Barnes, Steele and his daughter, and a reporter named Buck Williams band together to learn more about Jesus Christ. This small band of new believers soon has to confront the coming Tribulation. Their further adventures lead them into direct conflict with an Anti-Christ figure, Nicolae Carpathia, who plans to use the UN to establish one world government.
A brief plot summary
Capt. Rayford Steele's day takes a bizarre turn when several passengers disappear off his plane in mid-flight. When he radios ahead, the Captain learns that these disappearances are happening all over the world. Millions have suddenly vanished. What on earth has happened?
When Steele finds out that his devotedly Christian wife is among the missing, he starts putting the pieces together and heads to church to find more answers. When he gets there he discovers only one member of the staff is left - Bruce Barnes, the assistant pastor – and he’s busy watching a video recorded by the church’s leading pastor. On the video the pastor explains that the disappearances are part of something called the Rapture, in which Christ takes all the believers with him to heaven, with the unsaved “left behind.”
Troubled by Tribulation: Evaluating the Left Behind Series1
by Peter & Erica Holtvlüwer
I’ve just finished reading the first volume of Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series. Should I keep on reading? It seems very biblical and yet at the same time troubling – what should I make of this scary description of the end times?
Erica: Undeniably, the Left Behind series begins with a gripping tale that draws the reader in very quickly. And why not? Many of us wonder about the timing and manner of Christ’s return and LaHaye2 provides all the answers. What concerns me is that LaHaye’s answers are too easy, giving the impression that we now have an accurate blueprint for the end times. Easy answers to complex issues always make me nervous. Left Behind is described as fiction but the reader begins to fully expect the name of Nicolae Carpathia (the Antichrist) to appear in the daily newspaper the next morning!
Peter: LaHaye’s easy answers come from the strict way he interprets Scripture, especially prophecy. His ‘Golden Rule of Interpretation’ guides him: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise.”3 LaHaye’s key emphasis is on the “literal meaning,” while he allows only rare exceptions for some symbolism. The exceptions come at his discretion, when “common sense” dictates. LaHaye pays no attention to types or genres of writing such as poetry (e.g. Psalms), narrative (e.g. 1 Samuel), prophecy (Isaiah), wisdom literature (e.g. Ecclesiastes), apocalypse (e.g. Revelation) and others. Imagine trying to interpret Ecclesiastes literally, like in the same way you would interpret 1 Samuel – we’d all be hopeless pessimists (literally!).
But LaHaye is too busy with end-times prophecy to notice the trouble with his principle of interpretation. By understanding apocalyptic visions in literal terms instead of symbolic (though still very real) terms, he arrives at a literal 1000-year reign of Christ on the earth preceded by a seven-year period prior called the Tribulation. He also concludes that during this Tribulation the physical nation of Israel will largely be converted to Christ, and that identifiable individuals known as the Man of Lawlessness and the Antichrist will dominate.
Erica: Actually, it’s LaHaye’s dogged concentration on the Tribulation that I find so affronting. All the books in this series deal with this so-called seven-year period of Tribulation, even though the church is not in it! He never says much about what is going on with the church that was raptured up to heaven – that would have at least been pleasant reading! LaHaye seems fixated on the time of great trouble on the earth. He describes the horrifying events of the Tribulation with such arresting detail that it gives me the chills and leaves me feeling uneasy about the future.
Peter: That’s part of LaHaye’s intention. LaHaye is a “Pre-Tribber” which means he believes in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture.4 Despite the fact that the church from ancient times has confessed only one return of Christ,5 LaHaye thinks that Christ will return to the earth twice: once to take up all believers, past and present, unto Himself on the clouds (i.e. the Rapture) and take them back to heaven. This begins the seven-year Tribulation for those “left-behind,” all of whom are unbelievers. At the end of this seven years, Christ will return a second time to initiate the 1000-year reign in Jerusalem. He believes this Tribulation is so frightening that anyone who learns of it will not want to live through it. That is, it should basically scare people into believing in Christ now, today. In the Left Behind series, God’s grace and mercy are very much overshadowed by God’s wrath – a rather unbiblical balance.
Erica: Scare tactics seem to be one of LaHaye’s main tools, even within the Tribulation itself. For example, one by one, central characters like Rayford Steele “receive” Christ6. Bruce Barnes, the spiritual leader of what eventually becomes the quartet of individuals known as “the Tribulation Force”7 says to Steele in one of their first meetings, “I’m not going to push you into something you’re not ready for, but…don’t put it off. What would be worse than finally finding God and then dying without him because you waited too long?”8
LaHaye and Jenkins have expertly captured the dramatic tension in this passage and that makes for a compelling story. But it sent a shiver down my spine for quite another reason. Where is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty here, the comfort of His electing power? There is a notion of a spiritual transaction that has to take place between God and man, and this transaction better be completed soon…or else!! And the impetus for this transaction seems to rest solely with mankind.
Peter: The future sure would be scary if it depended on our decision to choose for Christ. But, sadly, that is the working assumption of LaHaye which makes him a true Arminian. God’s sovereign control and eternal plan of election for this world and His people are essentially denied by LaHaye in calling it God’s experiment: “The Tribulation is a fitting consummation of the grand experiment of the ages from Adam to the second coming, giving individuals an opportunity to worship God voluntarily.”9
There is also an internal contradiction in LaHaye. Thought of the Tribulation is supposed to be a motivator for conversion, but this same theology holds that those left behind after the Rapture will have a second chance to convert! The Tribulation may not be pleasant to live through, but what real “pressure” is there for either the church to evangelize or unbelievers to convert now when everyone knows that once the Rapture has taken place, there is still seven years to change your mind? Besides, the Bible never speaks about a “second chance” either afte
r death or after the Lord returns.
Erica: There are other examples of false teachings in this series, namely the salvation of all infants. After the Rapture, there are no children left on the earth. Speaking on videotape to those left behind, fictional “raptured” pastor Vern Billings says, “Up to a certain age, which is probably different for each individual, we believe God will not hold a child accountable for a decision that must be made with heart and mind, fully cognizant of the ramifications.”10 Where in all of the passages in Scripture concerning Christ’s Second coming does it speak of the wholesale salvation of children?
Peter: That’s a good point. This ties in with LaHaye’s Arminian underpinnings for clearly he has no concept of total depravity. The fact is, all people are conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5), are children of wrath (Eph 2:3) and therefore subject to death and condemnation (Romans 5:12). It’s only true believers, brought to faith by the Lord, who receive His covenant promises of forgiveness of sins, adoption as sons, and cleansing from sinfulness. God, out of mere grace, extends these promises to children of believers in His covenant of love (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 7:14), but nowhere does He extend the same to the children of unbelievers. For a literalist like LaHaye, this is a major flaw. His theology here clearly rests on his emotions and not on God’s Word.
Erica: And yet the books continue to sell and the authors keep on churning out sequels. I suppose a lot can happen in seven years so we shouldn’t be surprised by the endlessness of these “end times!” Nevertheless, from a purely literary point of view, the series already begins to lose dramatic steam in Book Two. The vivid descriptions of unheard-of events and the driving sense of urgency found in Book One, begin to fizzle out early in Book Two. Nicolae Carpathia’s ever-growing capacity to devilishly hypnotize the world becomes tired and, quite frankly, more than a little unbelievable. Even the heroic Tribulation Force in their struggle against the Antichrist falls victim to flatness and predictability of character. They display only unwavering faith and commitment in the face of mounting evil and oppression – when they’ve only been Christians for all of two weeks by the beginning of Book Two!! At this rate, it’s going to be a painfully long series.
Peter: There’s a quick way to ease your pain – take a pass on the rest of the series! It’s just not worth it. Between LaHaye’s insidious Arminianism, unabashed literalism, and unapologetic pre-tribulationism, there’s not much to be said in favor of continuing. Add to that a plotline that is solely driven by sensationalism coupled with weak characters and there is every reason to leave behind the Left Behind series.
As pastor and pastor’s wife, Peter & Erica Holtvlüwer live in Carmen, MB, serving in the Canadian Reformed Church there.
1 Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1995). This is a fictional novel depicting events near the end of time. After the success of this first volume, the authors have gone on to publish numerous sequels now known collectively as the Left Behind series. Volume Eleven has recently been issued.
2 Tim LaHaye is the main author and theological brains behind the Left Behind series.
3 Tim LaHaye, The Rapture: Who Will Face the Tribulation? (Eugene, Oregon: Harvester House Publishers, 2002) p.238. In this book, LaHaye specifically sets out to provide an explanation and defense of the theology that lies behind his popular fiction series, Left Behind.
4 Pre-Tribulationism is a sub-set of Pre-Millennialism, which is the basic belief assumed throughout the Left Behind series. For more on Pre-Millennialism in comparison with Post- and A-Millennialism, see P.H. Holtvlüwer, “Millennialism Explained,” Reformed Perspective, Volume 22, No.4, February, 2003: p.28-29.
5 All three ecumenical creeds – the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian – speak simply and only of Christ coming again from His Father’s right hand to judge the living and the dead. There’s no coming, going, then returning for good. There’s no hint of a double-return or, as LaHaye calls it, a “two-stage” return.
6 Left Behind, p.146.
7 Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996). This is the second volume in the series.
8 Left Behind, p.148.
9 The Rapture: Who Will Face the Tribulation? p.66.
10 Left Behind, p.153.