NRA: Throwing Chaim under the (hypothetical) bus

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 148-151

Earlier this week, I was surprised to learn that the famously atheist magician Penn Jillette agrees with Jerry Jenkins about the moral obligation to proselytize aggressively. Terry Firma at Friendly Atheist shared this comment from Jillette:

I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life. … How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? … If I believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that a truck was going to hit you, and you didn’t believe it and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point at which I tackle you.

That’s very similar to Jerry Jenkins’ own views on the urgent duty to evangelize, and why no one should be offended when a sincere believer tries to “save” them:

If I had a neighbor who truly believed that if I didn’t wear a purple necklace, I would never get to Heaven, I would go to Hell, I would probably think he’s crazy. I would scoff and laugh. But if he didn’t tell me, I’d be a little offended.

I agree with both of them, up to a point. Their logic seems sound to me. Given their premise, their conclusion seems inescapable. This is an ironclad “if … then” argument. If you truly believe that God has revealed to you the one arbitrary, symbolic gesture without which everyone will be tortured for eternity, then you have an absolute duty to inform as many others as you can so that they, too, can make this gesture — wearing a purple necklace or praying the soterian incantation — and thus be spared unimaginable, endless pain. If that is what God is like and if that is how God’s universe works, then it really would be hateful not to spend your every waking hour spreading that news.

But while I agree that Jillette and Jenkins’ conclusion necessarily flows from their shared premise, I think their premise is ghastly nonsense.

Both Jillette and Jenkins defend aggressive proselytizing based on the premise that God is a cruel, capricious monster undeserving of our devotion, a God unworthy of — and evidently uninterested in — our love. This is a God whose default stance towards humanity is one of enmity and hatred. And the only way for any human to escape that default damnation is by learning and performing the secret handshake — wearing the purple necklace or uttering the magic words. That’s all rather horrifying.

This weird idea of a Hell-bent deity offering salvation only to those who have learned the secret gesture isn’t something one can easily glean from the Bible. With some studious creativity and a good bit of squinting, this idea can be shoehorned into, and then read back out of, a select handful of painstakingly excerpted Bible passages, but if you read any more of the Bible than just those few verses — even accidentally — or if you fail to read those few verses in just the right way, then it becomes very, very hard to reconcile this religion of Hell-avoidance with the God of that book.

It took centuries of hard work to transform the Bible into a manual of Hell-avoidance. It would be more credible, and far easier, to claim that the central theme of the dictionary is Hell-avoidance, since the dictionary mentions Hell more often than the Bible does. The Hebrew scriptures and the Pauline epistles of the New Testament have nothing to say on the subject. If you’re looking for Hell in the Bible, about the only place you’ll find it is in a handful of the semi-Pelagian parables of Jesus, wherein Hell is never the default destiny of the “unsaved,” but always rather the deserved punishment for selfish rich people. And yet none of the people who preach a gospel of Hell-avoidance seem to believe in that idea of Hell.*

But if this Hell-bent God and this religion of Hell-avoidance are not central to the Bible, they are central to the novels of the Left Behind series. It doesn’t matter whether or not this is how the actual universe works, it’s how the universe of these books works. In the real world, Jenkins’ premise is cruel and absurd, but the world of Jenkins’ novels is Jenkins‘ world — and in Jenkins’ own world, his premise is true.

Yet in Jenkins’ own world, neither he nor his hero, Buck Williams, lives up to this premise.

In these pages, Jerry Jenkins repeatedly stresses two things:

1. Buck loves his dear old friend Chaim Rosenzweig.

2. Chaim’s life is in imminent danger.

Buck had often been warmed by Chaim Rosenzweig’s ancient-faced smile of greeting. There was no hint of that now. As Buck strode toward the old man, Rosenzweig merely opened his arms for an embrace and said hoarsely, “Cameron! Cameron!”

Buck bent to hug his tiny friend, and Rosenzweig clasped his hands behind Buck and squeezed tightly as a child. He bured his face in Buck’s neck and wept bitterly.

The weeping here is for the family of their mutual friend, the former rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah, whose wife and teenaged children were recently murdered by “black-hooded thugs.”

Chaim’s sobbing appears to embarrass the “tall, dark-complected driver” who accompanies him.

Chaim nodded toward him. “You remember Andre,” Rosenzweig said.

“Yeah,” Buck said, nodding, “how ya doin’?”

Andre responded in Hebrew. He neither spoke nor understood English. Buck knew no Hebrew.

Readers already knew that “Buck knew no Hebrew.” But after that odd, unprecedented eruption of a Jersey accent from Buck it was probably necessary to clarify what is and isn’t true about how this character speaks.

Chaim tells Buck that Tsion has gone into hiding, and that “the authorities are trying to implicate him in the murders of his own family.” Here, finally, is an example of the kind of scheming, conniving evil I was lamenting the lack of in our last installment. Murdering Tsion’s family is evil. But murdering his family in such a way that he takes the blame and disgrace for it kicks things up another notch to Antichrist-level evil.

Unfortunately, though, this attempt to pin the blame on Tsion is rather poorly executed. And it’s not even the work of the Antichrist, but of “the authorities” in Israel — the one nation not yet under the power of Nicolae Carpathia. These “authorities” are Israelis who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who are therefore, according to the authors, evil and manipulative. But, again, Tim LaHaye is a staunch friend of Israel. Ahem.

Tsion’s driver has also been killed.

“What?” Buck asked. “Not him too?”

“I’m afraid so. A car bombing. His body was barely recognizable.”

“Chaim! Are you sure you’re safe? Does your driver know how to –”

“Drive defensively? Check for car bombs? Defend himself or me? Yes to all of those. Andre is quite skilled.”

So Chaim is in good hands with his capable manservant Kato … I mean Andre. Yet he and Buck are both still worried for his safety:

“But you are associated with Dr. Ben-Judah. Those looking for him will try to follow you to him.”

“Which means you should not be seen with me either,” Rosenzweig said.

This is followed by another full page describing all the clumsy, amateurish awesomely sophisticated James-Bond maneuvers Buck has planned to escape being followed while he is in Israel. Plus a bit more of Buck/Jenkins’ signature telephone-porn. Realizing that Chaim used both their real names when booking Buck a hotel room:

Buck had to suppress a smile at the man’s sweet naiveté. “Well, friend, we’ll just use that to keep them off our trail, hmm?”

“Cameron, I’m afraid I’m not too good at all this.”

“Why don’t you have Andre drive you directly to that hotel. Tell them my plans have changed and that I will not be in until Sunday.”

“Cameron! How do you think of such things so quickly?”

“Hurry now. And we must not be seen together anymore. I will leave no later than Saturday night. You can reach me at this number.”

“Is it secure?”

“It’s a satellite phone, the latest technology. No one can tap into it. Just don’t put my name next to that number, and don’t give that number to anyone else.”

OK, so Buck is only in Israel until Saturday night, so that gives him … we have no idea. As usual, Jenkins hasn’t bothered to tell us what day it is. Or, for that matter, what month it is.

As they depart, Chaim says:

“If I were a praying man, I’d pray for you.”

“Chaim, one of these days soon, you need to become a praying man.”

Here, finally, Buck hints at his concern that his dear, sweet friend still isn’t wearing the purple necklace of salvation. Until he sees that amulet hanging from Chaim’s neck, he has to worry that his friend could walk out of the airport terminal and get hit by the Hypothetical Bus — sending the unsaved old professor straight to an eternity of hellfire and torment.

But it’s even more urgent than that here. It’s the Great Tribulation and the Hypothetical Bus isn’t hypothetical for anyone anymore. Buck knows that “Bible prophecy” says the first four “seals” of divine wrath will kill “a fourth of the earth.” And he knows that the seven seals of wrath will shortly be followed by seven “trumpets” of wrath, each of which will, in turn, slaughter another huge portion of the ever-dwindling population of those who survived the previous judgments. A frail old man like Chaim Rosenzweig seems particularly vulnerable and unlikely to be among the tiny remnant of those who somehow escape death in the coming months.

But it’s still even more urgent than that, because — as the two friends have just discussed for several pages — the “authorities” and the “black-hooded thugs” who killed Tsion’s family may also be coming after Chaim. The Hypothetical Bus is hunting for Chaim Rosenzweig. Its targeting system is locked onto him. This must seem to Buck as though it is likely his very last chance to convince Chaim to put on the purple necklace before it’s too late.

And yet he doesn’t:

“One more thing, Cameron. I have placed a call to Carpathia for his assistance in this.”

“I wish you hadn’t done that, Chaim. I don’t trust him the way you do.”

“I’ve sensed that, Buck,” Rosenzweig said, “but you need to get to know the man better.”

If you only knew, Buck thought. “Chaim, I’ll try to communicate with you as soon as I know anything. Call me only if you need to.”

Rosenzweig embraced him fiercely again and hurried off.

And that’s it.

Buck thinks, “If you only knew” — if only his dear friend somehow knew what Buck knows. If only there were someone who knew what Buck knows and who had a chance to speak to his friend Chaim, to tell him those things that Buck knows that he desperately needs to know — that his eternal fate depends upon him hearing and knowing. If only someone would tell him.

To paraphrase Penn Jillette, how much does Buck have to hate Chaim not to tell him? What’s stopping him from laying it all out and explaining to Chaim that Nicolae Carpathia is the Antichrist who will betray Israel, defile the rebuilt Temple and slaughter anyone who gets in his way?

I suppose the authors would say that Buck can’t risk telling Chaim what he knows about the Antichrist because that might jeopardize the secret plans of the Tribulation Force, but that can’t be the reason for Buck’s silence because:

A. Buck and the Trib Force are supposed to be heroes, and heroes are supposed to accept greater risk for themselves if there’s a chance that it might help save others; and

B. The Tribulation Force doesn’t actually have any plans, secret or otherwise.

What exactly is the worst thing that could happen if Buck told Chaim everything? The “naive” old professor might run to Nicolae and tell him all about it — tell him that his pilot, Rayford Steele, and his pet journalist, Buck Williams, were secretly conspiring to silently disapprove of him?

The bottom line here is that Buck and Jenkins have embraced the premise that Buck has an absolute obligation to tell Chaim everything. And yet Buck doesn’t tell Chaim anything. Chaim ought to be more than “a little offended” by that.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* It’s interesting that Jenkins’ analogy involves a purple necklace. I like to think that’s an unintentional, subconscious acknowledgement of what the Bible actually does have to say about the idea of Hell.

Here’s a longer quote in which Jenkins presents his analogy in more context. This is from a 2007 interview, but he has used this same “purple necklace” analogy many times:

When we first started this, we went at it with such a sense of sincerity and pure motive. I mean, my feeling — and I was informed in this, too, by Dr. LaHaye’s attitude — would care about people. We really believe this.

We realize it’s a divisive message, especially in a pluralistic society, and that there would be people who disagree and say, you know, you’re [saying] Jesus is the only way to God, and that he’s going come back and rescue people out of the Earth. And so they’re saying we’re crazy.

And then they try to go further and say, it’s spiteful, condescending, or kind of hateful to other people. I often use this illustration, but if I had a neighbor who truly believed that if I didn’t wear a purple necklace, I would never get to Heaven, I would go to Hell, I would probably think he’s crazy. I would scoff and laugh. But if he didn’t tell me, I’d be a little offended.

And so my feeling is, people can laugh and scoff and disagree, and that’s their right. And, you know, honor that right. We live in a society where we’re free to compete in the marketplace of ideas. This is our idea. People are wondering what these crazy Christians think is going to happen? This is what we think.

Note that his main point is that others should not be offended by the “divisive message” he and Tim LaHaye are sharing. He wants us to appreciate their sincerity, and to recognize that because they sincerely believe we are damned if we fail to embrace their message, their proselytizing is actually an expression of genuine concern, respect and affection.

Like Penn Jillette, I’m willing to accept that argument. I would note, though, that this argument suggests that others who hold views other than the one held by LaHaye and Jenkins are also due the same generous hearing Jenkins pleads for here. Jenkins is quite gracious to his hypothetical neighbor with the purple necklace. I don’t know if he’d be quite so gracious to an actual neighbor with an actual Book of Mormon (or an actual Koran, or an actual copy of The God Delusion).

The bit with the purple necklace is Jenkins attempt to provide an example his listeners will find “crazy.” He wants us to see this purple-necklace faith as sincere, but goofy, absurd and arbitrary. He also wants us to see this purple-necklace faith as precisely analogous to his own soterian gospel. And it is. This sincere but foolish neighbor is foolish because he thinks we “get to Heaven” and avoid Hell by wearing a purple necklace, whereas Jenkins knows that we “get to Heaven” and avoid Hell by reciting an essential prayer. The silly neighbor has put his faith in a magical amulet, while Jenkins knows that only the proper magical spell can save us. They both agree, though, about the essential meaning of life, which for both of them involves only this: avoiding Hell.

And that, again, is why it’s intriguing that Jenkins settles on a purple necklace. Because if there’s one thing the Bible literally teaches about a literal Hell, it’s that Hell is for people who wear purple. So if you are going to make avoiding Hell your top priority, then nothing is more important than finding every purple-clad rich person in fine linens and pleading with them to help you feed the beggars at their gates before it is too late.




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