False Profit: Money, Prejudice, and Bad Theology in Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind Series
By Jimmy Akin
Feeling left behind?
You might be if you have looked in the religion section of a bookstore recently. Since 1995, over fifty million books bearing the banner of the Left Behind series have showed up not only in Protestant bookstores but also in mainstream, secular bookstores. In 1998 the original four books of the series simultaneously occupied the top four slots in the New York Times bestseller list—which does not count sales figures from Protestant bookstores. The tenth volume of the series debuted at number one on the list.
The books of the Left Behind series offer a fictionalized account of the end of the world, based on the authors’ understanding of the book of Revelation and other Bible prophecies. But Left Behind is much more than a series of books.
It is a multi-media franchise that includes not only the original novels (which should total twelve to fourteen) but also two motion pictures, over twenty children’s books, study guides, dramatized and unabridged audio books, and graphic novels—with more on the way! Also attached to the franchise are a number of non-fiction works in which the authors explain their views of Bible prophecy in a straightforward manner rather than using the form of a novel.
Evangelical publishing has never seen a phenomenon like this. It dwarfs even The Late Great Planet Earth, which was the best-selling book of the 1970s.
Left Behind leaves many Catholics scratching their heads. They may know that it has something to do with the end of the world. Some Catholics have even had Evangelical friends try to get them to read the books as a subtle (or not so subtle) attempt to evangelize them. But few have a clear idea of what the books are about, who is behind them, and how they relate to the Catholic faith.
This is a problem. There is nothing wrong with having a successful publishing franchise, but when that franchise contains anti-Catholic prejudice and bad theology, that is a problem. Matters are worse when the franchise is so profit-driven that it puts making a buck over the spiritual and psychological well-being of children. As we will see, Left Behind does all of that.
The Man Behind Left Behind
The Left Behind books carry the bylines of two men, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The latter is a prolific freelance author and ghostwriter who has published several dozen books. He is the actual author of the Left Behind books, but his is the less important role, because he does not generate the ideas for them. According to Jenkins, "We each play a different role in the creation of the books. Dr. LaHaye develops a detailed Biblical outline for each book. I do all the writing." LaHaye, then, is the real man behind Left Behind. Jenkins simply gives form to LaHaye’s ideas.
What is there to know about this man?
Tim LaHaye was born in 1926 in Detroit, Michigan. He fought in World War II and afterwards attended Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Bob Jones is a Fundamentalist school known for intense anti-Catholicism. It also did not admit African American students until the 1970s and, between 1950 and 2000, maintained a policy against interracial dating among students. The school explained that intermarriage among the races would further the cause of "One World Government" and thus the Antichrist. While attending Bob Jones, LaHaye met his wife, Beverly. He also began to pastor a church during this time.
In 1956, LaHaye became the pastor of Scott Memorial Baptist Church in El Cajon, California, just outside San Diego. While there, he and his wife began a radio program called The LaHayes on Family Life, which sought to promote family values from a Fundamentalist perspective. Also while in the San Diego area, LaHaye established Christian Heritage College.
His literary flair expressed itself in writing a number of popular (and contentious) books, including Spirit-Controlled Temperament, Battle for the Mind, The Battle for the Family, and Battle for the Public Schools. In the 1970s he began to publish books on the subject of Bible prophecy, including The Beginning of the End andRevelation Illustrated and Made Plain.
The LaHayes have been active in politics. Tim was a co-founder of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and founded a number of his own Christian political action groups as well. Beverly founded Concerned Women for America, a rival of the National Organization for Women that has a membership substantially greater than NOW.
In 1987 Jack Kemp named Tim LaHaye as national co-chair of his presidential campaign, but LaHaye resigned days later when newspapers published anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic remarks he had made. These included references to Catholicism as "a false religion" and to Jews being responsible for the death of Christ. Subsequently it came to light that, during the 1970s, LaHaye’s church had funded Mission to Catholics, a virulently anti-Catholic ministry run by former Carmelite priest Bart Brewer.
Scandal continued to dog LaHaye when it was revealed that he had connections with the Unification Church ("the Moonies"). The head of the Unification Church is Sun Myung Moon, who has proclaimed himself "the world’s new Messiah" and "the Lord of the Second Advent." LaHaye was the chair of Moon’s Coalition for Religious Freedom, and is reported to have received at least half a million dollars in funding from Moon’s associate Bo Hi Park. LaHaye and his wife have attended and spoken at Moon-sponsored events, though they have made it clear that they do not endorse Moon’s theological ideas.
LaHaye’s association with Sun Myung Moon is especially perplexing. As a man who has written so many books warning people about the Antichrist, LaHaye is one of the last people one would expect to ally with a man who literally is a false Christ.
LaHaye claims that the idea for the Left Behind series came to him on a plane trip in the 1980s. He explains:
This is an idea that the Lord gave me when I was on a plane. The airline captain came out of his cave and he started flirting with the head stewardess. I noticed that he had a wedding ring on. She did not. I began to see the sparks flying between these two and as he went back into the [cockpit], I got to thinking, "What if the Rapture occurred right now? On this plane, a third of these people would be gone. It would be pandemonium." I imagined this guy, married to I assumed, a Christian, and all of the sudden it would dawn on him, "When I get home, my wife will be gone, and I have been left behind." That’s where the title came from.
This scene is played out in the first volume of the Left Behind series, which LaHaye has billed as "the first fictional portrayal of events that is true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy."
This claim is odd since Left Behind is not the first Rapture novel. Indeed, as Catholic writer Carl Olson pointed out in This Rock magazine, it isn’t even the first Rapture book to bear the title Left Behind. Another was published by Peter and Patti Lalonde just before the release of LaHaye’s. Further, Olson uncovered startling parallels between Left Behind and a 1970 novel entitled 666 by Salem Kirban, as well as another book raising the question of plagiarism. Olson explains:
LaHaye has been in the Bible prophecy business for over thirty years. I find it difficult to believe he had no knowledge of the books by Kirban and the Lalondes. While recycling might be good for the environment, it isn’t very appealing when it comes to literature.
The Basic Left Behind Scenario
The Left Behind books presuppose a particular scenario for how the end times are going to play out. This scenario, with variation in details, is widely believed by Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. It runs as follows:
- At some unpredictable point in the near future, there will be an event called the Rapture, in which Jesus will descend from heaven and call all true believers to his side. The faithful dead will be resurrected, and they and the living faithful will be caught up ("raptured") to Jesus in the sky. They then will return to heaven for several years.
- How long they will remain in heaven is unknown, though LaHaye estimates it to be seven to ten years. During this time there will be a seven-year period known as the Tribulation (time of trouble). For LaHaye this period starts with a sneak attack on Israel led by Russia. The forces are defeated by Israel, and their weapons are gathered and then burned for fuel for the next seven years (despite the implausibility of burning modern weapons for fuel).
- During the tribulation, a series of spectacular judgments will occur. These are depicted in the book of Revelation as coming in three sets of seven. The first set occurs as Jesus removes seven seals from a scroll (cf. Rev. 6–8), the second as seven angels blow trumpets (cf. Rev. 8–11), and the third as the same angels pour out seven bowls (cf. Rev. 16). These judgments kill at least half of the world population. The second, more intense part of the Tribulation (containing the bowl judgments) is called the Great Tribulation.
- There will arise a "One World Government" that controls the entire planet. LaHaye identifies this as a likely outgrowth of the United Nations and holds that it will be located in the rebuilt city of Babylon, in Iraq. It will also be headed by the sinister figure known as the Antichrist or "Beast."
- Paralleling this, there will arise a "One World Religion," which all will be expected to join. LaHaye sees this as a syncretistic blending of world religions, likely headed by the Catholic Church and the pope. He further identifies it as a revived Babylonian paganism.
- At some point (possibly with the help of the Antichrist) the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. In the middle of the Tribulation the Antichrist desecrates it by seating himself in it and declaring himself to be God. Those who refuse to honor him as God are killed, and his followers must take the dreaded "mark of the Beast" (666) on their foreheads or right hands.
- In addition to the threat of death, economic pressure will be used to compel people to take the mark of the Beast. By this point, according to LaHaye, the world will have adopted a cashless society, likely using microchips under the skin for all monetary transactions. Those who do not receive the mark of the Beast will not be allowed to buy or sell.
- Despite the coercion used to get people to take the mark of the Beast, many will not. There will be a large number of believers in Christ—though according to LaHaye, they technically are not Christians, since the Church was raptured to heaven. Instead, they are "Tribulation saints," as they became believers for the first time during the Tribulation (otherwise they would have been raptured). Many became believers due to the influence of 144,000 Jewish witnesses to Christ, whose evangelizing efforts contribute to a great "soul harvest," in LaHaye’s words. Among those who are converted during the Tribulation are the Jewish people, who finally embrace Jesus as the Messiah.
- Eventually the battle of Armageddon takes place in Israel, and the Second Coming occurs. Jesus descends from the sky with his heavenly hosts and slays the Antichrist. He then reigns on earth for a thousand-year period known as the Millennium (Latin, "thousand years"), after which the forces of evil are again unleashed. The final rebellion is short, as fire falls from the sky and consumes the rebels. Afterwards, the remaining dead are raised, the Judgment Day occurs, and God inaugurates the eternal order with the new heaven and the new earth.
The Scenario in Context
The Left Behind scenario is a theory of the end times known as "pre-tribulational pre-millennialism" (often abbreviated "pre-trib, pre-mil"). To understand this off-putting term, one needs to understand the alternative positions.
Pre-millennialism is the view that Christ comes back before (pre-) the Millennium, which is conceived of as a golden age during which Christ personally reigns on earth. The main alternatives to pre-millennialism are called post-millennialism and amillennialism.
Both of these views regard the Millennium as a golden age in which Christ reigns, but they differ from pre-millennialism regarding where Christ reigns from. They hold him to be reigning from heaven rather than from the earth. The difference between post-millennialism and amillennialism is that post-millennialism views the Millennium as something still in our future—a future golden age in which virtually everyone will be Christian—whereas amillennialism tends to identify the Millennium with the Church age—either all or most of it. Both views agree that Christ returns at the end of the Second Coming, raises and judges the dead, and then ushers in the eternal order with the new heaven and the new earth.
Pre-millennialism is the first and most basic plank in the Left Behind scenario. The second most important plank is pre-tribulationism. It is a variant that occurs only in pre-mil circles.
In short, pre-tribulationism is the view that the Rapture will occur before (pre-) the Tribulation that precedes the Second Coming. The major alternatives to this are known as mid-tribulationism and post-tribulationism. The former holds that Christians will experience the first part of the Tribulation but then will be raptured to heaven. The latter holds that Christians will go through the entire Tribulation and then be raptured to Christ at the Second Coming, which is then followed by the Millennium.
Throughout Christian history there have been a few pre-millennialists, though that name is fairly recent. Traditionally, they have been called millenarians or chiliasts (from the Latin and Greek words for "thousand": mille and chilias). This view was common in the early Church, and a number of Church Fathers supported it, including St. Justin Martyr.
Justin was quick to note, however, that not all Christians held this view. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (c. a.d. 165) he explained that "I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you [Trypho] assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise."
It is important to know this fact because pre-millennialists often portray their view as the early Christian view, but right here—in the earliest record we have of anyone holding this view—it is acknowledged that this is not the case.
Eventually, pre-millennialism waned in popularity, and—although it also did not have its modern name—amillennialism became the dominant view. Pre-millennialists often try to make St. Augustine the villain of the piece in doing this. For example, in one of the nonfiction add-ons to the Left Behind series, LaHaye and Jenkins write:
This belief [amillennialism] crept into the church after Augustine introduced the practice of spiritualizing and allegorizing Scripture, which opened the door to many pagan doctrines and practices and helped plunge the Western world into the Dark Ages for over eleven hundred years. Times were dark because people had little access to or knowledge of the Scriptures; consequently they lost the hope of Christ’s second coming.
This is preposterous from several perspectives. The allegorical method of Scripture interpretation predates Augustine. Because it complements rather than supplants the literal interpretation of Scripture, it did not open the door to paganism and did not lead to the "dark ages," which in fact were not dark (certainly not spiritually). People were in fact familiar with Scripture during this time. In fact, it was the most familiar ancient writing, because what had been lost was knowledge of Greco-Roman pagan civilization (e.g., the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers). People certainly had not lost the hope of the Second Coming. Medieval artwork reveals numerous depictions of the event.
Most important for our present concerns is that Augustine did not invent the rejection of pre-millennialism. As we saw, many Christians from the earliest times did not hold this view.
What is now called amillennialism continued to be the dominant view throughout the Middle Ages and was the view of the Protestant Reformers as well. Pre-millennialism periodically reappeared but was generally looked down upon because it was associated with particular fanatical groups who often held heretical ideas, such as the Anabaptists, who seized control of the city of Munster in the 1530s and inaugurated a reign of terror.
The position of post-millennialism also developed and became popular among the Puritans who helped settle America. It was common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but went into a decline during the twentieth century, though there have been a number of prominent post-millennialists in Evangelicalism in the last few years.
For much of the twentieth century American Protestants tended to be divided between amillennialism and pre-millennialism, with the latter gaining significant ground as the century progressed. By the 1970s, which saw the release of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the pre-mil position became dominant in American Evangelicalism. But something was different about this kind of pre-millennialism. It wasn’t the same as the kind that had been known throughout history.
The new pre-millennialism has come to be called "Dispensational pre-millennialism," in contrast to "historical pre-millennialism." There a number of points of difference between the two views, but perhaps the most significant is the Rapture. Historically, pre-millennialists did not use the term rapture, and they viewed the gathering of believers to Christ as something that would happen at the Second Coming, just before the Millennium. In other words, they were "post-tribulational," in contemporary jargon.
But in the 1830s, an Irish Protestant named John Nelson Darby began to preach the idea of a pre-tribulational Rapture. He spread this view in his own group, known as the Plymouth Brethren, and founded a new theological school in Protestantism. This school—Dispensationalism—holds that human history is divided into a number of distinct dispensations (ages) in which God deals with man in very different ways. Thus Dispensationalists frequently do not allow doctrinal appeals to be made to various parts of Scripture, arguing that they apply to a different dispensation than the one we live in (the "Church age").
There is an element of truth to this idea. By unveiling the Law of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2), Jesus superceded the Law of Moses, which had previously regulated the obligations of the Jewish people toward God. But Dispensationalism carries this idea too far. In extreme forms of the view (known as ultra-dispensationalism) it is claimed that only a tiny portion of the New Testament (such as the pastoral epistles) is relevant to us today.
The fact that Christians generally acknowledge that God relates to men somewhat differently in different ages has led some to suggest that Dispensationalism has been misnamed. Its distinctive tenet is really not the existence of dispensations but the particular end-time system it espouses: pre-tribulational pre-millennialism.
This is what most characterizes Dispensationalism. Advocates of the view have a difficult time pointing to any believers in this system prior to John Nelson Darby. They do propose a few possible precursors for the view, but despite their best efforts it is clear that the idea of a pre-tribulational Rapture was something Darby popularized and that it was either virtually or entirely unknown prior to that time.
Darby’s ideas were taken up in America by a former Confederate soldier named Cyrus Ingerson ("C. I.") Scofield, who incorporated them into the explanatory material in his Scofield Reference Bible. This became very popular in America since, at the time, there were few Protestant study Bibles. The appearance of dispensational ideas in the notes within the Bible itself led many to regard these as assured theological conclusions, and the view spread. The Scofield Reference Bible was one of the key factors leading to the growth and eventual dominance of the pre-trib, pre-mil position in American Evangelicalism. Also important were Dispensationalist schools such as Dallas Theological Seminary and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.
After achieving dominance in the 1970s, this view began to decline in the 1980s, with many turning back to historical pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, and amillenialism. However, with the publications of the Left Behind books in the 1990s, the movement has been re-energized, and it is quite likely that Left Behind will play a role similar to the Scofield Reference Bible and The Late Great Planet Earth in sustaining and popularizing the idea of a pre-trib Rapture.
Where the Church Stands
Where does the Catholic Church stand on all this?
The Church does not endorse pre-millennialism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: "The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism." Indeed, the Nicene Creed, which is said at every Sunday Mass, appears to reject pre-millennialism, holding that Christ will return "to judge the living and the dead," not to reign on earth for a thousand years and then judge the living and the dead. Since the Church is not pre-millennial, the question of a pre-trib Rapture does not arise, as pre-tribulationism is a variant of pre-millennialism.
Though it does not use the term rapture, the Church does acknowledge that there will be an event where the elect are gathered to be with Christ. Scripture clearly declares it:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:16–17)
The point of contention is the timing of this event: It occurs at the Second Coming, not several years before it. This is indicated by Paul’s reference to it taking place when Christ descends from heaven: the Second Coming. Scripture does not envision the Second Coming accomplishing the Rapture, followed by a "Third Coming" inaugurating the eternal order or the Millennium.
This is a sensitive point for Dispensationalists, who try to overcome the "Third Coming" problem by arguing that the Rapture and the final coming of Jesus are simply "two phases of one coming." But this is rationalization. If Jesus comes to die for our sins, goes back to heaven, comes again to rapture his followers, goes back to heaven, and then years later comes again to slay the Antichrist, then that is three comings, not two.
What does the Church say about the Millennium? It has not authoritatively addressed the issue of amillennialism and post-millennialism. Indeed, it does not even use those terms. But it is clear that the Church adheres to what has been the dominant view throughout Christian history—that the Millennium is going on now. It equals or is roughly equal to the Christian age.
Does this mean that there is no reign of Christ? No. Christ is reigning now, from heaven. As he told the apostles, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). And, discussing the resurrection of the dead, Paul explains:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Cor. 15:20–26, emphasis added)
The destruction of death involves the resurrection of the dead—all of the dead, not just some dead, or death would not have been destroyed. This occurs in Revelation 20:13–14, which is after the Millennium (cf. Rev. 20:1–6).
Thus Christ reigns—along with the saints (cf. Rev. 20:4–6)—in heaven, and this reign is extended on earth through the Church, which is an expression of the mystery of the kingdom of God (cf. Luke 17:20–21). Thus, we are presently living in the golden age of Christ’s reign.
Some may think that the current age doesn’t seem very golden, but this is due to a problem of perspective. The proper frame of reference for judging the quality of the current age is not how paradisiacal we can imagine the world to be. It is what the world was like before the Christian age. Before Jesus, the world was swallowed in pagan darkness, with only the Jewish people and a few "God-fearers" attached to the Jews having reliable knowledge of the true God. Everywhere else, men were in spiritual darkness.
But the prophets foretold that "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Is. 11:9; cf. Hab. 2:14). This prophecy was fulfilled by the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the Christian age. Today a third of the human race is Christian, and fully half of the human race worships God in one way or another. The remainder has—with few exceptions—at least heard of the true God, and by the standards of biblical history, knowledge of the Lord does indeed cover the earth like the waters cover the sea. The light has dawned, and the darkness been dispelled. The biblical prophets would have wept for joy at the unimaginable prospect that so much of the human race would have embraced the worship of God. This was simply unthinkable in their time, and they would have regarded the current age—for all its problems—as unquestionably golden.
But notice what this quality consists in: It is a spiritual goldenness of men knowing and worshiping God in a way unheard of in pagan times. It is not an economic or a socio-political goldenness, which was not what Revelation promised. John writes:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while. (Rev. 20:1–3)
The promise is not that the world will be free of temporal problems but that the Devil will be bound in such a way that he cannot deceive the nations. That has happened. He has been bound in such a way that he cannot stop the proclamation of the gospel. As Jesus himself said when reflecting on the results of the disciples’ ministry, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Luke 10:18).
However, this still leaves one with a number of significant questions: How does the Church see the end of the ages playing out? What are we to make of the book of Revelation and other prophetic passages?
Regarding the first, the Church acknowledges that, as the book of Revelation says, the Christian golden age will end. There will come a time of great apostasy (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3; 2 Tim. 4:3) in which many will leave the Christian faith and the Devil will again be able to hinder the gospel and deceive the nations (cf. Rev. 20:3, 7). The Catechism speaks of this episode, saying:
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.
There are indeed dark times ahead at the end of the Christian age. Many will abandon the faith and lead the Church almost to the point of extinction, only to be saved at the last moment by the return of Christ. Thus, the Church will "follow her Lord in death and Resurrection." It will be a time of Great Tribulation.
In this time, the final villain of world history, the Antichrist, will emerge. The Antichrist, according to Catholic tradition, is both a man and a movement, and the movement has already been active in the world, as St. John indicates (cf. 1 John 2:18). The Catechism thus states:
The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope that can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment.
How will the Jewish people figure in this the endgame of history? Though the details are not certain, the Church recognizes that the Jewish people still have a destiny to be fulfilled in God’s plan, and they will convert to Christ. Whether this happens down to the last individual Jew is not clear, but as a people they will turn back to Christ, just as the majority turned away from Christ in the first century (cf. Rom. 11:13–15, 25–29). Thus the Catechism states:
The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by "all Israel," for "a hardening has come upon part of Israel" in their "unbelief" toward Jesus (Rom. 11:20–26; cf. Matt. 23:39). St. Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost: "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old" (Acts 3:19–21). St. Paul echoes him: "For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" (Rom. 11:15). The "full inclusion" of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of "the full number of the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:12, 25; cf. Luke 21:24), will enable the People of God to achieve "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ," in which "God may be all in all" (Eph. 4:13; 1 Cor. 15:28).
The Church thus acknowledges certain points in the Left Behind scenario as true: There will be an Antichrist, an apostasy, a time of tribulation, and a corporate conversion for the Jewish people. Christ will return, the dead will be raised and judged, and God will usher in his eternal kingdom on the new heaven and the new earth. The differences are that we are living in the Millennial, spiritual reign of Christ now and that there will not be a rapturing of the Church prior to the Second Coming:
According to the Lord, the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by "distress" and the trial of evil which does not spare the Church (cf. Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 7:26; Eph. 5:16; 1 Pet. 4:17) and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching (cf. Matt. 25:1, 13; Mark 13:33–37; 1 John 2:18; 4:3; 1 Tim. 4:1).
Interpreting Bible Prophecy
This leaves us with the question of how the Church interprets the book of Revelation and other prophetic passages of Scripture. Here matters are much less clear. Although the Church does discern the outlines of how the end of the world will occur, it does not have specific teachings about the interpretations of most passages of Scripture, the prophetic ones included. Catholic Bible scholars are free to interpret these passages in the way they think the evidence best supports, as long as they do not violate Church teaching in doing so. There is thus considerable liberty for Catholics in how to regard particular Bible verses.
I am going to exercise a bit of this liberty, because there is a notion in the Left Behind series that needs to be challenged. This subject has not been directly addressed by the Church, but it needs to be raised: A basic problem with the Left Behind books is that they regard the book of Revelation as applying almost exclusively to the future.
It may come as quite a surprise to some that Revelation might not be principally about the future. If you have encountered Left Behind and similar pre-millennial works, you have seen that it is taken for granted that the prophecies of Revelation are largely unfulfilled. But this is not the only perspective, and—it seems to me—it is not the correct one.
The book of Revelation opens and closes by telling its readers that the book describes "what must soon take place" (Rev. 1:1, 22:6). Since it was written in the first century, this would lead us to expect that the bulk of what it has to say concerns either the first century or the first few centuries.
How does our own time fit into the book? Toward the end, there is the prophecy of the Millennium (cf. Rev. 20:1–6), which even many pre-millennialists admit may not be a thousand years but simply a long period of time. What we see in the book is a great deal of material (the first nineteen chapters) seeming to talk about the same, short time period, then six verses covering a very long time period, and then the remaining two and a half chapters devoted to the end of the world and the eternal order.
Since we would expect the bulk of the book to apply to the opening of Christian history, this interpretation makes sense. It is natural to regard the first nineteen chapters of the book as applying to the time when Christianity was small and persecuted, the six verses dealing with the Millennium to the bulk of the Christian age (including our own time when there are more Christians alive than at any prior point), and then the last part of the book dealing with the end of the Christian age and what happens afterward.
This timeline makes sense. It is harder to explain things if we take the common pre-millennial view that the bulk of Revelation is unfulfilled. Why would John say that the book deals with "what must soon take place" and then leap over twenty or more centuries to get to where the book’s real action begins? It makes more sense to understand the book’s timeline in the way we have suggested.
The chief objection to doing so—and one fans of the Left Behind series would be certain to make—would be that the judgments we see in the first nineteen chapters of Revelation do not appear to have literally been fulfilled in the first few centuries. However, this is a book of prophecy, and prophecy is often highly symbolic.
For example, in one prophecy Jesus stated that "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken" (Matt. 24:29). Revelation uses similar language (cf. Rev. 6:13; 8:12). This kind of celestial cataclysm language has precedents in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 13:10 the prophet says: "For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light." But in this verse it is easy to determine the meaning of the prophecy: Isaiah is predicting the overthrow of Babylon by the Assyrians, which occurred in 689 b.c.
This is so clear in context that in their commentary on this verse even the authors of The Bible Knowledge Commentary (written by the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary, an ardently Dispensationalist school) admit that the language is not literal:
The statements in [Isaiah] 13:10 about the heavenly bodies (stars . . . sun . . . moon) no longer functioning may figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of the Near East. The same would be true of the heavens trembling and the earth shaking (v. 13), figures of speech suggesting all-encompassing destruction.
That this language is to be taken symbolically was pointed out as early as the twelfth century, when the great medieval Jewish commentator Moses Maimonides wrote:
I do not think that any person is so foolish and blind, and so much in favor of the literal sense of figurative and oratorical phrases, as to assume that at the fall of the Babylonian kingdom a change took place in the nature of the stars of heaven, or in the light of the sun and moon, or that the earth moved away from its center. For all this is merely the description of a country that has been defeated; the inhabitants undoubtedly find all light dark, and all sweet things bitter; the whole hearth appears too narrow for them, and the heavens are changed in their eyes.
We thus must face the possibility that much of the "cosmic disaster" imagery in Revelation and other prophetic passages is impressionistic, meant to figuratively express the inner terror and anguish of those who live through the predicted events, but that it is not meant as a literal description of what you would see if you were recording the events with a camcorder. The language involves an exterior projection of what people will feel inwardly.
Taking this into account, how might the book of Revelation be understood? One theory is that it involves God’s judgment on the pagan Roman Empire, which persecuted Christians. There is significant evidence for this.
Consider the Beast of Revelation: It has seven heads, which we are told are both seven mountains (17:9) and seven kings who reign sequentially (17:10). The Beast considered as a person is specially identified as one in this line of kings (17:11). Further, he compels people to worship it on pain of martyrdom (13:12, 15), and his mark is 666, which is "the number of a man" (literal translation of 13:18). What are we to make of this?
The seven mountains have often been identified with the seven hills of Rome. (Note that Vatican Hill is not one of these, as it is on the other side of the Tiber River. The seven hills are the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal.) In early Christian history, did Rome have a line of kings? Yes, the Caesars (as in "We have no king but Caesar," John 19:15). Was there a cult of worship around them? Again, yes. Julius and Augustus Caesar were declared divine after their deaths. Caligula forcefully demanded to be worshiped as a god during his life. And Claudius and Nero also were worshiped as gods while living.
Did any have the number 666? One did. Revelation 13:18 invites the reader to calculate the number of the Beast, and the logical way to do this is by adding up the numeric values of a person’s name, since in ancient languages the letters of the alphabet doubled as numbers. (The Arabic numbering system hadn’t been introduced yet.) The reader is given enough clues about the Beast to tell whose names should be considered as candidates, and when one adds up the numbers for "Nero Caesar" in Hebrew and Aramaic, it turns out to total 666.
Finally, the Beast persecuted those who did not worship it, as Christians would refuse to do. Did Nero persecute Christians? Indeed he did. In fact, he executed twoof the apostles—Peter and Paul!
Nero thus is a very good candidate for being the Beast of Revelation. This would make a good bit of the book of Revelation apply to the first century rather than the twenty-first.
What would the Church make of this viewpoint? As we have noted, the Church does not have an official interpretation of Revelation, but a historical rather than futuristic identification of the Beast is suggested by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Discussing the sin of idolatry, it notes that "many martyrs died for not adoring ‘the Beast’ (cf. Rev. 13–14) refusing even to simulate such worship."
Anti-Catholicism in Left Behind
The false end-time theology we have seen in Left Behind is bad enough. It leads people to obsess about whether we are living at the end of the world and whether all the events described in Revelation are about to happen. Fostering needless fears and obsessions is not the only thing that is wrong with Left Behind, though. It also is prejudiced against Catholics and seeks to undermine their faith.
One way this happens is through the general "Jesus and me" theology of the books. Tim LaHaye is a Southern Baptist, and the books reflect this fact. They involve the idea that all one needs to do is turn to God in faith and one will be saved, without the need for baptism and its resulting incorporation into the Church. The "faith alone" message rings out from its pages as countless characters parade through its pages giving their testimonies of how they came to Jesus, with nary a mention of the importance of baptism, membership in the Church, or anything beyond a mere willingness to accept forgiveness.
The Left Behind series also involves a more direct attack on the faith of Catholics. Many passages—particularly in the second volume (Tribulation Force)—are directly anti-Catholic. It is not a particularly skillful anti-Catholicism, for the authors betray a fundamental lack of knowledge concerning the Church, but it is anti-Catholic nonetheless.
In Tribulation Force we learn that a when the Rapture took place, the Pope was one of those taken to heaven. That doesn’t sound anti-Catholic, but LaHaye and Jenkins go on to explain that this Pope "had stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the ‘heresy’ of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodoxy they were used to." In other words, the only good pope is one who agrees with Protestant teaching.
What about the Pope who is elected after the Rapture? He is an American cardinal named Peter Mathews who espouses what LaHaye and Jenkins regard as traditional Catholic doctrine. He even debates a member of the Tribulation Force on the nature of grace and issues a decree against the Protestant idea of sola scriptura. He is a Very Bad Man because he merges Catholicism with all other faiths to form a "One World Religion." As the head of this religion he serves as the False Prophet from Revelation (cf. Rev. 13:11–16), leading the people of the world to worship the Antichrist as God.
This is not simply an arbitrary fictional portrayal in which the Pope is picked at random among world religious leaders as the one to play this role. In LaHaye’s view, the Catholic Church is closely connected with the feared One World Religion he foresees. This is clear in the nonfiction add-ons to the Left Behind series.
One is the book Are We Living in the End Times? It carries a joint LaHaye-Jenkins author credit. Reading it, one realizes that Jenkins likely authored it after listening to audiotapes by LaHaye, because he misspells words that he does not know. For example, on page 176 he refers to John Paul II holding world prayer day in "Iccesse, Italy," an apparent mishearing of "Assisi," where the world prayer day was actually held. A further indication of the slap-dash manner in which the book was produced is that, in the same passage, it refers to John Paul II as "Pope Paul II."
But such slips are not where the problem lies. The authors repeat a familiar litany of bargain basement anti-Catholic charges: In the fourth century the Emperor Constantine brought horrible disaster on the Church. "He turned over to the Christian leaders the temples of the pagans," with the result that "the pagan practices and teachings of Babylon began to worm their way into Christianity. These included prayers for the dead, making the sign of the cross, worship of saints and angels, instituting the mass, and worship of Mary." Babylon was the original wellspring of this evil, for "every false religion in the world can be traced back to Babylon," and Catholicism—being large and already corrupted with Babylonian paganism—makes an ideal candidate to spearhead the future One World Religion.
This is all nonsense.
Constantine didn’t turn over pagan temples to the Church. He didn’t even make Christianity the state religion. All he did was declare toleration for it so that it was no longer illegal to be Christian. Catholics do not give Mary, the saints, and angels the worship due to God (adoration); they honor them, as we are expected to do for others. (Remember "Honor thy father and mother"?) Making the sign of the cross was a Christian custom long before Constantine’s time. It can be shown to date back to the second century, if not the first. And the Mass was instituted when Jesus held the Last Supper.
Finally, the idea that every false religion stems from Babylon is preposterous. The city of Babylon was founded in the third or fourth millennium b.c., and we know a great deal about its religious beliefs thanks to archaeological finds. There are religions in other parts of the world (e.g., China, the Americas, Africa) that had no contact with the Babylonians and clearly are not derived from religious ideas in Babylon. They have different pantheons of gods, creation stories, ideas about the afterlife, and rituals.
The Babylon-connection charge is very common in Fundamentalist literature. The two most influential books in this regard are The Two Babylons, written in the mid-nineteenth century by Englishman Alexander Hislop, and Babylon Mystery Religion, a twentieth-century popularization of Hislop’s material written by American Ralph Woodrow. However plausible Hislop’s ideas may have been in his own day (when archaeology and anthropology were in their infancy), we now know them to be utterly false. Even Ralph Woodrow realized this after he wrote Babylon Mystery Religion, and he proved himself to be a man of conscience by writing a new book (The Babylon Connection?) to disprove his own and Hislop’s earlier work.
Unfortunately, this has not stopped The Two Babylons and Babylon Mystery Religion from continuing to have a great influence on Fundamentalist prophecy writers, since the earlier discredited claims serve their doctrinal agenda.
The book of Revelation speaks of "the great city" and figuratively depicts it as a harlot (cf. Rev. 17:16–18). In his vision, John sees that "on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations’" (17:5). This is the famed "Whore of Babylon," though Revelation doesn’t call her that.
Fundamentalist prophecy authors—in keeping with their futuristic understanding of Revelation—see this city as the Antichrist’s capital. Some see it as the city of Rome. Others (including LaHaye) see it as the literal city of Babylon in Iraq, which they hold will be rebuilt and made the center of the One World Government. (This idea’s implausibility is admitted in the first Left Behind book; when one character is reporting that the Antichrist wants to put his capital there, he concedes that "it sounds stupid.")
But as the center of the One World Government, it is also the center of the Antichrist’s One World Religion, which Fundamentalist authors see as simply a revived Babylonian paganism that has grown to syncretistically include all the world’s other religions. In particular, they see it as including the Catholic Church. Hence the view that Catholicism is already corrupted by Babylonian paganism.
But who is the Whore of Babylon, really? It isn’t literally Babylon. That’s why we’re told that its name is "a mystery"—a secret, only figuratively said to be Babylon. Could it be Rome? Perhaps. The harlot is shown riding on the Beast with seven heads (cf. Rev. 17:3), which we know to be seven hills (17:9). Rome was famous for its seven hills, so there is a possible connection here. But it would be pagan, pre-Christian Rome, not a Christian, Catholic Rome.
It strikes me as more likely, however, that it isn’t Rome at all. The fact that the harlot is seated on the Beast does not tell us how the city that the harlot represents is physically situated. It depicts her alliance with Rome. The Beast is indeed pagan Rome, but the city allied with it in the persecution of Christians is none other than Jerusalem. Thus Revelation elsewhere identifies "the great city" as one "allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord [i.e., Jesus] was crucified" (Rev. 11:8). Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, which has a history of persecuting the prophets. Thus, in prophetic passages, it receives symbolic names of evil places such as Sodom, Egypt, and Babylon. It is even called a harlot (cf. Is. 1:1, 21). Revelation notes that "in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth" (Rev. 18:24). Jerusalem—unlike Rome—was famous for slaying the prophets (cf. Matt. 23:37).
The whole Babylon theme in Left Behind is simply misdirected. In Revelation the symbol of Babylon isn’t about a future "One World Religion." It isn’t about a rebuilt city in Iraq. It is a symbolic depiction of a city that, in the ancient world, persecuted prophets and Christians (cf. Rev. 18:20).
Unfortunately, LaHaye’s end-time scenario constrains how he looks at the biblical evidence, and his prejudice against the Catholic Church causes him to try to work it into his prophetic framework. He does not know enough about Catholicism to see through the errors of The Two Babylons and Babylon Mystery Religion.
Indeed, he seems to know very little about Catholicism. One reporter recounts an interview in which he pressed LaHaye on his views about Catholics:
When I ask him what he has against Catholics—he says often that they will be under-represented among Christians taken up at the Rapture—he is at a loss to answer. It is as if they were simply bad in his book, and that’s that. Pressed, he suggests that it’s because they do not believe that the way to salvation is to receive Jesus into their hearts.
"What about Holy Communion?" I ask. "Isn’t that all about receiving Jesus, body and soul?"
The great scholar of religion looks at me blankly. "Maybe," he says. "I really don’t know."
Left Behind . . . The Kids?
Besides the bad end-time theology and anti-Catholic prejudice of the Left Behind franchise, one of its most disturbing.aspects is the clear profit motive of the series. This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that it includes a line of books specifically directed at children, called Left Behind: The Kids. The series is projected to include a total of thirty-six volumes, twenty-four of which have already been released. According to Jenkins, it is meant for children twelve to sixteen years old, though in reality it probably will be read by somewhat younger children.
It includes books with disturbing titles such as Through the Flames, Facing the Future, Nicolae High (about kids in a high school named after the Antichrist), The Underground, Busted, Death Strike, Fire from Heaven, Terror in the Stadium, The Attack of Apollyon, Horsemen of Terror, Death at the Gala, The Beast Arises, The Mark of the Beast, Breakout!, Murder in the Holy Place, Escape to Masada (the site of a mass suicide), and War of the Dragon.
The creation of this set of books was a crass commercial suggestion by the publisher, Tyndale House. Jenkins explains:
The idea for a kids’ series based on Left Behind really came from the publisher. And at first blush it seemed to make sense. I’ve written a lot of kids’ fiction in the past and the main idea that we had was to not just dumb-down the product so that it would be easier to read for kids but to start with new main characters and have them be in the age group of the readers. So we start with four kids from ages twelve to sixteen. . . . And then they have their own adventures and exciting times fighting the Antichrist and trying to stay in hiding at times to keep from being exposed as believers. . . . And they’ve proven to be very popular.
This is very disturbing, because twelve- to sixteen-year-old children are simply not prepared psychologically for intensive end-times speculation. This is a matter that I can speak to personally. I grew up in the South, in the "Bible Belt," in the 1970s, when Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was all the rage. The Cold War was underway, and the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over our heads. I and my friends were scared out of our wits by the paranoid, end-times speculation that surrounded us.
Spurred on by all the talk of it from adults, I read the book of Revelation and other prophetic books of the Bible, but I was completely intellectually unprepared to understand them. Without a mooring in the history, modes of thought, and symbolism of the ancient Near East, I had no ability to critically reflect on what I was reading and was simply led along by the speculative fantasies of adult authors.
LaHaye and Jenkins might defend Left Behind: The Kids by arguing that it will help children learn about Jesus Christ and the Bible and possibly prepare them for the end times that they may have to live through. But I am in a position to respond to this, again from personal experience.
When I was caught up in the end-times frenzy of the 1970s, I didn’t learn about Jesus Christ and the Bible. The end-time scenarios that were being spun were so alarming, so compelling to my juvenile mind, that they consumed all my attention on religious matters. I was so scared of what I was assured might happen in my own lifetime that I didn’t have the breadth of vision to look at anything else. As a result, I read only the parts of the Bible that I thought were prophetic and ignored the parts that contained what I really needed to know about—Jesus and the gospel.
Of course, my family at this time was not attending church regularly, and if they had been, I no doubt would have been exposed to a more balanced presentation of the Bible. LaHaye and Jenkins might argue that the same is true of kids today. But the point is this: Those kids who are regularly attending church and getting broad biblical exposure don’t need to be taught about Jesus Christ by a set of frightening children’s books.
The only children whom the books might "lead to Christ" are those who aren’t having their faith nurtured in a church. And these are precisely the kids who—as happened with me—will be given a distorted and frightening picture of what Christianity is all about.
I attribute this false and distorted picture as a major contributing factor in my teenage rejection of Christianity and flirtation with the New Age movement. If Christianity was all about terrifying visions of the end of the world, then I wanted no part of it. It was easier to take refuge in the utopian prophecies of New Agers, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I encountered Christianity in another context and learned what the gospel of Christ and the Bible are all about.
With regret, I predict that Left Behind: The Kids will do today exactly what end-time speculation did to my childhood, only in a more intense form, since it is directly marketed to children. Now, with the Left Behind books all the rage in Evangelical circles, the war on terrorism underway, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction hanging over our heads, numerous kids will be led down the same path I was led. Many kids will be frightened out of their wits, have nightmares, and grow up with a paranoid, distorted view of Christianity. Many will reject the faith altogether. And some will not come back.
Conclusion: Prophet Motive vs. Profit Motive
Two motives are at war in the pages of the Left Behind franchise. The first is a sincere desire to advance people’s knowledge of God’s prophetic words—what we may call a "prophet motive." The second is the simple desire to make a buck—plain, old, ordinary profit motive.
Tim LaHaye may be credited with a genuine desire to help people better understand the prophetic.aspect of the Bible. The trouble is that his understanding of Bible prophecy is seriously defective. As a result, he spreads more error than knowledge. He leads people to needlessly obsess about and fear the future. And, however sincerely, he leads people away from true Christian faith.
What about the second motive? There is nothing wrong with financial success, but when the means by which one achieves it involves spreading error and fear, it is shameful. Worse, the profit motive of the series sometimes seems to be the stronger of the two.
This is illustrated by the hack writing quality of the novels. (Would God really send an angel to pilot an airplane for the heroes, as happens in The Remnant? Would the United Nations turn over power to the Antichrist just because he gives a speech in which he affectingly reads the names of its member countries, as happens inLeft Behind?) The profit motive is also on display in the slap-dash nature of its non-fiction add-ons, but it most clearly comes out in Tyndale House’s suggestion of (and the authors’ acquiescence to) the Left Behind: The Kids series, which will disturb the spiritual and psychological well-being of countless children.
One hopes that—on the Judgment Day that their writings inch toward—LaHaye and Jenkins will find their efforts recognized as a sincere attempt (however misguided) to spread knowledge of God’s prophetic word. One fears that they will discover their work condemned as undertaken in the service of false profit, a tragic example of the authors trying to serve both God and mammon.
The books of the Left Behind series raise more questions about Bible prophecy than a booklet can examine. For further exploration of many of these topics, see the following articles and books:
Jimmy Akin, "The Antichrist," This Rock, April 2003, 38.
Jimmy Akin, "Apocalypse Not," This Rock, January 2000, 10–17.
Jimmy Akin, "The Earthquake Generation," This Rock, February 1998, 12–16.
Jimmy Akin, "Hunt-ing the Whore of Babylon," This Rock, part I: September 1994, 21–24; part II: October 1994, 21–24.
Carl Olson, "Recycled Rapture," This Rock, Sept. 2001, 16–18.
Carl Olson, Will Catholics Be Left Behind? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003).
Paul Thigpen, The Rapture Trap (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2001).