Don’t Get Left Behind
By Steven D. Greydanus
The End Times. The Last Days. Drop such phrases, and people respond with anything from eager interest to eye-rolling agnosticism.
For some, the topic brims with intrigue, with prophecies and signposts mapped on elaborate timelines charting the sequence of events leading to the end. For others, it’s a tedious embarrassment, a hodgepodge of conflicting interpretations and half-baked assumptions that periodically results in hysterical enthusiasts selling their earthly possessions and running to the mountaintops for a front-row seat to the Second Coming, or perhaps bunkering down in the woods to weather the coming tribulation.
Still others, trying to strike a happy medium, opt for a tolerant ecumenical openness to various interpretations. "Pray for ‘pre’ but prepare for ‘post,’ " advised Fundamentalist singer Keith Green when asked about his views on the timing of the rapture and the tribulation. Many likewise feel that the interpretation of end-times prophecy is an inessential matter regarding which Christians may legitimately hold different views. (Incidentally, if you’re already having trouble with terms like "pre" and "post," try this summary to get up to speed.)
This eschatological openness is one factor in the runaway success of the Left Behind phenomenon, a veritable franchise industry that includes best-selling novels, kids’ books, graphic novels, paraphernalia, companion books on theology and eschatology, and of course two feature films so far.
Not all of the books’ readers are necessarily committed to the eschatological views of the books’ authors, Baptist teacher Tim LaHaye and novelist Jerry B. Jenkins; yet they see no reason to quarrel over them either. Even Christians who personally disagree with the basic eschatological premise of the series may be willing to put aside these differences and appreciate the books for their strongly evangelistic message.
After all, the books are wildly successful, and not just with the Christian-bookstore crowd. Mainstream readers who will never even hear of Bodie Thoene or Michael O’Brien are digging into the world of Left Behind, and reading about the importance of faith in Christ. Who could quarrel with that?
LaHaye and Jenkins themselves welcome this ecumenical
openness, and seem to strike a similar note in promoting their
books. An introductory
Our goal is to help you get a better understanding of the "end times" and the different theologies. There are many opinions about the end times. We know that many Christians disagree on the different views of the end times. The most important thing is that we all believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who saves us from eternal death and will return to take us home to Heaven.
Certainly, that last sentence is one to which any believing Christian ought to be able to answer "Amen." This veneer of ecumenical fraternity, however, belies what is in fact deep-seated hostility toward one particular Christian communion — a communion referred to in book 2, Tribulation Force, as "Holy Roman Catholic Mother Church" (p. 271).
This pseudo-ecclesiastical mouthful — a bogus amalgam of such actual phrases as "Holy Catholic Church," "Holy Mother Church," and "Roman Catholic Church" — is a dead giveaway. No real Catholic would use this swollen, pedantic concatenation, but LaHaye and Jenkins place it on the lips of their evil pope — who, as it happens, is in league with the Antichrist and destined to lead the ominous "One World Religion," helping to deceive millions into damnation. The phrase sounds like what it is: an anti-Catholic writer trying to reproduce the language of a tradition with which he has little familiarity but much hostility.
"Satan’s Babylonian mysticism"
This underlying anti-Catholicism, muted in the films to date, becomes increasingly obvious from the second book in the series onward, and is spelled out in no uncertain terms in LaHaye and Jenkins’s 1999 "nonfiction" companion book, Are We Living in the End Times? As articulated in this volume, the authors’ anti-Catholic notions include the following:
- Catholic Christianity is corrupted by "Satan’s Babylonian mysticism," and is "more pagan than Christian" (p. 174).
- Specifically, such Catholic distinctives as the sign of the cross, the Mass, praying for the dead, and "worship [sic] of saints and angels" are assigned origins in Babylonian paganism, and condemned as such (pp. 173-174).
- The Catholic Church is accused of murdering up to 40 million "true believers" (i.e., proto-Fundamentalists) during the Middle Ages (pp. 174-175).
- Individual Catholics can be saved only by rejecting what LaHaye and Jenkins are sure the Catholic Church considers "historic orthodoxy," and embracing the gospel that they are sure is damned by the Church as "heresy" (see below).
- Not only do the authors foresee Catholicism, as imagined in Tribulation Force, ultimately morphing into the evil "One World Religion," already they suspect Pope John Paul II of paving the way. Because of his deep Marian spirituality, they report, the Holy Father "concerns some who fear he could be setting up his church and the religions of the world" to give rise to the One World Religion, "Mystery Babylon, the Mother of Harlots" (pp. 176-177).
A few illustrations from the Left Behind series will suffice to document the impact of the authors’ anti-Catholicism on their fictional apocalypse. The series begins with the rapture taking place: all "true believers," along with young children, infants, and even fetuses in the womb, have vanished from the earth.
In the second installment, Tribulation Force, the authors establish that the ranks of the vanished include a number of Catholics, including the pope, who had only recently been elected. This sounds good — but immediately we learn that, prior to the vanishings, this believing pope "had stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the ‘heresy’ of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodoxy they were used to."
Later, we meet a left-behind American cardinal who misconstrues the vanishings as divine judgment against those who "opposed the orthodox teaching of the Mother Church." The cardinal further reveals that his own sister and aunt, who are among the missing, had "left the church." We are also told that the cardinal seeks to "explain away the doctrine of grace."
The anti-Catholic implications of all this are painfully obvious. The earlier, now-vanished pope’s "new doctrine," so similar to the "heresy of Martin Luther" but foreign to the "historic orthodoxy" or "orthodox teaching of the Mother Church," is none other than the "doctrine of grace" that the new pope-to-be is at such pains to "explain away."
In other words, LaHaye and Jenkins’s vanished pope, like the cardinal’s sister and aunt, is regarded as a "true believer" because he had broken with what the authors believe is "Catholic orthodoxy" and adopted what the authors believe is a "Protestant" doctrine of grace opposed by the Church.
It’s hard to know who’s more confused, the fictional clerics or the authors themselves. LaHaye and Jenkins obviously have no idea, for example, that the "historic orthodoxy" of the Catholic Church is precisely the "doctrine of grace" — that Rome teaches, and has always taught, that Christ alone paid the eternal price for our sins, that in ourselves we can do nothing meritorious in God’s eyes.
In fact, only a few years ago the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation together affirmed their mutual belief in justification "[b]y grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part" in their "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" (15). Yet LaHaye and Jenkins think that the Catholic Church would be awash in "controversy" and fears of the "heresy of Martin Luther" if a pope were to preach the very doctrine that Catholics and Lutherans jointly affirm, that was affirmed by the Council of Trent and Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, by popes and councils and theologians going all the way back to the time of the apostles!
The authors’ other charges against Catholicism are no less misplaced, and even sillier and more tiresome. It should hardly be necessary, for example, to point out that the Catholic Church condemns as idolatry for anyone or anything other than God to be given worship (adoration or latria is the traditional Catholic term; cf. CCC 2084ff), and teaches that angels and saints are to be honored and venerated but not worshipped.
Likewise, the familiar Fundamentalist tactic of trying to link Catholic beliefs and practices to supposed pagan origins is both intellectually bankrupt and hypocritical (cf. this source for more info). Practically nothing in the Fundamentalist case has any historical validity, and anyway most Fundamentalists themselves accept some cultural institutions that have been connected to pagan antecedents (e.g., wedding rings, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, the names of the days of the week, etc.).
LaHaye and Jenkins don’t shy from trotting out even the most outrageous and incredible of claims, provided only that they support their agenda. They even repeat the absurd mid-nineteeth-century claim of anti-Catholic writer Alexander Hislop, author of The Two Babylons, that "every false religion in the world can be traced back to Babylon" (End Times, p. 172).
Hislop’s wildly unhistorical claptrap, though influential in the annals of anti-Catholicism, was not credible even in his own day, and 150 years of archaeological and anthropological discoveries have discredited him beyond redemption. To claim that all of the world’s non-Christian religions, from the Americas to Australia to Asia, can be traced to a common third-century B.C. Mesopotamian cultural source is the height of absurdity. Even other anti-Catholics have backed away from Hislop (e.g., a few years ago Protestant author Ralph Woodrow withdrew his book Babylon Mystery Religion, which had been dependent upon Hislop, and published a new book called The Babylon Connection? debunking Hislop’s polemics). Yet LaHaye and Jenkins continue uncritically repeating Hislop’s most outrageous claims.
Telling the truth
Claims like this raise another point. Defenders of the Left Behind series often ask whether it’s not possible that the books, whatever flaws they might might suffer from, might still do some good by encouraging some readers to faith in Christ. This possibility, though, must be weighed against another: that they may do great spiritual harm, not only by such flaws as its anti-Catholicism, but by creating obstacles to faith for many people.
I once met a woman standing outside a Christian bookstore handing out photocopied flyers purporting to document the scientific discovery of hell by scientists in Siberia who had supposedly drilled down through the earth’s surface and recorded the sounds of human screams with a lowered microphone. Over the course of twenty minutes or so, I managed to persuade her, not without difficulty, of the scientific and theological absurdity of this tale.
However, a young man standing nearby took issue with me, not because he thought I was wrong about the flyer, but because he thought I was wrong to try to dissuade the woman from believing in it or distributing it, since clearly her piety had been moved by it, and perhaps it might have a similar positive effect on other people.
My rejoinder to this was twofold. For one thing, we cannot honor the God of truth with the instruments of the devil, the "father of lies." But secondly, even the possibility that someone might believe the flyer and be moved toward God is more than offset by the greater likelihood that others would disbelieve it and be repulsed, come to associate belief in hell with the absurdity of the story, to perceive Christians as gullible and faith as laughable.
In fact, the more people respond "positively" to something like this flyer, the greater will be the ultimate potential for damage. While it remains in the hands of a few people clustered around a Christian bookstore, it has relatively little power to harm the credibility of the Faith. But what happens if millions of Christians start waving it around talking about how exciting it is? What are intelligent non-Christians — and even other Christians — to think then?
Many, both Christian and otherwise, will reasonably reject such claims, effectively distancing themselves from the faith of those who accept it. Even those who accept it will face difficulties holding this belief over time; awkward facts will begin to intrude (e.g., the fact that the flyer provides no references or specific information that could be researched and either verified or falsified).
In short, the more it is believed, the more it will ultimately become a stumbling-block to faith — and rightly so, for it is untrue. In the same way, much of what LaHaye and Jenkins are promoting is more likely to be an obstacle to faith than an aid, since it, too, is untrue.
For example, would any sensible Christian wish a historically minded non-Christian to pick up LaHaye and Jenkins’s book and read the claim that "every false religion in the world can be traced back to Babylon"? It would be lucky if he tossed aside only the book, and not also some of whatever openness to Christianity he might have.
Obviously, there are a lot of people who aren’t tossing aside the Left Behind books. But in a sense, that’s part of the problem. Like the flyer, the more successful these books are in promoting their untrue notions, the more harm will ultimately be done — both to the faith of those who believe it, and to the openness to faith of those who don’t.
Eschatology does matter
To understand how the eschatology of the Left Behind series harms the Faith, it’s necessary to know a little about the different schools of thought about the last days — knowledge readers aren’t going to get from LaHaye and Jenkins, notwithstanding the claim at their website that "our goal is to help you get a better understanding of the ‘end times’ and the different theologies."
In fact, from what I could tell based on site searches, their website apparently contains no references at all to the most basic eschatological choices — preterist or futurist; premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial; even pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, and post-tribulation. (Actually, there is one reference to pre-tribulationism: Tim LaHaye’s biography states that he is "the founder of the PreTrib Research Center.")
This is not the place to go into the specifics of all these options (again, see this summary for that). The bottom line is that the kind of detailed eschatological timetable that Left Behind depends on is not supported by sacred scripture or historic Christian belief. In fact, "rapture" theology in the form promoted in these books first developed around 1830 and became widespread only in the twentieth century.
Because such timetables aren’t supported in the scriptures, those who try to construct them arrive at widely contradictory conclusions. This creates confusion and skepticism. Then, in part because advocates of the rival theories are jockeying for position and trying to support their particular models, they begin obsessively analyzing world events for evidence that the world is proceeding according to their own interpretive frameworks.
This, in turn, leads to paranoia and end-times hysteria, as people begin seeing beasts, marks, one-world religions, and one-world governments under every bush. For example, the names of countless prominent figures, including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Hitler, Prince Charles, and, perhaps most inexplicably, Sam Donaldson of ABC News, have all been calculated by various means to arrive at "666"; while Social Security numbers, bar codes, credit cards, and microchips have all been implicated in the coming mark of the beast. In some cases, as previously mentioned, end-times hysteria leads to extreme behavior such as quitting jobs, selling homes, and trying somehow to prepare for events anticipated according to one’s timetable.
Even more insidiously, because these interpretive timetables anticipate a a future "millennial" time when Christ will temporarily rule this earth before destroying it and creating a new one, the present age by contrast they consider to be inherently unsalvageable, the world order of Satan. This leads them to withdraw from the world, neglecting the demands of charity and social justice, since efforts to improve the present age are seen as doomed and pointless, "polishing brass on a sinking ship" as one of their leaders has said. (The traditional Christian view, by contrast, sees the millennial rule of Christ prophesied in Revelation 20 as a reference to the present age — not the Devil’s world order, but the Church age, during which Christ reigns in and through his body on earth prior to his return; thus encouraging rather than discouraging engagement with the world.)
Another issue is that the sheer length and complexity of these interpretive frameworks, with all their signposts at different stages, leads advocates to overlook clear indications that the end of the world is not imminent.
For there are eschatological signs in scripture — not a detailed timetable, but simple glimpses of things that need to happen before the end of the world. For example, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by ‘all Israel’ " (674). A great acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah among the Jewish people (e.g., Rom 11:15), as well as widespread persecution of the Church that will drive many from the faith (e.g., Matt 24:9-12; Luke 18:8), are among the signs of the end foretold in scripture and affirmed in historic Christian tradition, including the Catechism (cf. CCC 674-675).
Those who follow complicated eschatologies usually acknowledge these things, yet the very length and complexity of their timetables negates the significance of the point. The absence of those signs may mean that the very end is not imminent; but there are so many signposts to pass before that point that the end times may already be upon us. The rapture, for instance, could happen at any moment, in spite of the absence of any sign of widespread persecution or tribulation; or the Antichrist could already be among us. Thus, the value of the very signs of the end the Bible does give us, which indicate that the end is not upon us, is negated.
Finally, these models inevitably leads to guesses and predictions about the future that are eventually proved wrong. Remember Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth? How about Edgar Whisenant’s Eighty-Eight Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be In 1988 — and its follow-up, The Final Shout Rapture Report (1989)? Harold Camping’s 1994?
Ten years from now, the Left Behind books will be hopelessly dated geopolitically, culturally, and technologically (the books are technophilic, with lots of computer technology, surveillance equipment, etc.). Already the series is out of step with the real world; the first book, for example, speaks of the obsolete German mark as the common currency behind which Europe unites. As the book’s technological and cultural references become mired in history, how will the end-times events wrapped up in those historical references look?
All of these problems — the contradictory systems, the paranoid analysis of world events, the extremist behavior of end-times enthusiasts, the neglect of social justice and charity, the negation of scriptural indications that the end is not imminent, the false predictions — create barriers and obstacles to faith for non-Christian and Christian alike.
Add to these the series’ anti-Catholic rubbish, and you have a franchise that Christians of any stripe should stay far away from. Whether in book or video form, don’t get Left Behind.