THE LEFT BEHIND FANTASY: The Theology Behind the Left Behind Tales. By William Powell Tuck. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2010. xiv +157 pp.
Whether you’ve read them or not, it’s likely you’ve seen or at least heard of the twelve volume Left Behind series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In this series of books, a full-blown exposition of Dispensational understandings of the end of the ages is laid out – in fictional form. If you’re well-versed in Dispensationalism, perhaps from reading Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, you’ll understand to what the series title is referring. It is the story of what happens to those left behind when Jesus returns and snatches up the saints of God. For seven crazy years the anti-Christ reigns supreme. But according to this scenario, some of those left behind figure things out and come to Jesus and fight to defend themselves, even as they seek to win others to the faith – in anticipation of another return.
I must say, up front, that I’ve not read the books – though I have handled them on occasion at Costco. William Tuck, a retired Baptist pastor and author, on the other hand, has gone the extra step of actually reading these books. Indeed, he has read these books very carefully, along with other books on similar topics that have been written by the primary author (Tim LaHaye), in the hope of understanding both their appeal and their message.
What Tuck discovers is that there is a reason why they’re popular. They’re a good read – having lots of intrigue, violence, and even at least the suggestion of romance, all wrapped up in a Christian cover story. John Killinger, in his foreword speaks as well to the context into which these books have appeared. These are, he says, times that are “extraordinarily charged with the electricity of interfaith wars, heightened airport security, a parade of bombings in crowded international cities, and more recently, a nearly catastrophic global economic meltdown” (p. xi) Is it any surprise that many people might think these are the last days, and actually find a sense of hope in these books. Indeed, as Tuck notes in the book, the authors put the plan of salvation (a fundamentalist version to be sure) in each of the books. Tuck also notes that there is little evidence that masses of people have converted, but many Christians seem to have accepted this as the true and proper interpretation of the Bible. What he discovers in these books are a theology and interpretation of the bible that have dangerous implications.
In the course of a rather brief book, Bill Tuck introduces us to the plot lines, the characters, and the theology that is inherent in the books. Chief among the characters are Rayford Steele, an airline pilot who becomes a Christian, along with his daughter, after he is left behind. They help found the Tribulation Force – a sort of Christian A-Team – with Buck Williams (who marries Chloe Steele). There is Bruce Barnes a previously unconverted pastor – that is he wasn’t sufficiently conservative – who becomes the group’s spiritual leader and teacher. On the other side of the ledger there is Nicolae Carpathia, a Romanian President who becomes General Secretary of the United Nations, and then the Anti-Christ. Is it surprising that the Anti-Christ should be the head of the UN? Then there’s Peter Matthews, a Roman Catholic Cardinal who becomes Pontifex Maximus and head of the Enigma Babylon One World Faith. Finally, there are two Jewish leaders, Tsion Ben-Judah and Chaim Rosezweig. One is a rabbinical scholar and Israeli statesman who converts to Christianity, and the other is an Israeli statesman and scientist who assassinates Carpathia – who incidentally is raised from the dead.
Tuck not only gives the background on the characters, but discusses the background to this book – the books written by such noted Dispensationalists as John Darby (the founder of Dispensationalism), C.I. Scofield, Lindsey and John Walvoord, and explains the terminology that is found in the books, whether biblical or not. LaHaye suggests that his is the proper interpretation of the Bible, but Tuck makes it clear that the term rapture isn’t in the Bible, and the biblical foundations for it are thin (the closest text is I Thessalonians 4:17). Then there is the idea of a Glorious Appearing, a sort of second second coming, when Jesus returns at the end of the seven-year Tribulation, to set up his 1000 year reign. He explains how the idea of a seven-year tribulation emerged out of attempts to literally interpret texts like Revelation and Daniel. We’re introduced to terms such as apocalypse and millennium, the anti-Christ, the Beast, and the False Prophet. Tuck offers the Dispensationalist interpretation of these terms/ideas and then offers other interpretations – ones with more scholarly support – of apocalyptic and eschatalogical texts.
In the course of his discussion, Tuck introduces the reader to what he calls the Apocalyptic approach to those texts, like Revelation that seem to have a futuristic sense to them. It is this method that he uses to examine LaHaye’s theology of the end times. This interpretation, he suggests, represents the scholarly consensus view, one that insists that Revelation and similar writings must have been understood by its first readers. With that as the starting point, Tuck insists that the Rapture scheme found in these books simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. He writes:
Not only are their novels fiction but their biblical foundation for these tales is also fiction. No reliable biblical scholar, except a few isolated fundamentalists, substantiates their claims. Readers of these novels should be aware of this fact. Although LaHaye and Jenkins claim that they have broad support, this is not the case. (p. 70).
Tuck uses the relevant biblical scholarship to examine each of LaHaye’s scriptural claims and rebuts them. Particularly problematic in Tuck’s mind is LaHaye’s penchant for using texts that clearly speak of resurrection to support his rapture theology, including 1 Corinthians 15. There is, in the biblical record, only one parousia, or return of Christ and that relates to the general resurrection. Tuck is concerned that Dispensationalists have replaced the Resurrection, which is foundational to the Christian faith, with a rapture doctrine that isn’t biblical.
The interpretive scheme used by the authors is extremely literalistic, and yet this leads to some interesting interpretative gymnastics. What LaHaye fails to understand is that apocalyptic literature, which is highly symbolic, is not meant to be taken in such a fashion. His interpretations also fail to consider how these words would have been understood by the original recipients of the book of Revelation. In response, Tuck offers an interpretation that takes the words and the audience seriously.
Another important issue is the violence present in the books. At one point in the books, Christ appears on a white horse and “his words mow the soldiers of Nicolae Carpathia down like they are being shot with a rapid repeating machine gun” (p. 85). This violence, however, is part of the attraction, for the books have all the parts of an action series. But, the God who appears in these books is not at all attractive. Tuck writes that at times it’s difficult to distinguish the actions of God from those of the anti-Christ, Nicholas Carpathia: “They both issue out undeserved suffering on persons who either did not recognize who they were or were undecided in their loyalty” (p. 98). The reasoning is that God uses this suffering to get people’s attention, but is that an appropriate way for God to act? Does it stand up to the declaration that God is love? Does it represent the teachings of Jesus, which speak of nonviolence. And, while many Christians struggle with the idea of war, Tuck raises questions about the nature of this “Tribulation Force,” which “uses weapons of violence like hand guns and uzis, planes and helicopters, Land Rovers and trucks that blow up armored carriers and kill soldiers and utilize some of the most advanced technological equipment one can have to combat the forces of the Antichrist. While Revelation speaks of martyrdom for the faith, in these books the forces of God are an underground military force. As Tuck notes, the authors use as their model the Pax Romana not the Pax Christi. Violence, not justice, love, and reconciliation, is the nature of this vision. But then, in the presentation of judgment, God comes off not as one setting things right, but one who is vindictive – offering a choice between allegiance and punishment.
What is also missing from the books is forgiveness. Tuck notes that in this scenario, if you have the mark of the beast, even if you want to convert, it’s not possible. There is, also a rather negative view of the religious faith of anyone other than those who stand in their rather narrow viewpoint. Catholics and more moderate to liberal Protestants are seen as apostate -- as are Jews, Muslims, and anyone else that differs from them. There is, in this scenario, no forgiveness for them as well.
The books use fear as a means to an end. Conversion is the hoped for end, but it is not a conversion that stems from God’s love, but from fear of God’s wrath. Is this an effective tool for evangelism, Tuck doesn’t think so. In fact, the last chapter of the book offers an alternative way of coming to faith. In Tuck’s presentation, “authentic evangelism will show concern for the total person and will address the need for discipleship and the role of the Church in one’s spiritual growth” (p. 115).
Bill Tuck is to be commended for taking on a series of books that have garnered a lot of attention and have influenced the views of many Christians. He helps the reader understand, going into great depth, why these books don’t offer a responsible interpretation of scripture or view of life. In its place, he offers an alternative understanding of Christian faith, one that is truer to the vision of Jesus. So, if you're looking for a book that responds to this series, this is a good place to start.