Conceiving Violence: The Apocalypse of John and the Left Behind Series
Although neither the Left Behind series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, nor the Apocalypse of John in the Bible contains any systematic ethics (according to Wayne Meeks’ definition 1), both exhibit a vision of the moral life through explicit comment and implicit values. It is particularly important to evaluate how they conceive of violence and how their respective visions of how God works in the world can in turn generate a human violence that is not of God.
The theology of the Left Behind Series is more than a dangerous distortion of the gospel; it is a rejection of the gospel.
The Left Behind industry has offered its consumers a particular view of the moral life. This view is reaching large numbers of people. According to the Barna Research Group, nine percent of all the adults living in the United States have read part of the series. 2 Left Behind, the first book, is now available in eighty-two languages around the world and Glorious Appearing, the final installment, is available in one hundred thirteen. As a result, the potential that these books offer to shape the moral vision of Christians (primarily in the U.S., but also around the world) is significant. 3
There are occasional signs of discomfort on the part of LaHaye and Jenkins about what the pervasive violence and death in their books say about God. Being novels, the books never pause very long to reflect constructively on the issue, but questions are briefly raised. Before Chloe becomes a Christian, she is troubled with the idea that God would rapture the true Christians and leave everyone else behind, killing tens of thousands in the resulting chaos. “Daddy, what does this make God? Some sick, sadistic dictator” (1:165)? “I thought he was supposed to be a God of love and order” (1:229). 4
When answers to such tough theological questions are given, three types of argument are offered.
- First, God is using all of this violence, death, and bloodshed to teach people a lesson; God is therefore just.
- Second, because God is teaching people a lesson, all the violence, death, destruction, blood, and gore should be understood as expressions of God’s love and mercy (cf. esp. 10:121-23). 5
- Third, even if the implications of all this violence for our doctrine of God cannot be explained, that’s okay because the Bible predicts and prescribes this violence; we need not bother with its theological implications.
LaHaye and Jenkins are not shy about what Jesus does when he appears at the end of the seven years of tribulation in Glorious Appearing. They explain that the sword coming from Jesus’ mouth is not to be taken literally; it is symbolic. Jesus will not literally turn his head and slice bodies with a sword-like tongue. Instead, when Jesus speaks, unbelievers will die all over the place. Flesh will melt off their bones. “Tens of thousands fell dead, simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses” (12:204). And with every word from the mouth of Jesus, “more and more enemies of God dropped dead, torn to pieces. The living screamed in terror and ran about like madmen” (12:205). “For miles lay the carcasses” (12:205).
Jesus’ word “continued to slice through the air, reaping the wrath of God’s final judgment” (12:208). “Splayed and filleted bodies of men and women and horses” lay everywhere in front of Jesus, who “appeared—shining, magnificent, powerful, victorious” (12:208). “Rayford watched as men and women, soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin” (12:225). “Tens of thousands grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ” (12:226). “Their flesh dissolved, their eyes melted, and their tongues disintegrated” (12:273). They “screamed and fell, their bodies bursting open from head to toe at every word that proceeded out of the mouth of the Lord” (12:286). “And Jesus had killed them all, with mere words” (12:258).
REACTION AND COUNTER-REACTION
In 2004 Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times wrote an op-ed piece on the Left Behind Series entitled “Jesus and Jihad” in which he said,
If the latest in the “Left Behind” series of evangelical thrillers is to be believed, Jesus will return to Earth, gather non-Christians to his left and toss them into everlasting fire: Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches, and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed, and all was silent when the earth closed itself again. It’s disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety. If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of Glorious Appearing and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture, and it’s time to remove the motes from our own eyes. We should be embarrassed when our best-selling books gleefully celebrate religious intolerance and violence against infidels. That’s not what America stands for, and I doubt that it’s what God stands for. 6
Reaction was swift. Evangelicals wrote in to say, Hey, this is not so strange; this is what Christianity has always held! Tim LaHaye himself responded in a letter to the editor published a week later:
Comparing my book Glorious Appearing to “fundamentalist Islamic tracts” is a real stretch. The Islamic radicals who bomb the innocent are not nice people! 7
Intriguing. Does LaHaye’s theology of violence derive primarily from his understanding of the Other? Does LaHaye hold that when people who are not nice kill other people, we should retaliate, but when nice people kill other people, it is okay? Would he extrapolate that loving one’s enemies is relevant only when those enemies are “nice” or somehow “like us”?
Should Christ overlook their rebellion and welcome them into his kingdom? They would ruin it for everyone. You don’t choose to live around people like that today; would you want to spend eternity with them?
This comment is revealing. It suggests that God cannot be merciful because that would ruin it for “us” and that divine vengeance is related to our future comfort in heaven. Who wants a slummy one-star heaven? God’s justice apparently hangs on our ability to enjoy the judgment and “exclusion” of the Other, those not-nice people who are not like us and with whom we do not want to spend time. It is all about us. What LaHaye envisions is a suburban pearly-gated community designed to keep out the undesirables. 8
When Jerry Jenkins was interviewed about the violence in the Left Behind Series, he was asked, “How do you come up with the tortures like the ones in the Left Behind series?” In response, Jenkins grinned and said, “I make them up.” 9 He explained,
There is a dichotomy in Christian fiction. There are things you can’t do: You can’t use language. You can’t use sex. Somehow, violence is okay if it’s not too graphic. I use certain words—his body has become a wick for this conflagration, and all that, and I go on about the heat being so bad, he screams a lot, and all that. But it could be told a lot worse. I think how Steven King would have told it—he would have the tissue melting and dropping and the sound and the smell. There is a line, and I realize I can’t cross the line, but violence is real. The Old Testament is full of violence and graphic violence.
I’d like to think one of my hallmarks of fiction is realism. I don’t want to write a book like a comic book. People will suspend disbelief as long as you don’t take them past a certain point. I’m saying, Okay, 45 years from now, if religion is outlawed and the punishment is death, what would they do? And I run it right up to that line. 10
REVELATION’S THEOLOGY OF JUSTICE
There is in Revelation a strong theology of God’s justice—that judgment belongs to God, and to God alone. In the tradition of Psalm 79, the souls under the altar cry out for God to judge and to avenge their blood on the inhabitants of the earth. Commentators have struggled to show that the cry is a “Christian” one interested in the demonstration of the justice of God and emotionally disinterested in revenge. I am not sure why those commentators feel so compelled. Throughout Revelation the hoped-for consummation inevitably involves eschatological judgment, both through punishment and reward (cf. Rev. 11:18; 14:7; 15:4; 16:5-7; 17:1; 18:8, 10, 20; 19:2, 11; 20:4, 12-15). Only in Revelation 20:4 are humans—the beheaded martyrs—given the authority to judge.
Nowhere are believers called upon to participate in God’s judgment or to share in God’s wrath toward unbelievers. On the contrary, believers are admonished not to do so—to leave that judgment to God (Rev. 6:11; 13:9-10; 14:12). The eschatological battles that are narrated in the Apocalypse are notable for presenting no actual battle between humans. To be sure, the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 is accompanied by “the armies of heaven,” which ride with him on their own white horses, but they do nothing. The kings of the earth with their armies make war against the rider on the white horse and his army, but again we can find no narration, only a note that the beast and the false prophet are captured and thrown into the lake of fire. The rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, which came out of his mouth.
If we are critical of LaHaye and Jenkins’ triumphalistic handling of the problem of God’s violent retributive justice in meting out eternal judgment, we should acknowledge that theologians in the Christian tradition historically have maintained that God will someday judge the earth and all its inhabitants. Miroslav Volf, however, argues that the cross and the sword are true alternatives. Commitment to consistent nonretaliation and nonviolence is the only way to break the cycle of violence, the only way to avoid the automatism of revenge. Nevertheless, he maintains, the moral obligation of human nonviolence depends on the affirmation of God’s vengeance: “The practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance.” 11
The Left Behind Series does not burden itself to sort out the finer points of Christian theology on the question of violence. In this series, divine violence is part of the triumphalistic fun. If God were somehow able to figure out a way to right the wrongs of violence and suffering without using violence or meting out suffering, the Evangelicals represented by LaHaye and Jenkins would feel gypped. Jesus may have come the first time as Lamb, but premillennial dispensationalists have made it clear that they do not want Jesus to come back as Lamb the second time. Once is enough: it is the Lion that they want and expect in the Second Coming! And why is this? I fear it is because our belief and trust in the ultimate triumph of retributive violence simply runs too deep to be affected by the Christology of the Apocalypse.
THE CHRIST OF REVELATION
LaHaye would simply reject any Jesus who conquers by eschewing or absorbing violence. It must be quite frustrating and perplexing for him that the author of the Apocalypse made such a huge and obvious “mistake” in Revelation 5. 12 Seemingly LaHaye would expect—and prefer—that John announce the Lamb, since that is how Jesus came the first time, and then have the Lion of the Tribe of Judah show up and continue to appear throughout the rest of the book. But instead, John announces the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and then surprisingly the Lamb shows up and appears twenty-seven more times throughout the book.
One possible answer to why Jesus is unexpectedly portrayed as a Lamb is that the author wishes the reader to associate Jesus’ death with atonement for sin. Although Revelation 1:5 would seem to support this, even a cursory reading of the rest of the book reveals little concern to connect Jesus’ death with atonement as expiation. 13 While the slaughter of the Lamb is central to the rhetorical force of the image, expiation is not. 14 The logic and language of Jesus’ death as expiatory sacrifice are rare in the Apocalypse, while the logic and language of slaughter with ethical force—the political resistance that leads to martyrdom—are common. 15
A RESISTANCE MANUAL
The Apocalypse is designed to be “kept” or “observed” (tēreō) by the seven churches (Rev. 1:3; 22:7) through their faithful witness, which will result in persecution (1:9) or even martyrdom (2:7, 11, 17, 26, 28; 3:5, 12, 21; 15:2; 21:7). As a kind of resistance manual, the book deconstructs the authority of Rome and of the provincial leaders who give their allegiance to Rome. For this reason, the book expresses an understanding of Christ’s death in terms that emphasize the overcoming of death. The titles of Jesus in the Apocalypse expose and celebrate the ultimate powerlessness of the governing authorities. Even the worship scenes in the Apocalypse are primarily political in their rhetorical force. 16 Furthermore, the Apocalypse connects the Lamb’s own victory (overcoming or conquering) with the victory of the seven churches. 17
The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse is therefore closely related to the book’s moral vision. And in that vision, the death of Jesus is primarily exemplary in nature rather than substitutionary. Revelation 12:11 is significant here:
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. (NRSV, passim)
The one who conquers is the one who maintains a faithful testimony through consistent resistance to the idolatrous forces at work in Asia (see Rev. 2–3), just as Christ himself conquered (Rev. 5:5) by maintaining a faithful testimony through consistent resistance.
THE ETHICS AND MISSION OF LEFT BEHIND
So far we have noted how God and Jesus act in the Left Behind Series. When we turn to how believers act, we see many examples of violence meted out by them. That there are believers in a post-Rapture world derives from LaHaye’s “second chance” theology: those who are left behind in the rapture have a second chance—as much as seven years—to repent and to become Christians. The basic story line of the series revolves around the activities of a small group of heroes who have become Christians after the rapture and are helping God bring about the final consummation.
Although there is an occasional pang of conscience on the part of believers who engage in violence, these pangs are quickly and regularly dispatched with the recognition that “this is war.” The series is full of hair-raising chase scenes, Christian triumphalism, poor exegesis of biblical texts, and violence. On the rhetorical level, the violence is fun because the reader is on the winning side for once. The implied reader is expected to enjoy the violence because he or she is an Evangelical Christian who is tired of a Lamb-like Jesus and cannot wait for Jesus to kick some butt—and even more, to help him do it. And what could be better than a war with God on your side?
At the end of the first volume, the reader encounters an invitation to participate in God’s violence. The triumphalist nature of this experience comes through clearly, despite Bruce Barnes’ unconvincing warning that “it won’t be fun” (1:420). He says,
“Doesn’t part of you want to jump into the battle?”
“A cause,” Chloe responds, “something not just to die for but to live for. A group, a team, a force.”
“You’ve got it,” Rayford responds, “A force.”
Chloe: “So your little group inside the group, a sort of Green Berets, would be your Tribulation Force.”
“Tribulation Force,” Bruce says, “I like it. Make no mistake, it won’t be fun.” (1:420)
But the reader knows otherwise. We know that the coming consummation of this world will be the height of righteous testosterone-laced machismo.
So what does this Tribulation Force do in the next eleven volumes? They witness for Christ. And how do they witness for Christ? First, in nearly every volume, they find ways to hide that they are Christians (e.g., 2:428; 6:188). They have to, of course; otherwise they would die, and that would take all the enjoyment out of it!
They lie. They express their desire to hurt people—just the evil ones, of course (3:91). They kill enemies with their bare fists. Buck “drove his fist square into the young guard’s nose with all he could muster. He felt the crush of cartilage, the cracking of teeth, and the ripping of flesh. The back of [the guard’s] head hit the floor first” (4:347). Christians shoot at non-Christians, saying, “I’ll kill you, you ___” (4:351). They seethe with anger (6:150, 282, 317, 387) and rage (4:400; 7:50), with the desire to kill (4:400) and to seek revenge (6:395; 7:50). There is even a subtle spiritual contest among the Tribulation Force about who seethes with anger more: Chloe or Rayford or Hattie (5:256; cf. also 10:7), as if seething with anger were the most reliable fruit of the Spirit in the Tribulation. They spew venom (5:300). Rayford hopes God lets him pull the trigger and murder Carpathia (4:416), as does Mac (12:51). Rayford wants to be “God’s hit man” (5:100). One of the things that makes this Christian fantasy especially dangerous is the series’ consistent confidence that one needs no help from God to easily distinguish the good people from the bad people in the world.
The earth is not to be conserved or cared for: it is going to hell along with history and every person or animal or thing on earth that is not a Christian. 18 Quite in contrast to Jürgen Moltmann, who argues that Christianity is eschatological—essentially forward-looking, forward-moving, and hope-filled in its vision of humanity’s role in creation 19—the Tribulation Force voice an escapist ethic. They understand their role as “getting more drowning people onto the life raft” (12:33).
This is all acceptable because they are engaged in “holy war” (4:359). Rayford longs to “quit playing and get to war” (5:20). War is not just a feature—not even a central feature—in the period of the Tribulation; war defines the period.
THEOLOGIES OF WAR
The history of moral deliberation offers four primary theological models for understanding the ethics of warfare and violence:
- Consistent Nonviolence: Violence and warfare represent a rejection of God’s will for humanity and are incompatible with the Reign of God. Nonviolence dominated the theology of the church in the pre-Constantinian centuries, even though there were instances of Christians serving in the military. 20 Peace is God’s will, and there is no way to peace; peace is the way.
- Just War Theory: Violence and warfare are not God’s will for humanity. Peace is the will of God and although violence and warfare are generally incompatible with the Reign of God, occasionally humans must resort to violence in order to restrain evil.
- Crusader Theology: This war is God’s war, and God is on “our” side. Therefore, anything that furthers the cause of this war is of God. This is the primary theology of the Left Behind Series, although the series shades over occasionally to the fourth position.
- Blank Check: This view holds that the justifiability of warfare by the state is outside the realm of Christian ethics and is therefore irrelevant to the church. This approach could be characterized as “All’s fair in love and war.”
The U.S. had been moving strongly toward the fourth position in its post-Christian era, but the events of 9/11 have moved it back toward the third. President Bush and others have come close to saying that the war against terrorism is God’s war against the infidels, just as Muslim extremists have said that their war is really Allah’s war against the infidels.
But it is the first two options which carry the weight of Christian theology historically on the question of war. Although often considered opposites, they are not. They share a conviction that peace is the will of God and a basic moral aversion to violence and to killing. Thus they have more in common with each other than they do with either the Crusader or the Blank Check theologies.
In contrast, Mac felt no remorse when he sprayed his Uzi, killing at least a dozen enemy from behind because “all’s fair . . .” (12:27). 21 This comment appears to locate LaHaye and Jenkins in the Blank Check category (without the post-Christian relativism which sometimes accompanies it), although the series actually moves indiscriminately between the third and fourth options. Contra the first two positions, the Christian believers in the Left Behind Series relish violence and usually have the latest in high-powered automatic weapons (8:283). 22
PORTRAYAL OF PACIFISM
Interestingly, the Antichrist is a pacifist. LaHaye and Jenkins apparently have no knowledge or appreciation of consistent nonviolence as a respected historical model for understanding the morality of warfare and violence. Instead, it is synonymous with evil and deception. The Antichrist is the kind of person who accepts diversity and brings people together (5:104). Tolerance, peace, and understanding are all part of the liberal agenda associated with the Antichrist. True believers are not tolerant nor do they engage in ecumenical dialogue. How can this be? How can LaHaye and Jenkins portray the Antichrist as a pacifist who works for peace and understanding?
Second, they understand that war is God’s plan for the post-Rapture period of Tribulation, and therefore they believe that the only really important ethical question is whose side one is on.
Third, because war is God’s will, any attempts to work for peace and understanding are by definition opposed to the will of God, and anyone who promises such things is by definition a Deceiver. Rayford understands that if anyone is to come forward in the period of the Tribulation with proclamations of peace and unity, that person “had to be suspect” (1:344). In this dispensationalist script, “God so loved the world that he gave us World War III.” 25
Complicating the ethics of the series is an underlying fatalism that vitiates human responsibility, whether for good or ill. One of the strengths of Barbara Rossing’s critique of the Left Behind Series is her insightful challenge of the moral escapism that results from its eschatology. 26
There is a deadly determinism in premillennial dispensationalism’s prophetic plot. Since the outcome is sure and known ahead of time, there is really nothing that the Tribulation Force or even God’s enemies can do to hasten it, hinder it, or help it. Nevertheless, they can make themselves available to God as pawns, and the Tribulation Force can have fun while irrelevantly acting on God’s side. There is admittedly some small drama in not knowing whether you might be killed along the way—and go to heaven immediately—or hang around for the “Glorious Appearing.” Like a video game, if you die, you get another life.
Many North American Christians have become so jaded with the seemingly intramural disputes about eschatology that they tend to treat them (and the Left Behind Series) as the irrelevant skirmishes of a few out-of-touch theological conservatives. I would submit that too much is at stake for such an attitude. Because the dispensationalist understanding of history requires tribulation and war in the Middle East, its theology is more than a dangerous distortion of the gospel; it is a rejection of the gospel. The series’ “blessing of violence is the very reason why we cannot afford to give in to the dispensationalist version of the biblical storyline—because real people’s lives are at stake.” 27
REVELATION’S MORAL VISION
But is the series’ vision really different from that of Revelation? Yes. Revelation is not intended primarily as a presentation of eschatological peace. It is a manual designed to encourage the faithful resistance of John’s audience to the blasphemous idolatry of the Roman Empire and the imperial cult that served it. Richard Bauckham demonstrates that John picked up the theme of messianic war, but substituted
faithful witness to the point of martyrdom for armed violence as the means of victory. Though military means are repudiated, the imagery of holy war is employed in the interests of active participation by Christians in the divine conflict with evil, following up the decisive victory which their Messiah, the Lamb, has already won. The Lamb really does conquer, though not by force of arms, and his followers really do share his victory, though not by violence. 28
Many studies of violence in the Apocalypse agree with the basic argument of Bauckham. 29 Among the relevant observations made in these studies, the following will serve as a summary treatment of the theology of violence in this book:
- The followers of the Lamb are nowhere invited to participate in God’s defeat of evil through violence. If the violence of God in a final judgment remains somewhat ambiguous, the nonviolence of believers is clear enough: they are invited to participate in God’s defeat of evil—even to “conquer”—but only through their own faithful witness and their consistent resistance to the blasphemy of Roman idolatry. Their victory will come despite humanity’s violence, not by means of that violence. 30
- John’s purpose in writing is to warn his audience and to spur them to resistance and spiritual warfare. He does so by deconstructing the apparent invincibility of the Roman Empire. We should not be surprised if we are not able to “construct” a fully unified theological thesis on the basis of a rhetorical program that was intended to deconstruct a seemingly invincible Roman Empire. Even a statement like “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10b) would have been heard by the first-century Ephesians not as a spiritual truism, as Christians today read it, but as a deconstructing challenge to the Roman empire. The recapitulating structure of Revelation suggests that the book’s purpose was impressionistic and emotive more than it was informative or constructive.
- John’s use of traditional messianic war motifs is designed to redefine sharply the means by which victory is won. One of the primary problems John writes to address in this book is the temptation to assimilation and accommodation. Chapters 2 and 3 make that clear enough. Narrations drawing on traditional messianic war motifs end up falling apart or being aborted because the only victory that really matters to the author is the victory that was sealed on the cross (cf. Rev. 19).
- The book’s Lamb Christology underscores the central reversal of the Apocalypse in ways that are directly linked to its ethical message. The pervasive symbol of the book is that of the slain Lamb. The Lamb’s faithful witness and consistent resistance led to his death—and victory—in the same way that the faithful witness and consistent resistance of the seven churches may well lead to the believers’ death—and their own victory (cf. 3:21). The theology and ethics of Revelation are inseparable.
In conclusion, the Left Behind series exhibits a relatively stable theology of violence that coheres with its implicit moral teaching. However, the moral vision of the Left Behind Series contrasts remarkably with that of Revelation—and no more strikingly than with regard to violence. As the series would have it, Jesus upon his return will wreak more violence on the earth than anything it has ever seen. More troubling, the Left Behind Series encourages its readers to join in the fun of God’s violence, to be God’s Green Berets as a Tribulation Force that rises above all of the moral questions about war and violence precisely because this is God’s war—and war is God’s will.
The Apocalypse of John also exhibits a relatively stable theology of violence that coheres with its moral teaching and its Christology. 31 The right to judge the inhabitants of the earth belongs to God and to the Lamb. While this judgment centers on the beast (the Roman Empire) and the false prophet (the emperor cult; see 19:20), it certainly does involve judgment on humans who follow them. In the Apocalypse of John, judgment is coming. But the coming judgment is intended primarily to inform and support the believers’ faithful witness through consistent resistance to the emperor cult, to the various idolatries it entails, and to the economic and cultural values of the Roman Empire more broadly.
The call of the Apocalypse is to follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4), following the Lamb into a nonviolent battle of resistance against the idolatries of Rome.
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive,
into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance [or consistent resistance] and faith [or faithfulness] of the saints. (Rev. 13:9-10)
The promise of Jesus is to those who faithfully and nonviolently resist, just as he himself did: “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21).
- Ethics is “a reflective, second-order activity: it is morality rendered self-conscious; it asks about the logic of moral discourse and action, about the grounds for judgment, about the anatomy of duty or the roots and structure of virtue” (Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993], 4). As I have noted elsewhere, such a tight definition of ethics may obscure the legitimate task of recognizing the moral vision of the Apocalypse—the shape, or concrete expressions, of faithfulness it seeks to engender. See Loren L. Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John: An Investigation into Its Origins and Rhetorical Force. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2d series 167 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), esp. p. 171. Few scholars are willing to distinguish so sharply between ethics and morality. See, e.g., David L. Barr, “Doing Violence: Moral Issues in Reading John’s Apocalypse,” in Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students, ed. David L. Barr (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 97-108.
- Nearly half of all Evangelicals living in the United States (46%) claim to have read at least some part of the series. Demographic studies of the series’ readership by the Barna Research Group were done in the Spring of 2001 on behalf of Tyndale Press. Statistics are from leftbehind.com, accessed September 28, 2004. The statistics led Melani McAlister of The Nation to say, “The average reader is a white married woman from the South, between 25 and 54 years old, who attends church weekly” (“An Empire of Their Own,” 22 September 2003, 11).
- Among the more significant critical reviews of the Left Behind Series are those by Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004); Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Bruce David Forbes and Jeanne Halgren Kilde, eds., Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Of these, Rossing’s excellent critique of the series is the most theological. The collection of essays edited by Forbes and Kilde is interdisciplinary in approach. Amy Frykholm’s book is a sympathetic and insightful cultural studies approach to the Left Behind Series, conducted through an ethnographic study of its readers. Gary DeMar, End Times Fiction: A Biblical Consideration of the Left Behind Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), focuses on the eschatology of the series and on the biblical interpretation that LaHaye and Jenkins employ. A defense of the theology of the series is offered by Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice in The Truth Behind Left Behind (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2004). Hitchcock and Ice say, “The purpose of this book is to take a fresh look at the end time view presented in the Left Behind series—and to demonstrate that it is firmly supported by both God’s Word and church history” (17). Hitchcock and Ice regularly address the criticisms leveled by DeMar in their defense of the Left Behind Series. A review of the series by John R. Yeatts, while brief, is insightful and valuable on a number of levels. See “The Fictionalizing of Fundamentalist Eschatology: The Left Behind Series (Review Essay),” in Brethren in Christ History and Life 24 (April 2001): 109-26. Yeatts is the author of the commentary on Revelation in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2003).
- In this essay, parenthetical references with a colon refer to the volume and page number being cited. Vol. 1 of this series, authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins and published by Tyndale House of Wheaton, Ill., is Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (1995); vol. 2, Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind (1996); vol. 3, Nicole: The Rise of Antichrist (1997); vol. 4, Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides (1998); vol. 5, Apollyon: The Destroyer is Unleashed (1999); vol. 6, Assassins: Assignment: Jerusalem, Target: Antichrist (1999); vol. 7, The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession (2000); vol. 8, The Mark: The Beast Rules the World (2000); vol. 9, Desecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne (2001); vol. 10, The Remnant: On the Brink of Armageddon (2002); vol. 11, Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages (2003); and vol. 12, Glorious Appearing: The End of Days (2004).
- Other similar pauses to acknowledge such questions about the doctrine of God include 3:359; 4:213; 5:303, 330; 6:174-75, 241; 7:186; 8:147-48, 218; 9:70; 10:232; 11:18, 280; and 12:194.
- “Jesus and Jihad,” New York Times, 17 July 2004, Late Edition, Section A, p. 13, col. 1. The quotation is from 12:380.
- Published July 23, 2004.
- Comments by Fred Clark regarding LaHaye’s letter to the editor are worth noting: “LaHaye portrays heaven as a (pearly) gated community in Orange County. It’s a good, exclusive neighborhood inhabited by good, exclusive people. God’s main role is to keep out the undesirable types—the people who are not ‘nice’ and whom the saints like LaHaye would not ‘choose to live around.’ LaHaye’s vision of heaven, in other words, sounds remarkably like that of the Pharisees—the devout Evangelicals of their day. Jesus repeatedly warned them that prostitutes and tax collectors would be getting into heaven ahead of them. (We always read this as former prostitutes and reformed tax collectors, but that’s not what he said.) Christianity teaches that God retains the prerogative to judge the wicked—to separate the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the tares. But it also emphatically teaches that this is God’s prerogative, not ours. Yet we like to play God. Despite Jesus’ insistence that we couldn’t tell wheat from tares with a guidebook and a microscope we still insist that we’re qualified to help out with the weeding. So we construct our parochial little visions of heaven. We portray heaven as a place where we get to spend eternity only with the kinds of people we like to be with. Thus for LaHaye, New Jerusalem is not so much a heavenly city as an unincorporated development in the heavenly suburbs.” Posted July 26, 2004. See slacktivist.typepad.com.
- Interview and write-up are located at: leftbehind.com.
- The article is entitled, “Violence in Left Behind and The Passion of the Christ,” and was posted February 19, 2004 (accessed September 10, 2004).
- Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), quot. 304 (emph. added), 302, 309. Volf seems to equivocate on this point in his more recent “Christianity and Violence” in Reflections: Violence and Theology 91 (winter 2004): 16-22. Other recent arguments that the moral obligation on humans to practice consistent nonviolence is not premised on a theology of God as nonviolent include Scott Holland, “The Gospel of Love and the Violence of God,” Cross Currents 51 (winter 2002): 470-83; A. James Reimer, “God Is Love But Not a Pacifist,” Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2000), 486-92. Cf. Millard C. Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1980); see also the presentations by Duane K. Friesen, Ted Grimsrud, Gordon D. Kaufman, Paul Keim, and Mary H. Schertz, “Is God Nonviolent?” in Conrad Grebel Review (winter 2003).
- This is the central question in my dissertation, Lamb Christology. Earlier extended studies of the issue include those of Traugott Holtz (Die Christologie der Apokalypse des Johannes, 2d ed. Texte und Untersuchungen, vol. 85 [Berlin: Akademie, 1971]), Thomas Comblin (Le Christ dans l’Apocalypse. Bibliotheque de theologie, 3d series: Theologie biblique, vol. 6 [Tournai: Desclée, 1965]), and Nicholas Hohnjec (“Das Lamm, to arnion,” in Der Offenbarung des Johannes: Eine exegetisch-theologische Untersuchung [Rome: Herder, 1980]).
- The only hymn that connects Jesus’ death clearly with atonement (Rev. 1:5-6) may in fact be the only hymn in the Apocalypse drawn from tradition. The hymns John himself authored speak otherwise. That Rev. 1:5-6 is not authored by John is the judgment of David R. Carnegie in “Worthy Is the Lamb: The Hymns in Revelation,” in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie, ed. Harold H. Rowdon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982), 243-56; see esp. 246-47. I am not arguing here that John is engaged in a polemic against an understanding of Jesus’ death as atonement that he may have inherited from the tradition; I am arguing only that his treatment of the Lamb Christology usually explores the implications of Jesus’ death for the believers’ own response to evil, and thus has a more ethical import. Because the language of “sacrifice” is imprecise and often implies an expiatory force, such language should be avoided with reference to the Apocalypse.
- The predominant vocabulary of the Apocalypse is that of the slaughterhouse, not the sacrificial system. Sphazō (slaughterhouse vocabulary) predominates, while thyō (the vocabulary of sacrifice) does not appear in the book. While slaughter was omnipresent and central in the sacrificial system, the reverse is not true. That is, the expiatory function of sacrifice was not always central to descriptions of slaughter. The worthiness of Christ to receive honor and glory, etc., is twice connected specifically to his “slaughter” (Rev. 5:9, 12). But that “slaughter” is not entirely unique to Christ. The people of the earth are also “slaughtered” (sphazō, 6:4), and one of the heads of the beast was “slaughtered” (13:3), just as the elect are “slaughtered” in martyrdom (6:9; 18:24). In none of these other cases is the “slaughter” considered expiatory. See, inter alia, Sophie Laws, In the Light of the Lamb: Imagery, Parody, and Theology in the Apocalypse of John (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1988), 3.
- See Johns, Lamb Christology, 161.
- See, e.g., Jean-Pierre Ruiz, “Betwixt and Between on the Lord’s Day: Liturgy and the Apocalypse,” in Society of Biblical Literature 1992 Seminar Papers, no. 31 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1992), 654-72; idem, “The Politics of Praise: A Reading of Revelation 19:1-10,” in Society of Biblical Literature 1997 Seminar Papers (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1997), 374-93. This latter essay was revised as “Praise and Politics in Revelation 19:1-10,” in Studies in the Book of Revelation, ed. Steve Moyise (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), 69-84.
- See Rev. 3:21; 14:4. note also the emphasis on “faithful witness,” which connects Jesus’ faithful witness (1:5; 3:14) with that of believers (2:13; 17:6).
- This is a corollary of the fundamentally pessimistic view of history that Dispensationalism holds. Cf. Hal Lindsey, The Rapture: Truth or Consequences (New York: Bantam, 1983), esp. 210. See also Jeanne Halgren Kilde, “How Did Left Behind’s Particular Vision of the End Times Develop? A Historical Look at Millenarian Thought,” ch. 2 in Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times, ed. Forbes and Kilde. For a critique of the Left Behind Series that is particularly sensitive to its theology of nature and ecology, see Rossing, Rapture Exposed, esp. 5-10.
- Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Grounds and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1967); cf. 16.
- Although this point has been contested by some scholars, notably John Helgeland, it stands up to scrutiny. See, e.g., Alan Kreider, “Military Service in the Church Orders,” Journal of Religious Ethics 11 (winter 2003): 415-42.
- Although the idiom “all’s fair in love and war” apparently dates from Chaucer (Troilus and Criseyde, c. 1380), historically it does not play a central role in Christian deliberation.
- The Left Behind Series is a marriage of premillennial dispensationalism with American survivalism. For an overt manual of behavior for Christians facing the Tribulation, see James M. McKeever, Christians Will Go Through the Tribulation: And How to Prepare for It (Medford, OR: Omega, 1980). Timothy Weber calls this book “a veritable handbook for physical and spiritual survival.” Weber quotes McKeever as follows: “If I have a nice supply of food stored and famine times occur, what do I do if a bunch of people decide to come and take my food? Do I give it to them? Do I kill them? How far do I go in protecting my food supply? You must do whatever God tells you to do at the moment. I believe that God might lead one Christian family to protect their food with all their might, even to the point of killing those who would attempt to steal it” (Timothy P. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875—1982 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 223, quoting Christians Will Go, 149-51).
- Drawing on Matt. 24:6 (“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet” [NRSV]), premillennial dispensationalists are seldom troubled by war. On the contrary, they welcome it as a sign of the times. Timothy P. Weber says, “No event in the fifty years after 1875 did more for the morale of American premillennialists than World War I” (Weber, Living in the Shadow, 105).
- Premillennial dispensationalists tend to be among the most hawkish Christians in the United States. This hawkishness is not peculiar to the Left Behind Series, but is a common feature of premillennial dispensationalism. It derives from “the declaration in dispensational understanding that the ethical commandments of Jesus Christ apply not to this age, but to the kingdom era following the second coming. This ‘postponement of obedience’ applies to all the varieties of premillennial dispensationalism” (Donald F. Durnbaugh, “Anti-Modernism, Dispensationalism, and the Origins of Fundamentalism: A Response to Trollinger,” in Apocalypticism and Millennialism: Shaping a Believers Church Eschatology for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Loren L. Johns [Studies in the Believers Church Tradition, vol. 2; Kitchener, ON: Pandora, and Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2000], 283). In an article entitled, “God Is Pro-War,” Jerry Falwell says, “It is apparent that our God-authored freedoms must be defended. President Bush declared war in Iraq to defend innocent people. This is a worthy pursuit. One of the primary purposes of the church is to stop the spread of evil, even at the cost of human lives. If we do not stop the spread of evil, many innocent lives will be lost and the kingdom of God suffers” (worldnetdaily.com).
- The title of an interview by John W. Whitehead of Barbara Rossing published July 1, 2004, in oldSpeak (a publication of the Rutherford Institute). See rutherford.org. In dispensational theology, without war, God’s future cannot come. War is not only the gateway to God’s future; war is the will of God in this period of history. And this is not just any war; this is God’s war—a war with a guaranteed win.
- Rossing, Rapture Exposed. See esp. ch. 1, “The Destructive Racket of Rapture,” 1-18.
- Ibid., 46.
- Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), xv, 230. Bauckham’s chapter in this book, “The Apocalypse as a Christian War Scroll,” is a revised version of his earlier essay, “The Book of Revelation as a Christian War Scroll,” published in Neotestamentica 22 (1988): 17-40. See also idem, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New Testament Theology; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
- Among the more important attempts to address the problem of violence in the Apocalypse with which anyone wishing to address this issue must deal are Bauckham’s works, cited above, plus William Klassen, “Vengeance in the Apocalypse of John,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966): 300-311; G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (Black New Testament Commentaries; London: A & C Black, 1966); Ted Grimsrud, “Peace Theology and the Justice of God in the Book of Revelation,” in Essays on Peace Theology and Witness, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Occasional Papers, no. 12; Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 154-78; M. Eugene Boring, “Interpreting Revelation’s Violent Imagery,” in Revelation (Interpretation Commentary Series; Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1989), 112-19; Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, The Powers, vol. 3 (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1992); J. Nelson Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, no. 132; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996); David L. Barr, “Towards an Ethical Reading of the Apocalypse: Reflections on John’s Use of Power, Violence, and Misogyny,” Society of Biblical Literature 1997 Seminar Papers, no. 36 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1997), 358-73, revised and republished as “Doing Violence: Moral Issues in Reading John’s Apocalypse,” in Reading the Book of Revelation (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 97-108; Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “The Words of Prophecy: Reading the Apocalypse Theologically,” in Studies in the Book of Revelation, ed. Steve Moyise (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), 1-19, first published as “Die Worte der Prophetie: Die Apokalypse des Johannes theologisch lesen,” Jahrbuch für Biblische Theologie: Prophetie und Charisma 14 (1999): 71-94; Tina Pippin, Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse of John (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992); Willard M. Swartley, “War and Peace in the New Testament,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Teil II, Principat; Band 26.3 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1996), 2297-408; Steve Moyise, “Does the Lion Lie Down with the Lamb?” Studies in the Book of Revelation, ed. Steve Moyise (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), 181-94; Mitchell Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Commentaries (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001); Harry O. Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002), esp. 190-97; Loren Johns, “But Is the Vision Ethical?” ch. 6 in Lamb Christology, 185-202; and Mark Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation (Paternoster Biblical and Theological Monographs; Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 2003); Willard M. Swartley, “Revelation: Nonviolent Victory!” a chapter in his forthcoming book on a New Testament theology of peace. Olutola K. Peters’ presentation, “Politics of Violence in the Apocalypse of John: Moral Dilemma and Justification” (Society of Biblical Literature Presentation, November 2004), is weakened by its near-total disregard for this body of literature.
- See Barr, “Doing Violence.”
- See Greg Carey, “The Apocalypse and Its Ambiguous Ethos,” in Studies in the Book of Revelation, ed. Steve Moyise, 163-80 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001); and Elusive Apocalypse: Reading Authority in the Revelation to John (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999). The objections by Tina Pippin and Steve Moyise to a thoroughgoing nonviolent interpretation of Revelation deserve a fuller response than I can give here. However, I would offer that both miss the mark for similar reasons: they misread the socio-historical situation of the original audience in ways that allow them to overlook the significance of John’s deconstructive program. For a similar criticism of such an interpretation, see Schüssler Fiorenza, “The Words of Prophecy.”