The Legacy of Dr. Tim LaHaye: A God with Bite

Dr. Tim Lahaye, co-author of the “Left Behind” international best seller series, died recently. Dr. LaHay conceived the idea of fictionalizing an account of the Rapture and Tribulation, and he leaves behind Left Behind as a spiritual legacy, with more than 75 million series volumes sold.

Left Behind offers one Christian perspective of the so-called “end times,” including Armageddon, the Rapture, the anti-Christ and much, much more. To be sure, many Christians – the majority as far as I can see – repudiate this catastrophic vision of the future, but with all those volumes out there, best pay attention.

The first volume, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s last Days, opens at daybreak over the Atlantic Ocean aboard a Chicago to London-bound jumbo jet. If you fly overnight, you know the scene – engines droning, dark cabin, and people sleeping. All of a sudden, 100 passengers disappear without warning, leaving behind flight bags, clothing, jewelry, wallets, passports and loved ones. Confusion, panic and anger fill the cabin, as remaining passengers have no idea how spouses, children and companions vanished into thin air.

Reading on, we learn that the very same thing happened all over the world at the very same moment. Flight crews went missing from other airliners – planes fell from the sky. Back on earth, drivers disappeared from cars, busses and trucks, and vehicles crashed. Many of those left behind were badly injured and, without ambulance drivers or other health care workers, died. Every child vanished from the face of the earth in this horrible scenario. In fact, every fetus disappeared from the womb.

People concocted all sorts of wild explanations, including alien abductions. But in this work of religious fiction, the authors reveal that the innocent and the faithful were taken up in the Rapture to bask in God’s glorious presence for all eternity. Others – the unconverted, the unrepentant – were left behind to languish for lost loved ones, suffer, yet given a hint of an opportunity to make spiritual amends in the near future.

The series has made a mark. The inside cover cites Publishers Weekly, calling it “the most successful Christian-fiction series ever.” The New York Times says it “Combines Tom Clancy-like suspense with touches of romance, high-tech flash and Biblical references,” and Entertainment Weekly said, “Call it what you like, the Left Behind series… now has a label its creators could never have predicted: blockbuster success.”

Dr. LaHaye loved this vindictive Jesus. Elsewhere, he wrote, “Men and women soldiers seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin…. Their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated.”

End times scenarios, like the one in Left Behind, got a lot of attention leading up to the year 2000 and the worries over the so-called Y2K computer bug. In 1998, Dr. LaHaye prophesied that Y2K “could trigger a financial meltdown leaning to an international depression, which would make it possible for the Antichrist or his emissaries to establish a one-world currency or a one-world economic system, which will dominate the world commercially until it is destroyed.” Dr. LaHaye and others warned that Y2K could bring the return of a Jesus acting more like a vicious lion than a gentle lamb.  But Y2K came and went—gentle as a lamb.

I emailed a few progressive ministers I know for their reactions to Left Behind; each condemned the vision and book. They wanted everyone to be aware how strongly they repudiate this punishing Jesus.  One wrote that these end times scenarios, “are horrible distortions of the Book of Revelations.  God is a healer, rather than a vengeful judge.” And this comment takes us to my first reaction to this horrible vision: God loves all people, even souls who believe that righteous will be raptured and sinners will be left behind.

Just as many Christians want nothing of these angry ideas, a good number subscribe to them. It’s hard to be precise, but it appears that many self-described Christian Pentecostals, Evangelicals and Charismatics, for instance, believe that the faithful will be raptured up to heaven before this tough love Jesus returns.

There really is nothing new to this fire and brimstone God. My mentor, the late Rabbi Chaim Stern, told a story of a preacher’s forecast of a God with bite:

“I warn you! There will be weeping! There will be wailing! There will be gnashing of teeth!” At that point in the sermon, a worshipper rose and shouted, “But Reverend. I have no teeth!” And the preacher responded, “Let me assure you. Come the end of days, teeth will be provided.” There’s always been a theology with teeth.

Turning to my own faith, let’s recognize that some Jews hold on to extreme end times scenarios, too, such as resurrection of the dead to Jerusalem via underground tunnels. And there have been Jewish false messiahs, movements and predictions through history and today that involve personalities such as Shabbati Tzvi, David Alroy and Rabbi Menahem Mendel Shneerson. The point is that some Jews have put forward ideas as outlandish as suggested by Dr. LaHaye.

So Dr. LaHaye’s legacy lives on. Meanwhile, many of us faithful envision a time when all God’s children – sinner, saint and the many of us somewhere in between – will live together in peace. Our gentler voices – those of us with more embracing faith perspectives – are often lost in the din. The real problem is that followers of rapture theology, who hold high national and state office, seek to establish laws and policies based on these negative faith perspectives. We need to do better at spreading the positive word, so that our message – and our religious freedom – doesn’t get left behind the angry rhetoric.

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross serves at East End Temple in Manhattan. 

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Reading Between the Lies: Religion, Truthfulness and Nuance

It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion when religion goes under the social science microscope. Consider a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. The survey, “Religion in Everyday Life,”[1] does a good job examining differences in belief and behavior between “highly religious” and “not highly religious” people. But one observation about the faithful and truth telling calls for a more nuanced conversation.

The report finds that “highly religious people” are generally happier with life, more involved with extended family, more likely to volunteer, read the Bible, donate money, time or goods to help the poor, attend religious services, rest on the Sabbath, and rely on prayer when making personal decisions. Beyond these differences, there are similarities: Members of both groups tend to get the same amount of exercise, make as many socially conscious consumer decisions, lose their temper as often, recycle as much – and to the point of truth and falsehood – admit to telling little white lies: 39% of “highly religious” admitted to telling a little lie in the previous week, as opposed to 45% of “not highly religious.” That’s a six percent difference; enough to make a winner out of a presidential candidate, but not very much in this kind of study. We can say that 4 in ten surveyed people – highly religious or not – told a white lie in ANY given week.

It might be surprising to hear that highly religious people lie so often, especially since many of the surveyed highly religious people called “being honest all the time” “essential.” You’d expect more honesty from religious folks – “They should practice what they faiths preach!” – but not so fast. We have to “read between the lies.” To be sure, truth telling is “essential,” yet my faith and others also affirms that that telling a lie – little or big – may well be the moral thing to do. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’ve looked forward to a good friend’s wedding and the day has finally arrived. You’re at the reception, and, as much as you love your friend, this wedding, like any other, is not perfect – it could be the food, the band or any of a number of things. Nevertheless, when the wedding couple comes to your table and asks, “Are you having a good time?”  you reply with an enthusiastic “Today is absolutely perfect!”

Now that’s not the biggest lie a person could tell. The point is that Judaism teaches that kind of lie is no sin, and I am sure that many other faithful would agree.

Centuries ago, the disciples of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai apparently faced a similar wedding question, when a bride – or groom for that matter –  must have asked, “How do I look?”  Shammai, stickler for the letter of the law, instructs the wedding guest to speak of “a bride as she is.” Be honest, for better or for worse. But Hillel has a different opinion. Tell her she’s “a beautiful and graceful bride.” Be positive. Be polite.

In response, Shammai points to the book of Exodus (23:7) – “Keep far from falsehood” – and insists truth be told, regardless. Now, Hillel knows what the book of Exodus says and he doesn’t need a reminder. Hillel believes in the moral good of a lie told to prevent hurt feelings. And the Talmud goes on to say that “From this the Sages concluded that a person should always conduct oneself in a pleasant manner” as when speaking with a groom or bride. (Ketubot 16b -17a) So don’t come to the wrong conclusion: There may be no inconsistency when “highly religious people” preach honestly yet practice lying that serves a higher goal, such as sparing someone’s feelings, saving a life, or keeping the peace. To the point of the recently released survey, we have to keep an eye open to nuance with discussing religion, truth and falsehood. Yes, those who are highly religious and those who are not may appear to lie to a similar degree, but that religious person’s lie is different when it honors a faith teaching that insists a particular kind of little lie serves higher moral good.

So there may be nothing at all hypocritical when religious folks call truthfulness “essential” and then go out and tell little lies. Jewish tradition and other faith teachings – along with common sense – recognize that a little lie can have a positive impact.

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, MSW, serves East End Temple in New York City.