After nine years, twelve volumes, forty million total copies, two movies, and an endless flood of apocalyptic merchandise, readers of the “Left Behind” series have reached the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately for them, episode #12, titled Glorious Appearing, is underwhelming and pedestrian, poor qualities for a novel about a Big Event.
Fans of Glorious Appearing: The End of Days, which hit stores on March 30, may be inclined to label my criticisms as the rude sniping of a former Rapture-believing Fundamentalist-turned-Papist. After all, I’ve written more than a few articles and one book about the many problems I see in premillennial dispensationalism, the “left-behind” theology propagated in the fictional series created by Fundamentalist pastor Tim LaHaye and authored by book-a-month manufacturer Jerry B. Jenkins. Having read many of the other “Left Behind” books, I readily admit that I expected Glorious Appearing to be bloated, stilted, and corny. As it turns out, that combination would have been a welcome relief from the 400 pages of repetitive, numbing bombast that assaulted my weary eyes. Nevertheless, I fully expect this latest episode (of what once was going to be just a trilogy) to top the charts and sell a quadrillion copies.
This apparent cynicism isn’t a matter of theological triumphalism (I believe in the return of Jesus Christ) or literary snobbery. I’ve enjoyed books by Louis L’Amour, Robert Ludlum, and Wilbur Smith and have never mistaken them for literary giants, although they did have the commendable ability to tell a story, a talent not employed in the writing of Glorious Appearing. That is, unless you think a good story can consist of endless details about weaponry, vehicles, telecommunications, Palestinian geography, and premillennial dispensationalist theology, interrupted by the conversations of bland characters who elicit no sympathy whatsoever:
“I can’t wait till Jesus gets here, but the clock moves slow when nothin’s happening.”
“Fair enough. I’ve got my Bible and my notes, if you’re game.”
“We’re game. But, Pastor, have you looked up lately?”
Matters aren’t helped by the antichrist, Nicolae Jetty Carpathia (described as “ol’ Nick” by some of the good guys), who wears leather chaps, usually rides a horse, and wildly swings a sword while posing madly for the omnipresent camera crews who wisely avoid equestrian transportation. Although possessed by Satan, ostensibly a being of high intelligence, ol’ Nick mercilessly mangles the English language as he tirelessly rallies his troops:
“These uprisings shall be crushed posthaste. As we speak, portions of our more than extravagantly outfitted fighting force will peel off to these locations to lay waste to the pretenders. They will regret their insolence only as long as they have breath, and then they will be trampled and made an example of.”
Meanwhile, the depictions of the Second Coming and the numerous judgments, battles, and confrontations that follow are flat and unconvincing. Granted, the subject matter is more than a bit challenging and one cannot fault the obvious sincerity of the authors. Their problem as writers of fiction is perfectly summarized in Flannery O’Connor’s essay, “Novelist and Believer”:
Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposed that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.
These literary flaws–which have marked the series from the very beginning–are hardly surprising since LaHaye has said repeatedly that the novels were not meant to simply entertain, but to proselytize and promote his particular views about the end times. A recent article on the “Left Behind” site, “Why Read Left Behind?“, pragmatically explains, “A series like Left Behind can be a powerful tool to bring the gospel to those who are not yet Christ-followers. In every book, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have purposely included at least one significant conversion experience. As we have already pointed out, each book also contains an abundance of teaching, most of it by characters using and explaining passages from the Bible.”
As a Catholic, I have every desire for people to become Christian and embrace the Gospel. But I see several serious problems with the “Left Behind books,” of which I will just mention a couple.
First, the “left-behind” theology is not the “Christian” or the “biblical” view of the end times, despite what LaHaye says, or what the media sometimes echoes. Premillennial dispensationalism and the belief in a Rapture event separate from the Second Coming is rejected, either explicitly or implicitly, by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and nearly every major Protestant denomination. Dispensationalism, with its particular views about the nature of the Church and the role of Jews in end-times events, was created in the 1830s by former Anglican priest John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and later systematized in the United States by C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) and Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952). Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-selling The Late Great Planet Earth took popular dispensationalism into secular culture, a feat repeated by the “Left Behind” series.
As Evangelical scholar and Wheaton College graduate Ronald M. Henzel has decisively shown in his book, Darby, Dualism, and the Decline of Dispensationalism, Darby built his entire theology on a radical dualism between heaven and earth that was unprecedented in the history of orthodox Christian thought. As Henzel notes, no dispensationalist has ever “been able to offer a single point of continuity between Dispensationalism and any other school of theology.” This would all be as meaningful and esoteric as learning to lip-sync songs by Grand Funk Railroad except that the influence of dispensationalist thought in North America has been tremendous. Throughout the 20th-century it had a powerful pull on cultural and political matters, especially shaping perceptions of the Middle East and attitudes towards the nation of Israel.
Secondly, LaHaye’s bio states that he “conceived the idea of fictionalizing an account of the Rapture and the Tribulation,” and in an interview with Pentecostal Evangel magazine he claimed that “Left Behind is the first fictional portrayal of events that are true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy.” If by that he means novels that are based on dispensationalist beliefs, he is incorrect. End-time novels in the dispensationalist mold actually date back to the 1920s and 30s to books such as <a href="http://www.nationalreview.com/redirect/amazon.asp?j=0800751981"In the Twinkling of an Eye and The Mark of the Beast by Sydney Watson; others followed in subsequent decades.
More to the point is Salem Kirban’s “Rapture novel” 666, published in 1970. The plot and characters are remarkably similar to those found in LaHaye’s “original” “Left Behind” novel. Kirban’s novel opens as a non-believing reporter experiences the Rapture (as an observer, not participant) while on an airplane flight. Upon returning home he finds that his Christian wife is (of course) missing; he reads her Bible, stumbles upon 1 Corinthians 15:52-53, and comes to believe in Jesus Christ. Soon he discovers that the Antichrist is a rogue Catholic leader. After managing to infiltrate the Antichrist’s inner circle, he witnesses the forces of Russia and China descending upon Israel, only to see them destroyed by the returning Christ at the Battle of Armageddon. The publisher of Kirban’s novel was Tyndale House, LaHaye and Jenkins’s publishing house.
There are still two more “Left Behind” books to be published: a prequel and a sequel. Jerry Jenkins has a new Rapture novel of his own, titled Soon, and LaHaye is overseeing the creation of yet more end-times fiction, including recently published novels Babylon Rising, the military-oriented Apocalypse Dawn, and the politically inclined End of State?. Amid this dizzying array of apocalyptic fiction, one thing is for certain: The “Left Behind” books weren’t the first Rapture novels, nor are they the last. Whether or not they are the most painful to read is still open for vigorous debate–but they certainly have a fighting chance.
–Carl E. Olson is the author of Will Catholics Be Left Behind? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers, selected by the Associated Press as one of 2003’s notable religious titles. He is also co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax, being published this summer by Ignatius Press.