L.B.: There goes the neighborhood

Tim LaHaye responds to this Nick Kristof column with a letter to the editor in The New York Times:

Comparing my book "Glorious Appearing" to "fundamentalist Islamic tracts" is a real stretch. The Islamic radicals who bomb the innocent are not nice people!

Should Christ overlook their rebellion and welcome them into his kingdom? They would ruin it for everyone. You don't choose to live around people like that today; would you want to spend eternity with them?

LaHaye portrays heaven as a (pearly) gated community in Orange County. It's a good, exclusive neighborhood inhabited by good, exclusive people. God's main role is to keep out the undesirable types — the people who are not "nice" and whom the saints like LaHaye would not "choose to live around."

LaHaye's vision of heaven, in other words, sounds remarkably like that of the Pharisees — the devout evangelicals of their day. Jesus repeatedly warned them that prostitutes and tax-collectors would be getting into heaven ahead of them. (We always read this as former prostitutes and reformed tax-collectors, but that's not what he said.)

Christianity teaches that God retains the prerogative to judge the wicked — to separate the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the tares. But it also emphatically teaches that this is God's prerogative, not ours.

Yet we like to play God. Despite Jesus' insistence that we couldn't tell wheat from tares with a guidebook and a microscope we still insist that we're qualified to help out with the weeding.

So we construct our parochial little visions of heaven. We portray heaven as a place where we get to spend eternity only with the kinds of people we like to be with. Thus for LaHaye, New Jerusalem is not so much a heavenly city as an unincorporated development in the heavenly suburbs.

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  • Chris

    Well I think that the real problem that people like LaHayne have is that God has done such a poor job of separating the wheat from the tares. Look around and you see all sorts of undesirables. So clearly God needs some help since the weeding is long overdue.

  • Patrick Mullins

    I had read the Kristof Op-Ed, but had missed the LaHaye letter, which is hilarious–especially “They would ruin it for everyone.” Of course the Islamic radicals are not “nice,” but that does not concern them at all. Pushy American Christians always seem to cultivate a “nice” persona that actually is very deceiving, and is constantly used to cover a host of corruptions of their own.
    Actually, though, we don’t have any choice but to “play God,” and we always do. Jesus sure did it–why not everybody else? Otherwise we live in a permanent inferiority complex to one of the most famous personages in history. Smart people would do well to realize that they consciously do need to make judgments–if only because they do make them anyway, and if they pretend they can keep from it, they will just hesitate at the wrong times and make poorer judgments.
    They could start with realizing that there is no fighting evil with pure good, but only with lesser evil (because the fighting itself can never really be called “good,” given various effects like bloodletting and death.)I once saw a Quaker on Lehrer Newshour who was touching, because it was sad he couldn’t face the facts of the reality of any tough action (the only solution is to pretend that all physical reality is illusion and those who do this are left squarely in Hegel’s “unhappy consciousness,” going broke financially and talking about being rich inwardly.)
    However “just” a war WWII was, it was still not a matter of winning by good, but by the deployment of lesser evil. Hiroshima, for example, was probably necessary, but there is no way it can be termed “good” in itself.
    Anyway, thanks for printing LaHaye’s letter and also some of your commentary. Orange County is a good choice, because it’s exclusive, but not all that exclusive. Before turning all California into the Kingdom of Heaven, LaHaye does need to keep his expectations realistically lowered.He sounds as if squealing in the mousey tone of his letter, and it’s too bad Walter Brennan isn’t around anymore: He’d be perfect in a scene where Lahaye goes to meet Schwarzenegger and agrees that immediate servility to the governor is what he has always wanted.
    I don’t want to live around people like LaHaye now and I don’t want to live around anybody in eternity. Too bad Aimee Semple MacPherson isn’t around too; they don’t make religious crackpots like they used too.

  • Evan

    …we still insist that we’re qualified to help out with the weeding
    Nicely put. Reminds me of a childhood friend, who when we were about thirteen, joined a pentacostal church which (as he explained it) taught that on judgement day, those who were Saved would be called upon by God to help with the judging of those who were not. One day he told me earnestly that he was praying I would come to church and see the light, because he was terrified that when judgement day came he would have to sit in judgement on me, and he might have to “send me the other way”. We weren’t friends for very long after that.
    What a vicious theology. Why would God need help with judgement day? I can only think of two possible reasons: To reward the faithful by letting *them* have the fun of throwing unbelievers into the fire, or to test them (like any other authoritarian society) by requiring them to denounce their loved ones. It’s a disgusting image of God, either way.
    I hear echoes of this in LaHaye’s letter. “Oh, tra la, I’m so beloved of God that anyone I hate, He hates too, and no one I dislike will be allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven, but my friends all will, for I’m just about the bestest person ever, all praise Me.”

  • bellatrys

    Worse yet, in between there were a slew of letters from people remarking on how similar the tone of the Glorious Appearing exerpts was to the rhetoric of folks like Bin Ladin and likewise the theology, and what was that about motes and beams? and maybe we needed to look at ourselves if we wanted to understand this mystifying religious violence around the globe…I’m not sure if it wasn’t that just as much as the original attack which got LaHaye to make a bigger goat of himself – we can’t be having with any of this ecumenical humility!

  • Riggsveda

    This exclusionary take on who gets to be “chosen” for heaven isn’t solely a Christian attitude, but it does seem to be more common in the Western religions.
    How different from the Zen Buddhist idea that the walls of self between us and our neighbors are illusion, and that real heaven consists in coming to that revelation, so that we recognize ourselves in others, and God in us all.

  • Eli

    Fred, you forgot to mention the horses:
    “The riders not thrown,” the novel continues, “leaped from their horses and tried to control them with the reins, but even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated. . . . Seconds later the same plague afflicted the horses, their flesh and eyes and tongues melting away, leaving grotesque skeletons standing, before they, too, rattled to the pavement.”
    But, you know, radical Islamic horses are not nice – you wouldn’t want to spend eternity in heaven with those horses. Good thing Jesus killed them with His flesh-melting beams of love.
    Next time Newsweek writes something about the Rev’s “Biblical literalism”, I hope they will quote the New Testament passages in which our saviour painfully destroys domesticated animals with a special effect from Raiders of the Lost Ark. People always forget those passages – in fact, I still can’t seem to find them…

  • Eli

    I may be stating the obvious, but Patrick Mullins’s comments seem to make no sense at all.
    I mean, if you’re not a Christian, you should think Jesus was wrong to “play God”. And if you are one, I’d think you’d be worrying less about having an “inferiority complex” than about figuring out how to follow difficult teachings like “turn the other cheek”. But what do I know, I’m one of those sad, sad Quakers.

  • addendum

    I can think of one other possible reason why god might ‘require’ help on judgement day, and that’s as one final test of the saved’s morality.
    Can they learn to love and forgive the blasphemers and the hevens? Or will they simply denounce god’s gift of love in favour of their own small minded pettyness?

  • Andrew Reeves

    I figure that I ought to make at least a small point: That God will torture the vast majority of humanity for ever and ever is a pretty crucial component of the New Testament (and a few later parts of the Old). If God is anything like the Holy Trinity as described in the NT, then come the end of history Jesus is going to open up a can of whoop-ass on all humanity except for the saved. This is why I do not think that I can call myself a Christian any more.
    I have a final thought: Would you really *want* to live in a cosmos in which God was a benevolent senile Grandfather who didn’t punish evil?

  • Thlayli

    I’m glad you’re keeping the L.B. series going. I was a bit worried you’d stopped in the interest of maintaining your sanity (although I would completely understand if you had).

  • Eli

    You know, I just realized what it must’ve been like to be Tim LaHaye’s Sunday school teacher.
    Teacher: “…and Jesus cursed the fig tree, and it shriveled up and died. Yes, Timmy, what is it?”
    Tim: “Could Jesus do that to a bad guy?”
    Teacher: “Well I suppose he could, but, you see, Jesus never harmed any people, even when he was being arrested. So…”
    Tim: “What about if it was Judgement Day?”
    Teacher: “Uh well we don’t really know. So…”
    Tim: “OK what about a bad guy’s horse?”
    Teacher: “Oh for… Timmy, why don’t you go write a story while we continue the lesson.”

    Anyway – Andrew: Just to nit-pick, Christians do not by any means all agree that (a) there is a “Holy Trinity” described in the Bible, or that (b) God is going to torture anyone forever and ever. Rather, there are a lot of references to “spirit” and “burned up” and so on, and various people have taken these and run with them in various ways. There have been plenty of Christians who believed hell was just the death of the soul; others who believed in torment, but not eternal torment; and others who believed in it not as a punishment from God but as a spiteful self-awareness or simply the absence of grace. (See discussion of Tartarus vs. Gehenna vs. Hades here.) So maybe you should find some other reason for why you can’t call yourself a Christian.

  • Patrick Mullins

    Eli–I am not a Christian, except in the sense that some of Christianity has a humanism that is also found elsewhere; but it therefore follows that I do think that it was all right for Jesus to “play God” as long as others feel free to do so as well (which, as we well know, they have done and continue to do. The development of a total technology is definitely playing God, and has its advantages and disadvantages.) Those who think Jesus is the son of God are the ones who follow. I would have to follow him myself in order to have the inferiority complex based on him (I could have that one or any number of other complexes based on anything else.)
    And also, since I am not, you are correct to assume that I am not very interested in “turning the other cheek” when it comes to seriously addressing ways to reverse the obvious suicidal tendencies of the country, perhaps the world.
    In fact, 9/11 has almost been responded to by turning the other cheek, insofar as Iraq was never involved with 9/11. We have aided and abetted the breeding of new Al Qaida by what might be called “turning to another cheek to slap so ineffectually that it is the intellectual laughing-stock of all history”–and part of the suicidal tendency is that with each new revelation, the populace is so numbed by now that probably nothing short of a new catastrophe will serve. 9/11 is now almost as much a non-issue as the 1993 bombing of the WTC. The Pennsylvania passengers were truly heroic, but I wonder how different the scenario would have been had the White House and Capitol actually been attacked and destroyed too, as planned. After all, New York got some temporary sympathy, but Americans would have identified with a much larger attack on Washington far more vehemently (sympathy for New York is always limited)–and there would have been no Iraq War thought of at all. As it is, New York got the brunt of it, the Washington politicians’ lives were spared, and now per capita protection for Wyoming citizens is something like 7 times that for New Yorkers.
    That percentage will change temporarily in late August, because the Bushies will be ensconced…
    If you want to turn the other cheek as literally as possible, you should consider not criticizing my comments at all. You might hurt my feelings, mightn’t you? My policy on such things, on the other hand, is “I wouldn’t purposely hurt Eli, but I’d slap the shit out of him if he provoked it.” However, we are in the virtual here, so none of that really applies; the medium is not all the message in this particular blog, but it still is just the medium to a great degree. And anyway, if my writing doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry ’bout it. Nobody ever likes everybody else’s writing.

  • Eli

    Patrick, I didn’t say I was worrying, and I didn’t say you offended me. I meant no personal offense, either. I figured if you didn’t want to hear anyone’s response, or didn’t understand the difference between disagreement and belligerence, you wouldn’t be talking here.

  • Adam Kotsko

    The (non-former) prostitutes I can believe — but the tax collectors?
    I have always had trouble with that. At this point, I don’t know how to read that and have it be okay.

  • Chris

    Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, was of the opinion that one of the finer pleasures of heaven was that the saved could lean over the side of paradise and laugh Haha (cf. Nelson Muntz)at the unsaved burning in lakes of eternal fire, so there is a history to this. Mind you, Tertullian also believed that it was a sin to shave, on the grounds that it would be implicitly criticising the works of the God who made you with a beard.

  • Beth

    They would ruin it for everyone.
    I always thought God had complete authority in heaven. How could Islamic radicals ruin heaven? Are they more powerful than God?
    would you want to spend eternity with them?
    No, but then I wouldn’t want to spend eternity with LaHaye either. Does that mean he’s hellbound too? Maybe Judgement Day will be like a global reality show where all the unpopular people get voted out of heaven.

  • caerbannog

    This reminds me of a little story I heard some time ago….
    St. Peter was giving that latest group of new arrivals to Heaven the
    usual boilerplate spiel during the orientation and bus tour…
    “Coming up on the right is the Methodist residence….
    … and over on the left is the Greek Orthodox dormitory…
    … and just past that is the Episcopalean building….”
    Then suddenly, St. Peter switched off the bus headlights, killed the
    engine, and began coasting the bus quietly past the next complex
    of buildings. He asked the passengers on the bus to keep silent
    and refrain from speaking or making any noise. After the bus
    passed the buildings, St. Peter switched the lights back on,
    re-started the engine and told the passengers that they could
    resume talking. One of the passengers asked him, “what was that
    all about? St. Peter replied, that was the Baptist dormitory. The
    Baptists think that they are the only ones here, and I didn’t want
    to upset them.

  • Buhallin

    I’ll admit the blatant hypocrisy of LaHaye’s first few paragraphs were staggering, but to me it was the final that was utterly chilling:
    The wonderful plan God has for the future of mankind may not be attractive to those who reject Christ, the Bible or God. But compared with plans for the future life (if any) taught by the other religions, it is the best thing going!
    So the wanton slaughter of anyone who doesn’t believe as you do is “the best thing going”? And this is the famed relgion of peace???
    I think I’m going to be sick.
    I’m pretty much an atheist, but days like this I hope there IS a God, so that sadistic bastards like that can get the eternal torment they truly deserve.
    That’s one of the advantages of being atheist – I can skip that whole “turn in the other cheek” bit in cases like this where torment is well-deserved and -earned.

  • lightning

    To paraphrase a sign in front of the local Baptist church:
    He’s willing to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity.
    One of the scariest things about the Fundie wingnuts is their calm assumption that they’re fixing God’s screwups.

  • Jeff Keezel

    Okay, this whole “turn the other cheek” thing has been completely misunderstood for eons and it is plain to see that the misinterpretation lives on in spades.
    If you read the text exactly, Jesus says, “…if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…” Matthew 5:19, RSV
    Note how specific he is – “the right cheek.” Middle Eastern custom dictates that the left hand is never to be used to touch another person. So a strike to the right cheek would have to be a back-handed blow. Hebrew law allowed backhanded blows if the person doing the striking was of a higher social standing than the person being struck.
    In other words, a rich man could backhand a poor man and it was all legal. And the poor man could not fight back.
    Law also dictated that a person could not backhand an equal. You could only strike an equal with your fist. And your equal could hit back.
    Jesus is clearly talking to the poor. He is saying to them, “if some rich hotshot backhands you, you look at them and show them the other cheek and tell them to hit you there.”
    This puts the rich man on the defensive. He must either back down, or strike with the fist, thereby elevating the social status of the poor man and allowing him to fight back.
    All this serves to point out how tricky it is to interpret 2000 year old texts. And to show what a cool guy Jesus really was. Definitely in your face…thekeez

  • Pat Greene

    I just discovered your blog, and was fascinated by the Left Behind posts. 20 years ago, I saw Tim Lahaye talk at a Baptist church in Atlanta. When he launched into a denunciation of the evils of children being in daycare and how their mothers were going to burn in hell, I stomped out as loudly as I could. The man is indeed a fundamentalist wingnut.
    I’ve always thought that anyone who presumed to say who was going to heaven was being blasphemous by presuming to speak for God.

  • nitpicker

    That ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff is very interesting.
    Once again I’m left wondering if there are any ‘Anarchists for Jesus’ type groups running around…

  • Scott

    “Once again I’m left wondering if there are any ‘Anarchists for Jesus’ type groups running around…”

  • David Ross

    Keezel – Yeah, I blogged about that back in 2002. Oh how that takes me back :^) Another cool Jesus comment is, if someone rips off your cloak then offer him your shirt, too. Jesus Christ, Shao-Lin of the Apocalypse! HOO-AAA!

  • sophia8

    There’s also Atheists For Jesus: http://atheistsforjesus.com/index.php

  • none

    Agnostics (possibly) for jesus?
    Or even ServiceJesus4m.com? /lame topical joke

  • Gus

    Hi, all,
    Very interesting analysis of LaHaye’s nonsense, Patrick. Thanks. It was especially interesting to see how his selective use of bible passages really distorts their meaning…
    Have any of you seen the new (Feb/Mar 2005) edition of UTNE? The cover stories are about this issue and deserve serious consideration. Unfortunately, they aren’t yet online — the website still has the last issue up.
    The big article talks to Karen Armstrong, whose basic arguments are that (1) fundamentalism is a natural reaction to the evolution of a secular society, but has been pushed to the fringes ideologically by being repressed & ridiculed for too long; (2) the war on “terrorism” is in fact a religious war, partly between tolerance and repressive religion in our own country, but largely between Xianity and Islam b/c the West’s support of repression there has simply made us look evil; (3) In both parts of the world, the culture is becoming more stridently violent, and since religions “absorb” that violence, there’s an increasing risk of “some extremely alienated group getting ahold of some appalling weapon and using it.”
    I like Bill Moyers comment on this: “…The delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress.”
    These people are very dangerous, mostly because they really believe in armageddon and are willing to INITIATE it without regard for the consequences to everyone else. (Of course, it’d be very interesting to see LaHaye, et al, SURVIVE afterward and see it obviously isn’t “heaven.”)

  • R, Mildred

    I think Lahaye would be more surprised that the post-apocalyptic mutants don’t recognise the US dollar as acceptable legal tender

  • julien

    Being French and an atheist, your article on LaHaye have frightened me to the bone: I don’t want ever to go to the US, for fear of being jumped on from behind a tree by LaHaye and a band of christian-integrist-disintegrated-melted-tongue horses!!! Brrrrrr!

  • pepperjackcandy

    We always read this as former prostitutes and reformed tax-collectors, but that’s not what he said.
    That’s always been one of the most powerful things about the tale of Zaccheus (the tax collector who climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus in the Sunday School story). Jesus’ presence/approval/grace was not conditioned on Zaccheus’ reformation; Zaccheus’ reformation was the result of Jesus’ presence/approval/grace.