L.B.: The Hypothetical Bus

I don't remember much of Donald W. Thompson's series of rapture movies from when I saw them back in middle school at Hydewood Park Baptist Church.

I do remember that they were pretty scary. Thompson was a low-budget hack, but he had an eye for haunting detail — the drone of an unattended lawn mower in a suburban yard (Thompson raptured people fully clothed) was far creepier and more affecting than anything in Left Behind.

Thompson's films — A Thief in the Night and A Distant Thunder are the two I remember — were explicitly evangelistic. He was trying to scare people into conversion with a hypertrophied version of the famous Hypothetical Bus.

Even people who didn't grow up in evangelical youth groups are acquainted with the Hypothetical Bus — the great memento mori of our time. "You could walk out that door and get hit by a bus."

The H.B. is regularly (if a bit oddly) invoked to comfort those facing a potentially terminal illness — especially, lately, people diagnosed with AIDS. It also remains a standard metaphor for evangelists, urging their listeners to "get right with God."

As an enthusiastic supporter of public transportation, I often wish for a different symbol of our mortality. I haven't checked with my brother the actuary, but I'm pretty sure buses themselves are not particularly menacing.

Yet while the H.B. is often misused for callow comfort or exploitative fear-mongering, it's not bad theology. Death can come for any of us in "the twinkling of an eye," and no one knows the day or the hour in which the end may come.

Thompson's films used the threat of the rapture as a surrogate for the threat of death. Like the evangelist warning of imminent, diesel-powered doom, he was trying to scare his audience into heaven. In its own way, A Thief in the Night is an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone sermon — Thompson's version of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

I expected Left Behind to take a similar course, to invoke the apocalypse as a cosmic version of the Hypothetical Bus, urging sinners to repent because the end is near.

But that's not LaHaye and Jenkins' agenda. Jonathan Edwards famously wrote of the fires of Hell as a warning. L&J write of the Tribulation as a vindication, a confirmation of their own rightness and righteousness.

Their intended audience is people who, like them, already believe in premillennial dispensationalism. Their tone is the juvenile triumphalism of an adolescent semi-threatening suicide or running away: Just wait until I'm gone. Then you'll see. Then you'll be sorry.

There's a message here for "the unsaved," but it's not the message of salvation that Edwards and Thompson extended, however clumsily. It is not "get right with God, because time is short," but rather this: "Ha-ha! We were right and you were wrong! Have fun in Hell!"

I would suggest that this is not a very winsome or effective strategy for evangelism.

  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden

    Actually (and actuarily), more bicylists are killed by collisions with buses than by any other kind of accident.

  • Darryl Pearce

    Oh, as a Civil War reenactor I’ve pondered how to respond to the refrains of the Confederate/Rebel branch who say of themselve: “American by birth–Southern by the Grace of God” and of me “You’re a damned Yankee.”
    So, I’ve opted to say, “If I’m to be damned for being a Yankee, I’ll be proud to have Old Scratch as a neighbor.”
    So, yes. I’ll have fun in hell. Thank you very much. Let’s remember that the first Radical who questioned the Established Authority (that is, Satan challenging God), got as his reward his own kingdom (hell).
    –ventura county, ca

  • Chris

    I find their whole gloating tone to be nasty, nasty, nasty. One of the few prophets to warn of the impending wrath of God without the usual repentance demands, as L&J seem to, was Jeremiah. But he knew that he wasn’t going to be personally excluded from the disaster. The Lamentations are a book of a throughly unhappy man who was in large part miserable because he had been right all along. L&J give themselves and their think-alikes a pass from the misery and gloat in a very unchristian way.

  • Murph

    IIRC, Mark Harmon’s character in St. Elsewhere, who had AIDS, left the hospital one day and got hit by a bus. I wonder if the writer of this scene was familiar with the HB?

  • John Costello

    The H.B. was always used by my parents to scare me into wearing clean underwear.

  • Nell Lancaster

    There’s a message here for “the unsaved,” but it’s not the message of salvation that Edwards and Thompson extended, however clumsily. It is not “get right with God, because time is short,” but rather this: “Ha-ha! We were right and you were wrong! Have fun in Hell!”
    I would suggest that this is not a very winsome or effective strategy for evangelism.
    I’m powerfully reminded of a Church Lady skit when Madonna was guest host on SNL…
    “Someday certain young ladies will find themselves on a lake of fire in a canoe without a paddle and then we’ll see who has the last laugh.”

  • Deana Holmes

    When I lived in Salt Lake City, my (Mormon) department manager Tillie used to talk about the proverbial Mack truck striking us down in the crosswalk. She didn’t use it in a salvation sense, but in a sense where we needed to learn each other’s jobs in case of disaster. There was some truth to statement, however: we had to cross 1st South to get to and from the parking garage, and people never slowed down. I used to have a chant that went something like, “Hit me you fool, I hope you have insurance and want to end up on the evening news.”
    There did come a day when the proverbial Mack truck did strike my supervisor Sandy, but not on the street. Rather, she fell down the stairs in our department (stairs every one of us knew were dangerous) and injured herself badly. I had to take over her job (and do mine as well). As soon as she came back to work, then I left the department, changed jobs and moved off to Arizona.
    Not sure why I told this story, except to say that there are secular versions of the Hypothetical Bus. :)

  • WKD

    Modern christianity seems to me more and more a power trip.
    Jesus Wept.

  • Randolph Fritz

    “You could walk out that door and get hit by a bus.” “As an enthusiastic supporter of public transportation, I often wish for a different symbol of our mortality.”
    You may be therefore feel vindicated to read that I think personal automobiles are the most dangerous of transit technologies now widely in use.

  • Hard Pressed

    I’m sure you’ve all heard this before, but my favorite bumper sticker recently reads: “In case of rapture, can I have your car?”
    Not that I’d want it; I’m with Randolph on the car issue.
    Stories of the rapture always remind of that Hitchhiker’s Guide storyline about the “advance ship” of hairdressers, telephone sanitizers, et al, sent off to a distant planet because, they were assured, the end of the world was imminent, and they were needed to prepare things on the new homeworld.

  • mark j

    who went to hydewood park baptist church as a middleschooler?
    let me know….i was there too

  • Madeleine Robins

    As a fellow supporter of public translation, might I suggest the replacement of “bus” with “falling grand piano?” It has the piquancy of the absurd, but still manages to convey the randomness of death. Because you never do know.

  • jp!

    “I would suggest that this is not a very winsome or effective strategy for evangelism.”
    this isn’t about evangelism, it is about basking in how RIGHT you are and how wrong others are and if they refuse to agree with you, then voila! they’re rejecting god (instead of the person delivinering the dogma!)

  • http://www.24hoursmovies.com/wordpress/?p=206 24 hours movies

    “Transpotter 2?

    is more of the same, just in Miami this time. But if you like the antics, it’s a good flick (-:

  • http://www.filmthreat.com/Reviews.asp?Id=7976 24 Hour Movies

    movies through decades

    Film Threat, CA - France. Souls have drifted for decades in the movies, but even a good portion of those have had life injected into them.

  • Jonathan

    In high school, it may comfort you to know that we didn’t use the Hypothetical Bus, but rather the Transcendental Breadtruck. =)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=583080781 Fiona Beswick

    A girl my ex-boyfriend dated actually did walk out of a door and get hit by a bus, but because she was on the heavy side, it was the bus that got broken. That is a true story.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Misogynistic, fatphobic bullshit.


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