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Fearful faith in end times novels


A Protestant friend told me about her memories of childhood nightmares about the “Rapture.” In her church, sermons on the subject were common: Someday, without warning, Christ would snatch away to heaven all the true Christians, leaving behind the unfortunates who would have to endure the seven-year Tribulation under the reign of the Antichrist. One night when she was about 8 years old, my friend woke up to find her parents gone, and she was convinced that they had been “raptured” and she had been left behind. What a relief to discover they had just briefly stepped out of the house.

Speculation about the end times did not play a part in my Catholic education, so this seemed all quite foreign to me. I heard her tale just as I was diving feet-first into the end of the world in its most prominent pop culture form: the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. What I found therein -- melodramatic end-of-the-world horrors heightened by a vindictive vision of faith -- gave me nightmares too, and at the age of 33. To save my sleep and my sanity, I had to stop reading the books just before bedtime. My friend says I should have considered myself warned.

The novels, which fictionalize the events following the Rapture, number at eight and counting. They regularly make The New York Times bestseller list, and have spawned a children’s book series, Christian music CDs, radio dramas and commentary books by the authors. A movie based on the first novel was produced by Cloud Ten Pictures, a Christian company specializing in apocalyptic films. “Left Behind: The Movie” sold well when it was released on video in October 2000, but did poorly in its theatrical release in the spring of this year. Now there is a TV series in the works, set to debut on the Pax cable channel in January. Then there’s the various marketing trinkets (get your Left Behind teddy bear!) and clothing.

The Left Behind books reflect an interpretation of the Bible -- particularly the apocalyptic books such as Revelation and Daniel -- and the history of the world called dispensational premillennialism. These beliefs focus on a detailed timeline of the events at the end of the world: the Rapture, the seven-year Tribulation, Christ’s return and defeat of the Antichrist and the beginning of Christ’s 1,000-year reign.

This timeline for the Tribulation provides the template for the plots of the Left Behind books. The period is marked by one world government (under the Antichrist), one world religion, wars, natural disasters, plagues, prophets who breathe fire, millions of Jews converting to Christianity, not to mention the famous “mark of the beast” that the Antichrist will force upon his followers.

Living through all this are the fictional heroes of the Left Behind books, characters who realized the error of their ways shortly after the Rapture, accepted Jesus as their savior, but must suffer through the events of the Tribulation until Christ appears again. Prominent among them are the improbably named Rayford Steele, an airline pilot, and journalist Cameron “Buck” Williams (so nicknamed because he bucks authority).

Great literature the books are not. They are awkwardly written, if occasionallyeffective in conveying the chaos of the end times. They are bogged down by endless plot ruts. You can skip 50 pages (in a 375-page book), and nothing new will have happened. This may account for the fact that by book eight, we’re only halfway through the seven-year Tribulation.

If the literary shortcomings left me bored, the series’ mean-spirited vision of faith left me depressed. For Rayford and Buck and the rest of the characters who get saved following the Rapture, it’s their own fault they have to endure the Tribulation, but at least now they won’t go to hell. That appears to be the most important thing their newfound faith offers them -- no hell. Plus a certain clubbiness with other believers, a rather smug “We’re in on the truth” attitude.

Catholics’ chances of making the Rapture here are slim. The beliefs of dispensational premillennialism have a history of anti-Catholicism. The Left Behind novels downplay that somewhat. Two prominent Catholics are noted as having made the Rapture: Mother Teresa (the first novel was published in 1996, before her death) and the pope. No, not John Paul II, but the fictional John XXIV, who “served only a controversial five months” before he was raptured, we’re told. He apparently was promulgating doctrine more in line with the “heresy” of Martin Luther than with Catholic orthodoxy.

Cardinal Peter Mathews of Cincinnati becomes Pope Peter II, but quickly tosses aside Catholic orthodoxy to become the leader of the new one world religion, called Enigma Babylon. Enigma Babylon, which takes the Vatican as its headquarters, is a synthesis of all religions, achieving heights of relativism the likes of which Cardinal Ratzinger has never seen. But maybe Ratzinger gets raptured too and misses it. Who knows?

Perhaps overt anti-Catholicism was deliberately toned down to give the novels a wider appeal. The authors’ sentiments are clearer in commentary books that serve as companions to the novels. In Are We Living in the End Times? LaHaye and Jenkins compliment John Paul II for his moral stands, but fault him for accelerating the creation of a one-world religion by his devotion to Mary (goddess-worship) and acceptance of other religions by participating in interfaith activities.

Back in the 1970s, LaHaye published a book called Revelation Illustrated & Made Plain, which provides the true goldmine of commentary on Catholicism. A new edition, now called Revelation Unveiled, was published in 1999, undoubtedly to capitalize on the Left Behind phenomenon.

Babylonian mysticism

LaHaye charges that Catholicism is a false religion corrupted with “Babylonian mysticism.” But we’re hardly alone. LaHaye writes of his visits to shrines and temples of major world religions, where he was “appalled to find the strange chords of similarity in all these forms of religion. Mystery, darkness, incense burning, superstition, ignorance, immorality, priesthood, nuns, sprinkling, idolatry and many other Babylonian customs appeared repeatedly,” he says. “I can only conclude that Rome is not the only form of Babylonian mysticism, but merely the one that has infiltrated Christianity. And she may be the one leading all forms of religions at the end time.”

And so we have Pope Peter II in the fictional Left Behind world. If you look at it like LaHaye, who sees Catholicism as in essence identical to all false religions, Cardinal Peter Mathews’ seemingly overnight switch from guardian of Catholic orthodoxy to the head of a huge, all-truths-are-equal, one-world religion makes perfect sense.

Peter II is meant to be a ludicrous figure, but I thought he was fun. His massive ego won’t leave room for him to be a sycophant to the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia. “I don’t kiss up, and I will be heard,” Peter announces -- and shortly after that show of defiance meets his death at the hands of Carpathia.

And with Peter’s death, another name is added to the hell list. I found myself slipping into the books’ mindset and making a mental “heaven or hell” note any time a character died. When the story introduces a supernatural mark on the foreheads of all Christians, speculation ends: Now I can know for sure where everyone’s going. The Christian characters know too.

One of them, Mac, watches as heaven-sent horsemen kill non-Christians by setting them on fire, people who “writhed ablaze until death brought relief. Or so they thought, Mac mused. In truth, the victims passed from one flame to another.”

What is at stake for all the characters is that they must experience a pivotal moment of accepting Jesus as savior before they die or before the Second Coming. Since all the global events are predetermined by biblical prophecy, the only effective action our heroes can take is to convert as many people as possible. But only one character, a converted Jew, concentrates on that task. He produces a Web site in which he writes lengthy explanations, included in the novels, of how biblical end-time prophecies are being fulfilled.

The ‘Tribulation Force’

Meanwhile, the other main characters form a “Tribulation Force” with a rather vague mandate. They infiltrate Antichrist Carpathia’s organization -- but to what end? The information they gather is generally used only to protect their Christian friends. They pass up numerous opportunities to witness to unbelievers because it will blow their cover. Their few efforts to convince non-Christians to accept Jesus are restricted to friends like Rayford’s coworker Hattie, the annoying flight attendant, and Buck’s friend Chaim, the genial Jewish scientist under Carpathia’s sway. Some attempt is made to convert Buck’s co-worker Verna Zee, a spiteful, miserable lesbian, but it’s entirely self-serving -- if she doesn’t become a Christian herself, she might expose Buck’s undercover role. (Verna disappears in an earthquake before she can do either. But she may yet reappear and become Left Behind’s poster child for “cured” homosexuals. We’ll see.)

Espionage may make for more thrilling reading, but it’s illogical. There is nothing the Tribulation Force can do to stop Carpathia. They can’t even slow him down -- he’s on the seven-year timetable. So why bother?

“Why bother?” is the question with troubling real world implications. The signs are all around us today that the Rapture and the Tribulation are near, so say LaHaye and Jenkins. So why bother with environmental destruction, world hunger and wars, when the clock is ticking to Christ’s return anyway? Peace is not only impossible, it’s not necessarily desirable, since wars will usher in the end times. Jim Robison, a TV evangelist who delivered the opening prayer at the 1984 Republican National Convention, has said, “There’ll be no peace until Jesus comes. Any preaching of peace prior to this return is heresy. It’s against the word of God. It’s anti-Christ.”

The Left Behind novels share this antipathy to people who do care about the problems of this world. At best these people are dupes of the Antichrist; at worst they are in evil league with him, using feel-good, liberal do-gooding for sinister ends.

Oh, Rayford and Buck and their friends do change after being saved. It’s just that apparently the most important things a Christian can do to live out his or her faith are to avoid sexual sins and be nice to other Christians.

And believe in Jesus in exactly the right way. Plenty of Christians didn’t make the Rapture in Left Behind, perhaps because of nagging doubts or because pride led them to think their good deeds could save them. Or perhaps they didn’t accept the view of the end times held by the authors of the Left Behind books. These apocalyptic beliefs are seemingly raised to the level of a central article of Christian faith. In the novels, the true Christians who made the Rapture are depicted as having had the same obsession with the apocalypse as LaHaye and Jenkins. In his non-fiction books, LaHaye claims that dispensational premillennialism is the only correct, indeed the only reasonable, interpretation of Revelation. Thus, if you reject that interpretation, you’re rejecting the Bible.

Facing damnation

While reading the novels, I toyed with the idea that it’s all true, that the end of the world is imminent and I could be facing damnation for not espousing these beliefs. I also found myself wishing I were an atheist. Then I wouldn’t have to tussle with these questions. I realized it would be so much easier if I were a person who was 100 percent sure about it all -- whether it was to totally reject all things supernatural or, like LaHaye and Jenkins, to buy into a complete package of beliefs that sew it all up neatly for me.

But I’ve never been able to be a 100 percent sure person. And so I am repelled by Left Behind’s wrathful, punishing God who condemns most of the world’s people for not believing in Jesus just the right way -- when being Christian, or any religion, is so often an accident of birth. Yet I wonder if my idea of God is too “nice.” I know the authors’ arguments: God is merciful, to a point, and then he’s pushed too far and just brings his creation to a crashing, terrible end. What is so dispiriting about the Left Behind books are the way they pay lip service to God’s love while they spend eight-plus books relishing in the horrors of God’s judgment.

As I read the novels, I took breaks to read a little St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Her words were a soothing balm: “God is nothing but mercy and love.” I choose to believe that, to focus on grace as God’s unconditional forgiveness rather than as a theological concept I’d better accept or I’m going to hell.

I also believe that I should work for the reign of God today, not passively wait for preordained events to unfold themselves. “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come,” so says Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes.

I am grateful that my Catholic education instilled that notion in me. Because of it I can hear the words of Revelation, the vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God has wiped away every tear, with a thrill of hope instead of trembling in terror.

Teresa Malcolm is NCR’s opinion editor. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001