Left Behind Evangelicals and Jerusalem


If the Middle East blows up (more than it already has) following Donald Trump’s surprise recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, we may have a series of novels to thank for the mess. Trump’s decision can be traced directly to the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Some background is useful. First of all, the novels are about potential born-again Christians who have been left behind when the Rapture begins. A group calling itself “the Tribulation Force” grapples with the Antichrist, who runs the United Nations, in preparation for the time when the Messiah will return and separate the sheep from the goats. Here’s a member of the Force encountering Jesus:

“Again, Rayford slid to the ground, raising his arms. “My Lord and my God, I am so unworthy.”
“And you, Rayford, who once were alienated and an enemy in your mind by wicked works, yet now I have reconciled the body of My flesh through death to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in God’s sight.” 
“Unworthy! Unworthy!” Rayford cried.
“Justified by faith,” Jesus said, “Justified.” 

I doubt that Trump has read any of the novels since he’s neither a reader nor an observant Christian. He knows what gets him applause lines, however, and “Jerusalem” is one of them. His diehard Christian base, viewing Left Behind as an accurate description of the future, believe that the Rapture will quickly follow once the Jews have regained control of Jerusalem.

I owe some of my understanding to Ana Marie Cox’s excellent podcast interview of religious historian and former dispensationalist Diana Butler Bass. An article in Christianity Today is also useful as it traces the vision back to John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a former priest in the Anglican Church of Ireland:

To Darby, the plan for God’s earthly people had been revealed through a series of covenants with Israel: the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant, the law-oriented Mosaic Covenant, the royal Davidic Covenant, and a new Messianic Covenant.

Until Messiah’s coming, however, God’s earthly people must suffer Gentile domination, prophesied by Daniel. This Gentile hegemony would end at the coming of Messiah, 70 weeks after one of the Gentile rulers issues a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to repair its broken walls. But when the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God suspended the prophetic timetable at the end of Daniel’s sixty-ninth week and began building a new and heavenly people—the church.

For dispensationalists, the end times are near at hand:

Earlier premillennialists believed the Rapture would occur at the end of the tribulation, at Christ’s second advent. But dispensationalists separated the Rapture (when Christ will come for his saints) from the Second Coming (when he will come with his saints).

Once the heavenly people of God have been raptured, Darby believed, the divine script can be played out to the end. The Antichrist will rise, Christ and his saints will break through the clouds and destroy him and his followers in battle (the Second Coming), the nations of the world will be judged, and Satan will be thrown into a bottomless pit. Then, with the conclusion of Daniel’s seventieth week, the victorious Messiah will restore the throne of David, and the millennial kingdom will begin, followed by the Last Judgment and a new heaven and earth. The seven dispensations then over, time shall be no more.

Some dispensationalists believed that Barack Obama was the Antichrist (perhaps they still do), and many regard Roy Moore’s and Trump’s sexual molesting as minor compared with the end times they are helping to bring about.

The dispensationalists may be kooks, but there are a lot of them. The Left Behind books have sold over 65 million copies and have been read by many more. According to Wikipedia,

multiple books in the series have been on the New York Times best-seller list. Starting in 2000, Books 7 and 8 reached number one on the list followed by book 10, which debuted at number one…. Seven titles in the adult series have reached #1 on the bestseller lists for the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly.

The series has also inspired graphic novel versions, four films, and a computer game.

Generally I don’t write about works I haven’t read, but it sounds like Left Behind follows a strategy, common to formulaic bestsellers, of exploiting anxieties, revenge fantasies, and wish fulfillments. The anxieties have to do with modern uncertainties and people of color; the revenge fantasies imagine Jesus punishing the people you hate; and the wish fulfillment assures you that you are one of the fortunate ones. To read the Left Behind books is to become one with the heroes.

The dispensationalists voted for Trump in 2016 and will vote for Moore today because they appreciate people who speak their language and fit into their vision. In her podcast interview, Butlers says that Democrats cannot reach these people. After all, issues like health care, tax cuts, and climate change are for those benighted souls who think America has a future.

When Plato said that poets should be banned from his Republic, he would certainly have included the authors of the Left Behind books. We underestimate the emotional power of literature at our peril, and America is tottering from the blows of two sets of badly written but nevertheless effective novels. LaHaye/Jenkins punch for the Christian fundamentalists, Ayn Rand punches for Paul Ryan and the libertarian right, and suddenly we’re cross-eyed.

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