LBCF: The Hypothetical Bus

LBCF: The Hypothetical Bus February 2, 2024

(Originally posted June 24, 2012.)

I don’t remember much of Donald W. Thompson’s series of rapture movies from when I saw them back in middle school at Hydewood Park Baptist Church.

I do remember that they were pretty scary. Thompson was a low-budget hack, but he had an eye for haunting detail — the drone of an unattended lawn mower in a suburban yard (Thompson raptured people fully clothed) was far creepier and more affecting than anything in Left Behind.

Thompson’s films — A Thief in the Night and A Distant Thunder are the two I remember — were explicitly evangelistic. He was trying to scare people into conversion with a hypertrophied version of the famous Hypothetical Bus.

Even people who didn’t grow up in evangelical youth groups are acquainted with the Hypothetical Bus — the great memento mori of our time. “You could walk out that door and get hit by a bus.”

The H.B. is regularly (if a bit oddly) invoked to comfort those facing a potentially terminal illness. It also remains a standard metaphor for evangelists, urging their listeners to “get right with God.”

As an enthusiastic supporter of public transportation, I often wish for a different symbol of our mortality. I haven’t checked with my brother the actuary, but I’m pretty sure buses themselves are not particularly menacing.

Yet while the H.B. is often misused for callow comfort or exploitative fear-mongering, it’s not bad theology. Death can come for any of us in “the twinkling of an eye,” and no one knows the day or the hour in which the end may come.

Thompson’s films used the threat of the rapture as a surrogate for the threat of death. Like the evangelist warning of imminent, diesel-powered doom, he was trying to scare his audience into heaven. In its own way, A Thief in the Night is an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone sermon — Thompson’s version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

I expected Left Behind to take a similar course, to invoke the apocalypse as a cosmic version of the Hypothetical Bus, urging sinners to repent because the end is near.

But that’s not LaHaye and Jenkins’ agenda. Jonathan Edwards famously wrote of the fires of Hell as a warning. L&J write of the Tribulation as a vindication, a confirmation of their own rightness and righteousness.

Their intended audience is people who, like them, already believe in premillennial dispensationalism. Their tone is the juvenile triumphalism of an adolescent semi-threatening suicide or running away: Just wait until I’m gone. Then you’ll see. Then you’ll be sorry.

There’s a message here for “the unsaved,” but it’s not the message of salvation that Edwards and Thompson extended, however clumsily. It is not “get right with God, because time is short,” but rather this: “Ha-ha! We were right and you were wrong! Have fun in Hell!”

I would suggest that this is not a very winsome or effective strategy for evangelism.


Tony, the Flight Attendant

(Left Behind, pg. 18)

Rayford and Hattie are milling about the plane, full of panic that so many passengers have vanished, yet also strangely serene in their incuriosity about what may be happening. Then Hattie discovers that one of their crew is among the missing:

She lifted a blazer, shirt and tie still intact. Trousers lay are her feet. Hattie frantically turned the blazer to the low light and read the name tag. “Tony!” she wailed. “Tony’s gone!”

Over the coming pages, we’ll learn more about who was taken and who was left behind. This is the great privilege for writers of fiction set in the afterlife. It’s a tradition that goes back at least to Dante, who settled political scores by writing his opponents into Hell.

L&J have some scores to settle as well — much of which gets played out in who gets raptured and who gets left behind, and why.

All we know about Tony is that he was a male flight attendant and he seems to have been a friend of Hattie’s. Neither she nor Rayford seems to have regarded him as a potential romantic rival for her affections and they do not mention that he was married.

Are we supposed to be reading something into this? Is L&J’s version of the rapture even more inclusive than they perhaps intended?

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