A Critical Analysis of the “Left Behind” Series (1): The Premise
“This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend the end. Of our elaborate plans the end. Of everything that stands the end. No safety or surprise, the end.”
~ The Doors, ‘The End’ (1967)
The belief that the biblical apocalypse is right around the corner in the present day is very central – and is in fact fairly close to the center itself – in the fundamentalist denominations of Christianity. This centrality was present in the early church as well two thousand years ago, so much so that the Second Coming of Christ (the Parousia in theology-speak) sometimes threatened to crowd out the first coming in popularity. There is some danger in this emphasis, whether one is a member of the religion or not. In the legend of the first coming of Christ, we are introduced to “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” (on the surface at least) from whom one can learn all manner of wise teachings. But in the apocalyptic writings and artwork dealing with the Second Coming of Christ, we are presented with a very different personage: An ominous figure with a robe soaked in blood, finally ready to judge the world’s inhabitants and consign those who have accepted the Mark of the Beast into a lake of fire and sulphur. For the average moderate believer and the curious outsiders, the realization that they are numbered among those whom the strong believers think are going to have a part in this lake of fire is not long in coming.
The Jesus of the Second Coming is the cosmic conquering warlord, very different from the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. The Jesus of Revelation is essentially a glorified incarnation of Frank Castle from Marvel Comics’ The Punisher who eschews all semblance of either mercy or nuanced evaluation in his violent vendetta against his enemies:
I’m coming. All of you out there, I’m coming. Those who do evil to others – the killers, the rapists, psychos, sadists – take heed. You will come to know me well. . . .
Call me the Punisher .
Just replace “the killers, the rapists, psychos, sadists” with “the liberals, the tolerant, intellectuals, freethinkers,” and you’ve pegged the Jesus imagined by Christian fundamentalists when they read of the Second Coming in Revelation. But how can Christian believers in the Second Coming and final judgment really expect Jesus to blame non-theist intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky for failing to be impressed by the likes of Jerry Falwell or Hal Lindsey? The deeper the devout believers immerse themselves in this apocalyptic fervor, the more the world they envision begins to look like something out of Planet of the Apes: an all-around nightmarish scenario of epic and frighteningly absurdist proportions.
Welcome to the world of Left Behind.
The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is a bestselling series of novels about the end-times as depicted in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. The saga begins with the “Rapture of the Church,” an event in which all believing Christians vaporize in the twinkling of an eye and are translated into heaven. The ensuing story follows the lives of several people who find themselves left behind to face the “Tribulation,” a period of seven years during which all the remaining people on earth must endure great terrors and judgments dropped upon them by the Christian God. For all those not raptured away to heaven by Christ, there is still a second chance to live for Christ in the post-rapture world, an opportunity which is seized by the main characters in very short order. It is interesting to note that, according to the rules of this story, those who are left behind in the very beginning were not Christians, or at least not the right kind of Christians. Considering that these books are mostly read by Christians, this gives the term “lost audience” a whole new meaning.
There are 12 books in the main series, with three prequel novels and an “epilogue” novel bringing the total to 16 books. The twelve main-sequence novels cover a period of seven years, the period of time over which the Tribulation is supposed to span. The series kicked off with the publication of the first book in 1995 and wrapped up twelve years later with the release of the final book (Kingdom Come) in 2007. I have read up to and including the seventh book (The Indwelling), as well as the prequels, and my critique here reflects that stage in my progression through the series.
The sprawling epic of Left Behind is the adventure story of a lifetime and at the same time represents a carefully-calculated fundamentalist scare tactic. Readers will recognize the fire-and-brimstone motifs often used by fear-mongering preachers, but instead of hell, these novels try to instill the terror of being left behind in the wake of the Rapture. The message seems to be that avoiding hell is not the only reason a person should become a born-again Christian. According to the actual beliefs of our authors, there is also a Tribulation to avoid. Why get saved after the Rapture and thus have to worry about the judgments of God and the depredations of the Antichrist? LaHaye and Jenkins present this question by way of the unfortunate protagonists. These are characters that exist for the sole purpose of serving as examples of what kind of people the reader should hope to avoid becoming. In his critical review of the series, psychologist Edmund Cohen makes a fine comment on the foundation of fear and intimidation upon which the success of these books has been built:
Left Behind’s purpose in the fundamentalist church scheme of things is devotional. It is a sugar-coated fear manipulation. To the fear of going to burn in eternal fire if one’s devotional life is not right is added the more easily imaginable fear of being left behind to suffer through the Tribulation—and perhaps not make the cut even then. With each installment, what the errant believer ought to be afraid of is made more lurid. The point is to keep the devotee too afraid to think outside that box. One has to feel sorry for people caught inside those morbid, fictitious preoccupations .
For the apathetic non-believer who is either credulous or on the fence with regards to religious questions, reading about how horrible life on earth will be during the Tribulation will certainly have a subconscious effect at least, and the authors know this. Guilt is a major theme throughout; while there is a good deal of character development in the first book, much of this development is focused heavily on the guilt felt by the characters over their failure to turn to Christ before the Rapture, and the narrative dwells considerably on their regret over having to live in a world without their family and close friends and the commodities they so recently took for granted.
To add to this guilt and regret, the authors burden their characters with fear. By becoming Christians in the post-rapture world, the characters know that severe prosecution will soon be in the works, and that they have taken upon themselves the possibility of just one more way to die, namely martyrdom. It is a world without children; all babies and small children disappear in the Rapture because they are below the so-called “age of accountability.” Strangely enough, however, not all “Christians” disappear. In these novels, denomination is a matter of life and death.
But there are at least two ways in which the scare tactics built into the books’ narrative may fail to work. First, these books read much like dimestore pulp fiction. Often very humorous in a completely unintended way, the books’ corniness makes them mildly entertaining, and I am comfortable with recommending the series to my fellow atheists on the basis of its camp value.
The second sense in which the novels’ scare tactics do not work so well has to do with the authors’ understandable mistake of “romanticizing” the travails of the Tribulation. It is, after all, a fantastical adventure story with which the reader can easily become entranced. In fact, some readers who actually believe in the theology upon which these books are based, or who are on the verge of believing, may decide they do not want to be a Christian in this boring Age of Grace. They may decide that they want to be left behind so they can experience the adventure of fighting the Antichrist.
2. Edmund D. Cohen, “Review of the Left Behind Tribulation Novels: Turner Diaries Lite,” Free Inquiry 21, no. 2 (Spring 2001). Available online at http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/cohen_21_2.html (accessed October 6, 2014).