TF: Bruce's Sermon, part 4

TF: Bruce's Sermon, part 4 August 8, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 69-73

Buck sat in the pew behind Rayford and Chloe Steele and glanced at his watch. More than an hour had flown by since he had last checked. His stomach told him he was hungry, or at least that he could eat. His mind told him he could sit there all day, listening to Bruce Barnes explain from the Bible what was happening today and what would happen tomorrow.

For you kids out there, a "watch" was a kind of 20th-century timepiece. Picture a small analog or digital clock worn as a bracelet. Watches were kind of like telephones, except you couldn't use them to text or shoot video. All they did was tell time.

Bruce is still going on about the Antichrist, the core of his message at this point being roughly, "I know who the Antichrist is and I'm not gonna tell you, neener neener." Unlike most of the people attending New Hope Village Church that morning, though, Buck has been initiated into this Big Secret. He and the Steeles, as members of the elite Tribulation Force, have been allowed to speak the name. Everyone else at NHVC that morning has to sit there as Bruce explains that the Antichrist will be the charismatic leader of a One World Government who speaks of peace, but that he won't suggest any names because that description could apply to so many different people.

Buck had spent enough time with Bruce and the Steeles, poring over the passages, to know beyond doubt that Nicolae Carpathia embodied the enemy of God. And yet he could not jump to his feet and corroborate Bruce's message with his own account. Neither could Bruce reveal that he knew precisely who the Antichrist was, or that someone in this very church had met him.

Bruce and Buck know who the Antichrist is but they can't just tell their fellow believers, obviously, because … um, because … because why again exactly? The authors and their characters never really do explain why not. This would seem like useful and necessary information for Loretta and the rest to have, but the Tribulation Force elite don't seem to see it that way. Instead, Bruce and Buck spend pages musing on how special they are to know such secrets when the others don't. As Buck basks in his own elite specialness, he can't help but also think how such specialness must be a sign of his own humility.

For years Buck had been an inveterate name-dropper. He had run in high circles for so long that it was not uncommon for him to be able to say, "Met him," "Interviewed her," "Know him," "Was with her in Paris," "Stayed in her home."

But that self-centeredness had been swept away by the disappearances and his experiences on the front lines of supernatural events. The old Buck Williams would have welcomed the prospect of letting on that he was a personal acquaintance of not only the leading personality in the world, but also the very Antichrist foretold in Scripture. Now he simply sat riveted as his friend preached on.

I'm trying to imagine a conversation between two pretentious name-droppers in which mentioning one's personal acquaintance with the Antichrist could be used to inflate one's importance:

"The Antichrist? Yeah, we had coffee last week at the Plaza. …"
"The Plaza? I was just saying to War the other day that the Plaza is going down hill. …"
"War? I think I owe him a phone call. It's like I was saying to Famine …"
"Famine? I'll let you in on a little secret that Death and Hades told me about Famine …"

Ridiculous, yes, but that sort of thing is exactly what first occurs to Buck when he realizes that he, personally, his own very important self, has encountered the global tyrant and embodiment of evil. He doesn't smell the evil, he smells the celebrity. If the Antichrist isn't an A-lister, then who is?

Despite the earlier strange tangent about Nicolae's sudden mid-term elevation to become People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive and Still Here After the Disappearances," I hadn't really given much thought to his status as a celebrity. Maybe this accounts for the mass-brainwashing that caused everyone to forget about Buck's presence at the United Nations during his clandestine press event and double homicide. Maybe Nicolae'd had it with reporters and paparazzi and he just worked some kind of blanket-mojo to wipe away every trace of the media who'd been harassing him, forgetting to carve out a brainwash-exception for the one reporter he'd invited to be there.

While Buck congratulates himself for being so very special that he doesn't even need to congratulate himself for his own specialness, Bruce takes a stab at exegesis:

"In Scripture, the first in a succession is always important — the firstborn, the first day of the week, the first commandment. The first rider, the first of the four horses of the first seven judgments, is important! He sets the tone. He is the key to understanding the rest of the horsemen, the rest of the Seal Judgments, indeed, the rest of all of the judgments.

"Who is this first horseman? Clearly he represents the Antichrist and his kingdom. His purpose is 'conquering and to conquer.' He has a bow in his hand, a symbol of aggressive warfare, and yet there is no mention of an arrow. So how will he conquer? Other passages indicate that he is a 'willful king' and that he will triumph through diplomacy. He will usher in a false peace, promising world unity. Will he be victorious? Yes! He has a crown."

This is one of the few places where we get to read two uninterrupted paragraphs of Bruce's sermon verbatim. It's followed, just a few paragraphs later, by yet another hymn of praise to Bruce's mesmerizing passion and sincerity and another belabored paragraph insisting that all of his listeners were transfixed, yearning to hear more of this.

Sweaty, rumpled earnestness, in the authors' minds, seems to be able to magically transform even this into a gripping, unforgettable sermon. What's that bit of nonsense about "no mention of an arrow"? And how on earth do you get from "a conqueror bent on conquest" to a mere diplomat? And doesn't Bruce notice that he has the crown before he rides out? And …

None of that matters — just look at how sincere and passionate Bruce is. See that exclamation point after the word "important"? That means it's important! Bruce is saying important(!) things and he's saying them passionately and sincerely.

… [Bruce] was brimming with the truth and eager to share it. And if the others were like Rayford, they could think of nothing they would rather do than sit here under that instruction.

Yes, he's been preaching for more than an hour already, but who cares about lunch, I just want to hear about what it means that John's vision makes no mention of a bow-string.

Bruce is still preaching. "We'll talk next week and following about the next three horsemen of the Apocalypse," he says, forgetting that he's already said this. "The rider of the white horse is the Antichrist, who comes as a deceiver promising peace and uniting the world," he continues, forgetting that he's already said this more than twice:

"The Old Testament book of Daniel — chapter 9, verses 24 through 27 — says he will sign a treaty with Israel."

Really? Let's look, shall we? Here is Daniel 9:24-27:

Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy. "Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and 62 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the 62 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.' In the middle of the 'seven' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.

Clear as mud, that, but that's Daniel for you.

The first six chapters of Daniel are fairly straightforward stories of Israel in exile. The final six chapters are a hallucinogenic stew of visions, numerology and wrath. That description of the second half of Daniel might also work as a description of much of Revelation, so it's not altogether unreasonable for Bruce to decide that there's some connection between the two apocalyptic nightmares, but why here? Why jump to this passage in Daniel from that passage in Revelation? What's the justification or logic or excuse?

This skipping back and forth between Revelation and Daniel is standard practice for "Bible prophecy scholars." They are, after all, reading from Scofield Reference Bibles, in which all of this cross-referencing is right there in the footnotes. Yet while this may be par for the course with prophecy preachers, it still seems to me that there are at least four reasons why Bruce's abrupt segues here from Revelation 6:2 to Daniel 9:24-27 and then back to Revelation 6, verse 3, strike me as deeply weird.

Weirder, even, than the bizarre content of the passages themselves.

First of all, there's nothing in that passage in Revelation about the horsemen that suggests any need or justification for inserting gaps into the chronology of John's strange vision. Here again is the relevant bit of Revelation 6:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" Then another horse came out, a fiery red one.

There's a rhythm to this passage. Four creepy "living creatures" calling forth four even creepier horsemen. One of the grievous angels says "Come" and a horseman rides out and then the next angel does the same thing in turn. It's not obvious to me that the passage wants or permits us to insert an interim of 18 months or of 3 1/2 years between the first and second angel's summons.

I should probably take a moment to note that while premillennial dispensationalist "prophecy scholars" all seem to agree to insert such an interim here, there remains fierce disagreement and debate as to the length of this interim. They agree, in Bruce's term, that the Antichrist "will sign a treaty with Israel," (what else could "a covenant with many" mean?), but they vehemently disagree as to whether this treaty will last for 42 months or, as LaHaye argues, only for 18.

You really, really don't ever want to learn enough about the esoterica of PMDism to appreciate the details of this disagreement, but it's fun to realize that Tim LaHaye isn't just using his fictional depiction of End Times events to "prove" that all non-PMDists are doomed to wrath, he also thinks this fictional depiction stands as proof that the wrong kind of PMDists are also fools and doomed to wrath. LaHaye has an ax to grind with prophecy scholars who disagree with him on the length of this allegedly prophesied peace treaty, or about when the Two Witnesses will first appear in Jerusalem, and so occasionally he turns away, briefly, from celebrating his fictional triumph over people like you and me to celebrating his fictional triumph over these dissenting PMDists.

But all we really need to know about this obscure dispute is that both LaHaye and his 18-monther allies and their foes in the 42-month camp agree that a "literal" reading of Revelation 6:1-3 requires us to stop after verse 2, skip back to Daniel 9 to insert some number of "weeks" or "sevens," and then proceed on to read verse 3.

Which brings us to the second deeply weird aspect of Bruce's sudden instruction to his congregation to turn to the book of Daniel: Why Daniel? Nothing in this passage of this book specifically refers or alludes to anything in that passage in that book, so if we're going to turn elsewhere for an explanation of Revelation's seven seals, why should we turn to Daniel's 70 sevens instead of Jesus' seven woes or Zechariah's* seven lights or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?

Even if we try to cooperate here, if we tilt our heads and squint and swallow the red pill, we can only get as far as maybe kinda sorta thinking that John's and Daniel's "sevens" are related maybe, somehow, because they're both sevens, but that's not what Bruce and LaHaye are suggesting. They're saying that Daniel's sevens provide a timeline for a seven-year period during which John's sevens unfold and the "weeks" of Daniel …

You know what? Nevermind exactly what it is that LaHaye is saying. The point here is that he doesn't bother to justify his connection between these texts. He just asserts that he's reading them both "literally" — which for him involves an astonishingly complex, often arbitrary, system involving a kind of inconsistent numerology in which numeric symbols sometimes mean one thing and sometimes mean another, and in which the unsupported and unsupportable decision to leap from one text to another doesn't require any justification other than repeating that word "literally."

Anyway, the third deeply weird thing about Bruce's instruction to turn back to the book of Daniel is that everyone — Buck and Rayford included — seems able to do so without difficulty. Somehow, in less than three weeks, these brand-new believers have all mastered the navigation of the 66-book anthology we Protestants refer to as the Bible.

Revelation is easy enough to find because it's at the very end, likewise with Genesis at the very beginning, and with the Psalms as the longest book right there in the middle, but you can't ask a room full of even lifelong Bible-readers to turn to Daniel without a lengthy and audible session of page-flipping back and forth. In a sanctuary filled with new believers you'd have more than a few people who would be thinking "Daniel? What's that?" without having yet come to realize that it's the name of a distinct book within a distinct book within the book they're already holding.

In the universe of Left Behind, saying the Magic Words not only creates an instantaneous fluency in the jargon and lingo of evangelicalese, it also seems to make one instantly an expert at Sword Drills.**

To the extent that the name "Daniel" would be meaningful at all to new believers, it would likely be from some dim association with the story of Daniel and the Lion's Den. Yet for all the time PMD prophecy preachers love to spend in the book of Daniel, that beloved story isn't one they ever read. All they ever care about from Daniel are the parts that are trippy and hard to understand.

And that brings us to the fourth deeply weird thing about Bruce's repeated flipping back and forth between Revelation and Daniel.

Here you have a sanctuary filled with believers who will, Bruce tells them, soon be facing trials and tribulations the likes of which the world has never seen. They will all soon face persecution for their faith, he tells them. And then he has them turn to the book of Daniel, the first half of which is dedicated to people just like them living in just such a context.

But Bruce doesn't read that part of Daniel.

The people gathered at New Hope Village Church have become a people in exile and Daniel is about exactly that, but this isn't what Bruce gleans from the book. He warns his congregation of impending death from "the wild beasts of the earth," but he never reads them the story of Daniel in the Lion's Den. He warns them of looming fiery martyrdom, but he never reads to them about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the angel in the fiery furnace. He tells them of a tyrant who will soon make them all his subjects, yet he can see nothing relevant in the stories of the exiles struggling under the boot of Nebuchadnezzar. Bruce ignores the writing on the wall — literally.

This is incomprehensible, but it's what happens when you read stories as though they were check lists. Sometimes illiteracy is a choice.

So everything we've heard so far is leading up to Bruce's big conclusion in which he explains that war is peace and peace is war. The text for his sermon warns of Conquest, War, Famine and Death***, but Bruce wants to warn his congregation that what they really have to fear is peace. After all, Bruce explains, we're not told that the conqueror has any arrows, which means we should flip back to Daniel where it's clearly stated that the rider on the white horse actually goes forth as a diplomat bent on diplomacy, intending to create a 42-month an 18-month peace treaty with the only remaining sovereign nation apart from his OWG. The Bible clearly says so.

Here's Bruce:

"He will appear to be their friend and protector, but in the end he will be their conqueror and destroyer. I must close for this week, but we'll talk more about why this happens and what will come of it. Let me close by telling you how you can be sure I am not the Antichrist."

That got people's attention, including Rayford's. There was embarrassed laughter.

"I'm not implying that you suspect me," Bruce said, to more laughs.

Now I'm picturing Bruce doing his best Jeff Foxworthy impression and milking this for another 10 minutes with a bunch of "You might be the Antichrist …" jokes.

"But we may get to the point where every leader is suspect."

You'd think that at this point, with the new One World Government, the category of "every leader" would be fairly narrow. (Nicolae Carpathia heads off to the men's room at the U.N.: "Hey Steve, hold the fort for a minute, I have to go to the G-1 Summit.")

"Remember, however, that you will never hear peace promised from this pulpit. The Bible is clear that we will have perhaps a year and a half of peace following the pact with Israel."

That's verbatim and unedited. Sentence No. 1 is a vow that "you will never hear peace promised" from Bruce. Sentence No. 2 is his promise of peace for the next 18 months. It's hard not to contradict yourself when you're delivering a sermon in doublespeak.

"But in the long run, I predict the opposite of peace. The other three horsemen are coming, and they bring war, famine, plagues and death. That is not a popular message, not a warm fuzzy you can cling to this week."

Bruce has lost the map. In the long run, according to the very End Times check list Bruce himself is supposed to be working from, here is the 100-percent certain and guaranteed "long run" forecast:

  • Next 18 months: Peace.
  • 5 1/2 years after that: War. Really, Really Bad Things.
  • 1,000 years after that: Peace That Passeth Understanding, warmth, fuzziness.

But poor Bruce has, like the authors, painted himself into a rhetorical corner. After hundreds of pages insisting that peace is a Bad Thing and that anyone who speaks of peace is a Bad Person, it becomes hopelessly confusing to speak also of a millennial peaceable kingdom in which Jesus Christ himself will reign in peace.

So Bruce sticks with his message: Peace is bad. Peace means war. If anyone promises peace, you'll get war. If they promise you war, well, you'll still get war. Welcome to the Tribulation, folks, you're screwed. And that, essentially, is how Bruce's sermon ends:

"Our only hope is in Christ, and even in him we will likely suffer. See you next week."

That's a terrible, uninspiring and anticlimactic way to end a sermon.

But remove those two sentences from the rest of Bruce's sermon and they're not so bad. As lousy as they may be as the conclusion to an inspirational homily, they'd work pretty well as the last two sentences of an AA meeting. So in a sense, after 12 pages of infuriating heretical nonsense, Bruce finally said something I can kind of agree with.

Stay hopeful, even though you will likely suffer. See you next week.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* If you like your scripture deliriously inscrutable, forget Revelation and Daniel, try Zechariah. This is the book that caused Martin Luther to write, in his commentary, "Here, I give up." The symbolism and numerology of Zechariah would seem to provide the perfect sort of playground for "Bible prophecy" nuts — just the sort of confusing imagery they love to twist into whatever they want it to say.

Yet the PMDs never seem to spend any time expounding on Zechariah's neglected bronze mountains and golden lampstands or his ginormous flying scroll of curses. At the very least you'd think some enterprising PMDist would try to draw some parallel between John's four horsemen and Zechariah's four charioteers (with their white, red and black horses), but poor Zechariah just doesn't seem to make the cut with these people.

** For the uninitiated, Sword Drills (see Hebrews 4:12) are a useful game played in Sunday schools as a way of teaching children the books of the Bible and to help them learn to navigate this one-volume library. "Swords ready," the teacher says and every child holds a Bible above their head. The teacher then names the passage they will have to locate as the kids nervously lick their lips and try to visualize where that passage would be. "Go," the teacher says, and they frantically flip through the sacred pages. The first child to locate the passage jumps to her feet and reads it aloud, winning that round of the game.

Not to brag, but I was a world class Sword Drill champion. I could beat the kids who were using Bibles with tabs. And not just on the easy stuff, either, I'm talking non-Pauline epistles, minor prophets — I could turn to Obadiah before most of the other kids even realized why the teacher hadn't given us a chapter number.

The minor prophets are, of course, what really distinguishes the serious Sword Drillers from the pretenders. So here's a tip if you need to brush up on those 12 books. Learn the song. This is sung to the tune of "Have You Ever Seen a Lassie?"

Let us learn the minor prophets,
minor prophets, minor prophets
Let us learn the minor prophets,
there are twelve of them in all
Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah,
Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk
Zephaniah, Haggai,
Zechariah, Malachi.

Scoff all you want now, but you'll thank me later when somebody asks you to look something up in Habakkuk.

*** And also, of course, poor Hades, coming up behind on foot. Thanks to the comments from last week's LBFriday, I can no longer think of Hades in this context without getting a whole series of mental images that make me giggle. I'm fairly sure that's not the effect that John of Patmos was shooting for.

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