L.B.: What’s on second

L.B.: What’s on second May 5, 2006

Left Behind, pp. 211-213 (take two)

Rayford Steele, we're told, attended the New Hope Village Church only a few times after his wife Irene starting going there. If the Rev. Vernon Billings' In-Case-of-Rapture video is at all like the sermons Billings preached, then I understand why Rayford never went back. Billings is pedantic and condescending, even when he doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. He's almost Limbaughian.

"The Bible says that men's hearts will fail them for fear," Billings says. "That means to me that there will be heart attacks due to shock …"

That's an odd bit in part because, according to LaHaye & Jenkins' description of events in the previous 200 pages, it didn't happen that way. Much of what Billings predicts has not been mentioned or described earlier in the book:

Depending on when you're viewing this tape, you may have already found that martial law is in effect in many places, emergency measures trying to keep evil elements from looting and fighting over the spoils of what is left. Governments will tumble and there will be international disorder.

Those all seem like reasonably predictable consequences of the mass disappearance of every child on the planet. But again, none of this has happened in the novel. No martial law. Little mention of looting or rioting. No international disorder or tumbling of governments. The only country that has changed regimes since the mass disappearances is Romania, but this was as the result of an orderly election — an election that was neither delayed nor disrupted by the mass disappearances two days before.

Yet it seems that L&J want us to read Billings' surprisingly inaccurate predictions as unerringly accurate. The sense one gets from this passage is that the authors are using Billings to rewrite the account of the previous 200 pages, to fill in or even change the details of events we've already read about. It's a bit like listening to someone botch the telling of a long joke, when they realize halfway through that they've left out essential details and they start backtracking and correcting themselves: "So the priest says to the duck — oh, wait, he's not a priest, he's a rabbi, and he's got the duck on his head, see, did I mention the duck? And the rabbi says, no, wait, the duck says …"

This rewriting is a welcome change, since the international disorder and chaos that Billings describes sounds more interesting than the novel we've been reading up to this point. But the fact that it is a change undercuts the other apparent intended effect of Billings' video, which is to be so eerily accurate in its account of what Rayford has seen happening that he is compelled to accept its truth.

Here's more from Billings:

You may wonder why this has happened. Some believe this is the judgment of God on an ungodly world. Actually, that is to come later. Strange as this may sound to you, this is God's final effort to get the attention of every person who has ignored or rejected him. He is allowing now a vast period of trial and tribulation to come to you who remain. He has removed his church from a corrupt world that seeks its own way, its own pleasures, its own ends.

I believe God's purpose in this is to allow those who remain to take stock of themselves and leave their frantic search for pleasure and self-fulfillment, and turn to the Bible for truth and to Christ for salvation.

This is theology of a sort that we don't usually get from Tim LaHaye. LaHaye, and his spokesman, the Rev. Billings, are usually so preoccupied with treating the Bible as God's Day Planner that they never engage in questions of "why this has happened" or of "God's purpose in this." But here, briefly, we get a glimpse of LaHaye/Billings theory of why.

The Great Tribulation, according to this theory, is a kind of living Purgatory.

LaHaye, of course, does not believe in Purgatory. It is, after all, an extrabiblical innovation now abandoned even by those parts of the church that once accepted the idea. The case for Purgatory was based on a handful of fairly opaque, symbol-heavy passages of Scripture which were magnified through the prism of a complex interpretive scheme that imposed its own cosmology and chronology. It is, in other words, very much like the case for premillennial dispensationalism. Except the case for Purgatory was probably stronger.

Billings next offers his prediction of the events of the second half of the book, and here he proves much more accurate. Perhaps a bit too accurate, as his account of the rise of the Antichrist serves as almost the Cliff Notes version of the rest of the book. Homiletics professors teach preachers in training to "Tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them." Good advice for a sermon, but bad advice for a novel, especially one more or less structured as a thriller.

Apart from its place in the novel, though, this next bit from the Rev. Billings is rather important. For PMD Christians — and there are tens of millions of them in America — the rise of the Antichrist is not simply fiction, but a real and imminent event. Billings here offers a useful distillation of what it is precisely they anticipate, await, hope for and fear:

Scripture indicates that there will be a great lie, announced with the help of the media and perpetrated by a self-styled world leader. …

Let me warn you personally to beware of such a leader of humanity who may emerge from Europe. He will turn out to be a great deceiver who will step forward with signs and wonders that will be so impressive that many will believe he is of God. He will gain a great following among those who are left, and many will believe he is a miracle worker.

The deceiver will promise strength and peace and security, but the Bible says he will speak out against the Most High and will wear down the saints of the Most High. That's why I warn you to beware now of a new leader with great charisma trying to take over the world during this terrible time of chaos and confusion. This person is known in the Bible as Antichrist. He will make many promises, but he will not keep them.

There's an ongoing intramural dispute among PMDs divided into two camps: pre-Tribulationists and post-Tribulationists. LaHaye is pre-trib, meaning he believes the church will be "raptured" before the seven-year Tribulation and before the rise of the Antichrist, which is how it plays out in Left Behind. The post-tribbers would point out that it doesn't make sense to talk about the Antichrist wearing down "the saints" if the saints have all already marched in. LaHaye would counter by saying there will be new saints saved during the purgatorial Tribulation, folks like Rayford, Bruce and Chloe.

I really don't care who wins that little argument because I think both factions are heterodox and a bit goofy. I do, however, care about that little swipe at "the media" tucked in there because, A) you can't have democracy or a free people without a free press; and B) I'm part of "the media" and I take this stuff personally.

So allow me to explain where that bit about "the media" comes from. It comes from Revelation 13, verses 14 and 15.

John's Apocalypse here is describing the second beast, who comes out of the earth and is not to be confused with the first beast, who comes out of the sea. The first beast, you'll recall, had 10 horns and seven heads and "resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion." The second beast "had two horns like a lamb but he spoke like a dragon." That's a dragon, not the dragon, the one kicked out of heaven in the previous chapter who gave the first beast his power, his throne and his authority.

(If you read Revelation 13 out loud, very fast, it begins to sound like an Abbot & Costello routine on acid — "So is the Antichrist the first or second beast?" "I don't know." "Third beast.")

Anyway, here is where the media comes in:

Because of the signs he [second beast] was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the [first] beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.

Did you catch that? An "image" that could "speak." This passage is interpreted by LaHaye and his PMD adherents as — and really, I'm not kidding here — a clear reference to television news or "the media."

Thus, since "the media" is destined to be a servant of the Antichrist, it shouldn't be trusted and good Christians shouldn't read the newspaper but instead should rely only on Christian radio (and maybe Fox News) to find out what's really going on in the world.

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