The sixteen-novel Left Behind series of evangelical thrillers is at least as influential a text in the annals of latter-day prophecy belief as the Book of Revelation. Which, of course, happens to furnish source material for the series’ intensively literalist accounting of the rapture, the tribulation, and the final judgment. The series, by Baptist preacher-turned-culture-warrior Tim LaHaye and evangelical sports and comics writer Jerry Jenkins, debuted in 1995 and concluded in 2007, and not counting the raft of prequels, children’s adaptations, study guides, and audiobooks that have come in its wake, it has sold more than 65 million copies.
The Left Behind novels bear abundant testimony to a curious fusion of premillennial certainty and America-centric convenience. In fashioning their optimal account of the Last Days, LaHaye and Jenkins have taken copious care to leave all the trappings of the American culture of abundance intact. The Left Behind series lays out, in carefully wrought detail, a fully wired, upwardly mobile, and incorrigibly flush account of post-Rapture life on earth. The divine reckoning chronicled in Left Behind restores the book’s protagonists—a ragtag band of pre-rapture skeptics, now hastily conducted into the second birth and primed to do battle with the Antichrist and his bumbling crew of bureaucratic evildoers—to still greater material largesse. Even as the plagues multiply and the cosmic forces of good and evil mass for the final confrontation, the members of the Tribulation Force, as they come to be known, absurdly continue to prosper and pile up high-end possessions.
The de facto leader of the Force, a steely, rational airline pilot named, appropriately enough, Rayford Steele, is promoted from his civil aviation job to captain the private flight team of the rising Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia—a shifty Eastern European enthusiast of one-world government who murders his way to the head of the UN general assembly, and from there, inevitably, a dictatorial new perch as a potentate of a global cult of satanic power. Buck Williams, the hot-headed but brilliant features writer for a major newsweekly, likewise gets recruited to work in Carpathia’s communications empire.
Early on, the members of the Tribulation Force are clued into the many ways in which they are living out the laboriously literal fulfillment of the prophecies of Revelation—yet even when Steele and Cameron are bivouacked in the very heart of the Carpathia’s empire in the Middle Eastern desert kingdom of New Babylon, they compulsively continue to coordinate the Tribulation Force’s activities by commuting back to the United States—a habit that, among other things, exposes them to all sorts of needless personal and tactical risk.
The America-centric course of events in Left Behind is both bizarre plotting and poor Tribulation Force strategy. Tremendous amounts of time—and hundreds upon hundreds of pages–are eaten up by the minutiae of air travel, and the simple logistics of ferrying this or that Tribulation warrior from New World Point A to Promised Land Point B and then back again.
All the major characters in Left Behind speak fluent English, even when they’re outfitted with names and ethnic backgrounds that Jenkins and LaHaye clearly regard as suspiciously alien and exotic—and all quickly adapt the dictums of free-market success to the unprecedented challenges of ushering humanity through the final stage of divinely scripted human history.
Nearly all the leaders of the Tribulation Force are affluent, highly regarded professionals. The original band of Christian apostles may have been despised, marginal figures in the Judean social order, including fishermen and tax collectors, but that sort of dispensation doesn’t cut it in the eschatology of the digital age. Here is Chang Wong, the hotshot teenaged evangelical double agent who’s promoted to manage all the computer systems in the Global Community, the revived Roman Empire run by the Carpathia, closely monitoring the pending martyrdom of a key founding member of the Tribulation Force, Buck Williams’ wife (and Rayford Steele’s daughter) Chloe, when God showers manna on the faithful, just as prophecy foretold:
Chang glanced over to where the elders sat before a big screen, and beyond them, hundreds of computer keyboarders awaited instructions. The fading late-afternoon sun cast slanted rays through the door a hundred feet from Chang, and he was moved nearly to tears by the gently falling manna. Providing food for his chosen, protecting and thrilling Chang, comforting Chloe, and sending messengers with the everlasting gospel . . . . God was the ultimate multitasker.
It is, of course, jarring to see an omnipotent Creator characterized in language usually reserved for employee-of-the-month honors, but even more curious is the setting: Exiled in an ancient biblical holy city, the final faithful remnant have instinctively recreated a giant data-processing facility, replete with a wall-sized video screen and a bank of computers.
The many volumes of Left Behind abound with this sort of inapposite conflation of prophetic faith with the rewards, work rituals, and rhetoric of the capitalist marketplace.
In the series’ eighth volume, Buck and Chloe’s hard-driven Range Rover finally gives out, and the couple then adjourns to the basement garage of the luxury Chicago high-rise in which the Force has taken refuge. They find two Humvees on offer, along with an armada of vehicles abandoned in the wake of Chicago’s nuclear devastation. “This is the most fun I’ve had in ages,” Chloe says. “It’s like we’re in a free car dealership and it’s our turn to pick . . . .[A]ll we have to do is decide what model and color car we want.”
It’s exceedingly hard to work out just how the material windfall from nuclear annihilation can be summed up with the confident pronouncement that “When God blesses, he blesses,” let alone that the ghoulish pastime of combing over the discarded belongings of the dead can be “the most fun I’ve had in ages.”
The protagonists of Left Behind recognize no fundamental distinction between the hand of God guiding the endgame of history and the invisible hand of the capitalist market. If cities are annihilated for the sake of expediting the timely delivery of a new all-terrain luxury vehicle, well, God works in mysterious ways.
This is all to say nothing, of course, of the Tribulation Force’s extended romance with military hardware, which makes for an extremely awkward tour as ambassadors for the Prince of Peace. As they decamp for their Armageddon HQ in Petra, most high-level members of the Tribulation Force tote an exceedingly powerful “directed energy weapon,” which heats up the skin of any human target to an intolerable level. It’s technically a non-lethal gun, which permits its Christian users to sustain the fig-leaf conceit that they are not actually taking human lives.
Meanwhile, Rayford Steele, guided by his trademark technophilia and macho can-do spirit, procures a decidedly lethal, massive force weapon known as “Saber” to be brandished in the assassination of the Antichrist. Though the mission is ultimately aborted, Steele gives it a trial run over a rapt, 11-page passage that revels in the particulars of the enormous weapon’s capacity for just-in-time gore delivery. Lest there be any doubt whether God would, all in all, prefer that such artillery be forged into ploughshares, a divine messenger lays it definitively to rest.
There is, of course, a set of background economic assumptions that undergirds the frenetic worship of testosterone-driven technology in Left Behind, and not surprisingly, it comes straight from the hard-money metal-hoarder’s playbook. Even in the early phases of the tribulation drama, the always-enterprising Buck Williams realizes that “he needed to start investing in gold. Cash would soon be meaningless.”
Like the occasional callouts that crop up in the Left Behind series hailing the paramilitary contributions that the former American militia movement have lent to the Tribulation Force’s cause, this paranoid paean to the saving properties of gold in a civilization-wide crisis is an admiring nod to the thought leaders of hard-right conservatism.
What LaHaye and Jenkins are preaching, at the end of history, is evangelical market utopianism. After all, much of the point of end-of-the-world fiction, regardless of its particular spiritual rooting interests, is utopian—to deliver a fully realized portrait of how the cosmic drama of history can and should be redeemed. No less than the Book of Mormon’s account of the New World setting for the Garden of Eden and Christ’s eventual return, Left Behind betrays a reflexive identification of the cosmic order of divine justice and the way that America’s market culture orders life outcomes. (It bears reminding in this connection that the Book of Mormon also endorses a racialized hierarchy of divine favor—albeit a much more explicitly racist one, in which God punishes sinners for their trespasses by denying them a white pigmentation.)
But in this distinctly hierarchical vision of the freshly restored cosmic spiritual order, the meritocratic protocols of the old market regime quietly endure. The global information elite known as the Tribulation Force is settling into its privileged birthright—its members will quietly (and perhaps a bit ruefully) retire their Directed Energy Weapons and fighter planes while apparently still enjoying premium cell-phone reception. They anticipate they will neither age nor suffer pain during Jesus’ thousand-year reign on Earth. (Conversely, as they see the final cohort of millions of their fellow humans banished to eternal torment in the pits of Hell, one in their number offers a deeply complacent one-word summation of the scene: “Sad”—conjuring much the same blasé social fatalism that a distracted CEO might volunteer if an unkempt squeegee man were to set about furiously wiping down the windshield of his Porsche in the expectation of a tip.) The fortunate veterans of the Tribulation Force can even count upon the diligent handiwork of a concierge Christ who cleans out their abodes so that “not a speck of dust” remains—and then graciously professes his pleasure in their domestic service.
In the besetting glow of a redeemed planet—New Heaven, New Earth—the smooth, shiny surfaces of the comfortable market order hum onward, with no rough beast slouching in its way. In the wake of great cosmic tumult and unspeakably bloody distress among the ever-sinning human race, the millennium has dawned, and it betokens the final enclosure of faith by the Money Cult. Jesus is restored to his true worshipers, and all, at last, is right in God’s universe.
This is adapted from the new book The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream by Chris Lehmann, which is out today. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted with permission of Melville House Publishing.