Why “Left Behind” Didn’t Convert Me

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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.

Convinced yet?

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.

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Sarah Palin’s Sacraments

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“As fourteen year olds, my friend and I took great pride in hanging about with the older ‘cool’ kids in my area. They were seventeen. We were a raucous bunch and I’m sure we annoyed the neighbours, but we were a good group of kids. Stevie was a bit more bold and got into petty theft. One night we were approached by six men in balaclavas. Two grabbed Stevie who immediately started screaming, whilst the other four stood over the rest of us. Stevie was dragged behind a wall. He screamed through both gunshots and didn’t stop afterwards. That was my first experience of knee-capping, I just didn’t know it. I only remember realising that the things under the bed weren’t what I should be afraid of.
 
“Two years later I was old enough to know what was happening when my English step-dad was dragged from my home screaming into the street. His drunken jokes about the English running Ireland had reached the wrong people. I remember hearing a high-pitched noise as my mum shouted the names of the masked men, trying and failing to shame them into stopping. They didn’t. He was shot in both knees in our garden. I realised later that the noise was me screaming. I couldn’t swallow without pain for days. My step-dad left us soon after. And my love of the country I was raised in was destroyed.”
 
The story above comes from my friend Kat, from County Down in Northern Ireland. It describes a particular method of torture often used during the decades when the Christian militias terrorised anyone they pleased. It was called kneecapping, and it was the preferred method of spreading non-lethal fear throughout the communities of Northern Ireland. You see, these Christian militias fancied themselves judges and executioners for anyone on the street who was suspected of wrongdoing. The most well-known were the Catholic vigilantes, but there were Protestants who used the same tactics as well.
 
Sometimes the victims were merely guilty of petty crimes, like poor Stevie. But there were other targets. People who were willing to stand up to the militias. People who were suspected of supporting the wrong militia. People who said the wrong thing. Married into the wrong denomination. And sometimes the parents are expected to collaborate themselves. Put yourself in the situation. You get a phone call. The voice on the other end tells you to bring your child to a certain location at a certain time. If you refuse, you’re advised to buy a little casket. So you do. You put your child in the car, drive them to where men are waiting, and watch them pump bullets into your child’s knees. And there are still cases being reported as late as 2012.
 
There were 2,500 reported cases of kneecapping, mainly in Northern Ireland but occasionally in the Republic. It wasn’t lethal, but you could expect weeks or months of recovery. Many people had a permanent limp, a few had to have their legs amputated.
 
Even though I never knew Kat before I came to the United States, I was connected to her.
 
Because the men who tortured her stepfather, her friend, her neighbours and her people, were sitting next to me in church.
 
The same men? Highly unlikely. But ones like them. We knew it. We knew where a few of these godly men went when they weren’t sitting in Mass. They snuck into Northern Ireland to help our Catholic brothers fight the Protestant menace. They came back  days later with smiles and smirks. Some people ignored them. Others patted them on the shoulder as they walked through the church door.
 
It seems unreal that anyone could possibly find justification for pouring bullets into a child’s body, but many did. The Protestant militias were murdering Catholics with just as much zeal. Atrocities like the bombings of Dublin and Monaghan were fresh in people’s memories. Finding Protestant loyalists or Catholic nationalists, shooting them or their children in the knees, was seen as a warning. A deterrent. Unbelievably, terrorising communities and torturing people was seen as fighting terrorism.
 
I remember a church picnic where a deacon made a flippant remark to a group of parishioners. “There are only two sacraments a Proddy needs. A bullet in the left knee and a bullet in the right.”
 
I have been in America for more than a decade, and in my foolishness, I believed for a long time that I had left such evil behind. I was wrong.
 
As Sarah Palin proved on Saturday as she spoke to an NRA rally in Indianapolis, when she advocated using another form of torture, waterboarding, against other people.
 
“Come on. Enemies, who would utterly annihilate America, they who’d obviously have information on plots, to carry out Jihad. Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we’d baptize terrorists.”
 
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Yes. Not only did Sarah Palin advocate using torture on people who have not been convicted of any crime, who have not yet committed any crime, who may be entirely innocent of any wrong doing, she described it as a Christian sacrament.
 
Oh, America. It’s beginning to sound a lot like Northern Ireland in here.
 
While it’s ironic that Palin’s statement proves that she doesn’t give a damn about the U.S. Constitution, as cruel and unusual punishment is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment, it’s even more terrifying that she believes it’s her GOD-APPOINTED DUTY to carry out such vicious brutality against other human beings. Her extreme nationalism is blended with her religion so that she considers herself the agent of a higher power, and therefore above the morality of decent men and women. And above the Constitution.
 
Somewhere between her run as a Vice-Presidential candidate and a reality television star, Sarah Palin became a Christian of Northern Ireland.
 
Sarah Palin’s fervor for rooting out terrorism in poor, far away nations filled with brown people has caused her to advocate terrorism herself. When you imprison a person you suspect of wrongdoing, forego all laws and due process, and torture them for information, you have become a terrorist. And when you advocate doing such, you are advocating terrorism.
 
Many Christians have been horrified by Palin’s use of one of their sacred rites as an instrument of torture. Even conservative writers, such as Joe Carter over at the Gospel Coalition, have called her out on it. Personally, I don’t give a damn what religious symbolism she uses. Baptism has no meaning for me. If that’s what is offending the Christians, I leave them to get up in arms about it.
 
What I do care about is that I have seen Sarah Palin’s America. I know what it means to have psychotically religious individuals hold themselves above law, and above morality, and torture people in the name of fighting terrorism.
 
I remember it.
 
Kat saw it.
 
2,500 hundred people in one country the size of Ohio felt it as their knees were blown into pieces.
 
Thousands more, most never convicted of any crime, have felt it at the hands of people who cheered Palin on.
 
This is Sarah Palin’s America.
 
And it has a name.
 
Northern Ireland.
 
If you like well-spoken atheists and don’t mind earthy Irish vulgarities, follow Kat on Twitter at @alltheway1919.

An Open Letter to American Christians on Behalf of my LGBT Brothers and Sisters

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Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the kidnapping, robbery, and torture of Matthew Shepard. To commemorate what happened to this twenty-one year old gay man, I am offering an open letter to the people in America who still routinely harass, mock, shame, brutalise, and yes even kill LGBT people around the country and the world.

To American Christians,

It seems like every day I log onto the internet, catch the news sites I follow, and run across a new example of Christian love towards the LGBT community. Whether it’s telling millions of people that they’re on par with paedophiles or claiming that gays use special rings to give people HIV, it seems as though homosexuals and their naughty, filthy lifestyle are constantly on the forefront of the Christian mind. And yet, even more astounding than their obsession with homosexuality is that after decades of brutality towards LGBT people Christians still believe that their opinions are somehow still relevant on the issue. Here’s a big spoiler for all of you. They’re not. They haven’t been for a while.

One of the problems that the Christian church has – and doesn’t seem to realise that it has – is that it’s lost all authority to speak to the LGBT community from any sort of moral high ground. Christians delight in pointing out how gays are trying to push their sinful lifestyle on to good, decent, normal people, as if some dreadful crime or indoctrinating was going on. But then they completely ignore the history of the Christian church’s interaction with the LGBT community over the past few decades alone. But let’s take a stroll through history and look back over some of the brighter moments, shall we?

We can start by stepping back to 2012. Not too long ago, is it? Remember how Pastor Sean Harris told his congregation that if their children acted too gay, he would give them ‘special dispensation’ to ‘crack their wrists’ and punch them in order to man them up? Ah, child abuse, the Christian response to the gay agenda. Remember how Pastor Charles Worley gave a sermon in which he advocated rounding up homosexuals, putting them in concentration camps and dropping food in occasionally? Remember how the evangelical Christian government of Uganda passed a bill in which ‘aggravated homosexuality’ (two or more offenses) was punishable by death? American Pastor Scott Lively was partially responsible for that bill, as he worked closely with Ugandan lawmakers concerning how to handle the homosexual menace in Uganda. The US Congress passed a resolution to denounce the bill, which was blocked by lobbying by the Christian group the Family Research Counsel, headed by Tony Perkins.  They objected on the grounds that it portrayed homosexuality as a human right and that denouncing the murder of innocent gay people would make people think that ‘gay is okay.’ Yes, 2012 was a good year for Christian love towards the LGBT community.

I’ll brush over the immense work the Christian Church has done to deny gays the right to a civil marriage to the consenting adult of their choice. That debate is all over the blogosphere and I can’t imagine I’d have any new arguments that you haven’t heard already. I will address how the Christian church has lobbied in the political arena to deny gays the right to serve their nation with dignity and honour. To work for employers without fear of being fired for their sexual orientation (which is still legal in about 30 states.) Even their private sexual lives were politically demonised by conservative Christians until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, despite the overwhelming Christian effort to legislate their own brand of morality in the political forums.

Now lets step back to the 80′s, during the AIDS crises. It was a terrible time to be gay in America. HIV was a new, unknown disease that ravaged individuals and destroyed thousands of lives. And what was the Christian response? Christian hospitals refused to treat those with AIDS. The funerals of AIDS victims were picketed by Christian organisations (ever wonder where the Wesboro Baptist Church got their tactics from?). Hospitals and hospices that did treat AIDS victims were picketed as well. Federal aid to AIDS research and support was blocked by Christian organisations and politicians. Pastor Jerry Falwell told his flock that AIDS was God’s punishment on a nation that tolerated homosexuality. Hundreds of pastors followed suit. Because, in the end, what’s a few more dead gays?

Do you understand what I am saying? Or do I need to continue? Should I take you through a tour of the internet, where the LGBT community is frequently called the vilest of names? How many times have you heard a Christian call gay men and women f-gs? How many times have you heard them referred to as abominations? How many times has someone mention in your hearing that the Bible issued the death penalty for gays and it’s a shame we don’t follow it so closely anymore?

You, the Christians of America, have labeled gays as less than human. F-gs. Abominations. Deviants. Your organisations, like the FRC and the AFA frequently refer to gays as potential pedophiles. You mock and slander them. You harass and despise them. You throw them out of your homes. Why do you think 40% of homeless youth are LGBT? You fight to deny them the opportunity to live life as they choose, demanding that they live life as you choose. You have beaten them on the streets in the name of your God. You have tortured them in camps designed to cure them, often with documented cases of electroshock therapy and ammonia aversion.

And you have killed them. The names are branded into any conversation about the Christian church’s relationship with the LGBT community. Charlie Howard. Rebecca Wight. Matthew Shepard. Marc Carson. And so many more. Men and women, killed by church-going, Christ-confessing Christians.

And after all of this, after decades of mockery and harassment and persecution and torture and murder, you dare, you DARE to tell gay people that ‘only we can cure you. Only we can save you. It is only through us that you can come to live a truly happy and content life. The religion that we have used to build a foundation of your misery is the only thing that can lead you away from your unhappiness. We are the reason you are so lost and alone and despairing, and now we can give you the love and acceptance you so crave. And if you don’t like the cure, we will make your life hell.’

That is why your ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ creed (which does not appear in the Bible) is treated with such disdain. That is why there is so much vehemence and anger and bitterness from LGBT people towards the Christian Church. It’s because Christians have earned it, and earned it again tenfold. So go to your churches, sing your liturgy, listen to your homilies. But we are begging, pleading with you. Just leave LGBT people alone. Leave them alone to live their lives in dignity. Let them find happiness with each other and their children. Let them build lives of meaning and search for truth in their own way. Just stay the hell out of their lives and walk away. Because any one who has eyes to see and ears to hear knows one thing. Your kind has done enough.

-The Irish Atheist

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The proposed Christian monument to Matthew Shepard, commemorating the day he ‘went to hell.’