At the close of the 16th and final Left Behind book, which was perched on the best-seller list a couple months ago, Tim LaHaye yet again emphasizes his claim to “tak[e] the Bible literally wherever possible.” I don’t get how anyone who’d ever paid attention to the Psalms could imply that the Bible speaks less powerfully when it chooses to speak in symbolic images.

But what I really object to, having plowed through the first five and the last one of the Left Behind books, are the number of Bible passages that the series doesn’t take seriously – passages that give clear instructions about how people should act.

For example, consider the third Left Behind book’s take on Matthew 10:27-28’s call to proclaim God’s word openly. Protagonist Buck, realizing that his late pastor Bruce had hooked up the church’s small tribulation-fallout shelter to the Internet via a satellite dish on the steeple, quotes the “proclaim from the housetops” passage verbatim, then enthuses, “Wasn’t it just like Bruce to take the Bible literally?”

I do not think that word means what they think it means. At this very moment, our hero Buck is hiding his faith in order to work for the Antichrist. (Yes, he’s doing it to spy on the Antichrist. No, it’s not clear how anyone familiar with Revelation could think anything excused working for the Antichrist).

Nor does Buck’s father-in-law, Rayford (also employed by the Antichrist), seem very serious or literal about scripture when counseling a new convert (employed by … you guessed it) to hide his faith:

“…if I were you, I wouldn’t be quick to declare myself a new believer. …”
“Yeah, but what about that verse about confessing with your mouth?”
“I have no idea. Do the rules still stand at a time like this?”

Yes. Yes, they do.

Nor does the series take literally 1 Peter 3‘s encouragement to always be ready to tell others about our hope “with gentleness and reverence.” In the Left Behind novels, Rayford and Buck sometimes stop playing with spy gadgets long enough to join secondary characters in telling others about God. They get this half right: they repeatedly describe their own faith journeys – but they often have an ungentle, even arrogant refusal to speak in terms relevant to others.

In the most spectacular example, Rayford opens by telling one potential convert, “You understand I don’t care what you think of me, don’t you?” But really, not having to care what others think is, from the Left Behind novels’ point of view, the main payoff of global cataclysms:

Rayford leaned close and spoke louder. “What you think of me would have been hugely important a few weeks ago [before “the rapture”] …”

Where Revelation was written to reassure genuinely oppressed believers that God was more powerful than the state and culture that persecuted them, Left Behind appears to be written to relieve its audience, which enjoys immense wealth and civil liberties by world standards, of the burden of having faith in things unseen, or of connecting to others who have a different worldview. Forget all that stuff about people knowing you are Christians by your love – about which, more in the second installment of this review.

Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners, and a big fan of Sojourners’ discussion guide on apocalypse.

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