Originally posted March 15, 2010.
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 $0.99. Russia attacked voting systems in all 50 states but maybe they didn’t affect any outcomes. 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 someday.
Tribulation Force, pp. 172-176
Buck Williams and Chloe Steele are thumbing through a pre-Rapture photo directory for New Hope Village Church.
Most of the people pictured in this book disintegrated about a month ago. These were people Chloe knew and for her this is the emotional equivalent of one of the townspeople in The Sweet Hereafter trying to read a high school yearbook.
Atom Egoyan’s film about a small town devastated by a school bus accident is far, far more human and humane in its exploration of grief and loss, but here, for once, Jerry Jenkins at least begins to try to acknowledge that the post-Event survivors of the childless world in which his story is set might be suffering from a pain and torment that has nothing to do with horsemen or earthquakes or demon locusts. The recognition of that, however brief and fleeting, produces the rarest of graces — two paragraphs of Jenkins’ prose that aren’t all that bad:
Chloe took her time getting to the S’s, studying page after page of pictures as if looking for anyone else she recognized. “Went to high school with him,” she said idly. “She and I were in the same fourth grade. Mrs. Schultz was my freshman P.E. teacher.”
When she finally got to her own family she was overcome. Her face contorted and she stared, the tears coming. “Raymie was 10,” she managed.
Bruce’s door opens and her father walks out.
“Daddy, look,” she said, standing and handing him the directory.
Rayford’s throat tightened and he sucked in a huge breath when he saw the photo. He sighed painfully. It was almost too much to take.
Bruce Barnes walks out and the moment ends. Before the Event, you’ll recall, Bruce was the Worst Visitation Pastor Ever. His entire job at NHVC had involved comforting the dying and the grieving, and he was terrible at it.
My first encounter with a real-life “visitation pastor” was during my first hospital stay, when I broke my leg in junior high. The visitation pastor from our church came by to cheer me up and offer some encouragement. That’s the smallest part of the job — dealing with an otherwise healthy young person who’s going to get better.
Visiting people who are going to get better is easy. Visiting those who never will — and with the loved ones of those who never did — is one of the hardest jobs there is.
The authors want us to think that Bruce was bad at that impossible job because his pre-Event faith wasn’t sincere. But we see here that the now-sincere, truly born-again Bruce Barnes is even worse at it.
He takes the directory and, like Rayford, turns to look at the picture of his family, “studying it for several seconds.” And then we read this:
Bruce turned to the Steele picture and nodded, smiling. He brought the directory back into the office with him, tucked it under his Bible and notebook, and opened the meeting in prayer.
Bruce started a little emotionally, but he soon warmed to his topic. He was flipping from Revelation to Ezekiel and Daniel and back again, comparing the prophetic passages to what was happening in New York and the rest of the world.
This is pastoral care, premillennial-dispensationalist style. PMD pastors have nothing — absolutely nothing — to offer to those battered by loss and grief. How could they? Their entire school of thought exists to deny the reality or possibility of such things, to offer their adherents the shallow false hope that they won’t ever have to confront their own death or anyone else’s because Jesus is going to come back to whisk us away before we die.
Confronted with grief-stricken Chloe and Rayford, Bruce opens his Bible and starts reading about Gog and Magog and the Seven Seals of Judgment. That’s all he’s got.
He doesn’t read, “I am convinced that neither death nor life.” He doesn’t read, “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” Or, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Or, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Or, “We do not want you to grieve like those who have no hope.” He can’t read those passages — the texts we Christians recite and cling to at funerals — because according to his PMD construct, those passages aren’t really about death, but rather about escaping death through the Rapture.
So Bruce instead turns to Revelation, but not to the part about “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” And he turns to Ezekiel, but not to the part about the Valley of Dry Bones. Bruce is trying to pretend death isn’t real, so he has no interest in resurrection.
All that interests Bruce, as a PMD pastor, is prophecy and the evidence of its fulfillment. He has an advantage over actual PMD pastors in this regard because he is a fictional character in a fictional setting created for the express purpose of providing him with such evidence. That evidence includes here the latest news of the Two Witnesses — the street preachers in Jerusalem who have captured the attention of a world busily not grieving its lost children.
“A reporter said that a little band of a half dozen thugs tried to charge the two, but they all wound up burned to death.”
“Burned?” Buck said.
“No one knew where the fire came from,” Bruce said. “But we know, don’t we?”
“No one knew … but we know, don’t we?” You couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration of the arrogance of occult belief systems like the one that Bruce and Tim LaHaye claim as the source of their power. Bruce possesses the key to the hidden mysteries — the secret way of “flipping from Revelation to Ezekiel and Daniel and back again” to reveal the mystic Bible prophecy code unknown to all others.
The mystery to me, here, is who these “thugs” were and what they hoped to gain by bum-rushing a couple of street preachers. It seems too public and high-profile a setting for this to have been a robbery attempt, so was it some kind of personal grudge? Bruce doesn’t say. He’s content with the question-begging explanation that they were “thugs” and thus bent on thuggery. But even that doesn’t explain why they decided on this particular thuggery with this particular set of victims.
The thugs seem to have acted only because Revelation 11:5 says of the Two Witnesses: “If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies.” That wouldn’t be much of a prophecy if nobody ever tried to harm them, would it? So Jenkins has a handful of thugs charge at them offstage somewhere for some reason, and then something happens and “they all wound up burned to death.”
This is an improvement over the ambiguous deaths earlier of the trip-and-die guys, but it’s still a disappointingly far cry from the fire-breathing witnesses a “literal” rendering of Rev. 11:5 would seem to promise. We were promised fire coming out of their mouths and I want to see some fire-breathing, dammit.
In describing this scorched-thugs incident, Bruce actually quotes Rev. 11:5, thereby confusing his own little band of a quarter-dozen followers who aren’t sure which account to believe — the one from CNN (without the fire-breathing) or the one from John of Patmos (with).
“They breathed fire on them like dragons?” one of the three asks Bruce (Jenkins offers no indication which of them says this).
“It’s right here in the book,” Bruce said.
“I’d like to see that on CNN,” Buck said.
“Keep watching,” Bruce said. “We’ll see more than that.”
Bruce and the authors teasingly promise that we’ll eventually get to witness bona fide fire-breathing witnesses and even “more than that.” And they assure us that with the proper occult knowledge of Bible prophecy, we readers and the members of the Tribulation Force will correctly interpret such supernatural wonders as evidence of divine intervention. What everyone else in this story makes of such events is not really addressed.
Rayford muses on this a bit:
Rayford wondered if he would ever get used to the things God was revealing to him. He could hardly fathom how far he’d come, how much he had accepted in less than a month. There was something about the dramatic invasion of God into humankind and into himself specifically that had changed the way he thought.
The thing about this “dramatic invasion of God” is that it is dramatic, invasive and explicitly of God.
It’s no wonder that such dramatic evidence should change the way Rayford thought about the world. What’s inexplicable — and unexplained in these books — is how the rest of the world could witness this same “dramatic invasion of God” without changing the way they think. They’re seeing the same undeniable and unambiguous evidence demanding the same inescapable conclusion — yet somehow they escape it.
Rayford’s explanation for this is that the evidence of actual events seen with one’s own eyes don’t really matter. All that matters, he thinks, is what Bruce says that Billings said the Bible says.
He suddenly found himself believing without question the most ludicrous news accounts, as long as they were corroborated by Scripture. And the opposite was also true: He believed everything in the Bible. Sooner or later the news would carry the same story.
So he believes what he witnesses with his own two eyes only if it is corroborated by Scripture. And he believes the Bible whether or not it is corroborated by what he witnesses with his own two eyes.
What of reasonable, credible, non-ludicrous news accounts which can be supported by loads of physical evidence but cannot be “corroborated by Scripture”? They’ll have to go. Reality uncorroborated by Scripture must be regarded as unreality.
As bonkers as that sounds, it’s actually an order of magnitude nuttier than that, because this process doesn’t just describe how Rayford applies “Scripture,” but also how he interprets it. For Rayford and Bruce, the Bible itself must be corroborated with the Billings/LaHaye/PMD interpretation of the Bible. Reality is that which can be corroborated by the text and the text is that which can be corroborated by the interpretive scheme. The interpretive scheme determines what is or isn’t real.
(This last bit isn’t as clear as I’d like, but it turns out it’s not easy to provide a lucid description of an impossible way of thinking.)