The "Left Behind" books
How can you play the detached historian amid disappearing Christians, demonic possessions, plagues that kill a third of the population, and global earthquakes? Are you ready for God to pluck you from Columbia University at any moment? Or do you secretly wish to remain and become a member of the Tribulation Force to fight Satan's messiah, the Antichrist? Because of the success of the "Left Behind" series, this is what millions of people think evangelicals believe the Bible teaches.
The adult series has sold more than 15 million copies as of today. Vol. 7, The Indwelling, has sold more than 2 million and will stay on top of the New York Times best-seller list for the third straight week. The "Left Behind" children's series has sold 4 million copies, and when you add in the derivative audio and video offerings, the total is 22 million. What I want to hear from you next is whether or not these now multimillionaire authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are describing the same God as you and I worship.
LaHaye and Jenkins are stalwarts inside the evangelical community, and they purport to explain how Scripture says the end will unfold--to the point of having the characters being astonished in the The Indwelling that the Antichrist Nicholae Carpathia was seemingly assassinated by a bullet instead of by a sword, as Revelation predicted (it turns out to be a sword--the Bible was right!). I cannot shake the feeling that while these books are intensely biblical, they are only superficially Christian.
I know that sounds like a harsh judgment for a fellow evangelical to make. But here is my argument.
First, these books remove the troublesome mysteries inherent in the Christian faith. All Christians are known by a secret holographic cross on their foreheads that only fellow believers can see. All debates about who are the "real" Christians (a major preoccupation of the current church) are settled. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus himself does not like to give simple formulas for salvation, promising that we will be surprised who gets into heaven.
Second, "Left Behind" 's post-rapture God seems eerily different from our current deity. In the books, God scoffs at the seismologists who say a simultaneous global earthquake is geologically impossible. "Hang on to your hats, Mr. Scientist!" Yet today's headlines of natural disasters often need pastoral explanation to soothe Christians' fears of God's absence when faced with seemingly naturalistic horrors. God's hand seems at least hidden in our earthquakes.
Having trouble being heard at an international conference? Well the "Left Behind" God provides simultaneous translation to all listeners. (I'm sure Billy Graham would love such divine intervention.) Having trouble deciding if God exists or if he is just? Let's have some supernatural judgments--such as spirits riding on ghostly steeds--that only strike down the non-Christians. (I'm sure the victims in the Rwanda genocide would have appreciated this kind of sorting process.) This is not how God works today.
Third, Scripture's holism is left behind. Christians perceive a cohesive integrity in the Bible's revelation of God. The God who creates in Genesis is the same God who judges in Revelation and, while there are tensions, nothing ultimately contradicts this overall portrait. Yet little holds together theologically in the "Left Behind" books. In The Indwelling Chloe Williams, one of the saints, debates whether or not she should kill her infant if it looks like he will fall into the hands of the enemy. While not stated, I'm sure one of the reasons she would contemplate such an action is because LaHaye and Jenkins had God rapturing all preteen children--whether the parents are Muslim, Buddhist, or atheistic--in Book 1. Killing your child, then, would seem the surest way to guarantee a soul's arrival in heaven. The Bible resists such easy answers.
Something else I would like to talk to you about is the emotional life of the main characters. All the men seem to be weeping all the time. They have definitely been to Promise Keepers. Only the Antichrist is completely dry-eyed. I guess the message is that real Christian men cry. I don't very often. Do you?
Michael G. Maudlin
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.