TF: We defy augury

Tribulation Force, pp. 362-366

I wish I could be of more help,” Buck said, suddenly realizing what an understatement that was. What he wouldn’t give to expose Nicolae Carpathia as a lying murderer, the hypnotic Antichrist! And though Buck would oppose him, anyone without Christ would never understand or agree. Besides, Scripture didn’t seem to indicate that even Christ’s followers would be able to do more than simply bear up against him. The Antichrist was on a course foretold centuries before, and the drama would be played out to the end.

Nicolae Carpathia was going to swallow up the president of the United States and everyone else in his path. He would gain ultimate power, and then the true battle would begin, the war between heaven and hell. The ultimate cold war would become a battle to the death. Buck took comfort in the assurance that the end had been known from the beginning.

This is what is going to happen and there’s nothing Buck can do. Nothing Buck even should do. He has no role to play in this “war between heaven and hell.” He can’t stop Nicolae from oppressing and slaughtering millions and he can’t stop God from oppressing and slaughtering billions. He won’t even try. He believes it would be wrong to try.

Which means the story is pretty much finished. There are 14 more books in this series, but whatever it is they contain it can’t be called a story. That story has been dealt a fatal blow by the fatalism of our heroes and of the authors.

That fatalism creates at least two insurmountable problems. First, it means that our heroes cannot be heroes. And second, it means that good and evil — or God and evil — are interchangeable and indistinguishable. It means that it doesn’t matter what anyone does and that it doesn’t matter what happens. If Nicolae wins, everyone suffers and dies and then suffers endlessly. If LaHaye’s God wins, everyone suffers and dies and then suffers endlessly.

There is nothing that can be done and there is no one to do it. That’s not a story.

“There is nothing we can do,” would not, in itself, preclude the possibility of a story or of heroism. Heroes — real heroes, not feckless bystanders like Buck Williams and Rayford Steele — hear that all the time. There’s nothing you can do. It’s hopeless. It’s too late. It’s fate, destiny, a foregone conclusion. The prophecy has been written. You cannot change anything. You cannot win. You cannot save them. You’ll get yourself killed. Resistance is futile.

But real heroes ignore all that. They may suspect it’s true. They may even know it’s true. But that doesn’t matter, they’ll still jump into the fray and, at least, try to go down swinging because … well, because they’re heroes and that’s what that word means.

Think of Norse mythology. At Ragnarok, the gods and heroes are doomed. What has been prophesied will come to pass and nothing they do can change the outcome. But they never give up. That’s why their story matters. It’s why their story is a story, even if nothing they do can change how it ends.

And let’s face it, all our stories ultimately end the same way and nothing we do can change that. Our end, to borrow Jerry Jenkins’ phrase, has “been known from the beginning.”

… If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come.

The readiness is all.

“What if I told you it doesn’t help?” the man asks as the woman packs up a truck with supplies for her shelter for at-risk youth. “What would you do if you found out that none of it matters? That it’s all controlled by forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive and they will never let it get better down here? What would you do?”

“I’d get this truck packed before the new stuff gets here,” she says. “Wanna give me a hand?”

That scene comes at the end of a very long story. The woman has heard all this before. She’s said all this before. She knows firsthand about “forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive” who will “never let it get better down here.” But she’d also met a real hero who’d showed her different and so she changed her name and became a hero herself.

This is what heroes do. They pack the truck despite all the forces that tell them it will never get better down here. They act like it matters even when they’re told it doesn’t matter. They help even when they’re told it doesn’t help — even when, as Dr. Rieux puts it in another story, it means being involved in a “never ending defeat.”

Our stories need heroes because we need heroes. The heroes don’t have to win. They don’t have to succeed in changing anything or saving anyone. But they have to try. They “have to go forward, groping their way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times,” and try to do what good lay in their power.

When Buck here announces and demonstrates his unwillingness even to try he surrenders any claim he might have had to being a hero in this story.

This story has no heroes.

And these heroes, such as they are, have no story. Because it doesn’t matter what they do or don’t do. It doesn’t matter whether Nicolae wins or God wins. Either way, everyone and everything is screwed. “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” but if every sparrow and every other living thing is wiped out mercilessly no matter what, then providence doesn’t seem any different than … whatever the opposite of providence is (despair? disregard? wrath?*).

“The Antichrist was on a course foretold centuries before,” the authors tell us. And not even the real, true Christians of the Tribulation Force “would be able to do more than simply bear up against him.”

Nicolae’s rise to power and his cruel reign are part of God’s plan. Buck can’t try to oppose the Antichrist’s plans because to do so, he believes, would be to oppose God’s plans.

I don’t know how to make sense of that in any way that does not make the Antichrist out to be God’s servant — that does not require us to regard God as the author, and driver, of evil.

The scenario that LaHaye and Jenkins present is much like the one C.S. Lewis described with great dread in A Grief Observed:

The conclusion I dread is not “So there is not God after all,” but, “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.” … No, my real fear is not materialism. If it were true, we … could get out, get from under the harrow. An overdose of sleeping pills would do it. I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or, worse still, rats in a laboratory. Someone said, I believe, “God always geometrizes.” Supposing the truth were “God always vivisects?”

Lewis ultimately rejects this idea, but his description of such a “Cosmic Sadist” and the theology behind such an idea seems to capture exactly what’s going on here in Tribulation Force. Lewis’ description is more hostile, but also more precise and more honest than Buck’s manifesto of inaction against God’s servant Nicolae. In clearer language than L&J are able to express, Lewis captures exactly what Buck is saying above about God, prophecy, fate, good and evil. And he argues that ultimately what Buck and the authors are saying is nonsense:

Or could one seriously introduce the idea of a bad God, as it were by the back door, through a sort of extreme Calvinism? You could say we are fallen and depraved. We are so depraved that our ideas of goodness count for nothing; or worse than nothing — the very fact that we think something good is presumptive evidence that it is really bad. Now God has in fact — our worst fears are true — all the characteristics we regard as bad: unreasonableness, vanity, vindictiveness, injustice, cruelty. But all these [negatives] (as they seem to us) are really [positives]. It’s only our depravity makes them look [negative] to us.

And so what? This, for all practical (and speculative) purposes sponges God off the slate. The word good, applied to [God], becomes meaningless: like abracadabra. We have no motive for obeying [God]. Not even fear. It is true we have [God’s] threats and promises. But why should we believe them? If cruelty is from [God’s] point of view “good,” telling lies may be “good” too. Even if they are true, what then? If [God’s] ideas of good are so very different from ours, what [God] calls “Heaven” might well be what we should call Hell, and vice-versa. Finally, if reality at its very root is so meaningless to us — or, putting it the other way round, if we are such total imbeciles — what is the point of trying to think either about God or about anything else? This knot comes undone when you try to pull it tight.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The list of Seven Deadly Sins isn’t from the Bible, but that traditional list is an expression of biblical ideas and that makes the biblical phrase “the wrath of God” potentially misleading.

The other deadly sins aren’t usually attributed to God. We’re told that God is “jealous,” in a sense, but we never speak of “the lust of God” or “the sloth of God” or “the gluttony of God.”

Yet the Bible does speak, frequently, about “the wrath of God.” This word “wrath” seems to have two meanings — one of which is a deadly sin and one of which is an expression of something righteous. “Be angry but do not sin,” the book of Ephesians says, addressing this distinction.

We encounter a similar ambiguity with the deadly sin of pride. That word, too, refers both to one thing that is necessary and virtuous and also to another thing that is vicious and evil. Such linguistic ambiguity opens the door to confusion on our part. We are prone to think of the wrong definition or the wrong set of connotations when encountering or employing these words. We are susceptible to condemning the duty as if it were the sin or to excusing the sin as though it were the duty.

“The wrath of God” clearly doesn’t refer to what we mean by the deadly sin of wrath, yet having just the one word for both ideas we tend to confuse the two and thus, consciously or unconsciously, we wind up attributing to God the sort of wrathful motives and behavior that we otherwise would usually rightly condemn as sinful. That confusion, I think, is at the heart of Left Behind. It is the basis for much of Tim LaHaye’s theology on which these books are based.

And as a result of that confusion, LaHaye further confuses himself and his readers about the object of God’s wrath. The book of Revelation is, unmistakably, largely about the pouring out of God’s wrath, but if we are confused about the type of wrath that it describes — righteous or deadly sinful — then we will also be confused about the cause and the target of that wrath. We will end up mistakenly imagining that it is being directed at the very people on whose behalf John’s apocalypse portrays that wrath being exercised. And thus we wind up, as LaHaye does, imagining that God is guilty of deadly sin.

“Hope has two beautiful daughters,” St. Augustine said, “their names are anger and courage.” The wrath of God, I think, is that kind of anger — the beautiful daughter of hope.

If you’re imagining the wrath of God as something other than an expression of the love of God, then you have taken a wrong turn, for God is love.

Ah, but isn’t God also perfectly holy? And thus wouldn’t it be possible to say that God’s wrath is an expression of God’s perfect holiness? That’s a slightly different, albeit very popular, wrong turn — imagining the holiness of God as something distinct from the love of God.

Very bad idea, going that route. Jesus had a great deal to say about the idea that holiness could ever mean anything apart from love. His response to that idea tended to be, well, rather wrathful.

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