Battle for the Mind, pt. 1

By Randall S. Frederick

As a young Evangelical, I was profoundly aware of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye. The twelve-novel series follows a group of individuals “left behind” after Jesus returns to collect the saved – an extrabiblical event commonly called “the rapture.” In short, the rapture is an eschatological assumption that, at some undetermined point at the end of the world, all Christian believers who are alive will literally (and, it is debated, physically) rise “in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” along with deceased-but-resurrected believers. This assumption is a modern development in Christian dialogue based on the interpretation of one verse in the Bible, hardly a doctrine supported by multiple scriptures, the explicit or implicit support of the early Christian Church, or historical, theological, or interpretive support. In Paul the Apostle’s first letter to the Thessalonians (I Thess. 4:17), he uses the Greek word harpazo (Ancient Greek: ἁρπάζω), meaning “to snatch away” or “to seize,” in an attempt to explain that believers in Jesus Christ would be snatched away from earth into the air.

Except that’s not exactly or even broadly what the verse means. 

Evangelicals have a long history of “proof-texting” or isolating parts of the Bible to justify a belief, without context. It’s quite popular, but in practice, it loses all nuance. 

Take, for example, the passage that Evangelicals use to support pro-life political positions. Jeremiah 29:11 reads, “ For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” It’s a comforting verse when read in isolation, and while it may be useful, even commendable to support an optimistic understanding of human life, the verse does not constitute a fully developed theological position in regards to the unborn. To understand the verse in it’s context, the reader would need to, at minimum, begin in verse 8 and stop reading in verse 19. 

8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

15 You may say, “The Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,” 16 but this is what the Lord says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile— 17 yes, this is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse[c] and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. 19 For they have not listened to my words,” declares the Lord, “words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,” declares the Lord.

There is a need to understand the Bible in context, not isolate passages outside of context and the nuance of framing. One way I explain this to my students is to examine a statement like “You’re funny.” Read one way, this could mean someone is genuinely funny. When we add intonation, the meaning should shift from enthusiastic joy to sarcasm or even derision. The words themselves, isolated, don’t really give us much to understand. 

In like form, proof-texting or basing an understanding of how things will shake out at the end of time on the basis of one verse, separated from the original context in meaning makes for some shaky theology. Optimistic as it may be, a single turn of phrase in a single letter from Paul does not provide sufficient grounds for an entire worldview. The idea of the rapture, as it is currently defined (ἁρπάζω), meaning “to snatch away” or “to seize,” and explains that believers in Jesus Christ would be snatched away from earth into the air) is not found in historical records of Christianity; it is a relatively recent doctrine of Evangelical Protestantism. The Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Churches, the Anglican Communion, and Reformed denominations have no tradition of a preliminary return of Christ. 

Again, is the belief optimistic? Yes. Whatever Paul may have meant, he encourages his audience to “encourage one another with these words” that there will be a point in time where joy will return, where we will be reunited with loved ones, and that grief and sadness are temporary. Let me go a step further and say I find comfort in this idea, while also saying that I have reservations, questions, and ambivalence. 

In contrast to Evangelical certainty that the rapture is an “eternal truth” conveniently revealed to the “faithful” comparatively recently (note the cultic language there), the Eastern Orthodox Church, favors amillennial or postmillennial interpretation of prophetic Scriptures and thus rejects a preliminary, premillennial return. Most Methodists do not adhere to the dispensationalist view of the rapture.

As dispensationalism began to rise in America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, pretribulationism became common among many Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. Today, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians rarely hold to pretribulationism. Fundamentalist Baptists, Bible churches, Brethren churches, certain Methodist denominations, Pentecostals, non-denominational Evangelicals, and various other Evangelical groups typically adhere to the pretribulational Rapture.

Which brings us back to Tim LaHaye.

In 2005, with the Left Behind novels dominating the bestseller lists in America, Tim LaHaye was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential Christians in America. His legacy as an author of 85 books (most of them about the rapture and other eschatological or “end time” events) and popular recontextualizer of the Bible was secure. An American Baptist minister, LaHaye became well known as the co-author of the Left Behind novels series in the apocalyptic fiction genre, which he co-authored with Jerry B. Jenkins. He was also the founder of the Council for National Policy, a right-wing conservative Christian advocacy group where his anti-homosexual views were made explicit. He was a harsh critic of Roman Catholicism, interracial marriages, and a strong believer of the Illuminati global conspiracy theory.

Timothy Francis LaHaye was born on April 27, 1926, in Detroit, Michigan to Frank LaHaye, a Ford auto worker who died in 1936 of a heart attack, and Margaret LaHaye (née Palmer). His father’s death had a significant influence on LaHaye, who was only nine years old at the time. He had been inconsolable until the minister at the funeral said, “This is not the end of Frank LaHaye; because he accepted Jesus Christ, the day will come when the Lord will shout from heaven and descend, and the dead in Christ will rise first and then we’ll be caught up together to meet him in the air.” LaHaye later said that, upon hearing those remarks, “all of a sudden, there was hope in my heart I’d see my father again.” This is, without question, where his views on the rapture originated. As he matured, LaHaye enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in 1944, at the age of 18. He served in the European Theater of Operations as a machine gunner aboard a bomber and, when he returned from duty, he received a Bachelor of Arts from Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina in 1950 before earning a Doctor of Ministry degree from Western Seminary. Bob Jones University is certainly where he would have been exposed to racist and anti-woman ideas and, I would suggest, where whatever latent anger he held after the loss of his father became focused into White Christian Nationalism. LaHaye, especially early in his career as an author and minister, was quite well known for discussing anger and how to “positively” express anger in marriage. His first three self-help books, Spirit-Controlled Temperament (1966), How to Be Happy Though Married (1968), and Transforming Your Temperament (1971) detail a long-standing anger that was directed at his wife as often as the Satanic culture he saw around him in their new home of San Diego.

Later, he would earn an honorary Doctor of Literature from the citadel of Radical white Christian Nationalism, Liberty University. It is convenient that he would receive a second doctorate from Liberty since, in 1979, LaHaye encouraged Jerry Falwell to found the Moral Majority and sat on its board of directors. He wasn’t alone in his political ascendancy, though. LaHaye’s wife, Beverly, founded Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian women’s activist group and in 1981, he left the pulpit to concentrate his time on politics and writing. That year, he helped found the Council for National Policy (CNP) a policy making think tank in which membership is only available through invitation; it has been reported “the most powerful conservative organization in America you’ve never heard of” according to a December 2002 ABC News report, “Inside the Council for National Policy.” 

Whatever his political aspirations may have been, they were limited by his affiliation with questionable figures. In the 1980s he was criticized by the Evangelical community for accepting money from Bo Hi Pak, a longtime Sun Myung Moon operative. He was additionally criticized for joining Moon’s Council for Religious Freedom, which was founded to protest Moon’s 1984 imprisonment and again in 1996, when his wife, Beverly, spoke at an event sponsored by Moon. He and his wife also had connections to the John Birch Society, a conservative, anti-communist group once again known for racism. Embedded racism and half-hearted attempts at religious understanding may have been a “product of the time” but fraternizing with cults like the “Moonies” and racists at Bob Jones and the John Birch Society proved to be too much. The LaHayes, it seemed, had been relegated to the Christian Marriage circuit, insisting that a culture of domesticity with biblical. Together, they held marriage conferences in the 1990s and Tim continued to discuss his never-abating anger and share how others could overcome their depression and anger, even if he never conquered his own. His work, their work, repeat a refrain for the next two decades.

How To Win Over Depression (1974)
Ten Steps to Victory Over Depression (1974)
The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love (1976, with Beverly LaHaye)
Opposites Attract (1977)
Understand Your Man: Secrets of the Male Temperament (1977)
Understanding the Male Temperament (1977)
Six Keys to a Happy Marriage (1978)
Spirit-Controlled Family Living (1978)
The Unhappy Gays: What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality (1978)[45]
Your Temperament Can Be Changed (1978)
Anger Is a Choice (1982, with Dr. Bob Phillips, Ph.D)
How to Manage Pressure Before Pressure Manages You (1983)
Increase Your Personality Power (1984)
Practical Answers to Common Questions about Sex in Marriage (1984)
The Coming Peace in the Middle East (1984)
Your Temperament: Discover Its Potential (1984)
What Lovemaking Means to a… series:
What Lovemaking Means to a Woman: Practical Advice to Married Women about Sex (1984)
What Lovemaking Means to a Man: Practical Advice to Married Men about Sex (1984)
Sex Education is for the Family (1985)
Why You Act the Way You Do (1987)
Finding the Will of God in a Crazy, Mixed-Up World (1989)
If Ministers Fall, Can They Be Restored? (1990)
Our Life Together (1990, with Richard Exley)
I Love You, But Why Are We So Different?: Making the Most of Personality Differences in Your Marriage (1991)
Raising Sexually Pure Kids: How to Prepare Your Children for The Act of Marriage (1993)
Smart Money (1994, with Jerry Tuma)
The Spirit-Filled Family: Expanded for the Challenges of Today (1995, with Beverly LaHaye)
Gathering Lilies from Among the Thorns: Finding the Mate God Has for You (1998, with Beverly LaHaye)
The Power of the Cross (1998)
The Act of Marriage After 40 (2000, with Beverly LaHaye, Mike Yorkey)

In 1988, LaHaye found a new racket: apocalyptic thinking. Up close, many in the Evangelical community may have felt whiplash. Here was a man who had made a career out of promoting white Americanism who was now turning his attention to the end of the world. From a distance though, the shift in polarities made sense. With declining attendance at his self-help and marriage conferences, he returned to discussing anger, only it was more focused now. His early career seemed to articulate an “us” approach to Evangelicalism. There was always a threat to “our” way of life (white Christians, of course). One only needed to explicitly state the sins of others to find solidarity with other similar white-minded individuals.

A decade later in 1998, LaHaye founded the Pre-Tribulation Research Center along with Thomas Ice, a Baptist who had devoted his research to understanding the coming apocalypse. The center was dedicated to producing material that supports a dispensationalist, pre-tribulation interpretation of the Bible. 

Though his own political and ministerial career may have ended, this did not keep LaHaye from mingling with the powerful. On the marriage and self-help circuit as well as the “think tanks” he continued to create and co-found, LaHaye had podiums well positioned to support Ronald Reagan’s elections as United States president. He was even a co-chairman of Jack Kemp’s failed 1988 presidential bid before his removal from the campaign after just four days once his anti-Catholic views became known. Kemp lost the nomination, which went to Reagan’s Vice-President, George Bush.  Learning from previous mistakes, LaHaye played a significant role in getting the Religious Right to support George W. Bush for the presidency in 2000 only to take yet another misstep in supporting Mike Huckabee during the primaries for President in 2007. LaHaye remained a “spiritual advisor” to Huckabee once he was given a show on Fox News and remained in this role until his death in 2016.

Still, none of these accomplishments compare to his success as an author. Or rather, “advisor” to the author Jerry B. Jenkins. Together, the men would develop the Left Behind series, depicting an Earth after the pretribulation rapture which Premillennial Dispensationalists believe the Bible states, multiple times, will occur despite no explicit scriptural support for this.

For those outside of Evangelicalism, it is easier to classify the Left Behind series as subgenre of apocalyptic fiction, where the apocalypse is a sustained progression of events. For those inside of Evangelicalism, the novels move through a checklist of predetermined “events”; ex: mass disappearances, the collapse of governments and the rise of a centralized one-world government, the assassination and subsequent resurrection of a specific political leader, the “whoring” of religions into syncretism, all culminating in the return of Jesus to the Earth to wage war and destruction in the name of love and peace.

The books were LaHaye’s idea, though Jerry B. Jenkins, a former sportswriter with numerous other works of fiction to his name, wrote the books from LaHaye’s notes. The series, which started in 1995 with the first novel, includes 12 titles in the adult series, as well as juvenile novels, audio books, devotionals, and graphic novels. The books were incredibly popular and the first real breakthrough for Christian fiction, until then a niche market primarily driven by romance for female readers. When the series finally ended in 2016, Left Behind had sold over 65 million copies. Loyal to his friend, Jerry Falwell once said, “In terms of its impact on Christianity, [Left Behind] is probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.” In return, LaHaye gave $4.5 million to Liberty University in 2001 to build a new student center and the LaHaye School of Prophecy on campus, securing his place in the future of Evangelicalism.

Still, after a dozen novels spread out over a decade of war in Afghanistan, the collapse of the Twin Towers, and numerous unfulfilled prophecies, readers found reality television and even opinion shows on conservative media far, far more compelling and sensational. Among LaHaye’s numerous failed (or “unfulfilled”) prophecies, the “one world government” of the European Union fell apart with the annexation of England. Russia was revitalized under Vladimir Putin instead of seeing Putin assassinated as LaHaye predicted. There was the collapse of the American housing market, banks, and a meth epidemic among “good Christians” in the Appalachian region. Finally, despite having spent decades denouncing the wickedness and perversity of California, LaHaye and his wife never left the state. 

There was a general sense of fatigue with Left Behind in general and LaHaye’s understanding of “prophecy” specifically. Once the series concluded, the books were almost forgotten instantaneously. The world had changed and LaHaye’s understanding of scripture seemed stranger and more out of touch with every book. Fellow “prophecy” minister Jack Van Impe, for perspective, routinely used LaHaye’s interpretation of scripture to explain laughable headlines of his own creation about half-human, half-pig experiments in Germany and made weekly predictions about the imminent demise of leading politicians and religious leaders that never came to pass. “Prophets” like LaHaye seemed like the punchline of their own jokes, conspiracy theorists instead of respected or even respectable theologians.

It wasn’t just American culture. Thousands of American ministers took issue with the confusion LaHaye had sown in their congregations. The popularity of the books, combined with LaHaye’s assertion that the Bible should be read literally, led to widespread skepticism at the idea of a coming apocalypse. The world had already experienced a decade-long war with an undefined enemy and the destabilization of global markets. Mainstream Christians and Evangelicals had broad disagreements with the series as a whole, pointing out that “most biblical scholars largely reject the eschatological assumptions of this kind of pop end-times literature” according to a 2001 article in Sojourners magazine written by Tom Sine. Others focused on the fact that LaHaye portrayed the Book of Revelation with a selective literalism, choosing to take some things literally (such as the violence) and others as metaphors (the Beast) as it suits his point of view. In The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing, a number of criticisms are raised regarding the series, particularly its focus on violence by a compassionate, loving God who wanted the save the world by killing his son first, slaughtering billions of humans, then burning the Earth into oblivion. Such a diety, critics pointed out, seemed incompatible with scripture if not the very villain such a deity was said to be at war with. Other believers in dispensational premillennialism, who believe that the return of Jesus is imminent, criticized aspects of his theology. It was widely noted that in the eighth and ninth books of the series, LaHaye and Jenkins portrayed those who had already rejected God and been rejected by God as non-willing recipients of “the mark of the beast”, a tattoo of loyalty to the antichrist. Such individuals, as depicted in the books, could still be saved, despite the Book of Revelation indicating otherwise. The novel directly contradicted scripture while the authors insisted that their novels were, in fact, biblical. This was more than a “slip” on the part of the authors in the logic of their work. According to the Book of Revelation, as read through an Evangelical interpretive lens, the mark of the beast (proof of their submission to the authority of the antichrist) and the sealing of the Lord (proof of their submission to the authority of Christ) are mutually exclusive. This inconsistency led to readers wondering how a Christian could have the mark of the beast and still be saved. According to LaHaye, it was because believers who had already been left behind, another logical inconsistency, did not mentally assent to worshipping the antichrist.

The battle, for LaHaye, was in the mind.

Held up to scrutiny, the novels remain what they were intended to be: fiction. Fiction that, tragically, many readers understood as a “literal” expression of the teachings, myths, and literary metaphors of the Bible.

Continued in part II

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