On Torture and "Tribulation Saints"

“What if she doesn’t flip? How long do you give it?”
“If you can’t get to ‘em somehow in the first forty-eight hours, more of the same isn’t going to be any more effective.”
“Starvation isn’t a motivator?”
“Would be for me, but I guess they’ve proved it with prisoners of war. The ones who can survive that first round of psychological and physical torture aren’t likely to ever break, no matter how long you keep it up.”

—from Armageddon, book 11 of the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins

One of the tenets of faith of Christian end-times believers is that, in the tribulation period after the rapture, the world will be taken over by a planetary government ultimately run by the Antichrist. True Christians will be a tiny, hounded minority in this totalitarian vision, forced to live underground and always on the run from the forces of evil, and those who are captured can expect torture and execution.

If you happen to be reading this site in an apocalyptic, post-rapture world, there’s one piece of advice you should probably keep in mind, as given in this list of 14 things to do for those who miss the rapture:

Endure to the end, Saint. Don’t give up no matter what happens to you. Do not denounce Jesus. Give your life if you have to, but do not denounce Jesus in any way!

No doubt, this warning stems from Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:33:

But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

Given that rapture-believing Christians tend to interpret every verse of the Bible with blunt literalism, this warning must be terrifying. If believers give in, even under torture, and deny Jesus, they will lose their eternal salvation. To protect themselves against this disturbing possibility, many of them imagine that people who truly wish to can withstand torture no matter how bad it is. The excerpt quoted above from the Left Behind series makes this claim.

But this statement, like much else in the LB series, displays a total ignorance of human psychology. In reality, no person can withstand torture indefinitely, and it is quite possible to use it to force people to say or do anything.

Consider the torture technique called waterboarding. In this technique, the prisoner is strapped to an inclined board, head downwards. Plastic or cloth is wrapped over his face, and buckets of water are then poured over his nose and mouth. This treatment triggers choking and the gag reflex and gives the victim the terrifying sensation of drowning. This technique was used by the Spanish Inquisition against suspected heretics and by Japanese soldiers against prisoners of war in World War II. It is also now being used by the American government against known or suspected members of Al Qaeda.

Waterboarding is a far more terrifying and effective method of torture than it might at first appear. Consider what happened when CIA agents, to rehearse the tactic for use on detainees, first tried it on each other to see how it felt. Keep in mind that these were the CIA agents chosen for field interrogation, the toughest of the tough. They knew they were in no danger and that they could stop what was happening at any time. Bearing all this in mind, how long did they last?

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.

Fourteen seconds. And when the technique was tried on the actual detainees, similar results were obtained:

They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

(If you have any remaining doubts about the effectiveness of waterboarding as a torture technique, consider this post from the Straight Dope Message Board, where a poster tried it on himself to see what it felt like. Not recommended for the faint of heart.)

As an interrogation technique, waterboarding and other forms of torture are worse than useless; they will soon produce a prisoner eager to say anything he thinks his questioners want to hear. But in the end-times scenario, this is precisely the outcome desired. A Satanic one-world government, with no compunction about using these or other torture methods on prisoners, could easily coerce any Christians it captured to deny Jesus in public and seal their eternal fate.

The only other explanation rapture-believing Christians could give is that their faith will give believers some magical, supernatural power to withstand torture. This belief, like rapture belief in general, is an example of how many end-times believers fantasize that their faith makes them special and exempts them from the rules and principles that apply to everyone else.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://blog.atheology.com Rastaban

    Unfortunately, a lot of American Christians don’t think waterboarding is such a bad thing to do. As I pointed out in my blog recently, within a year of our current evangelical President taking office, torturing suspected enemies became the official (albeit secret) policy of the United States government. Apparently Bush approved each and every act of torture. This is the same scoundrel who was elected and re-elected primarily due to the support of those voters who are the most active church-goers, and they remain the base of his support. Strong evidence that Christianity’s moral compass is broken (again).

  • ex machina

    I’ve aways toyed with the idea of trying this on myself. That way I could just tell people it’s torture for sure. After reading that firsthand account I don’t want to.

  • http://www.eunomiac.com Eunomiac

    I’m a frequent reader who rarely posts. I apologize for breaking my long silence with a bit of criticism, since I’m always very impressed (and occasionally awestruck) with what you have to write. I promise to express more positive sentiment down the road to make up for it :-)

    I thought this article missed the point a little bit, at least until that very last paragraph. I think those last three lines contain the real position of most believers, with very few taking the position that human psychology alone will protect them from the ravages of torture. I see a problem in your drawing a stark line between entirely natural human psychology and supernatural magic, as it’s a line the irrationalists don’t see. To them, I imagine it’s just a long, blurry continuum defining different degrees of divine influence, with psychological fortitude in the face of torture falling somewhere between “miracle” and “natural psychological fortitude.”

    Restricting one’s discussion to the latter extreme is like disputing the physical ascension of Jesus into heaven by showing how Newtonian mechanics demonstrate that human beings can’t fly, and then tacking “maybe they believe something SUPERNATURAL happened…” onto the end. Obviously I would agree with the substance of such an argument, but the real area of contention would be in that final paragraph.

    Anyway, perhaps I’ve missed something — I’ll keep up with the other responses, and hopefully learn something new. Thanks for being such a prolific writer; you really are a highlight of my day!

  • Brock

    Regarding Adam’s concluding remaarks:
    I can’t remember where it is, and perhaps someone can help me out, but somewhere in the NT (Romans?)Paul assures his listeners that God will never test them beyond their capacity to resist. This is a handy way to tell the true believers from those who are lacking in faith. I am not sure whether this means that they have the supernatural ability to resist torture, or whether it means that the torturers will not be permitted by God to waterboard them. Either way it allows them to look down on those poor heathen souls who can’t cut it.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    This whole Rapture thing always confuses me. It sounds too much like Science Fiction to me. But, you say:

    One of the tenets of faith of Christian end-times believers is that, in the tribulation period after the rapture, the world will be taken over by a planetary government ultimately run by the Antichrist. True Christians will be a tiny, hounded minority in this totalitarian vision, forced to live underground and always on the run from the forces of evil, and those who are captured can expect torture and execution.

    I thought that all True Christians were raptured into heaven at the time of the Rapture. If this is after the Rapture, what True Christians would be left on Earth to live underground, be on the run, be tortured, etc.? What am I missing?

  • Joffan

    SpInq, you are missing those faint Christians (and possibly others) who would be convinced by the Rapture of… whatever. Something more than God’s existence, I guess, since the Rapture should do that for practically everyone I’d think, unless so few are Raptured that it makes no difference to the world.

    Actually you were nearly right in your first sentence. It is fiction, or perhaps fantasy, although the “science” bit is definitely missing.

  • http://thereligiousatheist.com plonkee @ the religious atheist

    Aren’t there going to be 144,000 people taken in the rapture? You know, out of a population of 6 billion and more, we might not miss them. Maybe they’ve gone already?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Are you sure you didn’t post that at least in part because of the ‘torture’ issue rather than the ‘Christians believe they’re special’ issue?

    Okay, stupid question. And I have to say, highlighting that problem in factual, ‘aside’, fashion is a great way to make me want to scream and throw things at the walls.

    On topic (ostensibly), I suspect LaHaye and Jenkins really just don’t know what they’re talking about — but no doubt if they were challenged they’d give the supernatural explanation as a convenient excuse.

  • Karen

    As a former end times Christian, I can say that believers definitely feel that they have supernatural help resisting “the enemy,” whether during this lifetime or during the seven years of tribulation. As Eunomiac points out, what happens to a mere mortal during torture is of little personal interest to people who believe they are super-mortal and aided by spiritual powers.

    In terms of who’s left on earth after the rapture, it’s believed that these will be people who belatedly recognize Christ’s divinity and pledge their lives to him too late to be raptured but not too late to resist the antiChrist and spread the gospel.

    The 144,000 who are mentioned in Revelation as being “redeemed from the earth” after the tribulation are supposed to be people of Jewish descent who become Christians after witnessing the rapture and persevere through the tribulation to stand in glory with Jesus after the tribulation is over.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I think those last three lines contain the real position of most believers, with very few taking the position that human psychology alone will protect them from the ravages of torture…

    Restricting one’s discussion to the latter extreme is like disputing the physical ascension of Jesus into heaven by showing how Newtonian mechanics demonstrate that human beings can’t fly, and then tacking “maybe they believe something SUPERNATURAL happened…” onto the end.

    That’s a perfectly fair point, Eunomiac, and of course it’s not an argument that I can disprove. Maybe Jesus will give his end-times followers supernatural power to withstand torture indefinitely. I’m not aware of any evidence of such a thing ever happening in human history, but I can’t prove absolutely that it won’t happen. (Although as an aside: Isn’t this basically saying that God will permit his own followers to be tortured, but at the same time take away their ability to yield to their torturers’ wishes so they have no way of stopping it? Yikes. I suppose that’s consistent with the copious scriptural evidence that depicts the Christian deity as a sadist, but even so, that’s disturbing.)

    However, I don’t think that’s the scenario that end-times believers have in mind (if they’ve given any thought to it at all – after all, they don’t expect to be here). As the quote at the beginning of my post shows, LaHaye and Jenkins seem to be under the impression that the ability to withstand torture if you really want to is a universal human capacity. And the Left Behind books never confront this problem in any serious way. From what I recall of them, the few believers who are captured are swiftly executed and are never really tortured at all.

    If the rapture-believers face this problem directly and still believe that God will give his followers the magical ability to resist torture, then so be it. In that case, I’ll direct them to the point raised in the last paragraph of my post: though believers may fantasize themselves to be exempt from the basic rules of human psychology, that fantasy has proved to be a delusion time and again. If the end-times world ever actually arrives – which, of course, it never will – and the Christians hope that this time a magical exception will finally be made for them, then they’re welcome to that foolish hope. The more miracles they postulate for themselves, the further isolated their beliefs become from reality.

  • theistscientist

    p.s. I thought the “Left Behind” series took the “pre trib” point of view.ie.that beleievers whould be raptured before the tribulation. And revelation seems to suggest that those who refuse the mark of the beast will be swiftly beheaded. A careful reading of revelation shows no exceptions whatsover. The closest historic paralell we have is kind of a combination of the holocaust,nazi death camps,the iron and bamboo gulags, the rape of nanking, the bataan death march all rolled into one. And even then ,revelations says it will be the worst time in history, and so bad , that if God didnt shorten it, no flesh would be left alive. Anti-christ will make Hitler look like the good humor man.

  • lpetrich

    theistscientist, the Left Behind series features a pretribulation Rapture. After it happens, some of the people left behind become born-again Xians and fight the one-world government of the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia.

    There are several views on when the Rapture will happen relative to the events in the Book of Revelation:
    Pretribulation
    Midtribulation
    Prewrath
    Posttribulation

    These are subsets of premillennialism, the view that Jesus Christ will rule the Earth for a thousand years after his Second Coming. But there are several views on when JC’s Second Coming will happen relative to that happy period:
    Premillennial — JC will rule for 1000 years before he judges everybody
    Postmillennial — a True Xian commonwealth will be set up and it will exist for 1000 years before JC returns and judges everybody
    Amillennial — The “millennium” is really the existence of the Xian Church, without any hint as to when JC will return and judge everybody

    And even such odd interpretations as
    Preterism — the events described in the Book of Revelation have already happened, with that book being a symbolic description of them

    There’s even a Wikipedia article on Summary of Christian eschatological differences.

  • goyo

    Also don’t forget, that’s when the stars fall from heaven and crash into the earth.

  • 2-D Man

    I hate to make light of other people’s misfortunes, but this quote from the CIA testing article almost made me laugh out loud.”The detainees were also forced to listen to rap artist Eminem’s “Slim Shady” album.”