L.B.: Pagan Babies

Left Behind, pp. 46-48

Finally, 30 pages after the mass disappearances have occurred, Rayford Steele looks up at an airport television and the reader gets to see some scenes from the worldwide Rapture.

From around the globe came wailing mothers, stoic families, reports of death and destruction. Dozens of stories included eyewitnesses who had seen loved ones and friends disappear before their eyes.

Okay, it turns out the reader doesn't actually get to see these scenes. We're actually just told that Rayford saw them. And we have Jenkins and LaHaye's assurance that these scenes were gripping and deeply moving.

If Jerry Jenkins had written the Arabian Nights it would be two pages long. Jenkins' Decameron would be over in ten minutes. His version of The Canterbury Tales might mention that the travelers told each other stories — he might even tell us that the stories were really very interesting — but he'd probably assume, as he does in Left Behind that what readers really want to know is the logistics of the pilgrims' travel arrangements.

Readers are allowed a glimpse of a few of the "dozens of stories" Rayford sees. Unfortunately, these details aren't provided to give the readers a sense of what it might feel like to be in his situation, but rather to make some theological and political points.

Story No. 1:

Most shocking to Rayford was a woman in labor, about to go into the delivery room, who was suddenly barren. Doctors delivered the placenta. Her husband had caught the disappearance of the fetus on tape. As he videotaped her great belly and sweaty face, he asked questions. How did she feel? "How do you think I feel, Earl? Turn that thing off." What was she hoping for? "That you'll get close enough for me to slug you." Did she realize that in a few moments they'd be parents? "In about a minute, you're going to be divorced."

Then came the screaming and the dropping of the camera, terrified voices, running nurses and the doctor. CNN reran the footage in superslow motion, showing the woman going from very pregnant to nearly flat stomached, as if she had instantaneously delivered. "Now, watch with us again," the newsman intoned, "and keep your eyes on the left edge of your screen, where a nurse appears to be reading a printout from a fetal heart monitor. There, see?" The action stopped as the pregnant woman's stomach deflated. "The nurse's uniform seems to still be standing as if an invisible person is wearing it. She's gone. Half a second later, watch." The tape moved ahead and stopped. "The uniform, stockings and all, are in a pile atop her shoes."

The bit of dialogue with "Earl" and his wife is pure sitcom cliche (does anybody in real life say "slug"?). But I wish they had told us more about the CNN newsman. Aaron Brown is the only CNN anchor who might be described as "intoning," but we probably shouldn't read to much into the implication here that the affable Mr. Brown has been left behind. We can be sure, however, that the newsman in question is not Wolf Blitzer. The perpetually hyperventilating Blitzer never intones — he shouts, excitedly introducing another banal piece on the change of venue in some celebrity trial as though he were covering the attack on Pearl Harbor live. I can't say whether Blitzer would qualify to be taken in L&J's fictional Rapture, but if he weren't, a story this big would've made his head explode.

But of course the point of this little anecdote is not about CNN or about Earl's wife: it's a discourse on the theological and political state of the fetus. L&J's Rapture includes the idea of an "age of accountability." They believe that in heaven, unlike in Texas and Florida, young children belong to a different moral category than adults. They are, if not exactly innocents, not yet fully accountable and exempt from divine wrath.

The idea of an "age of accountability," or, in the Catholic phrase, "age of reason," is appealing in that it helps avoid the image of a cruel deity condemning innocent little babies to Hell. But that appeal is only necessary if you begin with a theology that suspects God is the sort of God who might otherwise condemn little pagan babies to Hell.

The thinnest ice on which a theologian can stand concerns questions about, "If you were God, who would you send to Hell?" The answer, of course, is, "I'm not God, so what're you asking me for?" Theologians are on much more solid ground considering questions about the character of God. (As a Christian, I believe that our best indicator of the character of God comes from the example of Jesus Christ, and I have a rather hard time picturing Jesus roasting pagan babies on a spit. But again, this is a belief based on the nature of God, not on the forensic calculus of an abstract age of accountability. I don't know if the concept is a wrong answer, but I'm pretty sure it's an answer to the wrong question.)

The bit about the nurse is the most vivid, detailed account so far in the story about the disappearances. (It may say something about Jenkins' as a storyteller that the only visual image we've been given so far is from a TV screen.) The effect of the scene is muted, however, by L&J's refusal to let us know how watching this made Rayford feel. He already suspects that his wife, Irene, is among the disappeared. Now he's finally seen just what this would mean. I'd have been satisfied with something hackneyed — "the hairs on the back of his neck stood up" or "he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach" — but we get nothing. Rayford makes no connection. He has no response.

Next up, a brief discourse on the disposition of the bodily remains of believers who died before the Rapture:

A funeral home in Australia reported that nearly every mourner disappeared from one memorial service, including the corpse, while at another service at the same time, only a few disappeared and the corpse remained. Morgues also reported corpse disappearances. At a burial, three of six pallbearers stumbled and dropped a casket when the other three disappeared. When they picked up the casket, it too was empty.

I knew a fundamentalist preacher — a blackhearted old man who drove his daughters and granddaughter literally insane — who was a devotee of the Rapture mania of LaHaye and of Jack Van Impe. As he grew older, he became obsessed with what would happen to his body if he died before the Rapture. He was terrified that his daughters would have him cremated, which he believed would mean his body could not then be raptured like the corpses in Left Behind. He would plead with them, often tearfully, to promise that this would not happen. All this based on a warped reading of 1 Thessalonians 5 — a passage in which Paul is trying to comfort believers about the death of their loved ones.

That same warped reading is the premise for this book.

  • Chris

    OK now I am lost among this crappy excuse for theology (LB, not Fred). Why would a corpse be raptured at all? The resurrection of the body is supposed to come at the end of the world (not 7 years before) and in any event resurrection is supposed to be on Earth, not a transporter beam to Heaven. Right? So WTF?

  • Andrew Cory

    I just read through 1 Thessalonians 5 (NIV). I don’t at all see how one could possibly read _anything_ about cremation into the story. Could you please explain how someone might?

  • Constantine

    What Chris said. The necessaity of rapturing the unborn is nothing compared with the absolute theological looniness of rapturing corpses. Those who have already died are supposed to “await the resurrection of the dead.” Even if one believed in the Rapture, I would have thought that the assumption was that this was to ensure that the faithful wouldn’t be stuck living through the tribulation. Those who have already died don’t have to worry about it, so why rapture their bodies?

  • Tim Kay

    1 Thessalonians 5 says that “the dead in Christ will rise first, and we who are alive and remain until the end will meet them in the clouds.” So if this happens before the Tribulation, then there is a resurrection of the dead in Christ at the same time as the Rapture. “The dead in Christ” are usually understood as believers who died between Pentecost and the Rapture. Old Testament saints and tribulation martyrs are resurrected at the beginning of the Millenium, and everyone else at the end of the Millenium. So this view has three resurrections of the dead. I know way too much about this.
    As to cremation, how can you resurrect a body that has been destroyed? Some people worry about this.

  • Riggsveda

    The worst part of all this is how lousy the writing is.
    As if we didn’t already have enough bad novelists.

  • wednesday white

    The writing on this one’s nothing. Heck, the writing’s positively stellar compared with Glorious Mail Merge of the Christ, where the last vestige of characterization is sacrificed along with everything else.

  • Eli

    I realize there’s such a thing as too much logic, but I still don’t see how cremation poses any more of a problem than burial. I mean, the biblical authors were not unaware that dead bodies underground rot and fall apart into materials that are reused for trees, worms, etc. After a few hundred generations, the righteous dead are largely composed of the unrighteous dead, and vice versa.

  • Beth

    I’m more curious about the implications of fetal rapture. I assume that millions of women all over the world at various stages of pregnancy will suddenly ‘deflate’ as well, but what about those who are conceived too late? Will innocents have to endure the tribulation because their sinful fathers didn’t come soon enough, or is there some kind of ongoing process by which eggs are all raptured at the instant of fertilization? These are serious questions. I assume I’ll be among the ‘left behind’ and I have to know: will I need birth control?

  • Andrew Cory

    Ah. Thank you. The NIV has that as 1 thes. 4:16…

  • michael (in DC)

    Beth,
    from previous posts in this category, I’ve learned that in the L&J universe there are births after the Rapture…though I’m still not clear on how L&J finesse the moral implications of this.
    So I guess when you’re Left Behind it would be a good idea to keep your Pill Rx current…though of course that would probably help ensure your eventual Damnation…hmmm…
    m

  • Jon H

    “As to cremation, how can you resurrect a body that has been destroyed? Some people worry about this.”
    What’s the difference between a body destroyed by fire and a body destroyed by worms, bacteria, water, and time?
    Even a mildly decomposed body is going to require some amount of fixing up, and will probably have lost some mass that will have to be replaced.
    And, anyway, why would it be a challenge for God to reconstitute the dead from ashes spread across globe? This is God we’re talking about. Someone who’s afraid of cremation seems to believe in a mighty weak God.

  • lucidity

    I’m glad we got to the whole resurrection of the body thing, because I’ve always wondered, which reconstituted body do you get? The body you had at the instant of death? If so, do people who died very young have to spend eternity as a baby? Does someone who was born with no legs spend eternity without legs? Or does everyone get some kind of “ideal” body? If so, how is this ideal body chosen? Using the baby example, how can you extrapolate what that baby’s ideal body would be? Do you get to consciously choose the body you have for all eternity, or is it somehow automatic? This issue has never made any sense to me.

  • charlie

    Just as an aside, Im not sure if this has made it on to this forum yet or not: Tyndale has recently sponsored a NASCAR racer to promote this book. The race car now bears the unfortunate title “LEFT BEHIND”.
    Well, anyway, I heard it on the internet so it MUST be true.

  • charlie don’t surf

    I have long since lost the urge to follow your analysis of the drivel that is Left Behind, particularly since you’re only a few dozen pages into the book and there are miles and miles of this crap to go. But I was intrigued by your fundie preacher anecdote. However, you left out the punchline. Did the daughters and granddaughters cremate his body?

  • mecki

    Dear Fred-
    If you manage to make it through the whole book, you will deserve a medal. Almost certainly a purple heart – for the color of the prose – but probably others as well.
    Thank you for doing this public service.

  • Louise

    Story #1 is fascinating for its subtext of the Evil Woman. Both parents are left behind, and why shouldn’t they be? The wife is obviously a bitch. She’s threatening to “slug” her husband and get a divorce while she is in the middle of delivering their child. How could a woman be less, well, properly womanly in the Evangelical sense? The husband is simply a Rapacious Consumer, more concerned with the video camera and his film than with praying for a safe delivery.
    The whole scene is absurd for any woman who has ever delivered a child. When you’re in that last stage of labor, the pushing, you have no breath to spare. You certainly don’t have the capability to utter more than two words of great importance breathlessly strung together. Long sentences asking rhetorical questions and making threats? Fugeddaboudit.
    That one paragraph is enough to point out the virulent anti-female and anti-sex theme that seems to be the foundation of so much of this “theology”. “Great belly and sweaty face”? How much more repugnant can the physical description of a woman in childbirth be? (No, don’t tell me – these guys could probably explicate on that topic further.)
    The “birth” of this “innocent life” – taken directly from this sinful world into the purported realm of God’s eternal love – is, arguably, the Ideal Birth. The body of the child is nothing more than a vehicle for delivering a soul to the Almighty. Actually living as a full human in this fallible yet striving world is far too disgusting for these guys.
    For people that argue that life is a gift from God, they certainly seem to hate and fear it.

  • eristick

    Yet another ignorant little detail: As anyone knows who…well…has ever known a pregnant woman, their abdomens don’t “deflate” immediately after birth.

  • emjaybee

    The whole resurrection of the body thing was always puzzling to me once I learned that after a long enough time, all dead matter ends up in the bodies of the living. Matter being neither created nor destroyed, there is only so much to go around…and of all the dead believers there have been, at least some of them will have shared the same atoms–not to mention the atoms of the dead now being used by the living. So who gets those atoms? The first ones to use them? Will some of the left behind suddenly be missing part of their bodies because those atoms once belonged to a Christian?
    It’s just intensely ludicrous. If my soul is in Heaven when I die, what the heck do I want my old decomposed and recycled atoms for? They’re much more useful down here, serving their intended purpose.
    And I hope those women did cremate that old monster, then scatter him to the winds.

  • Beth

    Thanks michael. I’ll stick with the Pill. Those end-time evangelical types are unbearably smug as it is. Can you imagine what they’ll be like after they’ve been proven right? I don’t know what Hell is like, but it’s got to be better than spending eternity with that crowd.

  • Riggsveda

    Beth, sometimes I think that we’re already there.

  • pfc

    I always thought the Ezekial text regarding the Valley of the Dry Bone was an answer to the question of bodily resurrection of the cremated. If God can sort out the bones and put flesh and sinews and all that back on the bodies and breath life back into them, what little problem would he have reconsituting from ashes.
    But then I always figured if She could create the universe, little things like that wouldn’t be a problem for Her anyway.

  • bellatrys

    There are the echoes of what had to be a lively and roisterous student debate from the medieval universities in a passage from Aquinas where iirc the question arises in re what if someone gets eaten by a cannibal? And what if the cannibal has kids? And what if the kid gets eaten by a tiger? Who gets the matter?
    Ans: God doesn’t need to recylce the exact original material, sillies, he having made the whole shebang ex nihilo.
    (The thing about cremation seems to have been symbolic – it was a pagan custom first, so kind of a cultural rebellion thing, then later becoming a rebellion thing, people choosing cremation to symbolize their disbelief in the resurrection. Only very simple minds taking the literalist tack &c.)
    I don’t think that messrs Lahaye & Jenkins have much connection to the Primary World at all…ditto their readers…

  • Vendor X

    In relation to the questions and statements regarding the slow decay and destruction of corpses over time, recall that when the first hints of rapture fever began spreading, it wasn’t an event most believers felt they would have to wait very long for. These stories weren’t being written with the long run in mind; they were written largely under the assumption that the events discussed were going to happen soon, well within the lifetimes of many alive at the time of their inseption. I seriously doubt the long term effects of time on corpses was an issue in the minds of the authors or their target audience.
    Still, I have to agree that being concerned about whether your body is cremated or not sounds fairly foolish to me. So, what, people who die in fires don’t get into heaven either?

  • Beth

    Sorry to keep going on about this, but re: lucidity’s questions, what happens to all the saved ‘preborn’? Will some of our Blessed Sisters spend eternity pregnant, or will fetuses and suchlike be able to navigate heaven on their own? I suppose if they all get wings, embryos could be like heavenly gnats.

  • Naomi

    Maybe I’m just odd, Fred, but I don’t see the concept of the age of reason/accountability as having “an appeal [that] is only necessary if you begin with a theology that suspects God is the sort of God who might otherwise condemn little pagan babies to Hell.”
    I don’t at all suspect God is such a god. I believe though, that there IS an age at which we can choose to resist God’s love and when to cooperate with it. I see some value in recognizing when individuals have reached that point. To me, that’s helpful in teaching.
    Needless to say, many of us don’t like the mystery and variety of humans, so we try to come up with an arbitrary date, age, or other marker so we can know, or believe we know, the fate of others.

  • Jon H

    Louise writes: “The husband is simply a Rapacious Consumer, more concerned with the video camera and his film than with praying for a safe delivery.”
    Or maybe he’s damned for looking at her naughty bits? More than that, he’s videotaping them!
    I’d bet neither LaHaye nor Jenkins was present when their kids were born – if they have kids.
    The ‘deflated belly’ thing certainly suggests this.

  • pablo

    NPR’s Talk of the Nation did a kiss ass piece on Left Behind and Xtian literature. I kept waiting for the reviewer to tell us how badly they’re written but she probably didn’t want to endure the wrath of the fundies who were calling in. Of course Neil Conan only knows how to toady to wingers so I didn’t expect anything from him.

  • Margot

    I’ve read a bunch of these books. (You all can stop looking at me like that.) I read a lot, and I was going to an Assembly of God church where copies were being passed around like…never mind. The writing is truly awful, the characterization of homosexuals is mean and petty, the scriptural soundness is very wanting. But they make the money, these books. What would Jesus do? He wouldn’t read this junk, that is for damn sure!

  • midnight

    Ok, I’m neither a Christian nor a theologian, nor even a very clever guy, so I might be completely off base, but doesn’t the whole tiny-babies-get-raptured-automatically thing make a hash of the loony-right-wing political/religious outlook? As I understand it, in the Christian worldview, every person is inherently sinful because of that bit with the magic tree in Eden. The point of the God-coming-to-earth-as-Jesus-and-getting-killed-horribly dance was to provide humanity with an out from this state of inherent sinfulness. You’re not “born innocent”; nobody is ever “innocent” or “good” at all, but through your faith in Jesus, God might forgive your horrible sinful nature and let you into heaven anyway. I seem to remember that the way-out-there puritans who founded some of the early American colonies thought that infants who died before baptism spend eternity getting poked by the Red Guy’s pitchfork.
    On the other hand, isn’t there a huge political problem for the sort of people who take these books seriously if you get out of the unpleasant fetuses-in-hell scenario by assigning a not-fully-human moral status to the unborn/very young? Namely: why is abortion, or even infanticide, a big deal in LaHaye’s world? Actually, why isn’t abortion the greatest possible act of kindness? You’re giving your kid an assured free ticket to heaven, rather than taking the chance of him/her coming into the world, sinning, not repenting, and being damned forever.
    So, to recap: if babies get raptured, either humans or not inherently sinful, in which case the whole Jesus trip isn’t strictly necessary for salvation, or God lets unrepentent sinners into heaven sometimes, in which case Christ is again unneccessary, or abortion isn’t really the big deal the religious right makes it out to be, or I’m missing something important, or people who take Tim LaHaye seriously are batshit insane. Which is it?

  • blah

    A woman’s uterous remains swollen long after giving birth and only gradually returns to its normal size. Also, lots of amneotic fluid would have splashed out all over the place. (I doubt they would show this sort of thing on CNN).
    The dialogue between the husband and wife sounds like silly TV sitcom dialogue scribbled out by third rate hacks.

  • jkup

    Midnight, re: Jesus being crucified, the common interpretation of this event has been corrupted over the years by different agencies so that it doesn’t reflect what is written in the Bible. The gist of the crucifixion was to absolve us of ALL our sins, once-and-for-all, so that we are all ok and pure. Confession, communion, and repentance are all products of this corruption, and obscure the real message of this sacrifice, which is that everyone is loved by God no matter what they may do.

  • Kevin Carson

    What has always fascinated me about the doctrine of an “age of accountability” is that there is absolutely no biblical basis for it. And yet fundamentalists, who supposedly adhere to “sola scriptura,” believe it.
    It is based on pretty much the same logic as the Catholic doctrine of “baptism of desire,” by which those invincibly ignorant of the truth of Christianity are judged only by their willingness to obey the truth as they are able to perceive it.
    And yet, if you attempt to expand the logic behind the “age of accountability” to those who, in good faith, have not found it necessary to say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” they respond that there’s “no other name,” etc., etc.

  • nate

    If I were Left Behind, I’d wonder what happened to the petri-dishes of stem cells, as well as frozen embryos created for in-vitro fertilization.
    Wouldn’t that be yet another big see-I-told-you-so moment. “Rayford, all the fertility clinics are reporting that their entire stock of test-tube babies are gone. That must be why every registered Democrat was left behind!”

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  • Ken

    The body of the child is nothing more than a vehicle for delivering a soul to the Almighty.
    Delivering a soul?
    Does anybody remember that the Christian afterlife is (or was) all based around Resurrection of the Body? That if you’re just a “soul in Heaven” (TM) you’re NOT complete until you get that new perfected body on The Last Day?
    How does just becoming a disembodied “soul” differ from the Hades afterlife of the Greco-Roman State Religion? Did Christ just shed his body on the cross and become a divine “soul” in a renamed Elysian Fields? Or did he Rise — in a Body — that first Easter?

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