Last revised: May 18, 2004
Re-Sacralizing Violence in the Left Behind Books
From the perspective of mimetic theory, the most serious problem with the Left Behind series of novels, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins,(1) is their re-sacralization of violence. Their version of Jesus is no longer the Lamb slain but the same beastly violence of the Roman empire that John of Patmos is trying to portray. Jesus, when he comes again, will simply wield a vastly superior firepower, the epitome of righteous, sacred violence.
At stake is the God we meet in Jesus Christ, the God of whom St. John says, “that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In Jesus Christ we are finally able to see sacred violence for what it is, namely, the darkness of our human violence wrongly attributed to God. We human beings are the ones who put our faith in superior firepower. But in the Left Behind novels the darkness of that human, satanic violence is once again attributed to God, especially through the fictionalized figure of Jesus in the last volume. If the function of the Gospel, and the work of the Paraclete in the world, is to de-mythologize sacred violence — that is, to reveal all pictures of divine violence as an idolatry which veils human violence behind a cloak of divine violence — then these books are a splendid example of a re-mythologizing anti-Gospel. And, considering that the main villain in these books is the Antichrist, it goes beyond ironic to tragic that their message ends up going in the direction opposite to that of Christ’s message.
For those who haven’t ventured into reading any of the Left Behind series, my main purpose here is to give examples of the re-sacralization from the climactic book in the series, Glorious Appearing. I argue elsewhere for a nonviolent, de-mythologized reading of Revelation’s many images of violence.(2) Here, I primarily share prime examples of how the Left Behind series takes these images and explicitly connects them with Jesus (and God) as an agent of the violence, with depictions that far exceed those in Revelation.
In the Book of Revelation the climactic moment is obviously in its closing chapters 21-22, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to merge with the earth and to provide healing for the nations. In the Left Behind novels, on the other hand, the twelfth and final volume, Glorious Appearing, takes the defeat of evil in Rev. 19-20 as the focus for the climactic moment. Instead of the Lamb, which dominates the actual Book of Revelation, we are given the hero Jesus as a great warrior on a white horse (apparently taken to be the unnamed figure in Rev. 19), slaughtering millions. We read, as the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, gives his army the order to attack Jerusalem:
The riders not thrown leaped from their horses and tried to control them with the reins, but even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted, and their tongues disintegrated. As Rayford watched, the soldiers stood briefly as skeletons in now-baggy uniforms, then dropped in heaps of bones as the blinded horses continued to fume and rant and rave.Seconds later the same plague afflicted the horses, their flesh and eyes and tongues melting away, leaving grotesque skeletons standing, before they too rattled to the pavement. (pp. 273-274)
With the first attack fizzling out, Carpathia regroups his troops for another attack. By this time, the Jesus on his white horse has appeared, and we read:
With the remnant just a few hundred yards to the east, the besieged city of Jerusalem a half mile to the west, and the heavenly hosts hovering directly above, Jesus nudged His magnificent white charger and descended to the top of the Mount of Olives.As He dismounted, Carpathia shrieked out his final command, “Attack!” The hundred thousand troops followed orders, horsemen at full gallop firing, foot soldiers running and firing, rolling stock rolling and firing.
And Jesus said, in that voice like a trumpet and the sound of rushing waters, “I AM WHO I AM.”
At that instant the Mount of Olives split in two from east to west, the place Jesus stood moving to the north and the place where the Unity Army stood moving to the south, leaving a large valley.
All the firing and the running and the galloping and the rolling stopped. The soldiers screamed and fell, their bodies bursting open from head to toe at every word that proceeded out of the mouth of the Lord as He spoke to the captives within Jerusalem. “You shall flee through My mountain valley, for the mountain valley reaches to Azal. Yes, you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. The Lord your God has come, and all the saints with Me.” …
With that, Jesus mounted His horse and began His final triumphal entry toward Jerusalem. During His first visit to earth He had ridden into the city on a lowly donkey, welcomed by some but rejected by most. Now He rode high on the majestic white steed, and with every word that came from His mouth, the rest of the enemies of God — except for Satan, the Antichrist, and the False Prophet — were utterly destroyed where they stood.
“This is the day of vengeance, that all things which were written have been fulfilled. The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted today.” (pp. 286, 288)
The next chapter brings the fate of the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, and his False Prophet, Leon Fortunato, before Jesus and the angels:
Jesus shook His head and Mac saw a great sadness in His face. “You are responsible for the fate of billions. You and your False Prophet, with whom you shed the blood of the innocents — My followers, the prophets, and My servants who believed in Me — shall be cast alive into the lake of fire.” …Gabriel moved out of the way, and on the spot where he had stood, a hole three feet in diameter opened in the ground and a putrid, sulfuric odor burst forth, making Mac and everyone in the city hold their noses. This was followed by a whistling blue flame that erupted from the hole and rose twenty feet, which Mac could only compare to a monstrous acetylene torch. This added the smell of ether to the mix, and Mac found the front lines of the crowd backing away.
Even as far as he was from the action, Mac felt the tremendous heat emitted by the raging pillar of fire. Jesus and the five angelic beings were apparently immune to the smell and the heat, but both Carpathia and Fortunato tried to back off. Michael held tight to each, still looking to Jesus.
The Lord nodded sadly, and without hesitation, Michael briskly walked the two to the edge of the hole. Fortunato caterwauled like a baby and fought to escape, but with one mighty arm Michael pushed him into the hole. His keening intensified and then faded as he fell. Carpathia did not struggle. He merely covered his face with his forearms as he was dropped in, and then his bawling echoed throughout Jerusalem until he had fallen far enough away. The hole closed as quickly as it had opened, and the Beast and the False Prophet were no more. (pp. 310-311)
If their writing isn’t explicit enough about a violent Jesus, here’s an excerpt from a 60 Minutes II segment entitled “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” which first aired April 14, 2004.(3)
Morley Safer: “The Left Behind novels give a graphic version of the New Testament prophecy of the end of the world happening in our time, in which only the righteous are saved. Glorious Appearing tells the story of the return of an avenging Jesus, slaughtering non-believers by the millions. It’s an image of Jesus that many evangelicals say is long overdue.Jerry B. Jenkins: “Unfortunately, we’ve gone through a time when liberalism has so twisted the real meaning of scripture that they’ve manufactured a loving, wimpy Jesus that would never do anything in judgment. And that’s not the God of the Bible. That’s not the way Jesus reads in the Scripture.”
Tim LaHaye: “The biblical stuff is as close to the Bible interpretation as we can get. But if they’re not people who read the Bible, they don’t know which is which. And so they say we sort of invented this violent Jesus, this judgmental Jesus. That stuff is straight from the Bible. The idea of him slaying the enemy with the sword that comes from his mouth, which is His Word, and the fact that the enemy’s eyes melt in their heads, their tongues disintegrate, their flesh drops off — I didn’t make that up. That’s out of the prophecy.”
As far as I can tell, however, he did make it up. There’s nothing about the enemy’s eyes melting in the Book of Revelation. Instead, twice we see God wiping away the tears from the eyes of God’s people (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). There are people gnawing on their tongues in anguish (Rev. 16:10), and birds feeding on the flesh of the dead (Rev. 19:17-21), but not tongues simply disintegrating nor flesh dropping off at the words from Jesus’ mouth. If LaHaye means prophecy from somewhere else in scripture, then we fundamentally disagree about how to read prophecy(4) — namely, I contend that we read prophecy as a time-bound warning to a community of God’s people, and not as floating bits of literalism to apply at a moment of one’s choosing two thousand years later. Revelation, for example, is written to warn the seven churches not to be deceived by Rome’s beastly military might or seductive wealth. We only apply it to our time by analogy to today’s empires which dominate the world through wealth and military power — our own United States presenting the best candidate.
So, once again, I see LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ reading of Revelation to be a polar opposite. By my reading, the Left Behind books succumb precisely to the thing Revelation is written to warn us of, namely, being seduced by the riches and power of an earthly kingdom. In the same Morely Safer interview, they confess that they “bleed red, white, and blue.” Their books celebrate the United States — in my view, as an idolatrous substitute for God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ.
Finally, let me conclude by sharing Barbara Rossing‘s poignant synopsis of how this violent picture of Jesus is a betrayal of faith in the Crucified Christ, the Lamb Slain, from her excellent book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation:
To tell the story of Revelation is to tell the story of Jesus, the Lamb, and ultimately to tell the story of God — since the Lamb is beside God throughout the entire book.The slain Lamb’s victory through suffering love is the heart of the Revelation story. I want to say again that this theology, this counter-understanding of victory in the Lamb, is more relevant today than ever. In the face of terrorism and the glorification of war, we need the vision of “Lamb power” to remind us that true victory comes in our world not through military might but through self-giving love. Revelation’s conquering Messiah is the slain but standing Lamb, the very opposite of Rome’s victory image. In Revelation, Jesus conquers not by inflicting violence but by accepting the violence inflicted upon him in crucifixion….
The heart of our difference is this: dispensationalists do not seem to believe the Lamb has truly “conquered” or won the victory when he was slaughtered. They preach the saving power of the blood of the Lamb in Jesus’ crucifixion, but it is not quite enough saving power for them. They need Christ to come back again with some real power, not as a Lamb but as a roaring lion. Jesus has to return so he can finish up the job of conquering. As Hagee puts it, “The first time He came to earth, Jesus was the Lamb of God, led in silence to the slaughter. The next time He comes, He will be the Lion of the tribe of Judah who will trample His enemies until their blood stains His garments, and He shall rule with a rod of iron. Even so, come Lord Jesus!”(5)
But there is no indication that the author of Revelation ever wants to call upon Jesus to return as a lion. John very deliberately replaces the lion with the Lamb in chapter 5 and never again refers to Jesus as a lion. Only evil figures are identified as lion-like in subsequent chapters of Revelation — the locusts have teeth like lions in chapter 9, and the horses of death have heads like lions.
So where do dispensationalists get the idea for Jesus to return as a lion? I say they fabricate this lion-like Jesus because they have a problem with the Lamb’s weakness and vulnerability. They crave the avenging Jesus who will return as a lion and show his true power and fury: “This is no weak-wristed, smiling Jesus who comes to pay the earth a condolence call,” Hagee says about Christ’s future return. “This is a furious Christ, ready to confront the gathered armies of the world on a plain called Armageddon.”(6) (pp. 135, 137-138)
Let me summarize: Instead of faith in God’s conquering power of life that we witness in the Crucified Risen Jesus, dispensationalist theology puts its faith in superior firepower, a sacralized violence with which to fight violence. The revelation in Jesus Christ, the Lamb slain, of that sacred violence as satanic violence (“Satan casting out Satan”(7)) loses out in these books precisely to the deception of Satan — the one which John of Patmos is portraying to us in the Book of Revelation. And I believe that the stakes are more than just a flawed theology. For the same age-old deception of Satan which fooled the Roman empire now fools a politics of empire currently coming to life in the United States,(8) a politics often supported with vigor by those who espouse a “Left Behind” dispensationalist theology.
1. Published by Tyndale in twelve volumes, 1995-2004.
2. See a section on Revelation in “My Core Convictions” and a sermon for St. Michael and All Angels Day in 2002, entitled “Faith Is Trusting that the Satanic Violence Is Self-Defeating.”
3. See the webpage: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/04/13/60II/main611661.shtml
4. For an excellent presentation on how to properly read prophecy in scripture, see Barbara Rossing’s book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, chapter 4, “Prophecy and Apocalypse.” She compares John of Patmos’ vision to that of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Biblical prophecy generally gives us a vision of what might happen if there is not repentance, or faithful endurance with the Lord.
5. John Hagee, From Daniel to Doomsday, 239.
7. See Part I.5 of “My Core Convictions” for more on “Satan casting out Satan.”
8. For an example of a “politics of empire,” I suggest visiting the website for the “Project for the New American Century,” especially its “Statement of Principals,” whose June 3, 1997 signers include Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Jeb Bush.