Originally posted May 1, 2009.
You can read this entire series, for free, via the convenient Left Behind Index. The ebook collection The Anti-Christ Handbook: Volume 1, is available on Amazon for just $2.99. Decent people do not let their sons attend Georgetown Prep. Volume 2 of The Anti-Christ Handbook, completing all the posts on the first Left Behind book, is also now available. Volume 3 is coming soon(ish).
Tribulation Force, pp. 28-32
— Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), in Duck Soup
Bruce Barnes has a plan. That, it turns out, is why he’s called this special emergency executive session of the Tribulation Force — even though it’s taken him eight pages to get to the point, what with all the crying and male-bonding going on.
But Bruce knows, specifically, what the future holds. He knows about the trials and the wrath to come and he knows about the job he and the others will have to do. And with all of that in mind, he has devised the following two-part strategy:
1. Dig a really big hole.
2. Hide in it until Jesus comes back.
Bruce’s plan involves an actual hole in the actual ground, but apart from that detail his plan is remarkably similar to the strategy employed by millions of American premillennial dispensationalist Christians now. These Christians — people H.R. Niebuhr might have classified as belonging to the “Christ terrified of culture” category — are trying to dig themselves an underground bunker by creating a subcultural bubble free of all worldly temptations such as sex, science, books, film or ideas.
This would seem to make PMD types like Tim LaHaye less threatening to others than their theological opposites — the dominionists and other post-millennial, theocratic types who seek to conquer the world, setting up a sectarian kingdom for Jesus to come back to reign over. Theocrats want to rule the world. PMDs just want to hide until it’s over. So where the former set out to dictate how others must also live, the latter — in theory — simply expect the world to keep getting worse and worse until it falls apart and don’t claim there’s anything they can or should do about it.
That’s in theory. But alas, in practice, PMDs turn out to be much closer to the theocrats than their premillennial pessimism would indicate they ought to be. This is illustrated by the career of LaHaye himself — he helped found both the Moral Majority and the Stonagal-esque Council for National Policy — and of his wife Beverly, Queen Bee of Ladies Against Women. PMDs, it turns out, want to hide, but in a really BIG hole — one the size of America, actually. And that means dragging the rest of us down there with them and forcing us to live by the rules of that temptation-free world as well.
Even if PMDs were, in practice, as harmlessly passive and bystanderish as their theology suggests they should be, they would still pose a dilemma for those of us outside of their hidey-hole. We are not meant to be passive bystanders, after all, and it seems cruel and uncaring to allow these, our PMD neighbors, to live out their lives in the stunted confines of their hole without at least affording them the possibility of liberation.
But anyway, back to Bruce Barnes and his plan.
“I feel such a tremendous responsibility for you all. You know I’m trying to run this church, but that seems so insignificant compared to my study of prophecy. I’m spending most of my days and evenings poring over the Bible and commentaries, and I feel the press of God on me.”
“The press of God?” Rayford repeated. But Bruce broke into tears.
Four pages later, he’s regained his composure and is somewhat better able to describe the enormous responsibility he feels and to convey the crushing weight of his own godly awesomeness:
“All I know is that the closer I get to God, the deeper I get into the Bible, the heavier the burden seems on my shoulders. The world needs to know it is being deceived. I feel an urgency to preach Christ everywhere, not just here. This church is full of frightened people, and they’re hungry for God. We’re trying to meet that need, but more trouble is coming.”
Bruce repeatedly struggles, and fails, to reconcile those two concerns — “to meet that need” and “more trouble is coming.” His first suggested course of action doesn’t quite address either one:
“That’s the reason for this meeting. I need to tell you all something. I am going to have a two-hour meeting, right here in this office, every weeknight from eight to ten. Just for us. … We have no time to waste.”
The reason for this meeting is to announce future meetings — lots and lots of regularly scheduled future meetings, because “we have no time to waste.” We’ve all heard that before. Bruce sounds like he’d have a bright future in corporate management.
“We need to be starting new churches, new cell groups of believers. … The Bible talks about 144,000 Jews springing up and traveling throughout the world. There is to be a great soul harvest, maybe a billion or more people, coming to Christ.”
I’m just not really clear on how cloistering themselves in Bruce’s study every weeknight is supposed to lead, even indirectly, to more churches being started. Studying “prophecy” in an invitation-only small group doesn’t seem like an effective church-planting strategy. I guess maybe the “144,000 [singing, virgin] Jews” are supposed to spring up to take care of the front-line work.
“That sounds fantastic,” Chloe said. “We should be thrilled.”
“I am thrilled,” Bruce said. “But there will be little time to rejoice or to rest. Remember the seven Seal Judgments Revelation talks about?” She nodded. “Those will begin immediately, if I’m right. There will be an 18-month period of peace, but in the three months following that, the rest of the Seal Judgments will fall on the earth. …”
Bruce, like Tim LaHaye, has a way of running off the rails when he gets into the details of his prophecy scheme. One can, in fact, open the book of Revelation and find mentioned there seven “seals” of divine judgment. By mentioning that fact first, Bruce casts a kind of biblical halo over whatever non-sequitur nonsense he says next — “Remember the seven Seal Judgments Revelation talks about? Well, then Godzilla, lamb chop, munchkin, glockenspiel gumdrop.” And everyone nods along as though he was somehow citing chapter and verse with authority.
This is where “Bible prophecy experts” leave me dumbfounded. It’s not simply that they’re offering some strange interpretation or some overly imaginative exegesis — they just flat-out make stuff up. Arbitrary, deliriously weird stuff. “Remember the seven Seal Judgments Revelation talks about?” Yes, in fact, I do remember that. It’s in Revelation 6. Feel free to read that yourself some time and look for any hint or basis for spinning out this 18-month/3-month business. It can’t be found there.
This might sound to you like I’m simply disagreeing with LaHaye/Bruce over the meaning of a passage in our sect’s sacred text, but it’s much more than that. It’s not like a couple of Melville scholars arguing over the meaning of the whiteness of the whale. It’s more like encountering a supposed Melville scholar who tells you that Moby Dick is mainly about killer robot ninjas from outer space.
A close reading of Revelation 6 also suggests that Bruce is seriously underestimating the body count from those seven seals:
“One fourth of the world’s population will be wiped out. I don’t want to be maudlin, but will you look around this room and tell me what that means to you?”
Rayford didn’t have to look around the room. He sat with the three people closest to him in the world. Was it possible that in less than two years, he could lose yet another loved one?
One fourth of the world’s population will be gone a mere 21 months from now. That notion might have a bit more emotional impact if it weren’t being suggested here, a mere two weeks after the callously little-regarded disappearance of one third of the world’s population.
“We don’t want to simply survive, though,” Buck said. “We want to take action.”
Buck Williams said this. He’s looking ahead, thinking of all the phone calls and flights back and forth it may require for him to arrange to be seated at the table when those seal judgments occur so that he again has the opportunity to sit mutely, paralyzed by fear, as he watches them unfold firsthand. That’s our Buck.
“I was thinking about going back to college,” Chloe mused. “Not to Stanford, of course, but somewhere around here. Now I wonder, what’s the point?”
“You can go to college right here,” Bruce said. “Every night at eight.”
In one respect, this is similar to something Buck thought earlier in this chapter:
He still had a job and he was writing important stuff, but learning to know God and listening to him seemed his primary occupation. The rest was just a means to an end.
The intent of both of those passages seems to be an exhortation to Christians to remember where their priorities ought to lie in living the Christian life. Such passages seem a bit confused in the context of this story. They’re directed to the readers of this book — people living now in our pre-apocalyptic world, where it makes sense for them to hold on to their day jobs. Whether the same advice makes sense for Buck, living in the midst of apocalyptic wrath, is another question.
In any case, Bruce’s advice to Chloe — that church Bible study is all the college she needs — has more than a whiff of sexism to it. Buck and Rayford’s initial reaction to the new meeting schedule, after all, was to remind Bruce that they are men and thus they have to work:
“I’ll be traveling a lot,” Buck said.
“Me too,” Rayford added.
Bruce didn’t say to them, “You can go to work right here. Every night at eight.” That advice was reserved for the girl. And it all works out for Chloe anyway, in the authors’ view, since it’s there in Bruce’s study that she secures her MRS degree — the only reason they can imagine for a woman going to college in the first place.Now, at last, we come to the core of Bruce’s plan:
“I think we need a shelter. … Underground. … During the period of peace we can build it without suspicion. … I’m talking about getting an earthmover in here and digging out a place we can escape to. …”
Buck was impressed that Bruce had a plan, a real plan. Bruce said he would order a huge water tank and have it delivered. It would sit at the edge of the parking lot for weeks, and people would assume it was just some sort of storage tank. Then he would have an excavator dig out a crater big enough to house it.
Meanwhile, the four of them would stud up walls, run power and water lines into the hold, and generally get it prepared as a hideout. At some point Bruce would have the water tank taken away. People who saw that would assume it was the wrong size or defective. People who didn’t see it taken away would assume it had been installed in the ground.
The Tribulation Force would attach the underground shelter to the church through a hidden passageway. …
Before turning to the shortcomings of Bruce’s Big Plan, let’s first consider its strengths.
Look again at those seven seals in Revelation, then skim ahead through the further bowls, vials and trumpets of judgment described in that book. If you believe that’s what the next few years hold in store, then hiding in a hole seems like a prudent and reasonable response.
I also appreciate Bruce’s concern for his shelter to be hidden and secret. That corrects a common mistake made by most doomsday cults. Doomsday cults always seem to opt for the large, conspicuous, above-ground compound. Such compounds practically scream, “Here we are now, please come raid us.” They invite the sort of scrutiny that leads, inevitably, to some federal agent spotting your ammunition stockpile through a pair of binoculars, and then before you know it you’re besieged by the FBI, the ATF and the state police and, if you don’t want to look like a hypocrite, you’re going to have to respond in accordance with the Manichaen, apocalyptic rhetoric you used to build up your following and … well, you know the rest. It never ends well.
So let’s commend Bruce for getting the secret, hidden, and underground ingredients right here. I’m not sure that suburban Chicago is the optimal location for a secret underground headquarters, but that may not matter so much when we consider the scope of the two distinct threats this shelter needs to hide and protect them from. There’s the Antichrist, of course, and the virtually omnipresent agents of his fearsome OWG. But he’s actually, by far, the lesser of Bruce’s worries. His bigger problem is figuring out how to shelter and hide from a menace who is literally omnipresent.
Because really that’s what this shelter is for: Hiding from God and the massive, relentless and indiscriminate outpouring of God’s wrath over the course of the next seven years.
“Where can I go from your Spirit?” David asks in the 139th Psalm. “Where can I flee from your presence?”
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
David meant these words to be reassuring. His idea of the character of God made the idea of God’s inescapable presence a comforting thought. LaHaye & Jenkins paint a portrait of God that suggests a far less comforting understanding of that constant presence.
“His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me,” suggests, to L&J, that neither I nor the sparrow has any hope of escaping the divine crosshairs which are, even now, targeting us for famine, war, pestilence, earthquakes, hail and demonic locust-hordes. These things aren’t the Antichrist’s handiwork in this story, they’re from God. Bruce’s big hole is meant to hide them from God.
With that in mind, I kind of doubt his water-tank ruse is going to work. It seems unlikely to fool the church’s neighbors, let alone Nicolae and his minions. And “Hey, look over there at the big water tank!” seems an unpromising approach to deceiving someone both omnipresent and omniscient.
The other big problem with Bruce’s Big Plan isn’t theological, merely logistical: The shelter only has room for four.
What about Loretta and the rest of the “frightened people” for whom Bruce is supposed to feel such a heavy burden of responsibility? What about the millions in all those new churches that will arise during the coming “soul harvest”?
Screw ’em, I guess. No room for them here. Let ’em dig their own damn hole.
What’s called for here, obviously, is something far bigger than Bruce’s Big Plan. They don’t just need one four-person shelter hole, but a vast, worldwide network of shelter holes for all of the millions of second-chance soul-harvest Christians of the post-Rapture.
The scope and magnitude of that necessity shows us how inadequate Pastor Billings’ In Case of Rapture video really was. The man knew, in detail, exactly what was awaiting the intended viewers of that video. He knew their only hope of surviving would be just the kind of underground shelter network Bruce hints at here. And yet he offers no such advice, no more specific instructions for those viewers. That seems callously negligent.
In Billings’ defense, though, he needed to be cautious about saying too much or being too specific in his video. He couldn’t risk it falling into the wrong hands.
So let’s think about this. Imagine you’re Pastor Billings — or perhaps one of the thousands of actual pastors here in the real world who were inspired and instructed to make actual versions of such a video after reading Left Behind. You want to prepare the future-Christian viewers of that video to face the trials that await them in the Great Tribulation, but you can’t just give them detailed shelter-network instructions for fear the Antichrist or his minions might see this video as well.
That means you’re going to need some kind of code. Your secret message to the future Tribulation Force Christians will need to be communicated in some way that is decipherable only to the most determined and devout future students of your PMD faith. This secret, coded message will be pretty extensive. You’ll need to explain the necessity of the shelters and the gravity of the threats. You’ll need to explain about the 18-month period of peace and urge them to take advantage of that window of opportunity for their clandestine project.
But wait, is 18 months really enough time for such a project — particularly given the supply disruptions likely to follow in the aftermath of the Rapture? This huge, globally coordinated project would seem a more plausible undertaking for Christians now, before the Rapture.
Think of it, instead of merely leaving a collection of vague, I-told-you-so videos for the post-Rapture world to find, we could leave them a fully constructed, fully stocked global network of ready-for-use hidden shelters. That would, in a way, allow us to play a part in — and to claim at least partial credit for — the great global soul harvest of the Last Days. Constructing those tunnels now without the secret getting out might be difficult, but not impossible — and it would be far easier for us than it would be for them.
That leaves only the last hurdle of figuring out some way to let these future Christians know of the legacy we have provided, but doing so in a way that we can be sure the Antichrist and his legions will not be able to decipher. We can’t just leave the keys under the doormats of our churches with notes explaining where the secret trap doors are. Such instructions would need to be left — embedded or encoded — where only the truly devout could find them.
Here the PMDs’ arcane skill set will prove useful. They’re enthusiastic students of intertextual splicing, numerology and coded symbolism. Employing those skills, a shrewd author — or authors — might construct a book which, while outwardly appearing to tell one story, secretly contained a second, hidden and more detailed narrative.
Such a book, or set of books, might be difficult to construct so that it worked on both levels. It might mean that in order to communicate the coded message with as much precision and detail as possible, the authors would have to sacrifice style, plot, characterization, continuity, etc., in the secondary, surface-level story.
So be it — the encoded instructions would be the books’ only true priority. And anyway it might actually be useful if the books seemed unreadable, sloppy and dull — that would discourage casual readers from inspecting them too closely and inadvertently stumbling onto their coded message. Ideally, the subject matter would be something that would seem off-putting to the Antichrist and his followers, but attractive to the intended audience of new believers in the post-Rapture world. You could even make the surface-level story about people just like those intended readers, that way they’d be sure to pay at least some attention.
You see what I’m getting at. I offer this as an actual possibility for your consideration.
What I am suggesting, in other words, is that there exists — really, right now, in this actual world — an elaborate network of secret and fully provisioned shelters connected to PMD evangelical churches around the globe. These shelters have been built, in total secrecy, by devout PMD congregations in anticipation of the coming Great Tribulation that they all attest they are confident is coming very, very soon.
These Christians all believe they will be raptured away before that day arrives, but that other new Christians — the converts of the coming “soul harvest” — will be here on earth to witness its horrors. Since they cannot stay behind to counsel or otherwise aid those young Christians through the coming trials, they have done the next best thing — preparing the hidden shelters for their use.
Detailed instructions on the locations of and access to these shelters have been left behind, embedded in an elaborate code in the pages of the Left Behind novels. To ensure that this coded message in a bottle is easily accessible to the future believers, the PMDs have printed millions of copies, buying them in bulk and scattering them throughout the world in libraries, waiting rooms, rummage sales and remainder bins everywhere.
This is, I admit, an audacious and preposterous theory. But we need an audacious and preposterous theory to explain the otherwise inexplicable awfulness of these Very Bad books and their even more mysterious success as global best-sellers and an unprecedented publishing phenomenon. Which is more likely — A global conspiracy constructing a worldwide network of hidden shelters with perfect secrecy? Or the idea that these books — these awful, awful books — have sold tens of millions of copies to readers who somehow enjoy them without being repulsed and offended by their careless, shabby, impenetrable and contradictory storytelling?
I suppose the latter is likelier, but both possibilities seem equally disturbing.