Originally posted June 12, 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. And just like that, the caravan of refugees disappears from the news. 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. 53-55
Buck Williams spends a few more pages reviewing and admiring his miraculously complete Global Weekly cover story on the various theories circulating to explain the disappearance of every child on the planet, plus another few hundred million adults.
In that one sentence I’ve already described the Event in more detail than Buck seems to have done in his article. He’s not alone in this — in the world of Tribulation Force, no one stops to ask who is missing, or why them and not anyone else.
That no unbelievers would be curious about such questions is yet another impossibility. This is what we humans do when confronted with the inexplicable: We look for patterns. Buck and the other new believers don’t have to look for patterns because they already know what the pattern is. They know that all of the missing adults were real, true, evangelical Christians who believed that Tim LaHaye was right about biblical prophecy. Yet Buck bewilderingly chooses not to mention this in his article on the disappearances. Like every other piece of evidence he has proving What Really Happened, he withholds this information from his readers.
As we’ve already discussed, Buck never had or committed time to write this article. Even if we go with the theory that Buck had the chance to type it up on the plane back from Germany, it seems unlikely that everyone he needed to interview for the piece was on that same flight. We’re about to consider Buck’s conversation with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cincinnati, for example — when was that conversation supposed to have taken place? Buck’s painstakingly chronicled itinerary for the past 14 days did not include a visit to Cincinnati and we never read of him conducting any interviews by phone. (Our authors are not in the habit of skipping any detail of any phone conversation.)
But yet another reason Buck couldn’t have written this article is that he just isn’t up to speed on the subject. He has spent the past two weeks in a voluntary news vacuum. Bruce and Rayford have at least been watching CNN, but apart from their third-hand accounts of what they saw on TV, Buck has no idea what’s going on in the world. He has picked up precisely one newspaper in the past two weeks, in which he read precisely one article — his own obituary. He has no way of knowing what theories might be circulating in the current of current events because he hasn’t so much as dipped a toe into the flow of news.
And there ought to be an unmanageably vast number of competing theories circulating, not just because we humans seek and require (and invent) patterns to explain the inexplicable, but also because circulating a vast number of competing theories is part of Nicolae Carpathia’s job.
This is Disinformation 101: If you need to cover up a conspiracy, spread a thousand false conspiracy theories. Nicolae needs to keep people from learning the truth about What Really Happened. He may not know, specifically, about Bruce Barnes or New Hope Village Church or Pastor Billings’ video, but he’d have to anticipate that there would be people like that out there and that steps would have to be taken to make sure that nobody would listen to them. This wouldn’t require any recourse to his brainwashing mojo or his preternatural powers of persuasion — all he’d need would be a sound studio to record hundreds of variations on Billings’ “if you’re watching this, it means I have disappeared” video. Most plausible explanations would fall under the broad categories of gods or aliens, but there are any almost infinite variety of such scenarios that might be retroactively “predicted” in these videos.
Another obvious step would be to commission dozens of “bible prophecy” experts to claim that the disappearances were the Rapture of the saints predicted in the Christian scriptures. These impostors would proclaim just enough detail from the premillennial dispensationalist truth, mixed in with just enough demonstrably false and easily disprovable nonsense, to discredit people like Bruce or Rayford once they started to speak out. “The Bible predicted all of this,” Bruce would start to say, and everyone would think, “Ah yes, this bit. We’ve heard this and we know it’s not true.”
This would also of course be how Nicolae would deal with the “Two Witnesses” in Jerusalem. So Moses and Elijah are prophesying by the Western Wall? Very well then, sprinkle a half-dozen more Moseses and Elijahs throughout the city. Have Abraham and Melchizedek prophesy by the Damascus Gate, warning people of the impending natural disasters that God is sending as a sign that they must obediently serve his chosen world leader. Send John the Baptist and John of Patmos to prophesy in the Kidron Valley and have Joseph and Daniel stake out a street corner on the Via Dolorosa. Dozens of pairs of “witnesses” would arise in every corner of the globe — William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg in London; Haile Selassie and Simon Kimbangu in Addis Ababa; Edgar Cayce and Madame Blavatsky in Machu Picchu; Nostradamus and Joan of Arc at the foot of the Eiffel Tower extolling the prophesied savior, the “golden-haired son of Cluj who shall appear to many as like unto Condor, only without the sideburns.” Equip them all with enough plants and pyrotechnics to make the trip-and-die guys seem like small potatoes (I’m assuming that Nicolae is at least as capable at this sort of thing as Jannes and Jambres).
Mark Twain noted that “a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” Buck Williams has already given the lie a two-week head-start, so if Nicolae is anything like the Great Deceiver he’s supposed to be — or even if he were just a bush-league disinformationist along the lines of a Kim Jong Il — the whole subject of “theories behind the disappearances” ought to be irreparably polluted by now by a flood of falsehoods and half-truths and the white noise of a thousand videos, prophets, witnesses and experts.
Nothing like any of that appears in Buck’s article, which seems to restrict itself to Rayford’s explanation of PMD mythology and a smattering of tabloid-style theories that Buck seems to have gleaned exclusively from the tabloids.
The good news is that by avoiding any real engagement with any actual competing theories, by refusing to debunk anything, by neglecting to even mention the official explanation, and by omitting all of the evidence he might have presented for the real explanation of WRH, Buck frees up a lot of room in his cover story. He uses this room to offer an extended rant against the Arminian heresies of the papist infidels.
That’s right. Buck studiously avoids any discussion of Darby, Scofield or Hal Lindsay, but he goes out of his way to present a caricatured rehash of the Diet of Worms.
Most interesting to Buck was the interpretation of the event on the part of other churchmen. A lot of Catholics were confused, because while many remained, some had disappeared — including the new pope, who had been installed just a few months before the vanishings. He had stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the “heresy” of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodoxy they were used to. When the pope had disappeared, some Catholic scholars had concluded that this was indeed an act of God. “Those who opposed the orthodox teaching of the Mother Church were winnowed out from among us,” Peter Cardinal Mathews of Cincinnati, a leading archbishop, had told Buck.
They probably first realized they were in trouble with their new pope when he chose the papal name of Calvin Zwingli I.
Buck decides to engage the archbishop in a theological debate. Because this Global Weekly article is obviously the appropriate place for that. And because Buck skimmed through the Gospels just the other night, so he’s confident he knows the Bible better than this bishop possibly could.
Buck had been bold enough to ask the archbishop to comment on certain passages of Scripture, primarily Ephesians 2:8-9 …
OK, stop. Two things.
First, there’s no way that Buck knows anything about the book of Ephesians. He’s never read it himself and, since it’s not one of the “prophecy” books, Bruce never read it to him. It’s absurd enough that Buck is going around citing chapter and verse, as though he’d grown up doing Sword Drills in Vacation Bible School, but it’s even more ridiculous that he would be citing chapter and verse for a chapter and a verse that we know for a fact he’s never read.
The explanation for this miraculous knowledge, of course, is that the authors know this passage, and they can quote it from memory, citing chapter and verse. And since Buck here is acting as the authors’ mouthpiece, he magically knows everything they know.
This destroys any hope the reader has of a realistic story with realistic characters, but it can also be kind of fun. Just watch this:
READER: Hey, Rayford! Bev’s birthday is in April, right?
RAYFORD STEELE: Yes, the 30th.
READER: What’d you get her this year?
RAYFORD: Oh, I found this lovely butterfly broach, an antique with … wait, crap, I mean, um, ah … who is this “Bev” that you speak of? I don’t know anyone named Bev. Irene, that’s my wife’s name, Irene Steele, not this Beverly LaHaye or whatever it was you said. And anyway I’m not supposed to be talking to you like this.
He falls for that one every time. And you should see what Buck does when you tell him that Gil Thorpe was never funny.
But let me get to the second point, namely this: Anyone who makes a habit of reciting Ephesians 2:8-9 without going on to recite verse 10 as well is a jackass.
Seriously. A colossal jackass.
Here’s the first two verses, which ventriloquist-dummy Buck recites:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.
And here’s the next verse, the next sentence, the second half of that thought:
Now there’s only one reason you’d ever quote those first two verses while omitting the third, and that’s if you’re doing what Buck is doing here — tossing out what you believe to be the Lutheran trump-card in some pointless, abstract and distracting argument over “grace vs. works.”
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Buck at least has an excuse — he’s fictional, and thus on an even footing with the fictional straw-man bishop he’s debating here. But this same side of this same argument is presented all the time in American evangelical churches, as though the fictional straw-man Peter Cardinal Mathews were lurking in the lobby, just waiting to burst into the sanctuary to declare that we earn our way to heaven by doing good deeds, praying to Mary and buying indulgences.
Simply saying that evangelicals, like Buck, recite those first two verses without ever mentioning the third doesn’t fully convey how emphatically they reject what Ephesians 2:10 has to say. They treat this verse like the 13th floor of a hotel. It’s not part of their canon. I have sat through at least a half dozen sermons in evangelical churches during which the preacher read the first nine verses of this chapter and then launched into a condemnation of the evil works-righteousness of the evil good-works faction, concluding with, “So let’s pick up reading at verse 11 …”What elevates this strange behavior to the status of jackassitude is that these folks have allowed their fiercely abstract debate over the mechanics of soteriology to tie them into knots to the extent that, for them, “good works” is an epithet, an obscenity. To do good, to be good, is treated as an affront to the sufficiency of grace.
Here in Tribulation Force, LaHaye and Jenkins are gleefully proud of the way their spokescharacter in this scene is able to cite scripture to prove the evils of good works. After Buck recites Ephesians 2:8-9, carefully stopping before verse 10 (jackass), the archbishop is reduced to stammering:
“Now you see,” the archbishop said, “this is precisely my point. People have been taking verses like that out of context for centuries and trying to build doctrine on them.””But there are other passages just like those,” Buck said.
Oh, snap! Buck is thinking as the authors high-five one another for successfully out-debating their fictional bishop.
Of course Buck left his personal comments and opinions out of the article, but he was able to work in the Scripture and the archbishop’s attempt to explain away the doctrine of grace.
And thus we come to the point. Martin Luther believed in the doctrine of grace. Buck, LaHaye and Jenkins believe in believing in the doctrine of grace. The archbishop of Cincinnati did not believe in that doctrine, and so he was left behind. Pope Calvin was raptured along with all the other RTCs because he had come to believe in the gospel of salvation by belief in the proper understanding of the mechanics of salvation. RTCs are not real, true Christians because of the grace of God — they are real, true Christians because their sentiments are aligned with the correct side of the argument about the role of God’s grace in salvation.
What L&J and Buck are arguing for here is self-refuting nonsense that swallows its own tail and it isn’t easy to give a lucid description of such madness, but try thinking of it this way: They do not believe in Calvinism, but in Calvinism-ism. They believe that we achieve our own salvation by means of asserting that Luther, Calvin and Augustine were correct to say that we cannot achieve our own salvation. The logical implication of this would seem to be that Heaven will be populated with Calvin-ists and Luther-ans, but that Calvin and Luther themselves will be excluded. Those reformers mistakenly believed that God’s grace would be sufficient to save them, not realizing — as L&J do — that God and grace are powerless apart from what really matters, which is our own assent to the proposition that grace is sufficient. To be saved, then, we need to say that God’s grace alone is sufficient, but to mean by that that our belief in the power of our believing that we believe that is what is really sufficient to save us. Or something like that.
The point is that it is the authors and their mouthpiece who are here rejecting the doctrine of grace. The gist of that teaching is that God’s grace is not dependent on our merit or worthiness — that’s what “grace” means, after all. But the authors believe God’s grace is dependent — that it is earned and not freely given. They believe grace is dependent on a correct understanding of grace, that it is contingent on whether or not its potential recipients can properly articulate how it works. They believe, in other words, in righteousness by works — but mental, or sentimental, works, rather than tangible, corporal ones.
This whole lengthy aside is particularly troublesome in the context of this series, which elevates the apocalyptic passages of the Bible over the rest of it. Those passages are not very hospitable to Calvinism, let alone to the authors’ Calvinism-ism. The authors’ favorite book, Revelation, ends with a relentless and emphatic litany of judgment based solely on deeds: “The dead were judged according to what they had done … Each person was judged according to what he had done.” Or consider my favorite apocalyptic passage, Jesus’ so-called “mini-apocalypse” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the centerpiece of which is the parable of the sheep and the goats. That parable makes no mention of faith or grace or any other basis for judgment or salvation apart from how we treat “the least of these.” Those who feed the hungry and befriend the criminals are saved. Those who don’t, aren’t. Period.*
Those passages can be reconciled with the idea of salvation by grace, but not in the way that Buck or the authors think of it. The idea — which is embraced by Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians alike — is that grace is what enables the sheep to be sheep. God’s grace is what affords us the possibility to be — in the Pauline phrase that jackasses like Buck so studiously avoid — created to do good works.
That idea leads to a workable doctrine of grace — something more like the original Pauline and Augustinian notion that Luther and Calvin sought to recover. It says, “Grace. Therefore works.” Buck and the braying crowd of Skip-Verse-10ers would argue the opposite of that, “Grace. Therefore not works.”
So I guess I shouldn’t be calling them jackasses. “Goats” would be more accurate.
The poor archbishop was constructed and inserted here entirely for the purpose of this anti-works-righteousness rant in defense of thoughts-righteousness, so he’s not meant to be anything more than a straw-man embodiment of the worst evangelical fantasies about what it is that deluded Catholics believe. The authors won’t allow him to discern any pattern as to who was taken in the disappearances, and they insist that he must be — like every character in Tribulation Force who isn’t a member of the Tribulation Force — wholly ignorant of any aspect of PMD Rapture mythology, and those restrictions force him to seem a bit dim. But all of that together gives the bishop an incoherence which is just about the closest thing you’ll find in this book to realistically conflicted human nature.
He comes across as someone who is struggling to make sense of the horrific tragedy of the Event, someone who is desperate to reconcile such horrors with the idea that a just and loving God is still in control. So he starts by trying to talk himself into the “winnowing” of evil theory:
“The Scripture says that in the last days it will be as in the days of Noah. And you’ll recall that in the days of Noah, the good people remained and the evil ones were washed away.”
He’s got a point there, actually. The bishop is referring to Matthew 24, where Jesus says that the end of the age will be like “the days before the flood”:
… until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.
That last sentence is, of course, where the Left Behind series gets its name — Matthew 24:40 via Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” But neither L&J nor Larry seemed to notice that the flood reference clearly shows that getting “taken” is bad while being “left behind” is good.** That’s part of why I think this passage makes far more sense if read as a memento mori.
When Buck pointed out to the bishop that the disappearances also involved children and babies:
The bishop had shifted uncomfortably. “That I leave to God,” he said. “I have to believe that perhaps he was protecting the innocents.””From what?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t take the Apocrypha [sic] literally, but there are dire predictions of what might be yet to come.”
“So you would not relegate the vanished young ones to the winnowing of the evil?”
“No. Many of the little ones who disappeared I baptized myself …”
He’s a straw man grasping at straws. He doesn’t know how to make sense of what happened and he’s willing to admit that, to confess, “I’m not sure.” This makes me far more fond of him than I’m able to be of any of the cruelly certain characters the authors tell me I’m supposed to like.
Buck could have helped the archbishop. He could have opened his eyes to the pattern of the disappearances and explained the prophecies outlined on the back cover of the book, but he’s no more interested in sharing that evidence with the bishop than he is in sharing it with his GW readers. So instead of telling the poor man what he believes happened — what he knows happened — he instead abruptly asks the guy “to comment on certain passages of Scripture.”
“So you’ve lost many children from your parish, precious little ones you knew and loved yourself,” Buck says. “Well then suck on this. Ephesians 2:8 and 9, bee-yatch! Aw yeahhh!” And then he spikes the Bible and starts doing his end-zone victory dance, leaving the poor man more bewildered than ever.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
* This parable utterly contradicts Calvinism-ism’s notion of salvation by assent to proper doctrine. The story suggests, instead, that salvation itself is unrelated to concern about salvation. The Son of Man tells the sheep that they are blessed and they reply, “I’m sorry, have we met? What’s a ‘Jesus’ and what does that have to do with me?” They have no knowledge or understanding of the mechanics of salvation and it turns out they didn’t need any. Soteriology is a red herring.
** The parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel is more fun if you ever have to deal with a PMD in conversation. Be sure to use the King James Version when you bring up Luke 17:34 — “In that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left” — and then argue that a literal interpretation suggests that precisely 50 percent of gay men will be raptured.