L.B.: Nice people finish last

L.B.: Nice people finish last August 17, 2004

Left Behind, pp. 59-66

Over the next several pages we find something new in Left Behind — sympathetic characters.

We meet three new people in these pages. None of them is particularly important and each serves mainly to move along the plot and to provide some helpful (and unsubtle) exposition. But LaHaye and Jenkins also want us to think of these minor characters as nice people.

The first is the suddenly, providentially appearing doctor who shows up to treat Buck Williams’ bleeding scalp.

He doesn’t come across as sympathetic to the readers, but that’s only because the readers — unlike the authors — still remember that just outside the airport club where the doctor is lounging about is a scene of human disaster and suffering desperately in need of medical attention.

Bracket that, as the authors do, and the doctor is a nice enough guy. He’s a little curt, perhaps, but in a world-weary way that’s kind of likeable.

Next up is a character we meet via Buck’s e-mail, “Steve Plank’s secretary, the matronly Marge Potter.” (So for those of you keeping score at home, that’s four female characters we’ve met by name so far: 1 ingenue; 2 madonnas; 1 whore.) Via e-mail, at least, she seems like a nice woman. Her expository note also tips us off that “nice people” is meant to be something of a theme in this section:

I hoped and prayed you’d be all right. Have you noticed it seems to have struck the innocents? Everyone we know who’s gone is either a child or a very nice person. On the other hand, some truly wonderful people are still here. I’m glad you’re one of them …

A couple pages later we’re back with Rayford Steele, hitching his way the last few miles to his suburban home. He encounters another very nice person, a “woman of about 40” who gives rides to strangers.

Why this sudden rash of nice people doing nice things and talking about niceness?

L&J here are offering the first hints of something they will explore in more detail later, but their basic point is the Calvinist doctrine that salvation is a matter of grace, not of works. They take this to mean that there will be many nice people and even good people among the unsaved who are left behind.

Like many American evangelical Christians, L&J would defend this idea by citing Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast …”

Like many American evangelical Christians, they will also steadfastly avoid citing — or even reading — the rest of that paragraph: “… For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The difficulty of reading verses 8 and 9 of Ephesians 2 without ever reading verse 10 is nowhere near as complicated as the gymnastics required for some of the selective omissions L&J have in store later in the series. Consider the complexity of reading Matthew 25:31-34 and also verse 46, without ever reading the 11 verses in between. Or reading Revelation 20:11-12a, 13a and 14-15 without ever reading the second half of those two verses.

Fear of a doctrine of “works righteousness” — salvation through good works — has led to a fear of good works themselves. This is not unique to L&J, although they do exhibit a particularly virulent strain of the disease. They believe the road to Hell is paved not with good intentions, but with good works.

Although this Protestant phobia of “works” derives from Calvin, the reformer himself wouldn’t have recognized it. His doctrine that “salvation is grace; ethics is gratitude” has been Americanized into “It’s not what you do; it’s who you know.”

As we will see in the chapters ahead — with their pornographic depictions of religious conversion — L&J’s soteriology is even further removed from that of the Reformation. Ultimately for L&J, salvation is not a matter of who you know, but of what you know. Left Behind isn’t Calvinist. It’s gnostic.

We’ll see much more in the coming pages about the divorce of faith and ethics. That separation is a major theme in this book.

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