No, I’m not here to dance on his grave. I hope his passing was peaceful, even if I don’t believe he found what he was expecting on the “other side.”
But it makes me think back to reading the series, which I’m both amused and ashamed to say that I read through to the end – all 14 volumes.
Although I did skip all the spin-offs, so there is that.
I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy them. I did. Immensely. I’d like to sit here and say that I was far more sophisticated a believer to buy into the hype around this nonsense, that I took a higher view. But I didn’t.
For those of you not inundated in Fundamentalist/Literalist/Dispensationalist Christianity, you may not realize how deep the obsession that brand of Christianity has with the “End Times.”
Many Evangelical churches spend a lot of time and energy on the End Times. Many Christians eat it up, I think because it’s sexy. It’s the END. And if you’re a believer, not only do you get to see the END happen, you get to be on the winning side and see all those devilish unbelievers and the demons they cavorted with burn in Hell forever. Pastors preach multi-week series and teach Sunday school classes in which they break down all of the prophetic passages relating to the End Times and come up with the scenario above.
Of course LaHaye and Jenkins weren’t the first to try to fictionalize this topic. We have some pseudo-attempts such as the Omen series, or the execrable Thief in the Night and its sequels. But no other story in this genre has energized Christians and entered the cultural consciousness like Left Behind.
While I was rambling through websites and rereading some of the blurbs for the series, I actually felt the same physical response, that mild excitement that I did back then. What the hell was that? What was it I got out of reading those books? Whatever it was, was that also the key to their general popularity?
In all honesty, I think it was.
As believers, we were constantly taught that Christianity was under attack, that we were being persecuted by modern society and the encroachment of secularism. We were constantly warned that we were likely nearing the End Times and that this opposition and persecution was going to increase in frequency and intensity until we were social pariah, unable to exist in the coming One-World Government controlled society, unwilling to take the Mark of the Beast that would allow us to participate in the Anti-Christ’s economy to buy food and necessities. We would be hunted down and murdered by the state.
Well, we would, anyway, if it wasn’t for The Rapture.
Oh, man, The Rapture. What a total Christian mindfuck that was.
Even though, biblically-speaking, the final judgment and eternity in heaven were the Ultimate Christian outcome, the Rapture was really the super-sexy future thing we all talked about and thought about. I mean, it could happen at any moment. Every believing Christian could just disappear into thin air! Poof! And we pre-tribbers were convinced that it was always just a breath away. We literally woke up thinking, “Maybe today!” We went to sleep thinking “Maybe tomorrow,” or even “Maybe while I sleep!”
The speculation around what that moment would be like was titillating, even compelling. It’s that moment that really drives the entire series. Somehow they dragged it on for 14 books, but the whole emotional charge is really in the concept of the Rapture and being Left Behind. It’s one of the few things the authors do somewhat well – capturing what might be the panic of the dawning realization that something has gone dreadfully wrong (or right, depending on whether you were still in your clothes or floating naked in the sky.) The gradual and rising discovery that people are missing, but everything they had was still right there, including their titanium hip joints or whatever else.
One of my favorite scenes is where the nighly news is showing CCTV footage from a hospital that just happened to catch a nurse at the moment of Rapture. It’s up in the corner of the lens – poof – she’s gone, and her clothes float to the floor. They zoom in and hit the slo-mo button. Poof – flutter-flutter.
What the Rapture meant was:
- We’d be proven RIGHT for all to see.
- There would be no more DOUBT about anything at all.
- Our families would realize what we were babbling about all those years and would come to the LORD, but they’d also go through the Tribulation, which we pretended concerned us, but it mostly served them right.
- Those dirty non-believers, atheists, mockers, and scoffers would get what’s coming to them.
Christians will bristle at number 4, and on an individual basis, they’re probably not that bloodthirsty, but move to the larger population and general groups, and believe me, they’re ready to see the wheat separated from the chaff.
This was our key hope as Christians. Escape from the perils and temptations of the world, from the pressure and guilt of sin, from anything nasty, and being in the WINNERS’ camp.
The books on the whole were ludicrous. The situations the authors contrived to place the main characters at every important event bordered on ridiculous. No, wait, they were ridiculous.
There were many truly horrible scenes that, twisted by Christian theology, were made to seem joyful and triumphant. Judgment Day, (book 12, I believe) when the entire world stands in front of Jesus, enthroned on a very huge chair, of course, is particularly awful. Everyone who’s ever lived is there, all bowing the knee, even unbelievers (because that’s Christians’ very favorite thing to warn unbelievers – you hear it in church at least every other Sunday.) They somehow all hear their entire lives judged individually at the same time (because God, y’know?) Then at one time, with one judgment, the ground opens up and some 60 billion people are sent screaming into the Lake of Fire.
This is presented as a good thing.
Because a God of Love would totally torture 60 billion people forever for finite sins committed in a very short life.
Despite all that, it was compelling because it gave life to our chief hope, and even if it was ridiculous (and it was, in so many ways) it still gave life in a way that adhered so closely to the doctrines we were taught on Sundays in church after church. It made it seem that much more real.
And when you believe the invisible unbelievable, that counts for a lot.
One of my favorite things, from the first book, takes place in a church. Rayford Steele (total porno name, eh?) is reeling from his wife and son’s disappearance and remembers her ramblings about the Rapture. So he goes down to her old church to see if he can find more info. It occurs to him that they should be all gone, like she is, but maybe he’ll find some clues as to what to do. When he arrives, he finds a pastor already there, a pastor who didn’t have saving faith, but had fooled everybody (digression: throughout the series they created a character to address every asinine “what if” question ever raised in Sunday school – and I mean every question.) So the pastor (Bruce? I think that was his name) pops a video into the office TV that was purposely produced by the church and left there in case the Rapture happened and people came looking for answers. Here’s a ficitional representation of that video:
Wowzers. And yet I remember thinking our church should do that, and actually trying to figure out how to get that done, because I was certain we were on the cusp, and I wanted people I loved to have answers and still make it to Heaven.
So just today, while I was writing this, I wondered if any church had actually made such a video (or at least admitted it.) Here’s what I found. (note: You’ll have seen all you need to on 2 minutes, but there’s an hour 45 minutes or so of fundamental goodness to enjoy if you’ve half a mind to.)
That’s Jack Van Impe, one of the leading voices in Evangelical Eschatology. He’s got it all mapped out for you so you don’t miss a plague or a trumpet.
Sometimes I can’t believe I bought into all this. Then I’m honest with myself and I realize that, yeah, I’m just the kind of guy who would buy into all this.
I’m glad to be free of all that fear and nonsense.
But I’ll tell you what – if every Christian you know suddenly disappears, come on over to my place.
I know exactly what to do.