The Left Behind Series: Description and Critique

Loren L. Johns • 27 OCTOBER 2002

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Q:  What is the Left Behind Series?

A:  Left Behind is an industry that has grown up around the Left Behind series of fictional novels about the End Times. The novels are:

1. Left Behind

2. Tribulation Force

3. Nicolae

4. Soul Harvest

5. Apollyon

6. Assassins

7. The Indwelling

8. The Mark

9. Desecration

10. The Remnant

11. [not yet named]

12. [not yet named]

 

Q:  What do you mean by “an industry”?

A:  Something like 50,000,000 copies of the books have been sold, making it the best-selling Christian fiction series in history. Besides the novels themselves, which you can get in hardcover or paperback, you can get:

*      Boxed sets

*      Left Behind: The Movie

*      The Movie Soundtrack

*      Audio books on CD or cassette

*      Dramatic audio renditions of the novels on CD or cassette

*      Left Behind: The Kids (nearly 10,000,000 books sold; vols. 1–22 of the series now available)

*      Graphic Novels (the series in comic book format, with 36 to 60 envisioned)

*      A colorful chart to “help you navigate your way through the events of the Left Behind Series and the Book of Revelation.

*      Video “Have You Been Left Behind?” (intended for those who will find themselves left behind by the Rapture)

*      Music (Worship Album)

*      Apparel

*      Collectibles

 

      In addition, Tyndale House Publishers is awash in profits:

*      Earnings have sky-rocketed

*      It has built a new 60,000-sq. ft. warehouse

*      It has doubled number of employees

*      Net income is “far above” that of other large Christian publishing companies

*      This is one publishing venture that has worked financially … and worked well!

 

Q:  What do we know about who is reading this series?

A:  According to the official Left Behind web site (http://www.leftbehind.com),

97% of the readers of this series pray in a given week

84% are born again Christians; 16% are non-Christians

74% read the Bible weekly

72% attend church each week

65% attend a non-mainline church

41% are evangelicals

26% are Baptist

14% are mainline churchgoers

8% are Catholic

4% are self-described atheists

 

Q:  As a Christian educator, what do you think of this series? Do you have anything good to say about it? Are there aspects or features of the series that you like and affirm?

A:  Yes:

*      First, I enjoyed reading them more than I expected to. People who know good literature better than I do tell me that they are not good literature—that characterization in the series is weak and that the books are all plot … but the same people say pretty much the same thing about John Grisham, and he has done well by at least one influential group of readers: the book buyers. I found these to be real page-turners and I wanted to find out what would happen next. To be honest, some of my friends have tried reading the series and have given up because they have not enjoyed the writing, but that was not my experience.

*      Second, there is an Evangelical fervor in these books that warms my heart. I will have plenty to say about what bothers me about this Evangelical fervor in just a minute, but I want first to say what I think is right about it. There is quite a bit of soul-searching on the part of the main characters in the first couple of books, in which they look back on ways in which they resisted the call of God on their lives before the Rapture and regret it. We follow the characters through their decisions to become Christians and share in the joy of their new-found peace with God. I identify with their halting efforts to share their faith with others, with their desire to read the Word, and with the joy they experience upon their surrender to God. I sincerely hope and expect that this Evangelical warmth in the books will inspire many readers to rethink their relationship with God and that many will give themselves to God in new and life-changing ways.

*      Third, the series challenges “being nice.” It implies and states that there are more important things in this world than being politically correct—more important things than making friends and influencing people. Sometimes Christians in this pluralistic age have been too reticent to offend … to the point that one might wonder whether they believe anything at all! This series rightly challenges that niceness and suggests that the unique revelation of God in Christ carries with it the potential of offense in that it requires a response of yes or no. I applaud that courage and wish it for today’s church.

*      Fourth, I appreciate that this series holds to a vision that God has acted in history, is acting in history, and will act in history. This conviction is fundamental to biblical apocalyptic thought, yet one that some Christians seriously question today as they find themselves drawn to a more reflective style of spirituality. Although we have good reason to question the particular vision in the series of how God works or will work in history, I applaud and support the authors’ convictions that God is at work in the world, is in ultimate control of history and will make things right in the end by intervening in human affairs.

 

Q:  That sounds pretty good! Is there anything in the series that you did not like, or that you think are potentially dangerous for the church of Christ today?

A:  Yes. There is plenty in the series that I think is downright wrong theologically and dangerous to the body of Christ today:

 

*      First, although the main characters in the book become Christians, very little is said about actually following Christ in life. Little is said about any real conversion with regard to living lives of love and service. Nothing is said in this series about embracing the way of the cross as those who are left behind face the years of Tribulation. To be sure, there is some discussion of martyrdom, but it is along the vein of soldiers in Afghanistan giving their lives to the cause. Instead of leading lives that are renewed in daily following Christ, these so-called believers seethe with anger and wish constantly for the privilege of being able to kill the Antichrist.

*      Second, fundamental to the spirit of the Left Behind Series is the sense of vin­di­cation that “we” have been right all along. The not-so-subtle news headline that lies behind the entire series could well be, “Premillennial Dispensationalists Proved to Have Been Right All Along.” The message of this series is unadulterated triumphalism. -You can forget the business of Christians taking up the cross in this series! Premil­lennial dispensationalists have admittedly gotten rough treatment in the mod­ern world. From a modernist or secularist point of view, the claims of a pre-Tribulation rapture of the church, followed by seven years of Tribulation, followed by the thousand-year reign of Christ just seems too preposterous to be believed. Combine that with the fact that premillennial dispensationalists have been prone to set dates for the Second Coming of Christ—and the fact that their batting average so far has been zero—and that well-educated theologians as a whole tend to pooh-pooh their ideas, and you quickly come to a point of eschatological frustration with the way things are. It is not the Lamb who has conquered in this series, but the premillennial dispensationalists! “We win!” (4:247; 6:66; 6:179). Similarly, “You lose!” (9:179).

*      Third, the way of the cross, which, as I said, is not mentioned in this book, is not just an individual thing, but as John Howard Yoder showed, represents the heart of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ that God is in control of history through the way of love. And despite appearances, that way of love will win out in the end. There is no sense of the way of love in this series and no willingness to consider the possibility that the way of love could have cosmic significance. A few specific examples: Near the end of volume one the “Tribulation Force” is introduced. This consists of Rayford Steele, a senior airline pilot; his daughter, Chloe Steele; Buck Williams, a reporter; and Bruce Barnes, an associate pastor who turned out not really to be a Christian and was therefore left behind with the rest of them. This Tribulation Force was going to go on the offensive in the final conflict, jump into the battle, and serve as a sort of Green Berets (1:420). They carry heavy weaponry: Berretas, Glocks, Lugers, Uzis, 50-millimeter guns, etc. (4:342, ), and they use them.

*      Fourth, we learn already on p. 70 of the first volume that the Antichrist is a peacemaker, so there are 50,000,000 readers out there who have now been forewarned that peacemakers must not be trusted. Now there are lots of peacemakers, including some intercontinental ballistic missiles, but on p. 271 we learn that the Antichrist is a pacifist peacemaker! So take warning out there, readers, never trust a pacifist! At one point Bruce Barnes claims that he cannot be the Antichrist because he does not promise peace (2:72). As I said, this is dangerous stuff! Of course, the Antichrist turns out not to be a very good pacifist. Already in vol. 1 he kills two of his colleagues with a revolver in cold blood, and then he convinces the people in the room that it was a murder-suicide. In vol. 3 he kills millions of people in Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco in a series of air strikes (2:443). Nowhere does the series suggest that he wasn’t a very good pacifist after all. The subtle message is that pacifists are not consistent and cannot be trusted. At one point someone questions whether Carpathia can possibly be the Antichrist, since he “seeks world peace, disarmament, global unity!” The response: “My point exactly!” (5:29)! There is no real hope for a “consummation” of creation as Paul describes in Romans 8; rather, in typical premillennial dispensationalist fashion, the authors expect any efforts to bring people together as hopeless, misguided, and evil. Meanwhile the intrigue continues. The members of the Tribulation Force are enjoying their new role as God’s Green Berets. They lie, they deceive, and they kill—and for the most part, they enjoy it. When Rayford Steele buys a house in New Babylon, he takes great delight in taking out a thirty-year mortgage, knowing that there are only 5½ years left in the history of the world. In contrast to Jesus’ command that his followers be straightforward and honest in their relationships with others (Matt. 5:36), the Tribulation Force makes constant use of false identities and use the services of more than one excellent born-again forger of official documents.

*      Fifth, this series is quite critical of any ecumenical dialogue (2:27-28). Ecumenism and tolerance are explicitly rejected by Christians in this series (5:189). The Antichrist is portrayed as the kind of person who accepts diversity, values tolerance, and brings people together (5:29; 5:104). Even organ donation is associated with the “worldwide Enigma faith,” which is by definition evil (6:187).

*      Sixth, this series exhibits a questionable and conflicted view of the doctrine of God. While God is involved in the apparently indiscriminate killing of billions of people around the world in all of the plagues that occur in this series, questions about who this God is keep coming up. Is God a “sick, sadistic dictator,” as Chloe wonders (1:165), a God of love and order (1:229), capricious (1:255)? Does God really have to kill so many people just to make a point? Does the fact that God is teaching a lesson justify all of God’s violence (4:108-109; 4:213, 5:303, 5:330, 6:175, 6:241, 7:186, 8:218, 9:70)? Developing a doctrine of God that is biblical and has room for eschatological judgment is admittedly a difficult task. My point here is that while the series recognizes the problem, it does not answer it well.

*      Although Christians in this series occasionally lament the “necessity” of killing, they successfully deal with such pangs of conscience with the recognition that, “Hey, this is war.” That makes all killing, cheating, and lying (which Christians do regularly in this series) permissible (4:359; 5:331, 348; 6:30, 46, 64; 7:90, 166; 9:185, 223). The Antichrist is the only character in this series who advocates gun control (6:263). While the Antichrist may be a pacifist, a born-again Christian can openly wish for the privilege of being “God’s hit man” (5:100)! Indeed, Rayford, the leader of the born-again Tribulation Force, longs to “quit playing and get to war” (5:20)!

*      The Christians who are the key players in this Tribulation Force for God are mostly men. Women have a role, but it is clearly subordinate to that of the men. Furthermore, these men often act like overgrown schoolboys with bad attitudes. They love making fun of their defeated foes. They are smart-alecky instead of exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. They love their toys, whether the latest, most powerful computers, or their Humvees, or their Range Rovers, or their high-tech satellite phones, or whatever. The Tribulation Force must have the latest, most nifty gadgets and toys, regardless of the cost. This is Christian consumerism at its best … or worst! Furthermore, the Christians in this series develop an ingenious plan to develop a global black market network so that when it no longer becomes possible to buy and sell, since the mark of the beast is required, Christians will still be able to buy and sell on the black market, and thus maintain their devotion to the American consumerist lifestyle (5:335). This sounds like the immature testosterone poisoning of the planet—all in the name of Christ.

*      At the end of the day, this series is ultimately a rejection of the good news of Jesus Christ. I say this because it rejects the way of the cross and Jesus’ call to obedient discipleship and a new way of life. It celebrates the human will to power, putting Evangelical Christians in the heroic role of God’s Green Berets. In this story, premillennialist dispensationalism meets American survivalism. This is a story about so-called Christian men who never really grew up, who still love to play with toys and dominate others, and whose passions are still largely unredeemed. Love of enemies is treated as a misguided strategy associated not with the gospel, but with the Antichrist. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have the right to offer any kind of interpretation of Christianity and of the end times that they wish. Ultimately, it is not their interpretation of the end times that troubles me so much as their interpretation of Christianity. It is devoid of any real theology, or substantial Christology, or any ethics that are recognizably Christian. This is a vision of unredeemed Christianity.

 

Does this mean you should avoid the series, boycott it? Not necessarily. As I said, they held my attention. I think the series can be either: innocent fun—as long as you keep these criticisms in mind—but dangerous heresy if you are subtly sucked into the theology, values, and “Christian” (?) worldview reflected in the series.