Originally posted December 22, 2005.
You can read this entire series, for free, via the convenient Left Behind Index. This post is also part of the ebook collection The Anti-Christ Handbook: Volume 1, available on Amazon for just $2.99. Volume 2 of The Anti-Christ Handbook, completing all the posts on the first Left Behind book, is also now available.
Left Behind, Chapter 11
Rayford Steele and his daughter Chloe are headed to the New Hope Village Church to speak with the apostate pastor, Bruce Barnes, and to pick up the “I Told You So” videotape recorded by the church’s Real True Christian pastor before he and most of his flock were shuffled out of their mortal coils in the twinkling of an eye.
There’s a bit of father-daughter bonding en route in which Rayford uses a “babyish voice” and refers to himself in the third person as “Daddy.” It’s a scene I wish Hattie Durham could have witnessed, as it may have cured her of her unfortunate infatuation with the captain. (You just know Rayford would have switched to that same baby talk as soon as he got the flight attendant into his hotel room.)
The Steele’s arrive at New Hope, which is described as “the tasteful little church.” The last time the authors went out of their way to comment on style it was to praise Irene Steele for turning her bedroom into a “beautiful, frilly place … decorated with needlepoint and country knickknacks,” so we can only imagine what this “tasteful” little church looks like.
Rayford and Chloe go inside and greet the Rev. Bruce Barnes and his shell-shocked fellow apostate, the “sunken-eyed and disheveled” Loretta. It is page 188 of this book and we are now, for the first time outside of flashback memories, encountering Christian characters.
Bruce and Loretta were not saved when this story began. They were unsaved, which is why they are among those left behind. But they did attend a church full of RTC’s who were saved, so they knew how to get saved and, once they realized they’d been left behind with all the other unsaved people, they quickly got saved themselves.
Notice how many times the word “saved” appears in that paragraph? Notice how, despite this repetition, it’s never made clear just what exactly the term means? That’s what reading these next two chapters of Left Behind is like.
LaHaye and Jenkins, like Bruce and Loretta, are saved. And they want their readers to get saved too. So Bruce painstakingly explains to Rayford how he can get saved, and he pesters Chloe about her urgent need to get saved. And then L&J walk us through the process again as first Rayford, then Chloe each gets saved in turn. This is all laid out in excruciating detail, in the simple, childlike language of a recent presidential speech.
I don’t question L&J’s sincerity here. And I’ll even respect their earnestness enough not to dwell on the difference here between propaganda and art.
They earnestly want any unsaved readers to get saved. And, since the prospect of unsaved readers picking up a book from Tyndale Publishers seems unlikely, they want their saved readers to be able to give this book to their unsaved friends knowing that it will explain to them both the need for and the process of getting saved.
The problem is the book doesn’t do that. L&J want to tell readers what they must do to secure their own salvation. They don’t necessarily offer the wrong answer, they’re just asking the wrong question.
“What must I do to be saved?” the young ruler asked Jesus.
“Sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come, follow me,” Jesus replied.
L&J’s reply is quite different. They’re not alone in this — I’ve heard thousands of evangelistic sermons, but I’ve never heard an evangelist answer the young man’s question the way Jesus did. Evangelists don’t like Jesus’ answer because they’re intent on asking the same question the young man asked, and the whole point of Jesus’ answer is that it’s the wrong question. If your concern is with yourself and securing salvation for yourself, you’re going to ask the wrong questions.
“What must I do to make sure that I, myself get a seat on the ark?” the young man asked.
“Oh Me H. Tapdancing Me!” Jesus says. “It’s not always about you, you know. Think about somebody else for a change.”
That’s a paraphrase, but it’s not like this was an isolated case. Jesus was always saying this kind of thing: You want to live? Die to yourself. You want to be first? Be last. Want to come out on top? Head for the bottom. Want to win? Surrender.
You want to get saved? Get lost.
Which brings us to what is, for my money, the greatest scene of salvation and redemption in literature:
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to Hell” — and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. … And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
This is, of course, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The piece of paper that poor Huck tore up was the letter he had written to turn in his friend, the escaped slave Jim. Huck had been taught, and he sincerely believed, that doing so was his duty as a good Christian (and as a good, law-abiding American). He had been taught, and he sincerely believed, that failing to do so would damn his soul to Hell.
Study that a minute. Turning in Jim would condemn his friend to years of misery in this world, but his own immortal soul would be damned for eternity — and what are a few mortal years compared with that? Weigh such a choice on the scales that L&J use in Left Behind and Huck’s choice is clear. But that is not the choice he makes.
“All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!” he says. And the angels in heaven rejoice.
Huck may just be talking to himself there, but I think of that declaration as a prayer — as, in fact, a prayer pleasing to God.
The characters in LB are constantly finding themselves, like Huck, in a close place, betwixt two things. They are constantly having to choose (or rather, thinking they have to choose) between the fate of their own immortal souls and the fate of other people here on earth. And every time, emphatically, they take the path that Huckleberry Finn rejected.
And the authors do the same thing. The entire book — the entire series of books — is intent on condemning most of the world to slavery and punishment. This punishment, they insist, is the law of the land and it is the duty of good Christian people not to question that. The main — and only — duty of Christians in this view is to ensure the salvation of their own immortal souls, everyone else be damned.
The process of repentance and conversion that Bruce Barnes outlines isn’t all that different from what Billy Graham would preach, and I don’t disagree with most of the content of Billy Graham’s evangelistic message. (Yes, again, I really am an evangelical.)
But none of that really matters here.
It doesn’t matter what you pray — or in whose name you pray it, or how fervently — if the whole motivation for your prayer is “All right then, screw Jim, I’ll go to Heaven!”
The evangelistic impulse at its best is, like Huck, motivated by a concern for others. But in the twisted world of LB, the evangelistic impulse has nothing to do with empathy. It becomes, instead, a way to justify, and revel in, the destruction and damnation of others. L&J and their heroes are, like Jonah, willing to preach the good news to the Ninevites, but only because, like Jonah, they are hoping to see that city destroyed by fire and brimstone.