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The Apocalypse Is Just Around the Corner

Tim LaHaye’s “Glorious Appearing”

By Betsey Culp

When I was 11 or 12, a woman named Jean Henderson joined the little Presbyterian church I attended. She volunteered to teach Sunday school and ended up, by choice or by luck, with a class of junior high school girls, including me.

Miss Henderson took her mission seriously. Or perhaps she just liked the company of young people. In any case, she soon instituted a Wednesday evening social hour in her tiny apartment, where we — five or six of us — sat on the floor, eating cookies and talking.

As I recall, the conversation was pretty secular, and pretty unmemorable. There couldn’t have been any overt sermonizing or we wouldn’t have kept going back. Our hostess was a good listener, and much of the time she sat smiling in her chair while we chattered away.

But she did have one requirement: at every session she assigned us a Bible verse to memorize during the following week. One week she offered us the simplicity of John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Another week she presented us with the intellectual pyrotechnics of Hebrews 11:1 — “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

There was never much discussion of the verses. I think we learned them mainly because we liked our teacher and she valued them. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how important the little ritual must have been for her.

Jean Henderson was a tiny dark-haired woman from somewhere down south. She told us that she had been raised in a strict fundamentalist home, from which she was ejected when she began to wear lipstick and go to the movies. That was when she moved north and she found a clerical job. To my young eyes, she seemed dreadfully middle-aged — a proper spinster — but she was probably in her mid-20s. Her youthful rebellion hadn’t led her very far astray, and it was hard to imagine her flirting or going out on a date. She spoke of her ostracism with great sorrow, as though she had been cast out of the Garden of Eden. But maybe the analogy is a false one: she never showed the slightest desire to go back. Instead, she became a soft-spoken Miss Jean Brodie, instilling in her “girls” a respect for the traditions she had left behind.

After that year, I don’t think I ever saw her again. The church started a social organization for teenagers, and I threw myself into the titillation of boy-girl relationships. But I assume — I hope — that Miss Jean Henderson took another group of girls under her wing and showed them the quiet pleasures of old-fashioned Christian fellowship.

It was thus in a nostalgic frame of mind that I began to read Tim LaHaye’s “Glorious Appearing.” If you haven’t come across the book — the clerk at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books hadn’t — it’s the latest (number 12) in a Christian-fiction series called “Left Behind,” set after the end of the world as we know it.

In the publishing world, this series is big, says Ira J. Hadnot of the Dallas Morning News: “The 12 Left Behind books have sold 42 million copies, counting both paperback and hardcover sales. When children's editions, graphic novels and the like are counted, the figure is 62 million. In addition, there are spinoff products, from calendars and music CDs to greeting cards and computer software.”

These are presumably the books that George W. Bush’s faith-based supporters are reading. So I decided to see what they were all about. I figured that, as the Christian Right’s answer to Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, these books might not be well written but at least they’d spin an exciting yarn.


Imagine 400 pages that alternate between scenes from a very gory video game and excerpts from sermons.

Imagine dull.

Admittedly, I may have chosen the wrong book. The series begins — forgive me if I’ve gotten some of the finer points wrong — with the Rapture, the end-of-the-world moment when all Christians are taken to heaven. Two weeks later Antichrist signs a covenant with Israel, beginning the seven-year Tribulation, a time of constant warfare for control of the world, when most of the series takes place. At the end of this period, when Jesus returns to earth, everyone who is still an unbeliever perishes. Everyone who became a Christian after the Rapture is spared, and they join their deceased believing loved ones to enter the millennial kingdom where Jesus reigns. (There are more complications at the end of the Millennium, but that is apparently outside the scope of the series.)

“Glorious Appearing” describes Jesus’s Second Coming. The characters quite naturally tend to turn their attention heavenward, which may partially account for its lack of excitement. I’ve heard that an earlier volume includes the simultaneous destruction of major cities all over the world. But nevertheless, it’s hard to believe that anything could top the final battle between Christ and Antichrist.

It turns out, though, that the poor forces of evil haven’t a chance. At the battle of Armageddon, Jesus says, “What has been determined shall be done.” And that’s it:

The great army was in pandemonium, tens of thousands at a time screaming in terror and pain and dying in the open air. Their blood poured from them in great waves, combining to make a river that quickly became a swamp.

In spite of the almost-constant violence, there is a strangely static quality to the book, perhaps because the outcome of the battles is pre-ordained. There is much rejoicing when non-believers convert — the numbers are recorded on a website — but even the hope of salvation loses its dramatic appeal in a world where God hardens some people’s hearts so they will never believe.

In a world where belief in the divinity of Jesus is the only salvation, good and evil fade in importance. Human actions lose their value. In the end, the main characteristic in “Glorious Appearing” that distinguishes Antichrist from his opponents is his deplorable manners. Human relationships, usually the fonts of fictional tension, also lose their power to compel: “In the back of [one character’s] mind was the prospect — soon, he hoped — of reunions with loved ones. But having Jesus in their midst made everyone think only of Him.”

In a place like San Francisco, it’s hard to take sentiments like this seriously. But millions and millions of Americans obviously do. While I was reading “Glorious Appearing” over the weekend, I flipped on Channel 2 just in time to catch an address by Billy Graham. Yes, he said, he was very aware of the prophecies concerning the end of the world. And from what he could see of the world today, most of them have come true.

I recalled a DVD that I watched before the election called “George W. Bush: Faith in the White House,” which was not shown on our local stations but reached millions elsewhere through Christian networks. Even in the White House, faith trumps action: if we are to believe the message of the movie, Bush is a great president not because of his record as a war president or because of his economic programs; he is great because (1) he is a believer, and because (2) he takes time out of his busy schedule to sympathize with people who mourn.

Talk about the resurgence of the Christian Right is nothing new. Although the mainstream press tends to overlook it, other religious groups have been watching. Tom Sine, a contributor to the progressive evangelical magazine Sojourner, writes, “LaHaye's writings tend to foster both an eschatology of disengagement and the politics of fear…. Implicit in this kind of literature is a fatalistic view of the future and a degenerative view of history. As a consequence many Christians who ardently embrace this view insist that ‘the Bible teaches that everything is destined to get worse and worse, so it makes absolutely no sense to work for social change. The best we can do is to get a few more people in that salvation life boat before Jesus comes back.’”

The Rev. Davidson Loehr, of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, makes even more ominous connections: “Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government's policies or actions.”

LaHaye himself has forged another kind of political link. On November 10 the Rev. Jerry Falwell announced the formation of a new coalition, a "21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority” designed to “maintain an evangelical revolution of voters.” The Moral Majority Coalition includes a four-point platform:

(1) TMMC will conduct an intensive four-year "Voter Registration Campaign" through America's conservative churches, para-church ministries, pro-life and pro-family organizations.

(2) TMMC will conduct well organized "Get-Out-The-Vote Campaigns" in 2006 and 2008.

(3) TMMC will engage in the massive recruitment and mobilization of social conservatives through television, radio, direct mail (U.S.P.S. and Internet) and public rallies.

(4) TMMC will encourage the promotion of continuous private and corporate prayer for America's moral renaissance based on 2 Chronicles 7:14. [“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”]

Falwell will serve as national chairman; the chairman of the board is Tim LaHaye.

I bet they won’t be sitting on the floor, eating cookies and talking.