Chapter 24

Assessing the "Left Behind"Phenomenon

[a short summary]

Daniel Hertzler

I accepted this assignment as a blind date. I had never heard of the "Left Behind" novels, so my firsttask was to get my hands on them. I went to the nearest Provident Bookstoreto order them, but this was not necessary. They had them all in stock!Indeed, I have been told that some readers place orders for the books beforethey are published.

What Have We Here?

These five novels chroniclethe lives of two men and a woman who are left behind by the Rapture when,according to the tradition of Darby and Scofield, which LaHaye and Jenkinssupport, real Christians will be whisked away, leaving unbelievers andthe less than pious to stew in the juice that remains. The three are RayfordSteele, an airline pilot; Hattie Durham, a senior flight attendant; andCameron (Buck) Williams, a writer for the newsmagazine, Global Weekly.
    All threeare aboard a Boeing 747 on an overnight flight to Britain when the Rapturehappens and their lives, along with the plane, are turned around. Rayfordhas been having sexual thoughts about Hattie and decides to take a strolland look for her. She is hunting for him too, hysterically, to report peoplemissing from the plane, although their clothes are left behind. The majorityof passengers remain, but every child and baby has disappeared.
    By the endof Left Behind, Rayford, Chloe, and Buck have all "received Christ"and joined with Bruce Barnes as "The Tribulation Force." Hattie Durhamhas become the mistress of Nicolae Carpathia who is perceived by some tobe the Antichrist. As Nicolae’s power increases, Rayford and Buck willfind themselves working for him—one as pilot and the other as journalist."The task of the Tribulation Force was clear and their goal nothing lessthan to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaoticyears the planet would ever see."

What Shall We Do with TheseBooks?

These are novels, clearly identified as such. To "assess" them calls for the use of criteria for the evaluation of novels. Here are comments by some who have reflected on the novel’s characteristics.
    For MilanKundera, the purpose of the novel is to know. "A novel that does not discovera hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’sonly morality." At another point Kundera observes that "if God is goneand is no longer master, then who is master? The planet is moving throughthe void without any master. There it is, the unbearable lightness of being."(This latter phrase is the title of one of Kundera’s novels.)
    In theirefforts to present and develop their characters, fiction writers typicallyput them into challenging or potentially compromising situations. Numbersof writers make use of sex and violence in their efforts to plumb the depthsof human existence. In this they are not being original. The Bible andother ancient writings did this long ago. I once read a humorous articlein His magazine that was presented as a letter from a book editorto the author of the Bible explaining why they couldn’t publish it: toomuch sex and violence.
    Sex in theLeft Behind novels is less than prominent. Even Nicolae’s use of HattieDurham as a mistress is described only in general terms. Rayford Steelehas repeated pensive reflections on the sexual feelings he formerly hadfor Hattie even though nothing ever came of them. Buck and Chloe are married,but it is not until she has been injured in the worldwide earthquake andtaken to the hospital that she is found to be pregnant.
    Violenceis another matter. Violence pervades. One would expect Nicolae to be violent,since he is the Antichrist. But the Tribulation Saints are also remarkablyviolent. Nicolae is a liar as we would expect, but the saints are remarkablyfree in the use of false identities. They are generally masters of thechase and we can almost see Nicolae as the sheriff of Nottingham with theTribulation Force as Robin Hood and his merry men who almost always manageto shoot straighter. The predominance of violence over sex is illustratedby the scene where two people are killed in the process of rescuing HattieDurham from an abortion clinic.
    In the LeftBehind novels, the wrath of God and the wrath of the Lamb are as one. Theyare directed at evil, particularly as represented by Nicolae Carpathia,the Antichrist. Even he cannot believe that God would destroy 25 percentof the world’s inhabitants in a worldwide earthquake. He says to Rayford,"Surely you would not lay at the feet of some supreme being an act so spitefuland capricious and deadly as this."

The Irony of Tim LaHaye

The purpose of the Left Behind novels appears to be a popularization of Tim LaHaye’s theory of the Raptureand the Tribulation. The idea of Rapture is extracted from 1 Thessalonians 4:16, but the Tribulation and its aftermath come from Revelation. It appears that LaHaye and Jenkins are determined to exploit every violent image ofRevelation to its uttermost.
    In his commentary on Revelation, M. Eugene Boring distinguishes between propositional andpictorial language. He says that John uses both, but mainly pictorial.Propositional language, says Boring, "supposes it is talking about objects,realities that can be grasped by our minds and described by our language."In contrast, "Revelation does not ‘teach’ a ‘doctrine’ of the ‘second coming,’the ‘millenium,’ and such, but holds vivid pictures before us, pictureswhich point beyond themselves toward ultimate reality."
    This aspectof Revelation has completely eluded LaHaye, as it did Darby and Scofieldbefore him. Revelation is objectified as if it were a weather report ora stock market prediction. If John the Revelator speaks of a seven-yearTribulation, there has to be seven years of it or God is a liar.
    Do thesenovels provide for "an enlargement of being," in the words of C. S. Lewis?Some have said so. Among the endorsements on the cover of Left Behindis this one by Dave Tippit of San Antonio: "Incredible! More intriguingthan Clancy and Grisham." And Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer of Chicago says, "Eventhose who are not connoisseurs of fiction will be gripped by this novel."I would add, "Those who particularly favor action movies."
    I’m afraid these books represent Vivante’s "cliché plot." At the end of Apollyon,Chloe, who is married, delivers a healthy baby, while Hattie, who has beena mistress, has had a miscarriage. Life is not consistently like that.
    Boring reports that Revelation had trouble getting into the canon and that, as he observes, "Revelation has been interpreted in foolish, sub-Christian and anti-Christian ways." I see these novels as a dramatic expression of such foolishness.

[This is but a short summary of the full essay. To read the entire essay, clickhere to purchase the book, Apocalypticismand Millennialism: Shaping a Believers Church Eschatology for the Twenty-FirstCentury, edited by Loren L. Johns, published by PandoraPress of Kitchener, Ontario.]