On a sunny day in late spring, a Bible Studies teacher at an Evangelical high school in the American Midwest ducked out of his classroom to make some copies of the homework. When he returned, his students had vanished. All that remained were piles of clothes scattered around the room. In a blink of an eye, the children had disappeared and their teacher was….Left Behind!
The students spent the rest of the afternoon sans outerwear playing hookey and engaging in general hooliganism around town. They received a week’s worth of detentions and all agreed that it had been absolutely worth it.
Senior pranks aside, I had been familiar with the teachings of premillenialism long before I helped convinced my classmates to take off their clothes and make a run for it. While my Christian conservative high school didn’t espouse premillenialism as absolute truth, it was presented as one of many interpretations of the Book of Revelation common in Christian theology. But even before that, I had gained exposure to the increasingly visible interpretation thanks to the pop culture mammoth known as the Left Behind franchise.
The novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are a Christian culture phenomenon. People were talking about it even before I came to America. “If you’re not convinced by the Bible already, these books with do it,” I was told. Several of my classmates obsessively read the middle-grade novellas during silent reading. I lost track of the amount of people who told me it strengthened their faith and enthusiastically recommended it. That the series is a phenomenal commercial success cannot be denied. Besides the books, there are three movies starring cardboard cutout Kirk Cameron and one more in the works starring more successful cardboard cutout Nicholas Cage. This is in addition to the graphic novel adaptions, a video game, and the additional series aimed at the kids. Millions of people globally have read the series.
And I’m one of them. Yes, I actually gave in. I read the twelve books. The prequel trilogy. The sequel one-shot. The 40 middle-grade novellas. Even the prequel-prequel trilogy Underground Zealots that Jenkins churned out on his own. My fifteen-year-old self consumed each novel. My parents, always concerned for my spiritual well-being, were relieved to see me finally applying myself to more appropriate reading. And for a fifteen year old, hey, explosions for Jesus are still explosions.
The premise is fairly straightforward. In an instant, every true Christian (except Catholics) disappear, leaving their clothes and unmanned cars behind. The world as it’s left is swept up into the seven-year Tribulation. Most of the remaining unbelievers fall under the sway of Nicolae Carpathia, the charismatic Anti-Christ who leads the evil United Nations against the forces of Christ. In the meantime, a plucky group of Christian converts attempts to survive the Tribulation and show the power of Christ’s love to the unbelieving masses by
preaching to them ministering to them shooting them in the face.
Oh, and Jesus helps out by horrifically torturing everyone who doesn’t convert fast enough.
I finished the last book, made myself a cup of strong tea, went outside and said, very loudly,
WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK WAS THAT?!?!
I felt cheated. Robbed. Instead of the spiritual experience I was promised, I got a badly written, flat, gratuitous snuff-fest of horrific spiritual abuses. This was supposed to strengthen faith? This was supposed to convert me?
When the hell was I supposed to convert?
Let’s take a brief look at all the tortures throughout the series that God inflicts on anyone who’s not a True Christian. I’ve assembled a list. Keep in mind that the Left Behind series depicts these things being inflicted on atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Catholics, animists, Jews (sometimes) and anyone who isn’t part of the right flavour of American Evangelical Protestantism.
– Millions of people disappear, killing thousands who are hit by unmanned cars, planes, etc. and throwing the world into chaos.
– Millions die in WW3 and the resulting plague and famine.
– The Wrath of the Lamb earthquake kills more millions.
– Fiery hail falls from heaven, killing more and burning crops.
– A comet falls from heaven, killing millions around the coasts.
– Wormwood falls from heaven, poisoning the water of unbelievers.
– The sun is dimmed, causing a mini Ice-Age that only affects unbelievers.
– Demonic scorpion mites are unleashed. Unbelievers who are stung endure five months of agonising torture. Many try to kill themselves from the pain, but God doesn’t permit them to die so that they must endure the full length of their punishment.
– More demonic horsemen are released, who kill a third of the remaining world population with poison gases and sulfur.
– Boils and sores are inflicted on unbelievers
– The oceans and the rivers are turned to blood. The only people with drinking water are believers. (At this point I don’t know how there’s anyone left alive, but there are because plot device).
– The sun is given the power to burn unbelievers to death through the power of the Holy Spirit and solar flares.
– Darkness drives the most loyal of the Anti-Christ’s people mad.
– Jesus finally returns and kills all the unbelievers who are left with the power of his talking.
There’s probably more but that’s just what I recall without having the entire series colour-coded (red for plagues, green for disasters, blue for random demons, white for Jesus).
So, at which point was I supposed to convert? After the demonic torture scorpions? Or the burning hail, or the ice age? Exactly where was I supposed to give my soul over to the loving Saviour who loved me so much he came to die for my sins?
I don’t know either.
Here’s the thing, Christians. I speak Christianese fairly well, which means that I understand what the means of grace are (or Means of Grace, because it’s not Christian if it’s not Superfluously Capitalised). The means of grace, according to many Christian sects, are the methods through which God administers forgiveness to his people. The first is the Word of God, the second is the Sacraments. These are the two things that are pushed by much of Christian culture as the way to salvation and eternal life. And Left Behind has none of that. None. Sure there are long passages of Scripture arbitrarily pasted with an addendum of how wonderful God is. But there is no discussion. No debate. No apologetics or defense of the text. The unbelievers never raise legitimate concerns about the nature of the god who’s torturing them, and those who vaguely try are just depicted as being stubborn and hard-hearted. And the Sacraments don’t even make an appearance at all. No one is baptised. The Eucharist isn’t even mentioned. Even my fifteen year old self was confused and confounded by the lack of self-awareness in these books.
There’s a new film based on the books starring Nicholas Cage coming out in October and Will Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame is urging Christians to bring their atheist friends in an evangelising effort. But what sort of evangelising ignores the actual means of grace in favour of apocalyptic spectacle?
Fear-based evangelising, that’s what kind. That’s something I’ll have no part of. My ethics won’t permit it any other way. I won’t be terrorised or frightened into accepting an argument under any circumstances, particularly not one starring Nicholas Cage.
This is what I, as an unbeliever, learned from God’s actions in Left Behind: God want’s an abusive relationship with you so that when he tortures you you know that you deserve it, it’s your fault, that he hurts you because he loves you, and that it’s your own stubborness for not seeing it.
Fuck that. There’s no more civil way to put it.
Their questionable evangelising skills aside, the protagonists of the series (imaginatively called the Tribulation Force) is even more bloodthirsty and abusive in many ways. I wish I had time to go into the flat characters, antisemitism, lukewarm homophobia, self-righteous attitudes, and soulless dialogue of the protagonists, but I don’t, and others have done it far better than I could. I will, however, touch on the philosophy behind the Tribulation Force. Where Stephen prayed for forgiveness for his oppressors when he was stoned, where Jesus commanded his people to turn the other cheek, the Tribulation Force gears up, arms up, and goes on super-cool missions to keep believers safe from the United Nations and spread the Gospel while they’re at it. And if any unbelievers get in their way, they splatter their brains across the pavement. In the video games, you can actually do the shooting.
This is what I, an unbeliever, learned from the actions of Christians in Left Behind: Frog-demons coming out of people’s mouths must be taken literally, but that ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ stuff is optional where book sales are concerned.
Listen, if this is your theology, fine. It’s twisted, perverse, and a completely intellectually dishonest interpretation of Revelation, since it picks and chooses what’s literal and what’s not. If this is what strengthens your faith, fine, although I pity you for being bullied by fear of punishment into giving your soul up to your deity. But, for the love of the gods I don’t believe in, stop pretending this is an evangelising tool. Don’t tell unbelievers that this was crafted to minister to them. Don’t insult our intelligence like that. At least have the integrity to acknowledge Left Behind for what it really is.
It’s torture porn. Snuff porn. It’s Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye getting their jollies off by subjecting their fictional world to the horrific tortures they fantasize on unbelievers. You can practically hear them masturbating as they describe in vivid, loving detail how those who do not accept Christ are choked to death on sulfur, crushed beneath masses of stone, drowned, tortured, driven to the brink of insanity. There is no other excuse for why LaHaye and Jenkins so eagerly describe the mass destruction of another few thousand people every fifty pages. This is what gets them off. This is what they eagerly want and anticipate happening to everyone who doesn’t jump on their Christian bandwagon, out of faith, fear, or abuse grooming. Now, mass destruction is a literary staple in secular literature as well. But while it’s often shown in shades of grey, it’s almost never depicted honestly as righteous punishment inflicted on a people who deserve it. That honour goes to Left Behind and other Evangelical Christian literature.
Sorry, teenage Muslim girl in Afghanistan. Even though you’ve grown up in a fundamentalist Muslim culture and have never received even a decent education, God has lost patience with your unbelief, and that’s why you deserve getting your face melted off. You really should have known better.
This sort of literary wanking is even more apparent in Jerry Jenkins’ solo trilogy The Underground Zealots. It depicts a pre-Rapture world where evil atheists have toppled every government and globally enforces mandatory atheism. Christians are driven underground and imprisoned or killed. And what’s their response? They ask their god to inflict the last plague of Egypt on the atheist world. And God is like, sure okay. Afterwards, the world comes to its senses and realises how badly it treated the underground church that unleashed a metaphysical weapon of mass destruction that murdered over a billion innocent people.
I know that I’m not the only person aware of this disconnect. Many Christians are rightly critical of the depictions of their god in the Left Behind franchise. But even so, this creates another problem. The monstrous deity of Left Behind is simply the Old Testament god brought into the modern world. The Bible goes from the Old Testament god of vengeance to the New Testament god of love. The Left Behind franchise goes back to the Old Testament god of vengeance in order to convince you of the New Testament god of love, for fear that you’ll be tortured in this life as well as another dimension when you die.
If someone can explain that to me, they need to do the same to LaHaye and Jenkins because they didn’t manage to in over 3,000 pages of text.
So Christians, don’t try to use Left Behind to convert us. I left this sort of spiritually abusive theology a long time ago, and I’m happier for it. If you’re going to take me to see the new Left Behind flick, at least have the decency to help me smuggle in some beer so we can drunkenly yell at Nicholas Cage before we’re thrown out.