Left Behind, pg. 165
Rayford Steele has not yet, himself, converted to what Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins call "true" Christianity, but he's already started trying to convert his daughter Chloe.
"I always called myself a Christian, mostly because I was raised that way and I wasn't Jewish."
"Now you're saying you're not a Christian?"
"Chloe, I think the Christians are gone."
"So I'm not a Christian either?"
"You're my daughter and the only other member of my family still left; I love you more than anything on earth. But if the Christians are gone and everyone else is left, I don't think anyone is a Christian."
"Some kind of a super Christian, you mean."
"Yeah, a true Christian. Apparently those who were taken were recognized by God as truly his."
This idea of true versus false Christianity, genuine versus inadequate faith, is at the heart of Left Behind. It's built into the fabric of the book, as the title itself suggests. Some will be "recognized by God as truly his." Everyone else will be "left behind." Explaining and describing who falls into which group, and how to distinguish between the two, is an essential part of the story's structure. This distinction — shibboleth, litmus test — is one of the book's primary themes.
The problem is that such a distinction, the Bible makes very clear, is none of our business. It is, in fact, something Jesus explicitly commanded his followers not to do:
Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
"The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?'
"'An enemy did this,' he replied.
"The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'
"'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'"
When this little allegory was met with blank stares from his disciples, Jesus took the unusual step of spelling out explicitly what he meant:
"The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
This is some fairly trippy eschatology — harvester angels and fiery furnaces and the like. If you insist, as L&J do, on reading everything in the Bible "literally," at face value, then you're going to have a very difficult time reconciling the figures of speech in this passage (Matthew 13) with the equally vivid, but very different, literary details of this same end-of-the-age sorting that Jesus provides in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25) or that of Lazarus and the Rich Man (in Luke 16).
The point of all three stories, of course, is that the kingdom of God is made up of those who do good, not those who do evil — and particularly not those evildoers (weeds, goats, Dives) who ignore the needs of the poor. To read such stories and ignore this point is perverse. To interpret them as primarily about the specific mechanics of the End Times — the role of Abraham and angels, the heat-setting of the fiery furnace — is even more perverse.
Such a reading makes a good defense mechanism, however, if you're the rich man or the goats or the bad seed. If you've been ignoring the beggar at the gate, giving him only crumbs from your table — if you've been neglecting to feed the hungry, tend the sick, clothe the naked and comfort those in prison — then stories like these can be very disconcerting unless you're able to distract yourself with some contorted "literal" reading of all the tangential details.
The criteria for the sorting that Jesus describes in all three of these parables is nothing like the criteria Rayford, LaHaye and Jenkins have in mind for distinguishing between true Christians "recognized by God as truly his" and those who will be left behind. L&J's criteria involves a magical prayer of conversion and a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" that has nothing to do with feeding Jesus when we encounter him in the hungry, or clothing Jesus when we encounter him naked, or visiting Jesus when he has, yet again, been thrown into prison.
L&J, like many American evangelicals, insist on what they call a "literal" Hell. Most of their literal idea of this literal Hell comes from a fuzzy cultural memory of a literal reading of Dante, but it is supported by hints from these various Day of Judgment stories told by Jesus. In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus says that those who neglect the needy will be cast "outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." In the parable of the Wheat and Weeds, the mature weeds will be "pulled up and burned in the fire." The Rich Man who neglected poor Lazarus is sent to "Hades, where he was in torment." (I would love to read an explanation of a "literal" interpretation of Jesus' reference here to the Greek god of the dead.)
The most vivid account of this "literal Hell" is from L&J's favorite book of the Bible, Revelation, in another tale of end-of-the-age sorting:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
I don't want to get into a debate about the theology of Hell. What interests me in all of this is the glaring contradiction and inconsistency in L&J's and other evangelicals' supposedly "literal" reading of the Bible.
Every one of the passages above is cited in defense of a "literal Hell" by people who insist on a "literal" reading of scripture. Yet every one of these passages also explicitly states that people will be judged "according to what they had done." This is true of every passage they might cite in defense of their literal reading of a literal Hell. And in every case, these literal readers will insist that the passage's emphasis on deeds, works and actions should not be read literally.
That's rather interesting, isn't it?
I don't believe that such passages are irreconcilable with the idea of justification by faith, but what's interesting here is the selective literalism employed by L&J and others like them to dismiss such "strawy" passages. This selective literalism allows them to disregard explicit teachings about the poor and the needy while still insisting that they have the wisdom, the authority and the right to judge who is and is not a "true" Christian, who will and who won't be left behind. That arrogant and contrabiblical assumption pervades Left Behind, beginning with the cover of the book and saturating every page.
By the way, the parable of the Wheat and Weeds, cited above, raises another difficulty for L&J and the other selective literalists of the premillennial dispensationalist persuasion. The premise of LB is that all the true Christians, all the good and the innocent, will be "raptured." They will, as Irene Steele put it, be rescued by "Jesus coming back to get us before we die." After that happens, L&J believe, the wicked and the guilty and the false Christians and the Jews will all be destroyed in an outpouring of God's wrath. A "literal" reading of Jesus' parable, however, would suggest they've got things in the wrong order. The parable has the weeds harvested first, then the wheat.
This is a contradiction only if one accepts L&J's alleged insistence on a "literal interpretation." I find this to be a foolish and illiterate hermeneutic, but these are the rules they claim to be following. When these rules become inconvenient, however, L&J casually toss them aside.