it just on the basis of their camp value to my fellow atheists. The books are at times very humorous in a completely unintentional way.

Another sense in which the scare tactics do not work so well is that this series makes the understandable mistake of romanticizing the travails of the Tribulation to an extent. It is, after all, a great adventure story that the reader can easily become entranced with. In fact, some readers who actually believe in the theology upon which these books are based or who are on the verge of believing may decide they do not want to be a Christian in this boring Age of Grace. They may decide that they want to be left behind so they can experience the adventure of fighting the Antichrist. This is one obvious way the scare tactic employed may backfire.

The first book in the Left Behind series introduces four primary, stereotyped characters. Rayford Steele is a well-to-do, upper-class, all-American airline pilot. His nineteen-year-old daughter Chloe Steele is a college student and a natural-born skeptic of religion and supernatural phenomena. Cameron “Buck” Williams is an award-winning, globe-trotting journalist. Bruce Barnes is an assistant pastor of a small church who thought he was a Christian before the Rapture but had a rude awakening when he was left behind telling him he was not the right kind of Christian for God. Rayford, Chloe and Buck are people who outwardly rejected the fundamentalist Christian faith of their family, friends and acquaintances. Rayford, Chloe and Bruce Barnes lived their lives surrounded by Christian influence, while Buck Williams is a wholly secular agnostic [1] who has virtually no exposure to Christianity aside from a coworker, and thus initially knows next to nothing about Christian theology.

These characters are, as I say, very stereotyped, for a simple reason that is to be expected given the nature of the case. The people to whom these books are geared toward are predominantly people who believe they will not be left behind when their awaited-for Rapture occurs. Thus, there is really no need to make any of the characters either believable or relatable, because they are not the kind of people born-again Christian readers of the series are supposed to relate to. Again, Christian readers of these books are in a real sense a “lost audience.”

Antichrist Superstar

Nicolae Carpathia, President of Romania when we first meet him, is by far my favorite character in the series, especially once he really breaks into his role as the Antichrist. He becomes the incarnation of Satan following his death and resurrection at the end of the seventh book (The Indwelling), and all the protagonists adamantly abhor him. And yet the world names schools after him! The point here is that the whole reason Carpathia is pinned down as the Antichrist by the protagonists at the end of the first book is because the world loves him, not because he rains down fire and controls the weather (which he does not do until much later on in the series). Apparently, a great politician who initially sincerely wants to unify the world and whom everybody loves is perfect Antichrist material for our authors.

Indeed, in Left Behind, the villains just happen to be the ones usually demonized by LaHaye and the Christian Right in general, i.e. the United Nations, the Europeans, the “liberal media,” freethinkers of all stripes, civil rights activists, women’s rights activists, etc. In a profile done on Tim LaHaye in Rolling Stonemagazine in 2004, Robert Dreyfuss gives us a revealing glimpse of just how far LaHaye’s paranoia extends:

According to LaHaye, civilization is threatened by a worldwide conspiracy of secret societies and liberal groups intent on destroying “every vestige of Christianity.” Among the participants in this conspiracy are the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, “the major TV networks, high-profile newspapers and newsmagazines,” the U.S. State Department, major foundations (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford), the United Nations, “the left wing of the Democratic Party,” Harvard, Yale “and 2,000 other colleges and universities.” All of this is assembled to “turn America into an amoral, humanist country, ripe for merger into a one-world socialist state [2].”
Dreyfuss also points out the way in which Left Behind was first conceived as a self-righteous projection of LaHaye’s own extremely repressed moral strictures into the business of others: “As LaHaye tells the story, one day, about 1994, he was sitting on an airplane, watching a married pilot flirting with a flight attendant, and it hit him: What would befall the sinful pilot if the Rapture happened now?” [3].

One of the bold charges I will make in this essay is that Tim LaHaye is nothing short of a Fascist. And this is an informed and well-supported charge. When right-wing Christians interpret their scriptures to say that the Antichrist, the most evil human being who will ever live, is going to bring peace to the world, the door is opened for them to label anyone who comes along and tries to make the world a better place as an evil person or group. This is something we hear over and over again from the Christian right; no sooner is news out that some influential figure expresses the desire to see peace brought to the Middle East than these Christians narrow their eyes and suspect he is the Antichrist. This outlook completely inverts the values of peace, love and understanding as bad, and presents ignorance, hatred and war as good. The Left Behind series reflects quite strongly this paranoia toward all things bearing even the semblance of secularism and progressivism. But I will be conciliatory here and state that Left Behind, in addition to employing end-times scare tactics under a thin veneer of fiction, misrepresents certain prominent portions of the Bible. In the words of Isaiah, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (5:20, King James Version).

There are a number of obvious fallacies inherent in the storyline, and Carpathia, LaHaye’s “good evil,” is probably the most difficult to make sense of. To wit: when the Rapture occurs and millions of people all over the world vanish into thin air, the Antichrist explains the event away as the result of residual radiation left over from decades of nuclear bomb testing that vaporized random people:

“When the time is appropriate, I will allow Dr. Rosenzweig to speak for himself, but for now I can tell you that the theory that makes the most sense to me is briefly as follows: The world has been stockpiling nuclear weapons for innumerable years. Since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 and the Soviet Union first detonated its own devices September 23, 1949, the world has been at risk of nuclear holocaust. Dr. Rosenzweig and his team of renowned scholars is close to the discovery of an atmospheric phenomenon that may have caused the vanishing of so many people instantaneously [4].”
Fred Clark, author of the excellent “Slacktivist” blog which offers detailed deconstructions of the Left Behind books and movie, has an interesting comment on this scene as it appears in the film adaptation that I cannot improve upon:
Back in NYC, Ivy and her friend are watching a Nicolae Carpathia press conference on Ivy's computer -- a nifty trick back in 2000. Nicolae offers the same nonsensical non-explanation for the disappearances that he offers in the book: “We have confirmed that the disappearances have been caused by accumulated radiation from decades of nuclear weapons testing.”

That doesn't even try to make sense, yet here, as in the book, everybody happily swallows this. Not only do they universally accept this explanation for why random people simultaneously disintegrated (and only people, no animals or plants), but they universally greet as reassuring the news that the atmosphere is filled with undetectable radiation that might, at any moment, cause them to spontaneously disintegrate too:

“Where are they? Where are my mother and my brother? Where are my children?” “Don't worry, they disappeared due to accumulated radiation from decades of nuclear weapons testing.”

“Oh. Well, OK then. Anybody know what's playing at the multiplex?” [5]

This really is representative of the level of intellectual discourse found in the series. This is what happens when evangelical authors attempt to drag a very old text into modern times, then try to portray how they think fictional skeptics would rationalize what emerges (spoiler alert: they end up creating a strawman portrayal of skeptics). Has everybody in this story forgotten about the centuries of Christian proselytizing? Prior to the Rapture, Christians had made it their mission to save as many people as possible so that they can get zapped away before the seven years of Tribulation got to them first.

But we know that the world is not placed under a spell of amnesia after the Rapture, because the post-Rapture believers soon take up the mantle of their recently-departed brothers and sisters and set out to save souls, all the while trying to survive the depredations of divine judgment and the Antichrist’s persecutions. In the second book (Tribulation Force), our four heroes begin to settle back into semi-normal lives after the few months of worldwide chaos related in the first book. They decide to carry on with their various jobs as best they can, and Buck and Chloe even start a serious relationship, even though they fully realize they only have seven years left to live. They know the settling of the world into a makeshift routine of peace established by Carpathia (who has become Secretary-General of the United Nations) is only a temporary fa├žade. Carpathia is the Antichrist, after all, and it is a matter of course that anybody who tries to bring the world together in peace must be evil. But they play along in order to bring the lost to Christ more effectively. Rayford even becomes Carpathia’s pilot, and Buck becomes Carpathia’s favorite journalist.

(By the way, the U.N. appears nowhere in the Bible, and I think it is important to set that straight for some people. And as long as peace in the Middle East is a required component of the Christian’s apocalypse, I think I am safe in assuming that the world is not going to end anytime soon. We will be fine for at least another seven years).

Another oddity that makes little sense is that Carpathia, the charismatic peacemaker who brings the entire world under one government and then betrays them three and a half years into his reign, is an obscure politician from Romania at the beginning of the series. Fred Clark again hits the nail on the head as to why this is an implausible:

[The filmmakers’] aim here is to have it make some kind of sense that Nicolae would be the go-to guy for network reporters seeking comment immediately after the Event [the worldwide vanishing of millions]. That's a tall order. Even if the president of Romania were as charismatic as a young Robert Redford he would still be the president of Romania, which is to say a foreigner, and Americans -- and particularly American network reporters -- aren't interested in what foreigners have to say. It's impossible to imagine any plausible scenario in which the president of Romania is who they'd want to hear from in the immediate aftermath of the abduction/disintegration of all their children. It's unlikely the president of Romania would even be sought out for comment by the American media if the Event had been confined to Romanian children.

Even apart from any America-centric parochial tendencies here, it makes sense that in times of national tragedy, people would want to hear from their own leaders. The filmmakers hope to skip that step by killing off America's leader, but that doesn't work. If the loss of the president were added to the trauma of the Event, Americans would have an even more urgent need to learn that someone -- someone here -- was in charge, and they would need to hear from that person, not from some thickly accented man with no standing here who comes from a place most of us couldn't find on a map [6].

Why Romania? According to the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist is supposed to hail from Rome [7]. This is why we end up with a Romanian man in these novels. Does the first book depict Romania as a country that has become a world superpower? No, Carpathia is simply really good at talking (and based on the Bush Jr. presidency, we all know how much importance we place on that). This must be why the president of Romania reports the development of the radiation theory to the press, not the “renowned” scientists themselves.

Avid fans of the series may try to defend this aspect of the character’s development by arguing that the authors are using this sudden transformation from obscurity to fame as a device to portray Carpathia as a “dark horse” figure. But this defense falls short, because the sudden transformation is not even documented. It is simply asserted as an event that happens. Even “dark horse” narratives need an appreciable level of verisimilitude to work, and Left Behind is missing this ingredient.

Tribulation Farce

In the Left Behind series, several attempts are made by the small army of Christian believers known as the “Tribulation Force” to fight the Antichrist and thwart his plans. But there is (what should be) a fairly obvious catch-22 in the notion of a task-force of Christian believers fighting against the Antichrist’s agenda. If their efforts were successful, they would stop the Antichrist’s plan, thereby preventing prophecy from being fulfilled. Are they not trying to change a fixed future and thwart what is already predicted by the very holy scriptures they fight for?

The authors have something of an explanation for this. The reason the Tribulation Force protagonists keep on trying to either kill the Antichrist or disrupt his plans is not to actually stop the calamities that God is dishing out to a deserving world via the Antichrist, but to convey the point to unbelieving people that this man who is not being affected by their attacks really is the Antichrist and not to be trusted. They know full well, for example, that when Carpathia is scheduled to die by a severe head wound three and a half years into the Tribulation, he will just rise again indwelt by Satan and become more powerful than ever. But a number of Christians in the story still want the honor of being the assassin anyway, if only to make a symbolic point to Carpathia’s lost followers.

But this reasoning still does not work. The problem with just wanting to shoot bullets at Carpathia to prove to the world that he is the Antichrist is rebutted in the story itself. At the end of the seventh book, Carpathia declares himself to be God after rising from death, which he ended up suffering at the hands of a nonbeliever. Thus, it turns out that our pious butt-kickers trying to force Carpathia to display his magnificent powers, if they had been the ones who carried out the assassination, would only have further supported his claim to divinity, not prove that he is evil.

But LaHaye and Jenkins must be credited with providing us a thought-provoking idea (although unintentionally on their part). If evil people can perform wonders and miracles, how does one know that what he or she thinks is God’s wonders and miracles is not in fact something evil? If one believes that signs and wonders are an indication of an evil being, or even that they can be the sign of an evil being (which is something all fundamentalists affirm), upon what grounds does that person say that Jesus must be the good Son of God because he validated himself through signs and wonders? Jesus is reputed to have said to his disciples, “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders: insomuch that (if it were possible,) they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24:24; cf. Mark 13:22). But just how would a person be expected to tell the difference between a good miracle-working entity from an evil miracle-working entity, especially one that comes bearing peace to the world like Carpathia? Is it not true that the Pax Romana in the 1st and 2nd centuries accomplished what Carpathia did in these novels?

The Christians will of course respond by saying that God has warned us in the Book of Revelation not only that the Antichrist is coming, but also how his attributes will be conducive to conquering through peace and what actions he would take. But what if the Book of Revelation was actually written by an antichrist as a way of thwarting the good divinity and turning us against it when the end came? That would be highly problematic, but I doubt most (if any) Christians have considered that possibility, which is plausible given their supernaturally-oriented worldview.

Left Behind 2,000 Years Ago

In exploring and critiquing the underlying theology upon which Left Behind is based, it is important to clarify that I realize some Christians do not believe in the notions of the Rapture and Tribulation. Many Christians of varying denominations and the majority of Bible scholars will say that the Book of Revelation is intended to be an allegorical account of the fall of the Roman Empire. It is debatable whether it makes more sense or less sense for a Christian to take this position. After all, what are the theological implications of saying that Jesus could see into the future, but not very far into the future? For the critical Bible scholars, this does not pose a dilemma, because they know the New Testament was not written by Jesus. But for the majority of Christians, the New Testament is supposed to be divinely inspired.

Whenever Jesus delivers a dissertation on the end-times in the Gospels, it is always directly linked to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. His missives are always intended to refer to events predicted to take place within the next few decades. In the time of Jesus, there was a great deal of incendiary preaching in the midst of Jewish persecution at the hands of Rome, which was trying hard to decide just what to do with this section of the empire. The inference that the Temple was in danger was not an outlandish one to make; it did not take a prophet to state that a bad situation was brewing, and getting worse as time went on. And in the New Testament scriptures, the Temple’s destruction is clearly predicted to take place within Jesus’ own generation. The Olivet Discourse, in which Jesus talks with his disciples concerning the time the end is supposed to come, is repeated in every gospel except for John. When Jesus states, “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34; cf. Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32), he is speaking specifically about the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, which are to happen concurrent with the end of the world. On the basis of verses like this, some biblical inerrantists have even gone so far as to posit that the disciple John is still hiding out alive somewhere in Easter Island, miraculously conserved by God for the last two thousand years [8].

A case can be made that fundamentalists dimly understand in the back of their minds that they face a real threat to the validity of their faith if in fact Jesus predicted that his return would come in his own lifetime, a promise he obviously failed to deliver on. This is evident by the fact that when their backs are against the wall, apologists squirm any way they possibly can. They will argue, for example, that the words “this generation” (genea) in Mark 13:30 should actually be understood to mean “this nation” or “this race” as in “this nation shall not pass till all these things be done.” My response to this is threefold:

1. The translators do not agree with this reading. In the particular context we are dealing with, the translators have always translated genea as “generation.” This is supported by the context of other passages that use the word; when Jesus calls the Pharisees a “generation of vipers” (Matthew 12:34, 23:33), he is not referring to a nation or a race. The term “you generation” or “this generation” must refer to “you people living right now.” Also, how would it make sense to say, “This race [or nation] will not pass till all these things be fulfilled” if “these things” are part and parcel of the trying-by-fire of this very race?

2. When Jesus delivers his sermon on the end-times, the context shows us that it is prompted by the disciples’ question concerning the fate of the Temple. The discourse comes right after the scene in which Jesus and his disciples come out of the Temple, which the disciples are openly admiring. Jesus tells them, “See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2; cf. Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6).

This comment, referring directly to the Temple, prefaces Jesus’ sermon on the end-times that follows, which comes in answer to the disciples’ question: “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3; cf. Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7). Jesus then proceeds in verse after verse to describe the various signs that will signal his coming, and shares the details of the end-times (war, persecution, earthquakes, famines, celestial disturbances, etc.) All of this great tribulation centers on the destruction of the Temple.

3. When Jesus says “this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled,” he makes no attempt to clarify to the people he is speaking to that he is not referring to them and their lifetime. Obviously, if the disciples did not think that Jesus was talking about them, they would not have asked what signs they should look for. Suppose I encounter a modern doomsday prophet who believes that the end of the world is scheduled for a time 3,000 years in the future. If I ask this prophet what signs I should be looking for, the prophet will tell me that I need not look for anything, because I will not live to see the signs. On the other hand, if a doomsday prophet does begin to tell me what signs of the apocalypse I should be looking for, the prophet is implicitly telling me that the end will come in my lifetime. Jesus did launch into a description of the signs his disciples should look for.

It is interesting to note that even our evangelical authors tacitly admit that passages like these pose a difficulty, by way of one of their main character’s feelings of confusion while reflecting on what happened when millions all over the world vanished into thin air:

So Jesus said he was coming quickly. Had he come? And if the Bible was as old as it seemed, what did “quickly” mean? It must not have meant soon, unless it was from the perspective of someone with a long view of history. Maybe Jesus meant that when he came, he would do it quickly. Was that what this was all about? Rayford glanced at the last chapter as a whole. Three other verses had red letters, and two of those repeated the business about coming quickly [9].
What few biblical prophecy buffs seem to realize is that their tortured rationalizations for why Jesus failed to live up to his apocalyptic promises have completely eliminated anyone’s ability to discern anything in advance. Biblical prophecy has become a completely useless exercise, because by not accepting what the biblical texts really say about which generation would be the last, the texts can now apply to any stretched-out interpretation that could be concocted after the fact. The current events that evangelical prophesiers associate with the Bible can just as easily be associated with Nostradamus’ predictions. What we are left with at the end of the day are very vague, broad symbols presuming to mark a pending disaster of some generic kind.

In order for something to qualify as a real prophecy, it has to actually nail something down. The prophet must lay out exactly what their prophesy means and what exactly is going to happen. Following such criteria necessarily renders any real prophecy empirically testable. Simply spouting a lot of vague and general ideas into which some subsequent event can be shoehorned is not a prophecy, and on this basis we can safely rule out the vast majority of “prophecy” in the Bible as content we need not take seriously.

But Jesus did something that very few biblical prophecy passages do: he offered a testable claim. If someone claims there is an invisible heavenly world above us, how can we go about testing that claim? The believer may dress up the claim with sophisticated word usage, such as by saying “It exists as another dimension” or the like. There might be such a dimension, and there might not be, but no known test is available by which we may arrive at a definite conclusion either way. On the other hand, if someone tells us that the present generation will experience the end of the world, we now have on our hands an eminently testable and falsifiable claim. This is precisely why the promises attributed to Jesus are damning to the credibility of the Christian faith. And yet, fundamentalist Christians themselves ridicule Jehovah’s Witnesses and Harold Camping for this very thing, namely the setting of dates and the subsequent failings. Why, we are obliged to ask, does not Jesus’ own words debunk Christianity in the same way and for the same reasons? Bible scholar Robert M. Price offers these thoughts:

[H]ow can fundamentalists not see that the New Testament writers made the same mistake [as the Jehovah’s Witnesses]? They cannot afford to see it. They have altogether too much invested in their beliefs. It is a prime case of cognitive dissonance. They refuse to face a devastating truth because, no matter how guilty a conscience one may have, it is better than having to admit how wrong one was and to have to start over again [10].
Jesus is also quoted in many other passages as predicting his return and the end of the world within his own contemporaries’ lifetimes. A striking example is found in Matthew 10:23: “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.” In other words, Jesus’ disciples will not even be finished preaching in the cities of Israel when the end comes. This is fairly immediate.

Jesus also declares, “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his Kingdom” (Matthew 16:28; cf. Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27).

This is a point worth stressing, because these verses are the reason the end-times philosophy known as Preterism (and its close cousin Transmillennialism) exists. The Preterists say that Christ’s end-times scenarios have already happened, that it is all past history at this point. The Second Coming really did come to pass in the first century [11]. Their interpretation of scripture is heavily symbolic, but these verses form the cornerstone of their rather salient point that anyone who is looking forward to a futuristic Second Coming that is yet to take place have no way of intelligently making sense of these passages without damaging the credibility of Christ’s words. How else, asks the Preterist, can one make sense of Jesus’ bold statement that people who are standing in front of him as he speaks are going to be alive when the apocalypse occurs?

What all this means is that LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ novels are not even validated by the Bible itself, which is supposed to be the main Christian text which inspired the series. The characters in the story would even be completely justified in condemning Jesus as a liar, for even though he does return, he returns 2,000 years after the time he explicitly stated he would come! At least, this is what the Preterist and Transmillennialist Christians would conclude. Needless to say, LaHaye and Jenkins hold to a separate interpretation, that being Dispensationalism, which is rife with its own difficulties. But if numbers are any indication, a great many people take the Left Behind series and its Dispensationalism seriously. Total sales of the books, after all, have surpassed $65 million. What makes this alarming is the fact that Christians teach and believe that these are not only fictional books based on their religion, but a picture of what is going to happen in the future put into fictional terms. In other words, Left Behind purports to be true prophecy dressed up as fiction, and scantily clad at that, given its die-hard literalism, to which we turn next.

Figurative Literalism

The wooden literalism with which the authors approach the apocalyptic texts they base the story on, while great fun to read, is another major shortcoming of the series in the long run. The suspense factor especially suffers at the hands of this literalist approach. But aside from that, there is not just one straightforward interpretation of the major prophetic books in the Bible (Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, etc.) The problem with literal interpretation is that there is no “literal interpretation” (which strikes me as a peculiar contradiction in terms). Instead, there are many different “literal interpretations,” and more often than not people simply pretend they are all saying the same thing. Old Testament scholar James Barr showed precisely why this is the case in his book Fundamentalism:

[F]undamentalist interpretation does not take the Bible literally, but varies between taking it literally and taking it non-literally. This variation is made necessary by the real guiding principle of fundamentalist interpretation, namely that one must ensure that the Bible is inerrant, without error. Inerrancy is maintained only by constantly altering the mode of interpretation, and in particular by abandoning the literal sense as soon as it would be an embarrassment to the view of inerrancy held [12].
This arbitrary literalism is on full display in the Left Behind series. For example, we find the character of Bruce Barnes scoffing at nonliteralist Bible followers who were proven wrong by the Rapture event: “But those who had relegated this kind of teaching to the literalists, the fundamentalists, the closed-minded evangelicals, had been left behind. All of a sudden it was all right to take scripture at its word! [13]” And yet, no more than three pages later, we find Bruce Barnes explaining that the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” described in Revelation 6 should be understood to be allegorical imagery, rather than descriptions of actual personages: “’Let me clarify,’ Bruce was saying, ‘that I don’t believe it is God’s intent to convey individual personality through the imagery of these horsemen, but rather world conditions [14].’”

Other supposedly “straightforward literalists” who have written Christian end-times novels see matters differently. For example, in his 1950 novel Raptured, television evangelist Ernest Angley has two of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (War and Famine) waltz through the streets of the tiny town of Alabesta where all the story’s actions take place [15]. An even more bizarre example of literalism (and one that makes even Left Behind look level-headed by comparison) is found in Carrie E. Gruhn’s 1951 novel A Trumpet in Zion, which depicts Revelation’s Beast as just that – a grotesque creature straight out of Revelation’s description of the Beast rising out of the sea [16]. But, like LaHaye & Jenkins, neither Angley nor Gruhn apply their painstaking literalism to everything, further illustrating the subjectivity and variegated nature of “literal interpretation.”

Conclusion

The Left Behind series is a testament to the fact that there is often a fine line between literature and brainwashing, especially when a piece of fictional work is being taught or presented as prophetic truth rather than simply a creative illustration of the set of ideals to which an author subscribes [17]. Left Behind suffers heavily from a conspicuous lack of subtlety, nuance and imagination. LaHaye and Jenkins simply try to dramatize every jot and tittle of the Book of Revelation, superimposed onto modern times (being fundamentalists, they were probably intimidated by the dire warning of Revelation 22:18-19). There is therefore no authentic element of suspense or of originality; the authors have mapped out the chronology of events predicted in Revelation and simply invited their readers to grab their popcorn and watch it come to life.

One would think that, given the premise and the cast of characters involved, one could conceivably produce a genuinely gripping yarn. Indeed, I cite Stephen King’s great apocalyptic blockbuster novel The Stand as proof that this can be accomplished [18]. Being a secular writer with no history of fundamentalist belief, King was not trying to save the souls of his readers or prepare them for the Second Coming with this book. But the story does incorporate a selective adaptation of prophetic scripture, just selective and understated enough that both the reader and the characters are made to feel uncertain as to whether they are experiencing a Christian universe or not. It only looks like the Book of Revelation is being played out on the world stage, via a devastating killer plague that destroys countrysides and great cities, paving the way for an even greater evil to threaten the few survivors. But it is not by any stretch a blow-by-blow reconstruction as in Left Behind, leaving King’s characters to wonder just what is going on. The Stand represents everything Left Behind could have been and is not. The smooth-talking politician from Romania does not hold a candle to Randall Flagg.

LaHaye and Jenkins by contrast are much too obtrusive, preaching to the reader constantly as they construct a timeline of events as accurately as they imagine the Bible tells them to. The protagonist characters routinely refer to the Bible to prepare for what is coming next and very little takes them by surprise. But there should be a surprise element, given the fact that the authors’ literalism is highly arbitrary. LaHaye and Jenkins hereby betray their own voice; the characters just happen to subscribe to the exact same system they do with no shadow of turning, not even for the sake of narrative suspense.

And the fact that the authors have presented what they believe to be absolute truth in fictional terms can mean nothing but trouble for their own evangelistic goals. Any reader who begins to take Christianity seriously as a result of reading Left Behind is in a highly tenuous position; assuming such a reader recognizes that so much of these books is obvious fiction and even billed as such, how long can their newfound faith last on such a foundation built on a slippery slope? How long will it be before he or she wonders whether there is any reason to think any part of Christianity is not fictional in the same way?

There are a great many people whose ears only perk up when somebody tells them that the Antichrist is coming soon and that they are going to get their innards toasted if they do not repent in the here and now. Conversion that stems from such a self-serving motivation is doomed to have a very short life. If that which can frighten but momentarily is all that hooks a person into converting, their belief is shallow and weak. In order to last, there must be something more to the pitch, and in the case of the highly superstitious and paranoid strain of Christianity which LaHaye and Jenkins push, there is nothing more to it.

Therefore, I conclude that the Left Behind series may be serving the cause of freethought and atheism in the long run much more than most of us realize.

NOTES

1. The beginning of the first book treats us to a backstory in which Buck experiences a close brush with death when he witnesses firsthand an attack on Israel by the entire Russian army, in fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. When the entire massive army is miraculously destroyed by divine intervention with not a single Israeli casualty, Buck decides he might be a deist instead of an agnostic . . . thus demonstrating that LaHaye and Jenkins have no idea what deism even is.

2. Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Rolling Stone 19 January 2004, p. 49.

3. Ibid.

4. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1995), pp. 253-254.

5. Fred Clark, “LBTM: Accumulated Radiation,” The Slacktivist (blog) 9 January 2009, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2009/01/09/lbtm-accumulated-radiation/ (accessed 14 June 2011).

6. Fred Clark, “LBTM: In Case of Rapture,” The Slacktivist (blog) 14 December 2008, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2008/12/14/lbtm-in-case-of-rapture/ (accessed 14 June 2011).

7. This being the case, I am not sure why many fundamentalists have claimed that Barack Obama is the Antichrist, or how in their minds he is possibly supposed to fit in with Rome. In any case, the claim that Obama meets qualifications characteristic of Revelation’s Beast has been debunked. See Barbara Mikkelson and David P. Mikkelson, “Obama as Anti-Christ,” Snopes.com 3 August 2009, http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/antichrist.asp (accessed June 14, 2011).

8. The idea of a 2,000 year-old Apostle John living to witness modern times has actually been used by Christian end-times novelists David Dolan (The End of Days, Springfield, MO: 21st Century Press, 2003) and James BeauSeigneur (The Christ Clone Trilogy, New York: Warner Books, 2003-2004).

9. LaHaye and Jenkins, Left Behind, p. 122.

10. Robert M. Price, The Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church Was Left Behind (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), p. 162.

11. In response to the success of Left Behind, Christian authors Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraaff have together written two interesting apocalyptic novels, The Last Disciple (Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) and The Last Sacrifice (Tyndale House Publishers, 2006), which are based on the Preterist viewpoint and set in the time of Nero in the first century.

12. James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), p. 46.

13. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1996), p. 67.

14. Ibid., p. 70.

15. Ernest W. Angley, Raptured: A Novel on the Second Coming of the Lord (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1950), pp. 159-165.

16. Carrie E. Gruhn, A Trumpet in Zion (Chicago: Moody Press, 1951), p. 146.

17. There is a similar important difference between teaching the Bible and teaching about the Bible in public schools and colleges. Theists often repeat the tired claim that the Bible has been banned from public schools. No, the Bible has not been banned from these venues of learning. The Bible is very often utilized in Humanities courses in secular colleges and universities across the country and in public high school literature classes. The key difference is that secular schools are not teaching either that the Bible is historically true in every detail or that the Bible is a bunch of nonsense. Rather, they are taking a neutral position in teaching the Bible simply as literature.

18. Stephen King, The Stand (New York: New American Library, 1978; revised, restored, expanded, 1991).

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