L.B.: The Babel Fish

Left Behind, pp. 10-15

We turn now to the worst crime against plausibility in Left Behind's early pages.

I've already said quite a bit about LaHaye and Jenkins' description of the massive, all-out, leave-no-warhead-behind nuclear surprise attack that Russia and Ethiopia launch on Israel. (A war motivated, they suggest, purely by spite and envy.)

What I haven't mentioned yet is that this massive nuclear assault produces not a single casualty in Israel. The only thing damaged, we are told, are the Russian planes and warheads themselves, which are destroyed utterly. Thus Buck Williams is able to provide his account as an eyewitness from ground zero of a nuclear war:

… The building shook and rattled and rumbled. And yet it was not hit.

Outside, warplanes slammed to the ground, digging craters and sending burning debris flying. Yet lines of communication stayed open. No other command posts had been hit. No reports of casualties. Nothing destroyed yet. …

Thousands of planes swooped down on the tiny country's most populated cities. …

The sky was afire. He still heard planes over the din and roar of the fire itself, and the occasional exploding missile sent new showers of flame into the air. He stood in stark terror and amazement as the great machines of war plummeted to the earth all over the city, crashing and burning. But they fell between buildings and in deserted streets and fields.1 Anything atomic and explosive erupted high in the atmosphere …

Then came chunks of ice and hailstones big as golf balls … The earth shook and resounded …

Miraculously, not one casualty was reported in all of Israel. Otherwise Buck might have believed some mysterious malfunction had caused missile and plane2 to destroy each other. But witnesses reported that it had been a firestorm, along with rain and hail and an earthquake, that consumed the entire offensive effort.

Had it been a divinely appointed meteor shower? Perhaps. But what accounted for hundreds and thousands of chunks of burning, twisted, molten steel smashing to the ground in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jericho, even Bethlehem3 — leveling ancient walls but not so much as scratching one living creature?4

All of this is rather remarkable, to say the least, but it is also, arguably, the most plausible thing to happen so far in the book.

I say "plausible," not "realistic." And in this case, there's a difference.

What we have here is a deus ex machina — the direct, miraculous intervention of the gods. Or in this case, of God. I'm okay with this. Since the ancient Greek dramatists, this has been a legitimate literary device.

L&J have the right, as authors of a work of fiction, to make Almighty God a character in their story. When they decide to have God arrive, descending on a wire, swatting aside thousands of nuclear warheads with supernatural hail and brimstone as a kind of holy missile shield, it would be churlish of the reader to object. It's a deus ex machina, a convention — go with it. You don't want to be the sort of person who walks out on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream just because you don't believe in fairies.

But there's still a problem here. Having invoked the authorial privilege of deus ex machina, L&J fail to abide by the rules of the convention and it is here that they stumble into the most absurd and bizarre implausibility.

At the end of Euripides' play Orestes, all hell is about to break loose, the armies of Sparta and Argos are about to wreak horrible destruction and death. Then presto — the god Apollo arrives, orders everyone to make nice, sends Menelaus home and fixes up everything before carrying ("rapturing," if you will) Helen off to Olympus.

Imagine an epilogue to this scene in which the soldiers explain that, despite everything they have just seen, they still don't believe in Apollo. They have just witnessed the blatant, irrefutable appearance and activity of the god himself, forever altering their lives and the history of their nations, but they prefer not to think about it too much.

That is what happens in Left Behind. Here you have God appearing center stage. A direct, incontrovertible divine miracle witnessed by millions. Absolute, doubt-destroying, skeptic-shattering proof of the existence of God. There's freaking divine flame in the sky. Yet it produces nary a ripple of wonder, awe or spiritual searching. Alone among the millions who witnessed this event, Buck Williams is slightly prompted to be more "spiritually attuned."

The people in this novel are not human.

Imagine, in a world of humans, if a single Russian warhead had been launched toward Israel, but was destroyed harmlessly by a freak hailstone high in the atmosphere. That alone would be sufficient to launch a global debate about miracles. Here you have an entire arsenal destroyed, with the secondary miracle of the harmless falling debris, and there's not a peep. (Remember too that this occurs a year before all the devout are snatched away, meaning L&J would have us believe that such an event could occur without even the televangelists noting that it seems to have been a miracle.)

- – - – - – - – - – - -

1. A few pages earlier, L&J told us that "every inch of ground blossomed with flowers and grains." So where did all these "deserted fields" come from?

2. I know almost as little about the strategy of nuclear war as L&J do, but it seems to me that if you're about to rain thousands of ICBMs down on a target, you probably don't want or need to send thousands of planes as well, unless you don't particularly care for your air force.

3. The West Bank cities of Jericho and Bethlehem are mentioned here as part of "Israel," underscoring once again the remarkable transition in which, "Flush with cash and resources, Israel made peace with her neighbors." By "made peace with," apparently, L&J mean "absorbed the territory and overthrew the sovereignty of." L&J portray this as occurring with the cheerful acquiescence of Israel's Arab neighbors.

4. UPDATE: In the comments to this previous post, Grimgrin provides a lovely overkill of detail about the overkill of L&J's fictional assault. Grimgrin calculates that the Russian arsenal packs about 2541.75 gigatons of explosive power, sufficient to strike every square kilometer of Israel with 122 megatons. (And that's not including the additional firepower, ahem, supplied by Ethiopia.)

  • TR

    Since when did missiles become an “army”? Didn’t all the end-timers used to believe in a literal ground invasion of Israel by Russian (or Chinese) tanks and infantry? And why didn’t God just vaporize all the Russian planes, instead of covering the country with debris? Jeez, these people are idiots. Great series, by the way!

  • WKD

    Lord, that scenario is stupid beyond belief. Its hard to even comment on it. Its mind blowing. My mind is blown. I love the way they *think* the russians would attack.
    No research required. Only half-remembered sunday school classes. Why didn’t I think of that? I could be rich by now.

  • Jorge

    The mind boggles. I was wondering about this when you mentioned in the last LB post that Russia blew its wad and sent EVERYTHING from nukes to migs. This is a blunder beyond reason. You send one or the other or you send one, wait a while and then send the other. You don’t just pitch the kitchen sink at an opponent. It’s beyond irrational, it’s kindergarten tactics. And so the question begs to be asked, where the hell was their editor when they were plotting this nonsense?
    Or if they had editorial control, damn it I want their agent!

  • WKD

    He summed it up when he mentioned the whole ‘enough nukular weapons to destroy the world several times over’.
    Anyway, point laugh and nows it time for me to become a novelist…….

  • Syung Myung Me

    Y’know, when I read that, I actually pictured a warhead actually hitting some unlucky Israeli, bouncing off, and exploding, with the Israeli not really harmed, just sitting on the ground, rubbing his shin, saying “OW!….ssss… OW!…ssss…” over and over.
    Cause, y’know, Chosen or not, I’d figure that’d really hurt.

  • WKD

    Yeah, true. Thousands of war planes, dead warheads and the like, hitting the ground really really hard. ICBMs re-enter at a completely stupid speed, which makes you wonder. When they say not a single israeli casualty, do they mean from the attack itself or the debries also?
    Maybe someone should run some mathematical formulars over the books, find the deeper meaning.

  • michael (in DC)

    Screw this stuff & go back & read some Douglas Adams.
    “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
    classic.

  • WKD

    Occurs to me, if god detonated all those weapons in the atmosphere, I think the Israelis (and everyone else in the region, probably the world), would still have a really really bad time.
    My novel is going great. The main character is call Jack ‘Mack’ James, and you can tell hes the hero because he has a first name for a last name.
    And hes, get this, an ex baptist pastor who is now a private eye. I’m gonna see if I can cover the Tom Clancy/fundo-bunny christian markets with this one, so hes ex delta-force as well.
    Piece of cake.

  • Jon H

    As I recall, when the space shuttle, carrying an Israeli astronaut, exploded over Palestine, Texas, even that spurred some people to talk about divine retribution, etc, etc.

  • Jorge

    For all those budding novelists inspired by the depthes that LeHaye and Jenkins have plumbed, November 1-30 is National Novel Writing Month in which thousands of people all over the world will be striving to write a 50,000 word (175 page) novel in 30 days. So if you think you can do better then these two best sellers, (and it’d hard to be worse) join in the fun!

  • Jorge

    Hell, talk of divine retribution is floating around the fact that the actor playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion was struck by lightning. To ignore what would arguably be the biggest miracle since the Egyptian Plagues is retarded.

  • WKD

    Mel gibson getting struck by lightning would be incontrovertible proof. Other actors is more like prick teasing.

  • DonBoy

    Plus, just to pile on, you don’t blanket the area with nukes, because of “fratricide” — the blast from one would disrupt the delicate trigger mechanism of another one nearby. Plus, geez, now you have no nukes left!

  • Chris

    It does seem weird that most of the world apparently doesn’t find this slightly odd. Apparently not only has the world hardened its heart against God, but they have abandoned even a hint of questioning as in “Hmmmm, wonder how that happened?” I’m not saying that most would turn into instant fundies, but someone in the Pentagon might say, “Wow can we use this as a missile shield?” Not that it would matter since about two thirds of the nukes not in U.S. hands are now littering the fertile Negev. Atheists and company are supposed to doubt (not that some of them do), but really NO questions except from Bucky.
    All that plutonium broken and splattered across the landscape should really put a dent in Israel’s agriculture. Hmmmm, maybe that is the reason for Israel’s amazing fertility, mutant plants.

  • aimai

    I remember that The Night Stalker, the old TV show, had exactly the same logical inconsistency. If the hero wasn’t insane, and all those weird things kept happening, and the supernatural (vampires, werewolves etc…) were everywhere around him why on earth *didn’t* anyone else ever notice. Wouldn’t it have just been regular reality, for them too? Things that are out in the open just *can’t* be secrets, in the end.
    You are very brave to read and analyse this stuff.

  • Chris

    It just occurred to me that exploding nukes high in the atmosphere, which L&J equate with harmless, is actually part of nuclear strategy. High atmosphere bursts (a military understatement if ever there was one) are used to fry communications over a wide area using EMPs. So God saved Israel from destruction by wiping out all communications more advanced than a string telephone from Armenia to Eritrea. Well done God.
    Of course the true and merciful part of this miracle is that Bucky couldn’t report to the world. Now that is proof of divine benevolence.

  • WKD

    Yeah, basically these two are two of the biggest chimpzillas on the planet. And damn them, they make more money than I do.

  • News Abuse

    Coupla things:
    A) The Night Stalker was completely logically consistent in every way. Darren McGavin was the greatest television star of all time.
    2) The biggest chimpzilla on the planet is George W. Bush. LaHaye and Jenkins are mere pretenders, but they still make more money than you (and me, for that matter).

  • JakobKarter

    (Found this series of posts thanks to BoingBoing, but only recently)
    It occurred to me, upon reading the last paragraph of this post, that the obliviousness of the LB people was intended.
    The LB authors, in having a ‘divine intervention’ occur and not be recognized as such, seem to me to be alluding to the way evangelicals see the divine in all sorts of things, and us logical secularists don’t see proof of ghod at all.
    Not that I agree with them, of course. As a long-time science fiction reader and fan, I’m *insulted* that the LB books are lumped in with either SF or Fantasy.

  • Michael

    I won’t try and defend the LB authors who may or may not have intended to embrace the notion I’m about to present, but there is a precedent in both mythology and literature for the idea of the non-believer being entirely capable of ignoring even the most glaring evidence of the divine.
    A good example, from the literary, is in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, where we see a bunch of nasty little gnome or dwarf creatures who are quite literally blind to the divine and interpret every miracle or good thing which occurs around them in as some common, often loathesome event.
    So maybe the manner in which the masses ignore such an obvious miracle is an attempt to suggest that humanistic, scientific and reasoned thought are merely other forms of faith, entirely unshaken by evidence against them. It would fall neatly into the, “We’re right, you’re wrong,” nature of the work, and is a common claim I hear from the fundamentalist camps to begin with.

  • http://hownow.brownpau.com/archives/2004/04/blood_im_afraid How Now, Brownpau?

    “Blood, I’m Afraid.”

    The Slacktivist has some excellent running commentary on Left Behind and its implications for Christianity and faith with its pulp treatment of eschatology, doctrine, and…

  • Dahne

    Woo! A comment 2 years late! (Just found this blog, and am enjoying the heck out of it.)
    I’d just like to mention that, as someone else said, a high-altitude nuclear blast would cause a massive disruption in electronic communication. I learned this from Metal Gear Solid 2. This series of books has less concrete, plausible fact behind it than a series of video games where a guy gets a transplanted arm that keeps taking over his brain after his own arm is chopped off by an undead cyborg ninja. Seriously, that’s just sad.

  • Shapeshifter

    Okay, wow.
    Just. Wow.
    I am not a nuclear physicist, but i play one on the internet.
    First of all, let’s start with scale.
    The Hiroshima blast was described by a reporter (i apologize, i can’t seem to dig up the report but it’s public record) not as a war zone but as though the city had never existed to begin with. He could literally look around for fifty or sixty miles and see nothing.
    He also reported radiation sickness–people literally melting and dissolving–but i’ll get to why that’s relevant in a bit.
    That was from one–one as in “singular”–bomb. A 1940s era bomb. Modern bombs are not even measured on the same scale–they’re measured, if at all, in how many orders of magnitude greater than the Hiroshima bomb their explosions are.
    Russia has, as the line goes, enough bombs to destroy the world several times over. That isn’t to say that we’re talking about shattering the planet into dust–no human force yet created can do that, at best we might be able to crack the crust–just taking apart all the major cities and most of the medium cities on the planet. Believe me, though, that’s plenty.
    I’m even going to grant that, say, the Great Satan compelled Russia to toss its nukes at Israel–as in, all of them at once. Fine. If God can intervene then two can play at that game. Hell, i won’t even comment on sending planes with except to say that i predict only two nuclear weapons will ever be delivered through planes in the history of humanity. But there are still problems.
    First, let’s deal with a nuclear missile. Nuclear missiles, i am sorry to say, are not stopped by hail. You can even shoot at them (if i’m remembering my military technology correctly) with big guns and it won’t damage the business parts in the least. So it would essentially require divine hail or some other explanation, but certainly not just a regular hailstorm. Of course, we’re not dealing with a regular hailstorm–but i’ll get back to that in a bit.
    Next: assuming our divine wrath of hail wrecks nuclear missiles another question: do they detonate? I really don’t know the answer, but i would suspect they would not necessarily “go off” just by getting chewed up by hail. Unless, of course, they were rigged to do that. I’m going to assume they do, but i don’t really know.
    So now we have enough bombs to turn Israel into a glass parking lot going off in the atmosphere. “Great!”, say the LB hacks, “They won’t kill everyone that way!”
    BZZZZZT! Wrong!
    Someone else mentioned it, but nuclear bombs going off in the atmosphere are actually WORSE than on the ground. In fact: nobody plans to detonate nuclear bombs when they hit the ground anymore. It’s all in varying heights. What height is ideal i do not know, let’s assume it’s not the height at which the Divine Hail wrecks the bombs. We’re still in trouble. And by “we” i mean “The entire bloody nation of Israel”. Why? Go back up and read about the Hiroshima blast. Radiation is bad–really bad. Radiation is WORSE–much worse–from bombs that get set off in the air because it spreads out rather than blasting against the ground. Now we’re melting people from just one old-technology bomb. That went off on the surface. Now imagine enough bombs (modern bombs) to destroy most life on earth going off over the atmosphre of Israel. Let’s assume only ten percent of them detonate, to be generous. It might be as low as zero percent, but again i can’t say. Might be ninety percent. What i’m getting at, though, is a “nuclear wind”. Consider the cheering crowds of Israel being delivered from destruction–a destruction no mortal hand can stay, not even if our current misile shields worked as-designed–now dissolving into goo as the radioactive holocaust descends from the sky.
    Let’s deal with another possibility: that much ka-boom might actually set the atmosphere on fire. Let me backtrack a little: one of the fears back before the very first nuclear test was that a nuclear bomb might be enough to spark a literal fire in the sky that eats the earth’s atmosphere and renders the planet uninhabitable. It turns out, lucky us, that this was not true. With enough of a blast–say, a billions upon billions ton combined explosion from Russia’s entire stockpile might be able to do it. Maybe. I don’t know, but i’d be willing to bet neither do the authors of this travesty and they probably did not so much as speak with a bomb expert to find out.
    Well, that was a tangent a bit. Next comes the fact that even with a divine hailstorm the hail might not destroy the bombs high enough (lets say a divine wind also pushes al the radiation into space) so that the blast does not actually reach the ground. Again, i don’t know the math. I’m willing to put money on the LB authors not knowing either.
    Okay, i could go on. Suffice to say there are lots of very unusual things with this scenario. They can, of course, be explained away by Deus Ex Machina–but some less satisfyingly than others. I’m not even sure as to the accuracy of my ideas here–it has been a long time since i studied any sort of nuclear doomsday scenario and my muddled ramblings may be way off-base. Don’t assume i’m right, especially not when planning nuclear holocaust of your own.
    But let’s just assume God cleans up everything. Fine. God could make the nuclear strike vanish in a puff of smoke if so desired, right? Deus Ex Machina means bloody Deus Ex Machina. We could, of course, extend that literary device to cover THE WHOLE BOOK, but then we’re getting into not science fiction but something wholely different in which none of the usual rules apply and it’s just God making things up as we go along.
    The scientists are a problem.
    See, scientists live to measure accuracy of things. Let’s just say that, as others have suggested, “freak of nature stops entirety of Russian nuclear arsenal” is way out in crazy-town. Your average scientist would see that and go “HAH! There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.”
    I should point out that yeah, the religious freaks WOULD be making a huge deal about this. Hell, they get worked up over a perfectly natural (if devastating and tragic) tsunami as “God’s vengeance”. Something that fits with their Script of the End Times AND has such symbolic meaning would certainly be pounced upon. Rightly so, in this instance. Do the Christians inhabiting LB’s world not have the Book of Revalations in their Bibles? If no, then doesn’t that sort of defeat the point? I mean, no Rev. means no script means no literal interpretation means no moral lesson, right? Well, anyway. They’re not all that important except as backdrops to my next point.
    J. Random Scientist would say “That’s odd, I wonder what caused all those nukes to be totally ineffective?” Now i should also point out that your average scientist is pretty smart. It takes J. Random Scientist about five minutes to dismantle your average hoax–mostly because hoaxers are dumb, but also because scientists are good at it. So J. Random Scientist goes to L. Random Scientist and says “Hey, this is kinda funny but you know how Russia just declared nuclear war on Israel and was then spent their entire stockpile of nuclear materials without so mcuh as killing a single Israeli? Well I just can’t figure out what happened… maybe you could help.”
    Then L. Random Scientist can’t figure out how that happened either. Pretty soon the entire scientific community is scratching their collective head about what happened. Then they issue the following statement: “Well, we’re not sure why… We have theories, but none of them match up… we’re not sure why Russia’s collective nuclear firepower was utterly impotent and so far as we can tell there is no scientific explanation for it.”
    At this point, if they hadn’t been already, the religious community would go collectively nuts. “Scientsts can’t explain nuclear attack failure” all across the globe.
    But of course, LB doesn’t care about implications–the implications of its car-evacuation-during-rapture image, for instance, not being felt later on–but instead it has a script to follow and by God it’s going to follow that script! Sensible or not.
    But that’s what happens when you try to literally interpret an ancient political rant disguised as LSD-fuelled prophecy disguised as religious text. Not that i’m saying i think Revalations should come out of the Bible or anything, as i don’t believe that. But you may as well try to stick mathematical equations on a musical sheet and tell a violinist “Play these equations so that we may judge their veracity by how pretty they sound!”

  • kokopelli

    Sorry, but a lot of your facts are wrong.
    The thing that kills people, initially, is the overpressure, or ‘shock’, wave. Radiation isn’t even a factor with thermonuclear weapons – if you’re close enough for direct radiation, you’re already dead from shock and thermal blasts.
    The overpressure wave literally blows buildings down on people and things, crushing them. At shorter distances it can also blow people into buildings, cars into people, etc. At longer distances you still have people blown through tall buildings, shredded by shattered windows, or wood buildings knocked down. (BTW tornadoes kill the same way.)
    A ground blast has a relatively limited overpressure range because, bluntly, all of the junk in the air as it expands. An air blast doesn’t have obstacles until it hits the ground and so it kills much further out.
    The best proof of this is in the old atomic test footage. Watch the house footage carefully – first you have a little smoke from smoldering paint due to the thermal blast. (N.b., I wouldn’t want to be outside in “line of sight” of the blast, but bear with me.) The house is standing, it might catch fire in a bit. Then the overpressure wave hits and the house is instantly reduced to kindling.
    Against a hardened target, e.g., a missile silo, ground bursts would still be used. Air bursts don’t shake the ground, penetrating ground bursts do. That might be enough to disable the missiles hidden in silos, sever and bury C3I facilities, etc.
    What else… oh yeah, nuclear weapons are extremely fragile, especially thermonuclear weapons. You have to get the timing right to extremely fine tolerances for a symmetrical explosion and disabling just one explosive charge will leave you with a radioactive, but non-critical, mess. I’m sure missile warheads have some shielding, but it may only be 1-2 millimeters of titanium.
    In this scenario, the detonations might be high enough that there’s little overpressure wave since there’s not enough air density to carry much energy from a high altitude blast. But you still have the thermal blast of dozens (hundreds?) of explosions each as bright as a hundred suns in the sky.

  • CatMoran

    Hello! A friend pointed me to one of your more recent posts, which I quite enjoyed. So now I’m reading them all.
    About your comment:
    1. A few pages earlier, L&J told us that “every inch of ground blossomed with flowers and grains.” So where did all these “deserted fields” come from?
    Not too give L&J too much credit for logic, but they may have just meant that there were no people out working in the fields. Which, provided no one was planting or harvesting that day, is possible.

  • Chris

    My personal sticking point is the line in LB about the afterattack – “Among the ruins, the Israelis found combustible material that would serve as fuel and preserve their natural resources for more than six years.” This is presumably the fulfilment of the prophecy that the wood of their chariots would fuel the fires of Israel for seven years – but what exactly would be lying around after a nuclear attack that would burn? If it was, for example, weapns grade plutonium, that might be useable but would poison everybody; and what other combustible material is there in modern weaponry?

  • Kevin

    Russia also, it should be known, does not have that many ICBM’s. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are very complex (literally rocket science!) and the Russians historically didn’t do as well as the US at it. Instead they focused on ridiculously large, plane deployed missiles. The kind that were so big, there was serious question as to whether the planes would be able to escape.
    i.e. the kind where even if they were detonated in the atmosphere by the hand of God, it wouldn’t matter because that’s what they were designed to do.

  • http://twitter.com/ajrush1980 Amanda J. Rush

    I think the reason they assume that no one, especially in Israel, is spiritually moved by this overt miracle, is because they assume that the only reason people, especially jews, are not RTCs is because we’re all just willfully blinding ourselves to the truth, that we’re ignoring it on purpose because we’re proud or whatever.


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