The "Left Behind" books

Our Hellish Father
New books dissected over email.
June 21 2000 10:46 AM

The "Left Behind" books

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Dear Mickey,

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The statistics you cite are impressive indeed: more than 15 million copies! I'd love to see a demographic profile of who's buying these books. Are all of them evangelicals or fundamentalists? It's quite plausible, of course, because (as you know) evangelicals make up anywhere from 25 to 46 percent of the American population, depending on what survey you consult. Or are the buyers non-evangelicals? I suspect that there's merely a sprinkling of the curious among the faithful. In that way, the sales of the "Left Behind" series recall the popular success of Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth, which the New York Times anointed the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s--though some, I'm sure, would quarrel with the categorization "nonfiction" in the case of Lindsey's book!

Now on to the more vexing question about the God that LaHaye and Jenkins portray. If you'll allow me to wax autobiographical for a moment, I spent roughly the first three decades of my life with the vengeful, judgmental God of the "Left Behind" series. I recall lying in bed awake at night, worried that the Rapture might take place and that I wouldn't be ready or that the people I loved wouldn't be taken into heaven, that they'd be "left behind" to face the terrible judgments of the Tribulation. I fretted for hours about the notion of eternity, time utterly without end. The classic sermon illustration--and one that Garrison Keillor has also cited--was that if a bird circled the world and took a sip from a body of water at each pass, by the time that body of water was dry (the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Wobegon, etc.), eternity would have only begun. Imagine spending all that time burning in the fires of hell because God had judged me and found me unworthy of heaven!

Yet, at the same time, I was supposed to love this God, who I increasingly experienced as distant, judgmental, and demanding. I sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" in church, and I was admonished to cultivate intimacy with this God, who was my "Heavenly Father." As I thought about it, however, it became evident to me that this Heavenly Father seemed less loving than my earthly father. I couldn't imagine that my dad would ever consign me to damnation, no matter how much I had enraged or alienated him.

This is the God that LaHaye and Jenkins write about, based on their slavishly literalistic reading of the book of Revelation. It is a God of judgment, austere and demanding. There's not much about the "Left Behind" God that would make me want to follow him, much less love him. Evangelical Christians insist that Jesus is God incarnate, but they gravitate to this wrathful, triumphalist God of Revelation rather than look at the Jesus of the Gospels. What a pity! The Jesus I encounter in the Gospels is anything but triumphal. He is the Man of Sorrows. He is anything but judgmental--witness his encounter with the adulterous woman. He is gracious and forgiving. He has little patience with those who think they have God all figured out. He hangs out with fishermen and tax collectors and ne'er-do-wells, the dregs of society--scoundrels like me.

And I love him. I love him madly. 

Well, my friend, that's far more than you cared to know, I'm sure. As I recall, your experience of coming to the Christian faith was far different from mine, so I'd like to know how LaHaye's and Jenkins' God strikes you. Was that the image that brought you into the fold? (I suspect not--and what does that do for the ostensibly evangelistic intent of the "Left Behind" series.) You characterize the authors as "intensely biblical." I would probably agree, although I might amend that to "narrowly biblical"; it seems to me that their focus is almost exclusively on Revelation and other "prophetic" passages in the Bible. In my opinion, they miss the forest for the trees.

You raise a fascinating question about character development in the series. Another, more general way of framing it would be: "Can fundamentalists write good fiction?" You've read more of the books than I have, so I would ultimately have to defer to your judgment, although I'll offer a general comment. I think it's very difficult for fundamentalists to write good fiction because most fundamentalists are, in the end, dualists--that is, they see the world in bipolar categories: good vs. evil, black vs. white, right vs. wrong. Their characters, then, tend to face dualistic choices. If your options are always absolute, with no room for ambiguity, then you have no real character development.

I tend to think that applies to life as well.

Best,
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.