A Critical Analysis of the “Left Behind” Series (2): The Characters

Tribulation Force

The Protagonists

The first book in the Left Behind series introduces the four primary characters who form the inner core group. Rayford Steele is a well-to-do, upper-class, all-American airline pilot. His nineteen-year-old daughter Chloe Steele is a college student and a natural-born skeptic of religion and supernatural phenomena. Cameron “Buck” Williams is an award-winning, globe-trotting journalist. Bruce Barnes is an assistant pastor of a small church who thought he was a Christian prior to the Rapture but had a rude awakening when he was left behind, at which point he realized he was not the right kind of Christian for God. Rayford, Chloe and Buck are people who outwardly rejected the fundamentalist Christian faith of their family, friends and acquaintances. Rayford, Chloe and Bruce Barnes lived their lives surrounded by Christian influence, while Buck Williams is a wholly secular agnostic [1] who has virtually no exposure to Christianity aside from a Christian colleague, and thus initially knows next to nothing about Christian theology.

Other characters are introduced in the ensuing installments, joining the cast of primary protagonists. Among them is Tsion Ben-Judah, an Orthodox Jewish scholar-turned Christian fundamentalist. Tsion plays the role of spiritual guide and mentor to the other protagonists and is essentially a stand-in or “Author Avatar” for Tim LaHaye [2]. He is rarely involved in the action, spending most of his time in hiding while researching biblical prophecy in order to consult with the other “tribulation saints” on what judgments are coming next and writing end-times sermons for his online cyberministry. An African-American physician named Floyd Charles joins the team of protagonists in the fourth book (Soul Harvest). A clear instance of tokenism, the character of Dr. Floyd Charles was probably the authors’ way of offsetting any potential accusations of racism. Of course, Floyd Charles is among the characters that die, in his case from contracting “time-released cyanide” poison by osmosis after treating a woman who was poisoned by the Antichrist [3]. All the other characters are white.

These characters are heavily stereotyped, for a simple reason that is to be expected given the nature of the case. The people to whom these books are geared are predominantly those who believe they will not be left behind when their awaited-for Rapture occurs. Thus, there is really no need to make any of the characters either believable or relatable. Indeed, the main characters are not the kind of people born-again Christian readers of the series are supposed to relate to. Again, Christian readers of these books are in a real sense a “lost audience.”

Nicolae

Antichrist Superstar

The Christian concept of the Antichrist has fascinated believers and nonbelievers alike for the last two thousand years, despite the fact that this enigmatic figure is mentioned only twice in the whole Bible, both references contained in a single verse (1 John 2:18). This solitary mention of “antichrist” has taken on a life and mythology of its own, likely due to Christians spuriously equating the epistle’s personage to the “Beast” in Revelation and the “Man of Perdition” in Daniel. As religious historian Bernard McGinn remarks, “What is most significant about Antichrist’s appearance in literature has been the attempts to probe the motivation (and at times even the psychology) behind ultimate human evil . . . It is probably no accident that novels and novellas, where motivation and character development are so important, display the most interesting Antichrists [4].”

Nicolae Carpathia, President of Romania when we first meet him, is by far my favorite character in the Left Behind series, especially once he really breaks into his role as the Antichrist at the height of his power [5]. He becomes the host body of Satan himself following his death and resurrection at the end of the seventh book (The Indwelling), and all the protagonists adamantly abhor him.

And yet the world names schools after him! The whole reason Carpathia is pegged as the Antichrist by the protagonists at the end of the first book is because the world loves him, not because he rains down fire, controls the weather, and executes his critics (which he does not do until much later on in the series). Apparently, a great politician who starts out with a sincere desire to unify the world in the midst of a global crisis and whom everybody loves is perfect Antichrist material for our authors.

Indeed, in Left Behind, the villains just happen to be the people most often demonized by LaHaye and the Christian Right in general, i.e. United Nations officials, the Europeans, the “liberal media,” freethinkers of all stripes, civil rights activists, women’s rights activists, etc. In a scathing profile done on Tim LaHaye in Rolling Stone magazine in 2004, Robert Dreyfuss gives us a revealing glimpse of just how far LaHaye’s paranoia extends:

According to LaHaye, civilization is threatened by a worldwide conspiracy of secret societies and liberal groups intent on destroying “every vestige of Christianity.” Among the participants in this conspiracy are the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, “the major TV networks, high-profile newspapers and newsmagazines,” the U.S. State Department, major foundations (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford), the United Nations, “the left wing of the Democratic Party,” Harvard, Yale “and 2,000 other colleges and universities.” All of this is assembled to “turn America into an amoral, humanist country, ripe for merger into a one-world socialist state.” [6]

Dreyfuss also points out that Left Behind was first conceived as a self-righteous projection of LaHaye’s own extremely repressed moral strictures into the business of others: “As LaHaye tells the story, one day, about 1994, he was sitting on an airplane, watching a married pilot flirting with a flight attendant, and it hit him: What would befall the sinful pilot if the Rapture happened now?” [7]

According to the end-times doctrine of right-wing Christians, the Antichrist is both the most evil human being who will ever live and the first person to succeed in single-handedly bringing peace to the world. This belief opens the door for such Christians to label anyone who comes along and tries to make the world a better place as an evil person or group. This is something we hear over and over again from the Christian Right. Any time the news reports on the efforts of some influential figure who expresses the desire to see peace brought to the Middle East, for example, such Christians immediately narrow their eyes and suspect he is the Antichrist. This outlook completely inverts the progressive values and of humanitarian compassion and understanding as bad, and presents ignorance, hatred and war as good. The Left Behind series strongly reflects this paranoia toward all things bearing even the semblance of secularism and progressivism. But I will be conciliatory here and state that Left Behind, in addition to employing end-times scare tactics under a thin marketing veneer of fiction, does misrepresent certain prominent portions of the Bible. In the words of Isaiah, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (5:20).

There are a number of obvious fallacies inherent in the storyline, and Carpathia, LaHaye’s “good evil,” is probably the most difficult to make sense of. To wit: When the Rapture occurs and millions of people all over the world vanish into thin air, the Antichrist explains the event away as the result of residual radiation left over from decades of nuclear bomb testing that vaporized random people:

“When the time is appropriate, I will allow Dr. Rosenzweig to speak for himself, but for now I can tell you that the theory that makes the most sense to me is briefly as follows: The world has been stockpiling nuclear weapons for innumerable years. Since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 and the Soviet Union first detonated its own devices September 23, 1949, the world has been at risk of nuclear holocaust. Dr. Rosenzweig and his team of renowned scholars is close to the discovery of an atmospheric phenomenon that may have caused the vanishing of so many people instantaneously.” [8]

Fred Clark, author of the excellent Slacktivist blog which offers detailed deconstructions of the Left Behind books and movie, has an interesting comment on this scene as it appears in Vic Sarin’s film adaptation [9], which was released direct-to-video in 2000 and starred evangelist Kirk Cameron:

Back in NYC, Ivy and her friend are watching a Nicolae Carpathia press conference on Ivy’s computer — a nifty trick back in 2000. Nicolae offers the same nonsensical non-explanation for the disappearances that he offers in the book: “We have confirmed that the disappearances have been caused by accumulated radiation from decades of nuclear weapons testing.”

That doesn’t even try to make sense, yet here, as in the book, everybody happily swallows this. Not only do they universally accept this explanation for why random people simultaneously disintegrated (and only people, no animals or plants), but they universally greet as reassuring the news that the atmosphere is filled with undetectable radiation that might, at any moment, cause them to spontaneously disintegrate too:

“Where are they? Where are my mother and my brother? Where are my children?”

“Don’t worry, they disappeared due to accumulated radiation from decades of nuclear weapons testing.”

“Oh. Well, OK then. Anybody know what’s playing at the multiplex?” [10]

This really is representative of the level of intellectual discourse found in the series. This is what happens when evangelical authors attempt to drag a very old apocalyptic text into a modern setting, and then try to portray how they think fictional skeptics would rationalize what happens. Spoiler alert: They end up creating a strawman portrayal of skeptics. Has everybody in this story forgotten about the centuries of Christian proselytizing? Prior to the Rapture, Christians had made it their mission to save as many people as possible so that they can get zapped away to heaven before the seven years of Tribulation got to them first.

But we know that the world depicted in the novels is not placed under some magic spell of amnesia after the Rapture, because the post-Rapture believers soon take up the mantle of their recently-departed brothers and sisters and set out to save souls, all the while trying to survive the depredations of divine judgment and the Antichrist’s persecutions. In the second book (Tribulation Force), our four heroes begin to settle back into semi-normal lives after the few months of worldwide chaos covered in the first book. They decide to carry on with their various jobs as best they can, and Buck and Chloe even start a serious relationship, even though they have been made to fully understand they only have seven years at most left to live. They know the settling of the world into the makeshift peace routine established by Carpathia (who has become Secretary-General of the United Nations) is only a temporary façade. Carpathia is the Antichrist, after all, and it is a matter of course that anybody who tries to bring the world together in peace must be evil. But they play along in order to bring the lost to Christ more effectively. Rayford even becomes Carpathia’s personal pilot, and Buck becomes Carpathia’s favorite journalist.

Another oddity of the Left Behind novels that strains plausibility to its breaking point is that Carpathia, the charismatic peacemaker who brings the entire world under a single government and then betrays that peace three and a half years into his reign, is an obscure politician from Romania at the beginning of the series. Fred Clark again hits the nail on the head as to why this is implausible:

[The filmmakers’] aim here is to have it make some kind of sense that Nicolae would be the go-to guy for network reporters seeking comment immediately after the Event [the worldwide vanishing of millions]. That’s a tall order. Even if the president of Romania were as charismatic as a young Robert Redford he would still be the president of Romania, which is to say a foreigner, and Americans — and particularly American network reporters – aren’t interested in what foreigners have to say. It’s impossible to imagine any plausible scenario in which the president of Romania is who they’d want to hear from in the immediate aftermath of the abduction/disintegration of all their children. It’s unlikely the president of Romania would even be sought out for comment by the American media if the Event had been confined to Romanian children.

Even apart from any America-centric parochial tendencies here, it makes sense that in times of national tragedy, people would want to hear from their own leaders. The filmmakers hope to skip that step by killing off America’s leader, but that doesn’t work. If the loss of the president were added to the trauma of the Event, Americans would have an even more urgent need to learn that someone — someone here — was in charge, and they would need to hear from that person, not from some thickly accented man with no standing here who comes from a place most of us couldn’t find on a map [11].

Why Romania? Implicit in the Book of Revelation and according to long-standing tradition in Christian eschatology, the Antichrist is supposed to hail from Rome [12]. This is why we end up with a Romanian man in these novels. Does the first book depict Romania as a country that has become a world superpower? No, Carpathia is simply really good at talking (and based on the Bush Jr. presidency, we all know how much importance we place on that). This must be why Carpathia, the president of Romania, reports the development of the ludicrous radiation theory to the press, not the “renowned” scientists themselves.

Fans of the series may try to defend this particular aspect of the character’s development by arguing that the authors are using this sudden transformation from obscurity to fame as a device to portray Carpathia as a “dark horse” figure. But this defense falls short, because the sudden transformation is not even documented. It is simply asserted as something that happens. Even “dark horse” narratives need an appreciable level of verisimilitude to work, and Left Behind conspicuously lacks this ingredient.

NOTES

1. The beginning of the first book treats us to a backstory in which Buck experiences a close brush with death when he witnesses firsthand an attack on Israel by the entire Russian army, in fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. When the entire massive army is miraculously destroyed by divine intervention with not a single Israeli casualty, Buck decides he might be a deist instead of an agnostic (Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days [Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995], p. 79). This demonstrates that LaHaye and Jenkins have no idea what deism even is.

2. TV Tropes wiki, “Author Avatar,” http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AuthorAvatar (accessed October 6, 2014).

3. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Assassins: Assignment, Jerusalem, Target: Antichrist (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), pp. 32, 54-55.

4. Bernard McGinn, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (San Franciscio: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), p. 263.

5. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997).

6. Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Rolling Stone, February 19, 2004, p. 49.

7. Ibid.

8. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995), pp. 253-54.

9. Vic Sarin, Left Behind: The Movie (Cloud Ten Pictures, 2000).

10. Fred Clark, “LBTM: Accumulated Radiation,” Slacktivist (blog), January 9, 2009, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2009/01/09/lbtm-accumulated-radiation/ (accessed October 6, 2014).

11. Fred Clark, “LBTM: In Case of Rapture,” Slacktivist (blog) December 14, 2008, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2008/12/14/lbtm-in-case-of-rapture/ (accessed October 6, 2014).

12. This being the case, I am not sure why many fundamentalists have claimed that Barack Obama is the Antichrist, or how in their minds he is possibly supposed to fit in with Rome. In any case, the claim that Obama meets qualifications characteristic of Revelation’s Beast has been debunked. See Barbara Mikkelson and David P. Mikkelson, “Obama as Anti-Christ,” Snopes.com, August 3, 2009, http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/antichrist.asp (accessed October 6, 2014).

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About Nathan Dickey

I am a freelance writer trying to finish my degree in Journalism. I attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My interests are many, and include investigative reporting, science, philosophy, history, classic rock music, and pop culture analysis. My motivation in writing is to contribute what I can to the promotion of science and skepticism among the public. My goal is to use my journalism training to be active in the skeptical and freethought movement, analyzing dubious but popularly-believed claims involving the supernatural, the paranormal and religion.
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