The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind
by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1996
$12.99, 450 pages
A Domestic Apocalypse
This is the second installment in the “Left Behind” series. These novels are set in the Last Days and deal, as the name suggests, with those “left behind” by the pre-tribulation rapture of the saints. Apocalyptic novels based on similar assumptions have been proliferating in recent years (the earliest ones, according to Paul Boyer, appeared in the 1930s), and for their intended readership terms like “pre-tribulation rapture” require no explanation. However, for this review a few words of explanation might be in order.
The eschatological system which the novels presuppose has been increasingly influential in evangelical circles since the end of the Civil War. As the 20th century ends, it may be the most popular Christian eschatological system of any description. To put the matter briefly, pre-tribulationists hold that the saints, meaning all people who have been saved, will be miraculously removed (raptured) from the world in the years leading up to the disastrous events that precede the Second Coming of Christ. These disasters will for the most part occur in a period called the “tribulation,” which is most commonly expected to last seven years. During that time, the world will be ruled by Antichrist, who will persecute the new crop of saints that rises up in the wake of the rapture. He will also first make peace with the Jews, and then seek to destroy them. After his overthrow at the Second Coming, the world will be ruled directly by Christ for a thousand years, in the “millennium” properly so-called.
Having been told this, you know pretty much what the structure of the series is like, and indeed what the structure of all the books in the genre is like. The rapture itself occurred in the first volume, “Left Behind.” This book, “Tribulation Force,” is set in the period when the tribulation proper begins, the trigger being the treaty that Antichrist signs with Israel. This installment concludes with nuclear weapons being used to suppress a revolt against the Antichrist’s world government. While events of this nature might have a certain intrinsic interest (at least the first time you read about them), the material must be sufficiently familiar to most of its readers as to raise the question of what exactly the point of such exercises may be. The answer seems to be two-fold. First, in many cases, apocalyptic novels are fundamentally pastoral tracts that deal with everyday issues. (Of the co-authors of this book, Tim LaHaye is a pastor; Jerry B. Jenkins specializes in religious fiction). Second, though apocalyptic novels generally project the prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel into the contemporary world, to a large extent this seems to be merely a matter of form. The appeal of the stories may really depend on their resonance with 20th century history.
The “force” of the title is a little group of new Christians who gather to study bible prophecy in the short period before all religions but that of the Antichrist’s newly-created world cult are outlawed. Many of these persons were not aware that they were not Christians before the rapture occurred, of course. Their leader is a formerly luke-warm pastor in the suburbs of Chicago. He had just been going through the motions before the beginning of the end of the world got his attention. His flock seems to consist primarily of professional people with technical educations (which may or may not tell you something about the book’s intended readership). Though naturally concerned with biblical prophecy, the pastor spends most of his time dealing with the sort of problems that pastors in the suburbs of Chicago deal with even when the world isn’t ending. Much of the book is in dialogue, and at least a third of the dialogue concerns the difficulties young Christian singles face while dating. Curiously, the authors wholly ignore the implications of 1 Cor. 7:29 for family formation at the end of the age.
Counseling aside, this is still an apocalyptic novel, and such interest as it has must rest in its portrayal of the contemporary eschatological imagination. The Antichrist in this story is a rather bureaucratic fellow. He parleys his job as General Secretary of the United Nations into the position of world potentate, as you might expect, and then sets about building a world capital on the site of ancient Babylon. To me, at least, this seems like the kind of concrete-and-kickback project the UN likes anyway, so it is hard to see what makes him peculiarly diabolic. Far scarier is his ditzy executive secretary, who uses the immense power of her outer-office to play practical jokes on people. This is one of those protestant evangelical scenarios in which the incumbent pope is among those raptured, only to be replaced by either Antichrist or one of his minions. In this case it is the later, a liberal American cardinal who takes the reignal name of Peter. There is in fact an old tradition that the last pope will be called Peter II. However, in a book where “Pontifex Maximus” is rendered as “greatest pope” and cardinals are addressed as “your Excellency” (rather than “your Eminence”), this detail is less likely to be due to thorough research than to dumb luck.
A natural implication of novels like this is that the armed militias may be onto something. In the story, the country really is turned over to the New World Order, and the militias’ stockpiling of weapons against that event turns out to have been prescient. Not, of course, that it does them much good. The revolt in which they conspire with the much-reduced American president to overthrow Antichrist results in the nuking of several American cities. “Tribulation Force” is hardly a call to arms. Indeed, the force of Tribulation saints with which the book is concerned never does anything more militant than build bombshelters on the sly. Additionally, the Antichrist here does not appear to benefit from the support of an elaborate infrastructure of institutional treason of the sort posited by true conspiracy buffs. His power lies in his personality rather than his connections with the Illuminati.
One sometimes gets the impression from books of this genre is that their preoccupation with Israel and the Jews is an arbitrary fifth wheel. In this book, the Antichrist is moved to make a treaty with Israel because he wants the rights to the agronomical discoveries of an Israeli botanist. The secret formula can make the world’s deserts bloom, or something, but this motive does not seem to be very integral to the story. Similarly, though the Temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem as all this is going on and there is a great proliferation of rabbinical characters, all these things seem to be happening in a universe other than the one that contains the suburbs of Chicago, despite the fact the main characters visit Israel so that everything cane be explained to them.
Apocalyptic novels have more in common with secular dystopias than is generally realized. So far, at least, the “Left Behind” series is really about the rise of a totalitarian government and its effects on the lives of ordinary people. It is not a great leap of speculation to suggest that Antichrist novels have flourished in the 20th century because the period’s history has made nightmarishly intrusive governments easy to imagine. In the century of Hitler and Stalin and Mao, the anticipation of Big Brother and Antichrist makes a certain sour common sense.
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