When I was a kid, I used to imagine what the Second Coming would look like. In my version, it always happened at night, and it always unfolded like some grand, cosmic gotcha. First, nothing. An ordinary night. Dark, except for streetlights and maybe a car nosing down Oakley Ave., and silent the whole length of the block. Then, wham! No choirs, no clarions, just light—light as cold and sharp as a heatless sun. The light would come pouring past the branches of the maple tree that loomed outside my bedroom window, and just like that, everyone would know, just know, what was happening. Squinting from the windowsill, I’d watch as neighbors stumbled dazedly into the street, their hands visored over their eyes, their heads cocked back. Meanwhile, from the light’s center, a figure, still distant, could be seen, approaching steadily as though from the end of a very long corridor.
Day and hour unknown no longer, suckers.
It’s been years since I’ve had reason to think about that old, morbid fascination. In fact, I feel kind of embarrassed admitting to it now. Much as I’d wager that other folks who grew up in the church entertained similar childhood fantasies, there’s still something disturbing about a six-year-old lying awake at night and thinking about a newly returned Christ ripping apart the old heaven and earth. It flies in the face of most of our received wisdom about kiddos. In other words, it makes me look like a little weirdo. Which, maybe. In any case, I was recently reminded of my former object of speculation—which ranked alongside more ordinary childhood concerns like “which starter would I choose if Pokémon were real?” and “what do I do if there really is a velociraptor living in my closet?”—when research for my graduate program put me in the way of Left Behind.
Subtitled “A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days,” Left Behind is the first entry in a mega-bestselling series of post apocalyptic Christian fiction, written by author Jerry B. Jenkins and Evangelical pastor Tim LaHaye. The book was published in 1995, and it draws heavily on what some call dispensational premillennialism—an approach to Scripture, often associated with Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, that presumes to read the Book of Revelation literally and that understands human history as an inevitable downward spiral that only Jesus’s Second Coming can halt. Left Behind opens with the cardinal event of this premillennial timeline: the Rapture, or gathering up, of the faithful into heaven. What follows is seven years of Tribulation for those who get left behind—an apocalyptic showdown between the Antichrist’s armies and post-Rapture, born-again Christians.
Before last month, I’d never read a Left Behind novel. Nor had I, or have I, seen any of the films. The denomination I belong to doesn’t subscribe to premillennial beliefs, and although I technically grew up alongside the Left Behind series, which finally closed shop in 2007, the books never figured much on my cultural radar. Still, there’s only so much distance I can put between me and the milieu to which these books belong. On the one hand, of course, there’s the matter of scope. By raw numbers, the series was phenomenally successful, with more than 80 million copies sold. So it’s probable not just that I knew someone but many someones who had read Jenkins’s and LaHaye’s work. But even if they hadn’t, the Left Behind books themselves are products or expressions of are more general Evangelical culture. And one of the great successes of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Evangelicalism is how deeply it penetrated the political and cultural consciousness of, especially, conservative white Protestantism.
If nothing else, my childhood was one grounded in conservative white Protestantism.
Not surprisingly, then, very little of what happens in Left Behind’s tightly plotted pages shocked me. In its story were reflected assumptions I’d been encountering my whole life. Of course, when the Rapture happens, an airplane out of Chicago would lose more passengers than one flying out of godless Paris. And of course, the college-aged daughter of our main character, left behind just like her dad, is a student at Stanford. And who else could the Antichrist be but the charismatic Eastern European, who cut his political teeth advocating for international cooperation, world peace, and a souped-up UN? If the story’s version of the apocalypse is designed not just to entertain but, in a more didactic vein, to frighten readers toward the gospel’s narrow gate, how better to do that than by cozying up to views that its ideal audience likely already holds?
Which doesn’t mean that the idea of millions of people poofing out existence or of the world descending into chaos isn’t scary enough on its own. My wife Jes still remembers when her second-grade teacher at Catholic school read aloud from the first novella in Left Behind: The Kids, a children’s series that unfolds parallel to the adult novels. After that experience, Jes never touched a Left Behind book again. And who knows? Maybe my own childhood obsession with Jesus’s nuke-bright descent onto little Lansing, Illinois, reflected my peripheral engagement with wider, turn-of-the-millennium Evangelical culture. Sure, I didn’t know what the Rapture was, or the Tribulation, or the thousand-year-reign of Christ. But at six, I’d probably encountered people grappling with Christianity’s claims to ultimacy in exactly those terms. And even if I hadn’t, I’d definitely had my share of sermons about the impending Day of Judgment and about divine thieves in the night.
For what it’s worth, Left Behind seems to me to represent a profoundly unhealthy way of dealing with Christianity’s posture toward the end. After all, ends—particularly those forcefully and fearfully imagined—have a way of warping what comes before them, of reaching backward in time to rearrange the priorities of the present. In this case, Left Behind’s apocalyptic vision of a world where the forces of evil war against the last holdouts of good encourages dread on the one hand and absolute moral certainty on the other. And neither of those attitudes are conducive to the church’s mission: to love and serve both God and neighbor. But what might an alternative look like? How do Christians think about questions of ending, or of salvation, or of the Second Coming, responsibly?
Because we need to—from the laity, yes, on up to the highest offices in the United States.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.