Thursday, June 30, 2011

On the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

The theistic Ontological Argument is at its core an attempt to define God into existence. An a priori theistic case reformulated from its medieval origins and newly popularized by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, the Ontological Argument seeks to prove the reality of a supreme being axiomatically, that is, from the concept alone. The basic “reasoning” behind the argument invites us to imagine a being that is in all ways perfect and maximally great. Existence is a necessary quality that this being must possess, because if said being did not exist, then he/she/it would be less than perfect. God therefore exists, because by virtue of being defined as the greatest conceivable being possible, God cannot be conceived not to exist. It is a delightfully circular argument, in which the axiomatic first premise is equal to the conclusion [1].

Expressed as a syllogism, the classical Ontological Argument for the existence of God is as follows:

1. Let us define God as the greatest imaginable being, a being than which no greater can be conceived.

2. All else being equal, a being or entity that exists is greater than one that does not exist, or one that merely exists as an idea or concept.

3. Therefore, God exists in reality.

This argument was first formulated and expressed in the 11th century by the Benedictine monk St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Proslogium:

[E]ven the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality [2].

Even Anselm’s contemporaries in the 11th century recognized the flaws in his arguments. Most notably, another monk by the name of Gaunilo of Marmoutiers is remembered for his short work In Behalf of the Fool, in which he used Anselm’s reasoning to “prove” via reductio ad absurdum that the “Lost Island,” a maximally perfect island paradise, exists somewhere in the ocean. When we substitute Gaunilo’s Lost Island for Anselm’s God, the syllogism runs as follows:

1. The Lost Island is the greatest imaginable island.

2. All else being equal, it is greater to exist in reality than merely as a mythical concept or idea.

3. Therefore, the Lost Island exists in reality.

Indeed, by using Anselm’s logic, one can “prove” the existence in reality of any number of things, such as unicorns, Shangri-La, Hercules, etc. This is because the argument ultimately reduces to a “proof from definition,” which is a very basic fallacy. Anselm’s argument attempts to demonstrate the reality of a synthetic statement as if it were an analytical statement:
Analytic statements are those which can be said to be true or false by reason alone. For example: "A triangle has four sides", is an analytical statement and it is false because it is against the definition of a triangle. Also analytic is "There is an infinite number of prime numbers". This is true, although it is a lot harder to prove. However, reason alone can do it. No additional sensory information is needed.

There cannot be any discussion about the truth-value of a analytic statement. Either it is true, it is false or one cannot prove either of those possibilities. One cannot differ in opinion when looking at a analytic statement.

Synthetic statements are those that are not analytic. Synthetic statements cannot be answered by reason alone, in addition one needs evidence given by the senses. "An apple always falls to the ground" is synthetic; I can try to prove this by empirical evidence, but I can find no mathematical proof of it. It is impossible to prove any synthetic statement with 100% evidence. Therefore, in the case of synthetic statements, we can do two things: believe them, disbelieve them or suspend judgement [3].

The difference between analytic statements and synthetic statements will become important later on.

Confusing these two types of statements is the inevitable consequence of attempting to prove the reality of anything without any reference to what is known about the physical universe. Thus, to convince one who is consistently impressed by such definition-driven ontological arguments of the existence of unicorns, for example, one need only present the following:

1. Let us define a unicorn as a magical equine being that has one horn, and that exists.

2. Such a being must necessarily exist, given the above definition.

3. Therefore, unicorns exist [4].

The Failure of the Second Premise

According to the Second Premise of the classical Ontological Argument, a being or entity that has the attribute of existence is greater than one that lacks this attribute. But, as many philosophers have argued, existence and non-existence are not attributes of an object; they cannot logically be considered to properties in and of themselves. Most notably, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant noted that “existence” is not a state that can reasonably be associated or tied in with the definition of any object, the way things like “temperature” or “size” can be. Kant argued that the existence of any thing is presupposed by its possessing any properties in the first place. Therefore, “’Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment” [5]. To consider existence as a property of anything is thus to indulge in a useless tautology, i.e. (in this case), “God exists because God exists.”

Furthermore, even if it made logical sense to view existence and non-existence as attributes (which we have seen does not), there is no logical justification for the claim that existence (and, by extension, necessity) is greater than non-existence. As Darrin Rasberry argues,
A brief statement about the classical version of this argument is necessary, particularly about the necessity of "necessary" being an inherently positive quality in and of itself, without regards to its referent in reality. This is not entirely clear; a fantastic counterexample would be certain events in the context of human history, which as an A-time theorist I hold to be necessary facts of existence. Suppose, for instance, that Adam and Eve existed and chose to Fall. Then, unless one is a high-Calvinist, the necessity (by asssumption [sic]) of the Fall would be a negative quality, as opposed to a positive one, as the action in the Fall brought death and damnation to Adam, Eve, and subsequently, to all of us. Therefore, it cannot be established that necessity qua necessity is an inherently positive quality of existence [6].

But perhaps the greatest illustration of the fact that the superiority of existence over non-existence is not at all established by logic is one that goes beyond the implications of necessary versus unnecessary reality and strikes at the quality of existence versus non-existence itself. This illustration is found in “Gasking’s Proof,” a piece of philosophical satire written by the late philosopher Douglas Gasking. Gasking’s Proof brilliantly parodies the Ontological Argument, using the argument’s own premises to turn the argument on its head and “prove” the superiority of non-existence over existence.

(1) The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

(2) The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

(3) The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

(4) The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

(5) Therefore, if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator, we can conceive a greater being – namely, one who created everything while not existing.

(6) An existing God, therefore, would not be a being than which a greate [sic] cannot be conceived, because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.

Ergo,

(7) God does not exist [7].

Ontological Disproof of the Third Premise

Because (as we have shown above) the conclusion of the circular Ontological Argument is exactly equal to its First Premise, a demonstration of the inadequacy and fallacy of that First Premise implies an equal fallacy in its conclusion, an implication that yields profound results for the strong-atheism position (“God cannot exist,” as opposed to the weaker position that “God does not exist”). This conclusion was drawn out by the late philosopher John L. Pollock in his 1966 essay “Proving the Non-Existence of God,” in which he succinctly and straightforwardly demonstrated that the only thing that can possibly imply the necessary existence of anything is the actual existence of the thing in question. If the actual existence of God is not demonstrated independent of mere synthetic conception, we can progress no further than the First Premise, and the Ontological Argument dies after that. Because the concept of God is synthetic rather than analytic in nature, the existence of God is unattainable from the definition alone. Conception in this case cannot instantiate existence, and therefore (contrary to Anselm’s insistence) the statements “God is the greatest imaginable being than which no greater can be conceived” and “The greatest thing that exists is not God” are not contradictory at all. As Victor Gijsbers points out, “The one is a matter of the imagination, the other is a matter of reality . . . If the greatest island that exists is Australia, that doesn’t mean I can’t conceive of Lost Island” [8].

But, as his title suggests, Pollock goes even further than this, presenting an ontological disproof of the existence of God:
The most common analysis of logical necessity is to say that a proposition is necessarily true if and only if it is true by virtue of the meaning of its constituent terms. This means that the proposition that God exists is necessarily true just in case the meaning of ‘God’ requires that He exist, that is, just in the case the definition of ‘God’ entails that He exists . . .

[R]ecall that our concept of God is such that if He exists, then He must exist necessarily . . . But then, simply by modus tollens . . . ~ Eg, that is, God does not exist. Furthermore, this is a conclusion we have proven by logical means, so it is not just true, but necessarily true, that is, [N]~Eg. Thus, it is necessarily true that God does not exist. The existence of God is a logical impossibility [9].

There are certain limitations to Pollock’s case, of course. In particular, Pollock’s use of the concept of perfection as a central part of his case limits the scope of his case, since perfection can only be defined relatively. Pollock’s case for the non-existence of God is therefore is first and foremost an incoherency argument, proving only a contradiction between the consequences of a theological understanding of perfection and the criteria by which logical necessity is established.

However, reviewers of Pollock’s case and of the Ontological Argument tradition have proposed ways in which Pollock’s argument can be applied to the god concept as a whole, without invoking the problematic concept of perfection. For example, Francois Tremblay points out that “Since any hypothetical god would be logically necessary, N(Eg -> NEg) would hold true for any god also . . . If we presuppose that the god-concept is coherent in total and in parts, then N(Eg -> NEg) must hold true. Therefore I see no reason not to apply the Ontological Argument to the god-concept” [10].

Given the blatant circularity of the theistic Ontological Argument and the very basic and elementary logical fallacies it commits, it is somewhat difficult to believe that there are a great many people who favor it in debates with atheists and agnostics. But there certainly are a great many theists who are impressed by it for one reason or another, mostly having to do with their a priori commitment to their god concept which blinds them to the weakness of the argument. This is not an argument that is likely to persuade anyone who is not already a strong theist.

Moreover, the selfsame ontological arguments will probably never persuade the theist who favors it that my skin is green with a spattering of purple polka dots. But herein lies their inconsistency; according to the skewed logic of the Ontological Argument, ideas translate into reality proportional to the greatness of the idea. And since I can imagine that the greatest human beings have green skin with purple polka dots, the statement of the content of that imagination means that my imagination has a counterpart in reality.

For the same reasons that lead me to reject the existence of any naturally green-skinned and purple polka-dotted people, I must also reject the theistic Ontological Argument, and with it the being whose existence the argument attempts to establish.

NOTES

1. Fatfist, “Pastor Alvin Plantinga’s Ontological Argument for God – REFUTED!” Hubpages.com 76, http://hubpages.com/hub/Pastor-Alvin-Plantingas-Ontological-Argument-for-God-REFUTED (accessed 30 June 2011).

2. Saint Anselm, Basic Writings 2nd ed., trans. S.N. Deane (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1962), p. 8.

3. Victor Gijsbers, “Is Atheism Based on Faith?” PositiveAtheism.org, http://www.positiveatheism.org/faq/faith.htm (accessed 30 June 2011).

4. Thanks to Russell Wain Glasser for this example.

5. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961), p. 504.

6. Darrin Rasberry, “On Plantinga’s Ontological Argument,” Debunking Christianity 17 January 2009, http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2009/01/on-plantingas-ontological-argument.html (accessed 30 June 2011).

7. William Grey, “Gasking’s Proof,” Analysis 60.4 (October 2000): p. 369.

8. Victor Gijsbers, “Theistic Arguments: Anselm’s Ontological Argument” PositiveAtheism.org, http://www.positiveatheism.org/faq/anselm.htm (accessed 30 June 2011).

9. John L. Pollock, “Proving the Non-Existence of God,” Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy and the Social Sciences 2 (1966): p. 195.

10. Francois Tremblay, “Ontological Argument for the Non-Existence of God,” StrongAtheism.net 2 January 2005, http://www.strongatheism.net/library/atheology/ontological_argument_for_nonexistence/ (accessed 30 June 2011).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Book Review: "Love Wins" by Rob Bell


I was first introduced to the book being reviewed here by a cover story in the April 14, 2011 issue of Time magazine, entitled “What if There’s No Hell?” Now, from my atheistic point of view, this is a stupid question to ask, akin to Time magazine featuring a cover story on the question “What if There’s No Santa Clause?” But the story still caught my interest; I do not much care for being threatened, and so the notion of hell is an issue to which I afford some weight. I am also interested in the way the question is framed. The question is not “Is There a Hell?” but is instead asking whether or not hell is dead. This is an important direction for the mainstream media to move in. A connection can be made to the April 8, 1966 issue of Time which featured the historic cover story “Is God Dead?” I am happy to see the magazine continue that kind of questioning 45 years later.

Evangelical pastor Rob Bell’s new book is entitled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (NY: HarperOne, 2011). The book contains ideas that the larger evangelical community in this country is up in arms over, namely the argument that hell is a temporary place of punishment, not an eternal one. It is the kind of message that appeals only to those interested in “sophisticated” Christian theology. But the book is hardly oriented toward intellectuals (it is full of more psychobabble than I am used to seeing from Christian writers), which means that its popular-level approach is all the more aggravating to orthodox Christians who want a hell that is eternal for nonbelievers.

The title of the Time article on Rob Bell is actually rather misleading. In his book, Bell quite explicitly states that he does believe in a literal hell: “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.” (p. 71). But Bell’s puppies-and-flowers interpretations of salvation and redemption have nevertheless ruffled the feathers of the evangelical community for a simple reason: the basic, traditional notion for them is that avoiding eternal, conscious torture is contingent upon being a sincere Christian. When a popular author comes along and assures his readers that even those who are not Christians when they die will not be tortured forever, this has the potential to knock the legs out from under the whole scam. The evangelical community is in an uproar, because if all people will end up going to heaven regardless of what they believe in this life, why should anyone bother being a Christian? According to them, this book represents Rob Bell’s attempt to freely give away Christianity’s tantalizing carrot and while discarding the stick entirely. But according to Bell, this is not in fact what he is doing.

So what is Bell doing in Love Wins? Has he done away with the threat element of Christianity? Do his views lean toward a more positive and less judgmental direction, and might his views on the matter be on the rise? If so, I may finally be in a position to not take offense about what Christians have to say about hell. These are questions I wanted to have answered, and that is why I read Bell’s book.

I have to conclude that I am not impressed by Bell’s take on the issue at all.

As briefly intimated above, the central argument in Love Wins is that all people who have ever lived will ultimately receive salvation, including those who have rejected the claims of Christianity in this mortal life. Bell argues that all people will eventually be persuaded by God’s love postmortem, in the life to come. Following are a selection of relevant passages from the book speaking to this point:
The writers of the scriptures consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family. What we have in common – regardless of our tribe, language, customs, beliefs, or religion – outweighs our differences. This is why God wants “all people to be saved.” History is about the kind of love a parent has for a child, the kind of love that pursues, searches, creates, connects, and bonds. The kind of love that moves toward, embraces, and always works to be reconciled with, regardless of the cost.

The writers of the Bible have a lot to say about this love: In Psalm 65 it’s written that “all people will come” to God. In Ezekiel 36 God says, “The nations will know that I am the LORD.”
The prophet Isaiah says, “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (chap. 52).
Zephaniah quotes God as saying, “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder” (chap. 3).
And Paul writes in Philippians 2, “Every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father.”

All people.
The nations.
Every person, every knee, every tongue. (pp. 99-100).

Once again, God has a purpose. A desire. A goal. And God never stops pursuing it. Jesus tells a series of parables in Luke 15 about a woman who loses a coin, a shepherd who loses a sheep, and a father who loses a son. The stories aren’t ultimately about things and people being lost; the stories are about things and people being found. The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. (p. 101).

At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God. (p. 109).

The nature of what Rob Bell is claiming runs along the same lines as rabbis circumcising infants who have died before the age of eight days in order to ensure their proper standing with God, or Mormons who try to pray dead people into heaven, or completely made-up stories of deathbed conversions on the part of an atheist, rationalist or scientist. In fact, Rob Bell is doing the very same fucking thing in this book. In a sense it’s worse than all that; he has conceived of something that is even lamer than a deathbed conversion. Now it’s a postmortem conversion. One can remain an atheist on her deathbed and beyond, and Bell does not care. All atheists according to him will eventually come around to his side sometime in the afterlife, unable to resist God’s wonderful love. How very convenient; Bell is claiming the rotting corpses of all nonbelievers, now and in the future, for Jesus. While it is true that he is not claiming specific individuals will convert postmortem, he is making a blanket statement about all people. And as a specific individual myself, I am affected by that blanket statement, as is everybody reading this review. Sorry, Rob Bell, you are not free to assert what I am going to believe or accept as good after I am dead. You are not free to speak with certainty about “the fate of every person who ever lived.”

Again, I despise the whole concept of hell, because I do not much care for threats, whether directed at me as an atheist and anti-theist, or anyone else. But I am just as opposed to Bell’s concepts, because I do not much care for being lied about. As far as I am concerned, Bell’s invisible friend can keep the doors of hell unlocked for me as long as he wishes. Unless everything that is said about the Christian God now is a lie, and the message at the heart of the faith is completely different from any message ever related, I am not joining up now or in the afterlife, assuming there even is an afterlife.

But this leads me to point out a major problem with Bell’s notions. If I die and somehow find myself still conscious and aware, and I am experiencing torture, it is safe to say I may find myself succumbing to alternatives, taking that second chance before too long merely as a matter of avoiding the torture. Thus, joining up for me and countless others would still be the result of coercion under extreme duress, not a result of any willful violation of integrity. Bell’s vision is one in which everybody gets their souls raped. Love does not win, even in Bell’s scenario.

In Love Wins, Bell displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between belief and worship. I am fairly confident that any first-year seminary student would be able to destroy his arguments in a heartbeat. He cites verses like Philippians 2:10 in support of his claim that all people who have ever lived will be saved (“That at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth”), but curiously seems to have underplayed verses such as Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?’ And then I will profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’”

The “every knee should bow” verse and others similar to it is speaking about all people attesting to the truth of Christianity’s claims. This is different from whether or not all people are going to worship the Christian God. Belief does not equal worship; I believe the Ebola virus exists, but I do not worship it. If in fact the Christian God exists and I encounter this being in the afterlife, I am obviously not going to continue being an atheist. But this does not mean I am necessarily going to worship this God.

There are a number of other passages in which Jesus is quoted as saying membership in the kingdom of heaven is not for everybody. For example, while Bell cites the words of Jesus in John 12:32 (“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me”), he downplays the parallel stream of judgment found in John 3:36: “He that believeth on the Son, hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son, shall not see life: but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Bell also selectively incorporates passages from the Old Testament, such as Psalm 145:9 (“The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works”), but if one reads further into this psalm, one finds in verse 20 that “The LORD preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy.”

Rob Bell is hard pressed to find a way to get around these and many other passages, other than to conclude that certain parts of the Bible are wrong and others are right. But how does he then know that the parts he appeals to are correct? As a nonbeliever, I am in the more honest and consistent position of being able to say I see no reason to think any of the Bible’s theology and doctrine is true.

In addition to mistaking belief for worship, Bell also mistakes tribalism for universalism. Bell devotes an entire chapter in his book to asking the rhetorical question, “Does God Get What God Wants?” Arguing that God promises a comprehensive restoration of all things, Bell cites verse after verse from Lamentations, Hosea, Zephaniah, Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Zechariah, and Micah, all referring to eventual restoration. But what Bell is missing is that the entire focus for the Old Testament prophets is on God’s relationship, not with the world per se, with his covenantal people in particular. The love God has and acts upon is covenantal love for his chosen tribe, not universal love for the world. If God shows compassion, it is because he is acting in compassion to vindicate his covenant with Israel, as in Exodus 2:24: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” The God of the Old Testament is not an all-loving God. He is a God whose love is reserved for a chosen few. Everyone else is “other.”

It is important to point out that Bell’s ideas are not new in any way. During the first few centuries of Christianity, a number of doctrines on several issues emerged which came to be deemed heretical. Questions regarding what hell is and whether or not hell is eternal were intensely debated even then, and the effects of those early schisms is seen today in many different viewpoints surrounding the afterlife within the same religion. Thus, the Catholic Church affirms the existence of purgatory, while Protestants do not, and they did away with the centuries-old doctrine of limbo in 2007. Some Protestant Christians consider hell to be a separation from God, but not a literal place of torture. Others adopt annihilation theory, which states that the saved will continue on in heaven’s blissful afterlife, while the unsaved will simply cease to exist, a state that they say can be metaphorically considered to be hell. There are others who consider hell to be a temporary state in which sinners are punished for their wickedness until they have in essence paid for the totality of their sins in life, after which they are allowed either into the fullness of heaven or some diminished version of it. There are still others, like Rob Bell himself, who propose that hell is a temporary state where the unsaved are offered a second chance to accept God.

On the other hand, Rob Bell is trying to recreate Christianity in a whole new way, and he has admitted this. He is quoted in a Christianity Today article on the Emergent Church as saying “This is not just the same old message with new methods. We're rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life.” This “rediscovery” does not incline Bell to dispense with the doctrine of hell entirely, because there are certain forms of Buddhism, for example, that feature the rough equivalent of hell in their doctrine, called Naraka. This is a place where the deceased go for a finite period of time to work through their accumulated karma until it has achieved its optimal effect. Naraka can therefore be a very bad place to be; because everybody’s karma is different, there are “Cold Narakas,” “Hot Narakas,” and “Isolated Narakas.” Rob Bell probably knows about this aspect of Buddhism.

Rob Bell is a man who has rightly and understandably found the traditional message of Christianity rather distasteful, and accordingly read through the Bible with a presuppositional mindset and read into the Bible exactly what he wants to find. In a recent MSNBC interview with Martin Bashir, Bell stated, “I begin with the belief that God . . . when we shed a tear, God sheds a tear. I begin with a divine being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate and stands in solidarity with us.” From this starting point, Bell has his own standard by which he chooses which Bible verses are accurate and which are inaccurate. His god is the one that agrees with him; he has defined God as “love” (as he understands love) and then has proceeded to make determinations about what a truly loving being would do based on his definition of love, and the end result is a book in which we learn that God is (surprise) exactly what Rob Bell has defined God to be. Bell is clearly an individual who places a great deal of importance and emphasis on love, and this is very commendable. But it also means that the God he writes about in Love Wins is nothing more than a projection of himself and his values. And in this specific sense he is no better than hardcore orthodox fundamentalists, who are guilty of the very same projection.

As a complement to his exercise in selective use of scripture, Bell has found ideas in other religions and in ancient views of Christianity that he finds particularly appealing, and used these other ideas as a way of marketing a bold and different vision of Christianity. But his blatant presuppositionalism constitutes the biggest blow to any credibility he might otherwise have as a champion of a more liberal Christianity. In a BeliefNet.com profile, Bell is quoted as saying "I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it's true, it belongs to God.” In other words, whatever is true is true, and since according to him God is truth, whatever is true is necessarily of God. Therefore, if any religion contains within any of its tenants something that is true, then it is necessarily of God. It is little wonder why the majority of evangelical Christians are outraged by Bell.

Atheists and agnostics have just as much reason (maybe more) to be annoyed at Bell. If all he was doing was blurring the edges of Christianity a bit and dragging in elements from other equally stupid religions, that would be no more or less stupid or offensive than anything else that happens within religion’s own walls (after all, Christianity itself started out as a mishmash hybrid of Judaism and Zoroastrianism). But with Love Wins, he is trying hard to make Christianity more palatable to nonbelievers and freethinkers, and in the process shows that he just does not get it. He displays very little to no understanding of our position and our motivations for rejecting religion. He does not seem to realize that trying to appeal to us by taking the softer side in a debate with orthodox fundamentalists about which of them have the right to own the souls of our decaying corpses is not working. More importantly, Bell is still speaking of matters about which he can have no knowledge, rendering his assertions in Love Wins just as absurd as those of anyone else, including dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalists who want us to be tortured forever. As his subtitle suggests, he is pontificating on “the fate of every person who ever lived.” Whether his take on hell and redemption is more palatable and morally desirable or not is irrelevant if his flat assertions about there being an afterlife to begin with are not supported with any evidence.

In fact, the more palatable and appealing direction Bell is trying to take Christianity is itself a sure indication that he is making things up. After all, there is a reason one hardly ever sees ministers and theologians making up doctrines that are more unappealing and absurd than the religion already is. Instead, what we see is ministers and theologians increasingly making things up that are more and more appealing, despite their absurdity. This includes Bell’s idea that eventually everything is going to work out for the best for everybody who has ever lived.

In a different sense, I am always encouraged to see these kinds of desperate and flailing attempts on the part of ministers to modify Christianity in the hopes of making it more palatable, because such attempts are an indication that they are losing the cultural discussion. The secular and freethinking community is wreaking a noticeable effect on the culture, and that is why we are seeing books like Love Wins and similar books by authors such as Brian McLaren and John Shelby Spong coming out. Mainstream Christians are realizing that their product is not going over very well, and such realizations have historically been the primary reason Christianity has become as domesticated as it has now. The wider culture is having a clear say on the lens through which the scriptures and Church tradition should be viewed, so it is no surprise that a more rational and moral Christianity is trying to meet the expectations of that scrutiny. Christianity is being dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, a time when society’s plausibility structures are far superior and vastly more developed than in the days of the first few centuries of Christianity. And at this point in the game, Christians are pulling their own teeth in an effort to be rational and moral and yet still cling to their religion.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Movie Review: The Ledge


Matthew Chapman’s 2011 film The Ledge tells the story of Gavin Nichols (Charlie Hunnam), an atheist who comes into conflict with a fundamentalist Christian named Joe Harris (Patrick Wilson). This conflict involves far more than just intellectual sparring when a love triangle develops between the two men and the fundamentalist’s wife Shana Harris (Liv Tyler). In the end, the fundamentalist presents the atheist with a test of faith (or rather, a test of nonfaith in this case), an ultimatum that tests Gavin’s willingness to sacrifice his life for someone else. At the center of the storyline is an “atheist in a foxhole” element, a philosophical battle of wills between the stakes involved for belief and nonbelief.

With The Ledge, writer and director Matthew Chapman, the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, has made a film that is clearly pro-atheist (some of the basic arguments in support of atheism are incorporated into the film), but which at the same time can be enjoyed as a gripping thriller and a love story.

This is no simple task; getting those two elements together in one story requires a delicate balance. While some people are sure to come away thinking the film had too many discussions about atheism versus fundamentalist religion, and some will doubtless think there is too little, Chapman has in my estimation pulled of that balance very well. Atheism too often tends to be spoken about in a dryly intellectual manner, while the highly emotional consequences of being an atheist, having a prejudice against atheists, and being in a relationship in which one is a fundamentalist and one is not are overlooked. We often forget about the emotional consequences of religion’s most oppressive aspects: the suffering, the pain, the misery, the crying, the executions, etc. These emotional consequences of oppressive fundamentalism are captured potently by Chapman in the film against the backdrop of an all-American story with thought-provoking dialogue.

The Ledge premiered for the first time at the American Atheist 2011 convention in Des Moines, Iowa last April. It is currently available to be downloaded and streamed over the Internet anywhere in America, from the Independent Film Channel’s website and from the film’s own website, LedgeMovie.com. It has enjoyed great success after only a few weeks, reaching approximately 200,000 people so far, 90 percent of whom are currently non-atheist. The film is scheduled to open theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on July 8, 2011. If the film does well in those two cities, then it will hit the little towns in the middle that really matter (New York and Los Angeles are really not the important cities, in terms of who needs to see this movie). The hope is that the film will receive strong support in New York and L.A. such that the distributors will see that the freethinking community supports its own products and its own views as portrayed in the products. If the film is a great success, it will open in theaters across the country. If this is accomplished, it will mark a huge achievement for openly atheist filmmaking. It may even open a door for atheist filmmaking in much the same way Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ opened the door for a wave of explicitly faith-based films, which only started coming out of the Hollywood woodwork once that film was supported by its community.

It is very difficult to make any movie in Hollywood that features long dialogue sequences and which tackles serious issues, much less one that is explicitly atheistic in its viewpoint. For one thing, very few people are likely to even believe that there is a community that will support such creative ventures. For another, Hollywood is not quite the liberal, secular and fun-loving community that most people think it is. Not only does almost everybody in Hollywood retire to bed early, but there is also a somewhat pronounced religious demographic there. Many in Hollywood who are not religious are into New Age beliefs of some kind or another.

The cast and crew of The Ledge is a noteworthy bunch. One of the producers is Michael Mailer, the son of famous novelist, playwright and poet Norman Mailer (one of the film’s scenes features Charlie Hunnam’s character reading Mailer’s 1955 novel The Deer Park). Michael Mailer introduced the script to producer Mark Damon (producer of Patty Jenkins’s 2003 drama Monster), who loved it and got on board. Charlie Hunnam, who plays the lead atheist character, is an up-and-coming British actor famous for his role in the television series Sons of Anarchy. Patrick Wilson plays the fundamentalist Christian character with chilling conviction and authenticity. Terrence Howard and Christopher Gorham deliver great supporting role performances.

The involvement of actress Liv Tyler is what really turned the film into a financeable project, and she became the catalyst for the film’s much-needed momentum. Liv Tyler’s performance as Shana, the doubting wife of the fundamentalist Christian, is by far the best one in the film. Tyler is immediately engaging at every step; even her facial expressions and nonverbal communications are potent and readable. While secular progressives may be turned off by her overly submissive character initially, this submissiveness is a key step in her character’s development. The portrayal of the oppressive relationship Shana is wrapped up in is highly believable, and the path she takes to her eventual rejection of the whole concept of submission is the most inspiring aspect of the story.

Many Christian viewers are likely to object strongly to the portrayal of the fundamentalist character in the film, insisting that Joe Harris is an extreme caricature which bears little likeness to the way fundamentalists really are in life. But this charge reflects a strong tendency in this country to discount the frankly enormous number of people in thousands of small towns that are not New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago. There are in fact many people very much like Joe Harris in these places, and in certain towns in particular the oppressive atmosphere is tremendous and pronounced. A striking example is Dover, Pennsylvania, where in 2005 a group of fundamentalists took over a school board and insisted that creationism be taught alongside evolution as an alternative science. In his 2008 book 40 Days and 40 Nights, director Matthew Chapman covered the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial that resulted, and documented the general atmosphere of deeply-rooted belligerence and unpleasantness in Dover that came from the local fundamentalists’ willingness to bully dissenters from their beliefs. One can also look to recent cases of high school students like Damon Fowler, who tried to stand up for First Amendment rights against violations of constitutional separation of church and state in his school, and was consequently bullied out of his state by his parents and fundamentalist students and faculty. There are a great many people who can relate stories of their personal encounters, many dangerous and life-threatening, with fundamentalists very similar to Patrick Wilson’s character, people who would not conclude that the character is too outrageous or extreme to have verisimilitude in reality.

It is in fact very difficult to poe hardcore fundamentalists. Everything the fundamentalist character says in the film is accurate and applicable to some group of Christianity. People like me who have lived much of their life surrounded by Christian influence have often taken note of a certain indescribable quality in the manner in which fundamentalist Christians are able to shift gears from being saccharine and friendly to being outright hostile, almost seamlessly. Consider for a moment the phenomenon of Christians who do very good work for society, visit children in hospitals, are genuinely kind and loving to their wives, etc., then express a very dark side of their personality when they look someone in the eye and tell him or her that they are going to burn for all eternity in hell if they do not believe as they do. This is an extremely dark and sinister statement to direct at anyone, but fundamentalists are able to say it with a smile on their face on a regular basis. Patrick Wilson did a superb job of portraying this mannerism. In my estimation, The Ledge presents an honest compilation of fundamentalist Christianity within a broad spectrum concentrated in one character, but not to the point where the character comes off feeling like a schizophrenically implausible mix of different denominational sects. In other words, the film is not creating a brand new straw-man version of Christian belief, which is sure to be a common accusation from believers who see the movie.

However, one need not defend Chapman’s portrayal of fundamentalism with examples of real-life counterparts, because there is nothing simple or black-and-white about the characters in The Ledge. They are anything but cookie-cutter representations of two sides of a clearly-divided fence. There is no “good guy” in the story (except, arguably, within a very specific context) and the characters are afforded an appreciable depth. Both the atheist and the fundamentalist characters have clear flaws, and both of them possess good and bad qualities, as all people do in real life. And if the bottom line is that some people will like the respective portrayals and some people will not, the only response necessary is to acknowledge that this is the way with all movies.

The only factor that really distinguishes the atheist and the fundamentalist in The Ledge is who enjoys the process of judgment of the other’s worldview and who does not. In spite of being very outspoken and rather aggressive in his atheism, Charlie Hunnam’s character, he acquires in the end a sense of sympathy (perhaps even kindness) for Joe Harris and is willing to do what is necessary to save someone’s life. At the same time, the fundamentalist character is thoughtfully developed such that the viewer can see exactly why and how he has become the deeply judgmental person he is, and that his love for his wife Shana is sincere. The sharp pain he feels when that love is threatened by another suitor who wants to free her from the constraints of religion is clearly and authentically expressed by actor Patrick Wilson, and one can easily relate to his emotions regardless of where one stands on religion.

Some may feel inclined to ask what the reason is for making a movie like this, in an environment in which there is a veritable flood of great atheist books on bestseller lists across the country. The answer is that The Ledge (and film media in general) offers certain benefits that are not gained from books. For example, The Ledge may do for atheist awareness what Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) did for increasing openness towards interracial relationships, or what Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) did for the gay community. Both of these films came at a time when the door was on the verge of being ready to open on wider public acceptance of interracial marriage and gay marriage respectively, and they demonstrated the power of popular culture to break such floodgates.

It is my contention that The Ledge has come at a time when wider public acceptance (or at least awareness) of atheism is beginning to show in the wider culture. There are many indications of this to be discerned in recent events; the fact that President Obama acknowledged the presence of nonbelievers in American society in his acceptance speech is especially significant. On the level of mainstream popular culture, we can look to the fact that The Book of Mormon, a new Broadway musical that satirizes and lampoons organized religion, has won nine Tony Awards and has become the highest-charting Broadway album in over four decades. The time is certainly right for a film like The Ledge, and if enough support helps it to become a reference in debates among the American people, it will also become a major door-opener for other films that are similarly persuasive, films that can tell stories revealing other forms of religious cruelty which will be embraced by the public to the point where we get a critical mass of people in this country who reject religion as too convoluted, absurd and cruel for its own good.

Another reason film media is needed in an environment where there are a lot of bestselling books speaking out against religion is that we need atheist outreach (for lack of a better word) for every possible media that we can get our hands on. Not everybody wants to sit down and read a book, which to some people may be too dry for their liking. This is one reason many atheist podcasts and radio programs, as well as public-access television shows like The Atheist Experience, produced by the Atheist Community of Austin in Texas, has seen great success; this is a show that interacts directly with live callers, creating impromptu and thus very real conversations that sometimes becomes heated and sometimes does not. To have that level of authentic conversation and dialogue prompted by a movie allows us to reach out to yet another significant portion of the population. I myself have been encouraged just by characters on popular television shows like House, M.D. and Bones (I consider the latter show to be the thinking, skeptical person’s answer to The X-Files) who are clearly, if not explicitly, atheistic. These shows themselves are a surprising and refreshing step in the right direction. Inroads are also being made in the realm of music, with up-and-coming artists such as Greydon Square and Bryan Steeksma producing music with explicitly atheistic lyrical themes.

However, it is important to point out that while The Ledge can be viewed as an atheist film (and I do) the film does not necessarily have to be viewed strictly as an atheist film. Again, there is no ideological engine driving the story, and two distinct points of view are represented. While there can and will be debate as to how fairly both views are represented, that very debate is what is important about this movie. This is why I would like to see marketing ventures aimed at churches that present The Ledge as the dialogue-promoting film that it is. Both sides of the fence need to be impacted by the film, which means looking beyond New York and L.A. as soon as possible by giving it as much support as possible. One idea I have personally pursued is to send an e-mail to the American Family Association and other prominent conservative Christian organizations to inform them of the release of what they would consider a very “dangerous” film called The Ledge. My hope is that this will result in tons of free advertising. The more controversy this film generates, the better.

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).