TF: A secured mail package

TF: A secured mail package November 8, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 429-433

Rayford found it difficult to take in the incredible change in New Babylon since the first time he had visited following the treaty signing in Israel. He had to hand it to Carpathia and his sea of money. A lavish world capital had sprung up out of the ruins, and now it teemed with commerce, industry and transportation.

I’m still not buying this. There’s no reason for the Antichrist to build a brand new city in the middle of the desert, creating a huge new logistical challenge for himself when he’s already got more than enough on his plate (one-world government, religion, currency, language, etc.). And no matter what Jerry Jenkins vaguely asserts about “commerce, industry and transportation,” I can’t picture any of those things in this unnecessary city because I can’t imagine what those things could even mean, springing up ex nihilo in the middle of nowhere.

But Tim LaHaye’s “Bible prophecy” requires this global capital city of New Babylon, so it has to exist here in our story whether or not it makes any sense. “Babylon” is a recurring biblical image, the standard metonymy for empire. LaHaye’s “literal” reading means that “Babylon” can never mean that, but must instead always literally refer to the actual ancient city in Mesopotamia. But there’s also another reason LaHaye’s prophecy scheme requires this city to be built:

The center of global activity was moving east, and Rayford’s homeland seemed headed for obsolescence.

Nicole had the right idea early on, when his headquarters were still in Manhattan. New York City is on the short list of places where it might make sense to try to create a global capital. But New York City is not mentioned in the Bible at all, so the authors couldn’t keep him there. America is not mentioned in the Bible at all. This omission of the Most Important Nation is the source of great consternation for premillennial dispensationalist “Bible prophecy” scholars like LaHaye. By moving Nicolae Carpathia’s OWG capital to a brand new city, LaHaye offers his explanation for why John of Patmos neglected to mention America by name.

The creation of New Babylon also allows Nicolae to base his capital somewhere other than Rome. It’s very important to LaHaye not to allow his readers ever to think of Rome. Once they start to suspect that the book of Revelation might have something to do with Rome it becomes much harder to convince them to completely ignore the first-century context of the New Testament and to read it, instead, as primarily written for future believers who wouldn’t be born until centuries later.

Rayford emails Bruce Barnes, “asking some questions”:

“A few things still puzzle me about the future — a lot, actually. Could you explain for us the fifth and seventh?”

He didn’t write seals, not wanting to tip off any interloper. Bruce would know what he meant.

Who would this interloper be? Nicolae still has a staff of less than a dozen people — and that’s including both Rayford and his son-in-law. Is Rayford worried that Chaim, Steve or Hattie might be monitoring his email?

“I mean, the second, third, fourth and sixth are self-explanatory, but I’m still in the dark about five and seven.”

At this point in our story it has been more than 18 months since the Rapture. For well over a year, our protagonists have known, with certainty, exactly what sort of world they are living in.  The premise of this story is fully known to them. They are aware that the world they inhabit has rules, and a schedule that will follow a very strict timetable. Their future is knowable in precise detail.

And yet they remain weirdly incurious about the details of that future and only casually interested in learning more about that timetable. That makes it very hard for us readers to relate to them.

I think that Tim LaHaye’s End Times “Bible prophecy” scheme is a laughable steaming crock of heretical nonsense. It’s based on an abusive and unsustainably contradictory misreading of the Bible and nothing that it foretells can be reconciled with anything we know from learning about history, physics, economics or geopolitics or from what we have observed in the character of every human being we have ever met, heard of, seen or read about. And yet if I were to find myself in the through-the-looking-glass nightmare world LaHaye imagines, faced with incontrovertible proof that it was precisely that world and no other, and that its timeline would unfold in just exactly the manner LaHaye details, then I would act accordingly. The second thing I would do — the first thing after sobering up — would be to acquaint myself with every detail of that timeline so that I could prepare to face in turn each of the grim calamities that I would know, with certainty, were about to unfold in sequence.

That course of study wouldn’t take a great deal of work. The rationale and explanation for how LaHaye arrived at his End Times scheme is incredibly convoluted, and that would take enormous, brain-twisting effort to try to understand. (I don’t think LaHaye himself really understands it.) But if I were in Rayford Steele’s post-Rapture shoes I wouldn’t need to concern myself with any of that. Nor would I need to worry about any of the speculation about who might be the Antichrist, or how soon all of this might start to unfold.

Once it had begun unfolding and I knew that whatever the rationale, this was what was happening, then all I would need to “study” would be the sequence of events itself. And that could be contained in a fairly short PowerPoint presentation. Seven seals, seven trumpets, seven vials of divine wrath — everything you’d need to know could fit in two dozen or so slides. I can’t imagine any of that requiring more than at most a week of serious “study” to fully grasp, to have the basic timeline committed to memory and the implications of each sequential calamity fully understood.

Yet here we are, 18 months after the Rapture, and Rayford is just now getting around to asking Bruce Barnes to explain to him about the first series of events, the “seven seals” of the book of Revelation.

Bruce hasn’t already covered this? They’ve been having those intensive Bible studies several times a week for more than a year and the first seal has already come to pass. What could they possibly have been covering in those sessions if they haven’t yet gotten to the next six things they know are about to occur?

And even now Rayford seems to lack any sense of urgency in asking about this. He’s working as the charioteer for the first horseman of the apocalypse, yet he inquires about the second as almost an idle question — as if he has all the time in the world and as if he doesn’t know that “all the time in the world” amounts to something a bit less than 5½ years.

Rayford was grateful that Chloe had been getting to know Amanda better by email. When Rayford and Amanda were dating, he had monopolized most of Amanda’s time, and while the women seemed to like each other, they had not bonded other than as believers. Now, communicating daily, Amanda seemed to be growing in her knowledge of Scripture. Chloe was passing along everything she was studying.

Again, I’m unable to imagine just what “everything she was studying” could possibly mean. Yes, I realize that there are thousands of PMD “prophecy” books still in print, but they all say the same thing.

Each may contain its own little idiosyncrasies, but they’re all introductory texts presenting the same idea with the same outline. Ever since Harry Ironside, they’ve all included some variation of the same chart — an End-Times-at-a-Glance infographic like this one:

That one’s a bit complicated and overstuffed, but I can’t imagine anyone needing to spend 18 months studying it. Or anyone else needing to consult the emailed advice of such a “scholar” in order to begin to understand it.

Between Bruce and Chloe, Rayford found his answers about the fifth and seventh seals. It was not pleasant news, but he hadn’t expected any different. The fifth seal referred to the martyrdom of Tribulation saints. In a secured mail package, Bruce sent to Chloe — who forwarded it on to Rayford — his careful study and explanation of the passage from Revelation which referred to that fifth seal.

Rayford is worried about “interlopers” in his email, but he has full confidence that no one in the New Babylon Post Office would violate the privacy of his mail.

All of this business about Chloe’s many months of laborious study and Bruce’s “careful study and explanation” is meant to suggest that they’re dealing with some massive text that might take long nights of exhausting effort to understand. But here, in it’s entirety, is the passage in question, Revelation 6:9-11, from the same New King James Version that Bruce and Chloe are reading:

When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.

If Rayford is baffled by that, then I can’t imagine Bruce’s explanation will clear it up for him either. Here’s Bruce’s — and thus Tim LaHaye’s — commentary on these three verses:

John sees under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God and for the testimony which they held. They ask God how long it will be until he avenges their deaths. He gives them white robes and tells them that first some of their fellow servants and their brethren will also be martyred.

That’s not a commentary or an explanation. Bruce just quotes the first verse verbatim and then paraphrases the other two. That doesn’t explain anything at all.

Rayford emails Bruce, saying, “I don’t understand Revelation 6:9-11, can you please explain this to me?” And Bruce responds with a snail-mail package that likely took weeks to arrive in which he simply recites Revelation 6:9-11. Rude.

As far as actual commentary or explanation, all Bruce/LaHaye offers is this:

So the fifth Seal Judgment costs people their lives who have become believers since the Rapture. That could include any one or all of us. I say before God, that I would count it a privilege to give my life for my Savior and my God.

Those three sentences follow the template for all of Tim LaHaye’s commentary on the scriptures: One part baseless and insupportable speculation, one part fearmongering, one part self-aggrandizing triumphalism. And all parts just wrong.

John of Patmos was writing to seven actual churches, some of which had lost members of their communities to Roman persecution. John is reassuring his readers that “their fellow servants and their brethren” were at peace with God, and that the Empire would one day face divine justice on account of their deaths. He’s also warning those readers that the persecution may not be over — that the Empire isn’t yet done with its beastly work.

Rayford is having difficulty understanding what Bruce calls “the fifth Seal Judgment” because it is not a “Seal Judgment.” That’s Tim LaHaye’s term, but not John’s. Rayford is confused because he turns to that passage about the fifth seal and expects to read about a “judgment,” but instead finds this comforting scene of martyrs being welcomed at the throne of God. This insistence on each of the seals being “judgments” is also why he has a hard time understanding the seventh seal.

The opening of the seventh seal is described in Revelation 8:1-5:

When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth. And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake.

You’ll notice that we’ve skipped over Revelation 7 here. That’s a worship scene. John’s vision in Revelation is repeatedly interrupted with these interludes of heavenly worship with saints and angels bowing down before the throne of God, singing songs of praise. Such interludes don’t interest LaHaye. Like most “Bible prophecy” enthusiasts, he’s only interested in the wrath-y bits with the fiery hail and earthquakes and such. He skips over these “tangential” scenes of worship the way a lazy student skips past all the whaling-manual chapters in Moby Dick.

(Let me again commend J. Nelson Kraybill’s Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation for its excellent discussion of the vital, central importance of these worship scenes for John’s original readers. In the context of Empire, worship — worship of anything other than Empire — is a politically subversive and empowering act.)

Bruce’s explanation of the seventh seal made it clear that it was still a mystery even to him.

We don’t need to reproduce here the clumsy paraphrase of the passage above that Bruce provides as the entirety of his commentary on the seventh seal. It adds nothing to what we find in the text above, and thus also adds nothing to what Rayford already knew when he asked for Bruce’s help.

“Look here,” Amanda said. “Bruce’s last line says, ‘Check your email Monday at midnight. Lest you find this all as depressing as I have, I am uploading a favorite verse to comfort your hearts.'”

Bruce had sent it so it would be available to both couples just before they left for their trips to Chicago to meet up with him. It read simply, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”

That’s Psalm 91:1, and like the rest of that Psalm, it’s a beautiful, comforting passage about God’s providence and care. I’m not sure it benefits any, though, from the fanfare and build-up of “Check your email Monday at midnight.” Nor does Bruce’s quoting this verse make up for the fact that his response to Rayford’s question was ultimately useless — that his “secured mail package” did not contain even a scrap of information that Rayford didn’t already know.

That whole bit about the “secured mail package” implied that Rayford would be receiving a weighty, impressive explanation of the hidden meaning of the eight short verses he had asked Bruce about. But the entire substance of that package turns out to be little more than a repetition of those same eight verses. As far as I can tell, the “secured mail package” must have contained only a single sheet of paper.

All of the puffery we’ve encountered throughout this book about Bruce’s long nights of study and Chloe’s many months of “research” are meant to convey the gravity and authority we readers are supposed to ascribe to Tim LaHaye’s own study and scholarship. But the end product of Bruce and Chloe’s combined “scholarship” isn’t all that impressive.

Bruce and Chloe, we are told, have been studying all of this prophecy business intently for 18 months, but when we examine the fruit of all that study we find it impossible to say what they’ve been doing all of that time. Likewise, we are told that LaHaye has been studying all of this “Bible prophecy” stuff for decades. Yet when we look at what he claims to have learned in all those years we are again hard pressed to explain how any of this took him more than a week of half-hearted effort.

The secured mail package looks weighty and impressive until we open it and realize it’s empty.

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