Judge Not

The "Left Behind" books

Judge Not

The "Left Behind" books

Judge Not
New books dissected over email.
June 23 2000 12:26 PM

The "Left Behind" books

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Dear Mickey,

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I opted out of the judgment business some years ago, which I suppose finally disqualifies me from ever being labeled a fundamentalist. I concluded that it wasn't my place to render determinations about who is and isn't "saved," and that would include Jews. As I understand the New Testament, my mandate as a believer is simply to preach the gospel, and all of us preach the gospel in different ways, "each according to his or her gifts," to paraphrase the Scriptures. Although I can never lose sight of the fact that I'm a flawed vessel, I seek to "preach" the gospel through my writing, my lecturing, an occasional sermon, and finally (I hope) through my life, which I try to conduct with kindness, integrity, and love. I'm sure that I fail far more than I succeed, but that seems to me a more worthy pursuit than deciding who will or will not be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. I'll leave the task of separating the sheep from the goats to others.

This also relates, I think, to the notion of triumphalism. I don't see much room for triumphalism in the Christian life if we take seriously the Christian doctrine that we are sinners saved by grace. Yes, I expect to be admitted to what you nicely refer to as the "heavenly banquet," but not on my own merits, so I have no reason to gloat. If I am on what you call the "winning side," it is only because of God's grace.

Again, this dualistic, almost militaristic, language makes me uneasy, not so much coming from you because I know you have a more subtle and nuanced understanding of these matters, but because it permeates the "Left Behind" books. For LaHaye and Jenkins, the Rapture seems to provide the ultimate line of demarcation. You're either on the right side or the wrong side, the winning side or the losing side.

I think you dismiss too blithely the charge of anti-Semitism on the part of evangelicals. The attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, even though they may be--and probably are--well-intentioned, are deeply offensive to Jews, who remember all too well the sordid history of forced baptisms, pogroms, and the Holocaust. Evangelical insensitivity to that is unconscionable. The Jews in the "Left Behind" series, including Tsion Ben-Judah, are Jews converted to Christianity.

Finally, on my characterization of premillennialism as a "theology of despair." Premillennialism, as it emerged late in the 19th century, gave evangelicals permission largely to abandon the arena of social reform to await the imminent return of Jesus (although there are notable exceptions to this pattern of retreat, such as the Salvation Army). This indifference to society on the part of most evangelicals endured until the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s. Tragically, however, when evangelicals reclaimed their place in the arena of public discourse and cobbled together their political agenda, they betrayed the rich legacy of evangelical political activism in the early 19th century.

But that, alas, is another story.

Your friend,
Randall Balmer

This week, a discussion of the "Left Behind" series, by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Randall Balmer is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religion at Barnard College and the author of Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America. Michael G. Maudlin is the executive director of editorial operations forChristianity Today.