TF: Loopholes and paradoxes

TF: Loopholes and paradoxes September 21, 2010

In a crowded market, you have to carve out a niche. The market for End-Times, Bible-"prophecy" hucksterism is very crowded, so Tim LaHaye has to introduce some edge, some peculiar twist or innovation to set apart his brand. His personal variation on the standard Darby/Scofield formula includes several unique, idiosyncratic quirks that distinguish his version from that of his rivals.

Such quirks function at least two ways. First, they provide market differentiation — Why should I buy LaHaye's books instead of, say, John Hagee's? Why order LaHaye's video series instead of Jack Van Impe's? Because, LaHaye can say, my message is different — better, new and improved.

Second, these slight variations create the illusion of a spectrum of diverse views while actually constraining the perceived range of options for his followers and those of his rivals. By picking fights over the esoteric details that separate them, prophecy gurus establish the parameters of what is imaginable for their followers. It's like the bar owner in The Blues Brothers who says his bar offers "both kinds" of music, "country and western." The Bible-prophecy literature is thus filled with references to the conflict among "pre-trib" and "post-trib" and "mid-trib" rapturists, reinforcing the idea that these are the only possible views and that, whichever one chooses, belief in the Rapture and in the broad outlines of Darby's scheme will always be a given.

All such subcultures seem to have some variation of internal disputes that function this way — precluding any consideration of external views. Keep the in-group focused on the conflict between Team Edward and Team Jacob and the followers will not imagine any additional possibilities, such as maybe Team These Books Aren't Very Good.

I'm bringing this up now because we're about to reach a critical point in our survey of Tribulation Force related to one of LaHaye's more significant variations to the standard formula. Our cast of characters is slowly — very slowly — making its way toward Jerusalem for the signing of a weirdly construed and superfluous-seeming peace treaty between Israel and the Antichrist's OWG (or, I guess, his One-World-Minus-Israel Government).

This treaty is part of the standard Bible-prophecy scheme, which bases the idea on something taken from the book of Daniel (reshaped, twisted in half, melted down and then reinterpreted). But LaHaye gives it added significance. For Tim LaHaye, the signing of this treaty marks the official beginning of the seven-year Great Tribulation.

For most other End-Times authors, this seven-year countdown begins with the Rapture — an event that occurred several weeks and several hundred pages ago at the beginning of the first book. My initial immersion in the world of Bible-prophecy mania came via Hal Lindsey and the Dallas Seminary/Philadelphia College of the Bible faction, so it's taken some adjustment for me to adapt to LaHaye's framework. I have occasionally lapsed here by referring to the Tribulation as something that has already begun in our story when, for LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, that won't be true until after the treaty signing.

In my defense, though, the authors themselves seem to forget this distinction occasionally as well, such as by referring to their team of protagonists as the "Tribulation Force" rather than, more accurately, as the "Interim-Between-the-Rapture-and-the-Tribulation Force."

The murky period in which everything in these books thus far has occurred is something like injury time in a soccer game — an additional span of time of uncertain length, in this case before the game clock starts.

LaHaye imagines that this interval will be brief, and in these books it is portrayed as a matter of just a few short weeks (dragged out over a book and a half), but there's no guarantee that such an interval would play out this way. It creates the potential for a kind of prophetic paradox. What if Israel refuses to sign the treaty for months, or for years, or for generations? LaHaye doesn't consider this a possibility — if his prophecies say they'll sign the treaty, they they will sign the treaty, promptly, in keeping with the preordained divine check list and timeline.

But why should they? For Hal Lindsey, the final countdown starts with a divine act — the Rapture sets the seven-year hourglass in motion and what follows is inexorable. But LaHaye puts that hourglass in human hands. Starting the countdown is not up to God in his scheme, so free will and fallibility are now part of the equation. If Israel were to refuse such a treaty, we would enter an unprophesied limbo — a post-Rapture world in which the Tribulation never begins and the End never comes.

And here's the really odd part: Tim LaHaye and his premillennial dispensationalist allies across America have been determinedly working for decades to make this paradox happen. They've poured millions of dollars into this effort, creating a powerful political lobby organized around the core principle that, because of alleged biblical prophecies, Israel must never, ever sign any peace treaties with anyone. That effort has borne fruit, empowering a wing of nationalist conservative Israeli political parties who are fervently committed to this position.

In the fictional fantasy of the Left Behind series, LaHaye undoes all of that with a wave of a magic wand, turning Israel into a nation eager to sign treaties willy nilly. But that's nonsense, utterly impossible in this world, our world, the real world. In the real world, the idea of quickly and easily getting Israel to sign a disadvantageous peace treaty is about as likely as … as … as, well, getting Israel to quickly and easily sign a disadvantageous peace treaty. "Peace in the Middle East" has become a proverbial, emblematic shorthand — the very symbol of an intractable problem that will never be resolved. By making the resolution of this problem the prerequisite for the official start of the Great Tribulation, LaHaye makes his whole prophetic check list conditional. He creates a loophole.

A squadron of wrathful angels awaits in LaHaye's Heaven — fingers on the trigger of the apocalypse. They stand ready to open the seals and pour out the bowls of judgment, but — according to Tim LaHaye — they cannot do so until Israel signs this peace treaty.

This loophole, this flaw, is the prophetic equivalent of a ray-shielded thermal exhaust port leading directly to the heart of its core reactor. It's just the sort of thing that any real hero would be compelled to try to exploit.

LaHaye's protagonists aren't real heroes. They share his view that global conquest by the Antichrist, plagues, famines, earthquakes, mass-death and the end of the world are all "God's will" and, therefore, not to be interfered with. But surely some actual heroes could still be found among the other 4 billion people left behind after the Rapture. Untouched by LaHaye's doctrine of despair, they would oppose the rise of evil and calamity. They would do what heroes always do: Try to save the world.

GILES: It's the end of the world. Everyone dies. It's rather important, really.

WILLOW: So what do we do?

BUFFY: I stop it.

A real hero really would — and thanks to LaHaye's loophole, could — stop it. That would derail LaHaye's prophecy and his and Jenkins' plot. To avoid that, they portray a world without heroes — a world full of people apparently unmotivated even by simple self-preservation. No one in these books tries to exploit the prophetic loopholes or to reset the hourglass or stop the treadmill.

That effectively preserves the plot, but it comes at the cost of making the books' protagonists a bunch of inhuman

sociopaths. By maintaining their intended plot, they alter
their intended theme. (At least, I don't think "be a sociopath" was their intended theme.)

LaHaye believes an Antichrist-Israel peace treaty is prophesied, and thus creates a world in which such a treaty is less likely to occur. This is a smaller version of a larger paradox involving these books. The Left Behind series offers a depiction of what the authors insist is a guaranteed prediction. But for that prediction to come to pass as depicted — for their prophecies to come true — the vast majority of people in the post-Rapture world would have to be ignorant of what they're predicting. The popularity of the books thus suggests that those prediction won't and can't come true.

LaHaye's peculiar timeline exacerbates this paradox, but it's part of every other PMD scheme as well. Hal Lindsey's best-selling 1970s books all detailed prophecies that could only come true if no one knew what was coming. The fact that his books were such best-sellers therefore meant that the events he foretold could not occur the way he described.

Lindsey's response to that problem, like LaHaye's, was an assertion of fate and fatalism. If the prophecy says that the whole world will blindly follow the Antichrist, then that is what must and will happen and nothing that anyone knows or does will change that. Knowing or not knowing, they insist, won't make any difference. Acting or not acting will not and cannot change what is to come.

This fatalism kind of puts a damper on the action-steps portion of a PMD sermon. "There's nothing you can do to change anything" isn't a very practical or applicable take-home message. PMD preachers always urge their followers to be watchful and vigilant for signs of the End Times, but always, at the same time, they remind them that it doesn't matter whether or not they heed this call.

Premillennial pessimism and fatalism just doesn't provide the basis for any sensible social agenda or movement. "The world is getting worse and worse and there's nothing you can do because it's God's will," discourages any effort to improve the status quo. It's a call to complacency.

"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," is, for the fatalistic PMD Christian, merely an expression of the belief that whatever is must therefore be divinely ordained. The passive voice of that phrase from the Lord's Prayer is allowed to mask the subject of the sentence — to pretend it doesn't really have one. The do-er is not named or acknowledged. God's will will "be done," but no one, in particular, will have to do it.

There's no logical escape from this implication of PMD fatalism, but it's not what Tim LaHaye wants from his followers. He wants them aggressively working to change the world, singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as though they were a bunch of optimistic 19th-century post-millennialists. He wants them lining up to support his wife's efforts, through Concerned Women for America, to ensure that discrimination against homosexuals remains perfectly legal. He wants them to join him in fighting for the same political agenda he has supported ever since his days in the John Birch Society — anti-Communist, anti-government, anti-civil rights, anti-worker, anti-hippie, anti-peacenik, anti-modern. He wants them to rally behind him as he stands athwart history yelling "Stop!"

But there's no reason for LaHaye's followers to join a rally, a fight or a campaign. He's already told them that none of that can matter, none of it can change anything. The future is preordained and immutable. The world is doomed and trying to change that is a lost cause.

Here we encounter one more paradox, and this one simply confounds me. Premillennial pessimism and fatalism are ascendant in American evangelicalism. This is a view that, explicitly, teaches that heroism is for suckers and any attempt to change the world is futile. And yet these premillennial believers are more politically active than previous generations of evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The only explanation I can offer for this is that their convoluted theology confuses them even more than it confuses me.

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