A Critical Analysis of the “Left Behind” Series (5): Biblical Pornography

My eyes with your vision
My choice but always your decision
My play with your direction
Well it’s my lead but always your connection.

~ The Alan Parsons Project, ‘You Don’t Believe’ (1984)


Image by Brendan Powell Smith, from his website “The Brick Testament”

The wild popularity of the Left Behind series demonstrates the extent to which evangelical culture has become proficient and competent in adopting secular standards to dramatize the Christian message. This is made all the more fascinating when one considers the extremely literalist standpoint with regard to theological doctrine that the authors of the series assert and from which the storyline and concept is derived. Slacktivist blogger Fred Clark aptly refers to the Left Behind series as “Pretrib Porno” owing to “its fetishistic appeal for followers of that kinky eschatology”:

A good artist knows when to fade to black (or, as in Dante’s “Paradiso,” to fade to white), when to suggest rather than to show, when implicit metaphor will be more truthful than explicit detail. Pornographers — be they sexual or spiritual — don’t care about such things. They neither acknowledge nor seek to convey anything transcendent in their subject, replacing transcendence with titillation. Their audience is never caught up in the mystery and ecstasy of rapture, only teased with the cheap thrills of a great snatch [1].

And there are cheap thrills aplenty in Left Behind. As Rolling Stone’s Robert Dreyfuss notes, “[LaHaye’s] books depict a fantastical, fictional version of what he and his followers think is in store for the human race . . . If the Bible (Revelation 9:1-11) says that billions of six-inch long scorpionlike monsters with the heads of men, ‘flowing hair like that of women’ and the teeth of lions, wearing crowns and helmets, will swarm across the globe gnawing on unbelievers – well, that’s exactly what LaHaye says will happen [2].”

These creatures, literally rendered, make their appearance in the series’ fifth book. Our authors imagine them as a “grossly-overgrown combination insect, arthropod, and mammal” having “a horse-shaped body consisting of a two-part abdomen,” with a multi-segment preabdomen covered in metallic armor and posterior segments ending in a stinger tail. “The face looked like that of man, but as it writhed and grimaced and scowled at Buck, it displayed a set of teeth way out of proportion. They were the teeth of a lion with long canines, the upper pair extending over the lower lip.” True to the biblical description, the demonic insects in this novel also have “long, flowing hair like a woman’s, spilling out from under what appeared to be a combination helmet and crown, gold in color [3].”

The same chapter in Revelation that features these bizarre scorpionlike creatures also treats us to a description of an army of 200 million demonic horsemen who embark on a global killing spree that leaves one third of the earth’s inhabitants dead. These are fire-breathing horses with heads “as the heads of lions” and tails “like unto serpents” (Revelation 9:13-19). Like the armor-wearing scorpions with the human heads and lion teeth, these symbol-laden horse/lion/snake monsters are given an absurd literalistic treatment by LaHaye and Jenkins in their story:

Flames came from their nostrils and mouths, and thick yellow smoke billowed. The fire illuminated their majestic wide heads, the heads of lions with enormous canines and flowing manes. Rayford slowly, painfully rose, no longer surprised that Leah had been rendered helpless when first she had seen them. . . .

He trembled, trying to take in the scene. . . . The riders were proportioned every bit as large as the animals. They appeared human but each had to be ten feet tall and weigh five hundred pounds. . . . The horse in front of him, hardly three paces away, stutter-stepped and turned in a circle. Rayford gaped at a tail consisting not of hair but rather a writhing, sinewy serpent with a head twice the size of Rayford’s fist. It writhed and bared its fangs.

The riders seemed to gaze miles into the distance, high over Rayford’s head. Each horseman wore a breastplate that, illumined by the flames, shone iridescent yellow, deep navy, and fiery red. Massive biceps and forearms knotted and rippling, the riders seemed to work to keep the animals from stampeding [4].

As we can see, the authors approach the apocalyptic texts upon which they base their story with a dogged and wooden literalism which makes for highly entertaining reading but also ultimately represents another major shortcoming of the series. For one, there is no real element of suspense or originality at work in the series. The authors simply map out the biblical apocalypse literally, superimpose the Book of Revelation onto modern times, and invite their readers to grab the proverbial popcorn and watch it come to life. Being Bible-worshipping fundamentalists, LaHaye and Jenkins were probably intimidated by the following dire warning found at the end of the Book of Revelation while writing the series:

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book (Revelation 22:18-19, KJV).

To appropriate the words of the song by the Alan Parsons Project, quoted in the epigraph above, it’s LaHaye’s play with the Bible’s direction, and it’s the former’s terms on the latter’s conditions. “They’re my tunes but they’re your compositions.”

Other novelists in mainstream secular markets have demonstrated that it is possible to produce a genuinely gripping and original yarn while taking artistic thematic inspiration from apocalyptic texts. For example, horror novelist Stephen King’s epic novel The Stand is an end-times story that delivers real and genuine suspense to its readers. Unlike in LaHaye’s series, in which nearly every jot and tittle of the Book of Revelation is novelized, the characters in The Stand do not immediately understand what is happening to the world. Some only suspect that what is described in Revelation might be playing out, but it is not played out blow-by-blow, which only heightens the mystery:

The Antichrist, that’s what I think. We’re living out the Book of Revelation right in our own time . . . how can you doubt it? “And the seven vials were opened . . .” Sure sounds like the superflu to me.

Ah, balls, people said Hitler was the Antichrist [5].

Being a secular writer with no history of fundamentalist belief, King was not trying to save the souls of his readers or prepare them for the Second Coming with this book. But the story – in which a devastating killer plague destroys countrysides and great cities and paves the way for an even greater evil to come along and threaten the few survivors – does incorporate a selective adaptation of prophetic scripture, just selective and understated enough that the reader is made to feel uncertain as to whether the characters are experiencing the privations of a Christian universe or not. It is not by any stretch an arduously-faithful reconstruction of the Book of Revelation as in Left Behind, and King has the good sense to allow his protagonists to be confused about what is happening. The Stand represents everything Left Behind could have been and is not. The smooth-talking politician from Romania does not hold a candle to the “Dark Man” Randall Flagg.

By contrast, LaHaye and Jenkins are much too obtrusive in their storytelling, constantly preaching to the reader as they construct a timeline of events as accurately as they imagine the Bible instructs them. The protagonists routinely refer to the Bible in order to prepare for what is coming next and very little takes them by surprise.

Arbitrary Literalism

Apart from the fact that the element of suspense and surprise is greatly diminished by this highly-unimaginative literalist approach, the authors never acknowledge the fact that there is actually more than one straightforward interpretation of the major prophetic books in the Bible (Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, etc.). The problem with literal interpretation is that there is no single, monolithic “literal interpretation” (a peculiar contradiction in terms, if you ask me). Instead, there are many different “literal interpretations,” and more often than not the faithful take the convenient and non-reflective route of simply pretending they are all saying the same thing. Old Testament scholar James Barr explains why this is the case in his 1977 book Fundamentalism:

[F]undamentalist interpretation does not take the Bible literally, but varies between taking it literally and taking it non-literally. This variation is made necessary by the real guiding principle of fundamentalist interpretation, namely that one must ensure that the Bible is inerrant, without error. Inerrancy is maintained only by constantly altering the mode of interpretation, and in particular by abandoning the literal sense as soon as it would be an embarrassment to the view of inerrancy held [6].

This arbitrary literalism is on full display in the consequently-inconsistent Left Behind series. For example, we find the character of Bruce Barnes scoffing at non-literalist Bible followers who were proven wrong by the Rapture event: “But those who had relegated this kind of teaching to the literalists, the fundamentalists, the closed-minded evangelicals, had been left behind. All of a sudden it was all right to take scripture at its word! [7]” And yet, no more than three pages later, we find Bruce Barnes explaining that the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” described in Revelation 6 should be understood as allegorical imagery, rather than descriptions of actual personages: “’Let me clarify,’ Bruce was saying, ‘that I don’t believe it is God’s intent to convey individual personality through the imagery of these horsemen, but rather world conditions [8].’”

Perhaps the most striking instance of the series’ awkward handling of literalism is the authors’ treatment of the passage in Revelation 12, in which John describes a vision of a pregnant woman in space “clothed with the sun,” her feet resting on the moon and her head crowned with twelve stars. She is about to give birth to a male child, “who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.” Before the woman stands a great red dragon with seven heads and a massive tail that sweeps away a third of the stars and causes them to fall on the earth. The dragon is waiting to devour the sun-clothed woman’s infant the moment it comes from the womb. But the child is snatched away to safety in heaven and the woman escapes to a “place prepared of God” in a wilderness (Revelation 12:1-6).

LaHaye, a die-hard purist and completist, apparently felt that he must somehow include this highly symbolic and esoteric scene in his novels. He and Jenkins do this by making their character Tsion Ben-Judah experience the exact same vision as John the Revelator [9]. But Ben-Judah’s experience is much more than just a dream sent from God. He becomes a modern-day Enoch, his spiritual self being treated to a tour of the heavens where he actually meets the archangels Michael and Gabriel who serve as tour guides. Ben-Judah becomes convinced “that when he had seen the dragon sweep a third of the stars from the skies and they fell to earth, he was witness to eternity past [10].” Never mind the obvious scientific absurdity of one-third of the stars in the observable universe (over 23 billion trillion) falling on a tiny, insignificant pebble of a planet called earth. If Tsion was witness to “eternity past,” why was there an Earth? LaHaye is obviously no Carl Sagan.

However, our storytellers do not want us to think that the other bits of strangeness witnessed by their character were actual historical happenings. Even they understand that the description of the sun-clothed woman in Revelation 12 is laden with allegory:

Tsion pored over his Bible texts and commentaries, trying to make sense of the vivid dream. He pleaded with God for another of the same, but short of that, he wanted to understand the one he’d had. Scholars were divided on who the sun-clothed woman was, the one who wore a garland of stars and used the moon as her footstool.

Clearly she was symbolic, as no woman was that large or had a child in space [11].

When Tsion finally receives his desired second vision, he becomes a spectator of the war in heaven described in Revelation 12:7-10, in which the archangel Michael and the angel soldiers under his command fight successfully against the great red dragon and his angels and cast them out of heaven. Here is how our pornographers novelize this biblical passage:

Tsion turned to see a great battle raging. Michael and his angels wielded great double-edged swords against fiery darts from the dragon and his evil angels. The ugly hordes advanced again and again against Michael’s might forces, but they could not prevail. As his comrades retreated behind him, the dragon fled to the throne. But it was as if a colossal invisible door had been slammed in his face. He fell back and tried to advance again to the place he had enjoyed before the throne. But from the throne came an insistent, “No. There is no longer a place here for you. Be gone!”

The dragon turned, his anger nearly consuming him. With his seven heads grimacing and gnashing their teeth, he gathered his own around him, and they all tumbled toward the earth [12].

LaHaye and Jenkins treat this episode as an historical event that actually happened and which Tsion, supernaturally transported to the heavenly realm, witnesses firsthand. So why should the authors not treat the giant, cosmically-proportioned woman being menaced by the same seven-headed dragon as a literal entity, rather than symbolic imagery? Why is Nicolae Carpathia a human being rather than a sea-dwelling monster with seven heads and ten crowned horns (Revelation 13:1-3)? Why don’t we get to read about literal Horsemen of the Apocalypse terrorizing the world (Revelation 6:2-8)? And where is the infamous whore of Babylon who lounges on a multi-headed and scarlet-colored monster, drinking the blood of saints from a golden cup (Revelation 17:1-6)? The literal rendering of all these images would be no more absurd and ridiculous than the novels’ historical warfare between angels and dragons, demon locusts with human heads and armor, and horses with lion-heads and snake-tails.

Other ostensibly “straightforward literalists” who have written Christian end-times novels see matters differently than LaHaye and Jenkins. For example, in his 1950 novel Raptured, television evangelist Ernest Angley relates what Left Behind’s Bruce Barnes was unable to hermeneutically stomach: Two of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (the red horse of War and the black horse of Famine) are actual riders on horses who waltz through the streets of the tiny town of Alabesta where all the story’s actions take place [13]. An even more bizarre example of literalism is found in Carrie Gruhn’s 1951 novel A Trumpet in Zion, which depicts Revelation’s Beast as just that – a grotesque creature played straight out of the description in the thirteenth chapter of Revelation [14]. But, like LaHaye & Jenkins, neither Angley nor Gruhn are consistent literalists. That is, they do not apply their painstaking literalism to everything. This further illustrates the subjective nature of so-called “literal interpretation.”

This leads us to consider an interesting question. Given the fact that, as we have seen, LaHaye’s interpretation of prophetic scripture vacillates arbitrarily between the figurative and literal, why shouldn’t there be an element of surprise in the Left Behind novels? The absence of any such element indicates that LaHaye and Jenkins betray their own voice, carelessly letting it leak into their story. Their characters just happen to subscribe to the exact same eschatological/hermeneutical system embraced by the authors with no shadow of turning, not even for the sake of narrative suspense.


[1] Fred Clark, “L.B.: Explicit Content,” Slacktivist (blog), June 6, 2005, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2005/06/06/lb-explicit-content/ (accessed October 12, 2014).

[2] Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Rolling Stone, February 19, 2004, p. 45.

[3] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Apollyon: The Destroyer is Unleashed (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), p. 317.

[4] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Assassins: Assignment: Jerusalem, Target: Antichrist (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), pp. 127-28.

[5] Stephen King, The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition (New York: Signet, 1990), p. 888.

[6] James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), p. 46.

[7] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996), p. 67.

[8] Ibid., p. 70.

[9]  Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000), pp. 247-48.

[10] Ibid., p. 300.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 302-303.

[13] Ernest W. Angley, Raptured: A Novel on the Second Coming of the Lord (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1950), pp. 159-165.

[14] Carrie E. Gruhn, A Trumpet in Zion (Chicago: Moody Press, 1951), p. 146.

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