Sure, they’re touted as best-selling novels, but the Left Behind books — and maybe this week’s movie release — just aren’t very good.
In 2014, the Left Behind franchise is mostly a fringe curiosity — this week’s film adaptation of the 1995 novel that started it all seems notable more because it stars Nicolas Cage than because it’s the spawn of what was in the late ’90s a pop culture phenomenon.
And it was a phenomenon. All 16 books sold well, with the ninth achieving such lofty heights as being the bestselling book in the world in 2001. And it’s easy to see how that happened, with the series being a lengthy piece of speculative fiction about the end of the world according to (an interpretation of) Biblical prophecy.
The title “Left Behind” refers to the Rapture, wherein all Christian people disappear out of their clothes and go to heaven while everybody who is left has seven years of horrible stuff — war, plagues, earthquakes, and other Judgments from God — ahead of them. This period, dubbed the Tribulation, sees a man named Nicolae Carpathia head up a new world government seemingly overnight in the wake of the disappearances. Also, Carpathia is the Antichrist, and he’s the Worst Person Ever.
The entire “main saga” of Left Behind is told over the course of 16 flippin’ books — plus there’s a YA spinoff series with teenagers, video games, graphic novels and previous film adaptations as well. I made it about halfway through the series when I was a kid, but recently I gave it another shot and got to the end. It was a truly painful journey, because the books are mostly awful, and I have lots of stuff to complain about, as both a professional media critic and somebody who has studied the Bible more than most people.
I have collected an unfathomable number of gripes over the course of reading these 16 books, far too many to discuss them all in one article. So here’s some of the big ones.
1. The good guys are actually just assholes
Let’s lay down the stakes of this tale right here at the start. At the beginning of the original book, there is just over seven years until the end of the world, and during those seven years, three-fourths of the human population of Earth will die as a result of God’s judgments and the Antichrist ruling the world with a profoundly dickish government.
Aside from the physical violence, there’s a race against the clock for souls. Christians go to heaven, everyone else goes to hell, and the good guys need to, to put it bluntly, try to rack up as high a score as they possibly can. Whether or not you’re down with Christianity in real life, if you’re gonna read the books you just kinda have to roll with it.
I explained this conflict in rather vapid terms, but obviously if you’re in the middle of this it becomes a pretty substantial fight. The eternal fate of all mankind is at stake and this spiritual war is drawing to a close and you’re either with us or against us and we really really would hope you’re with us.
But there’s a funny conversation that occurs about ten thousand times throughout this series, and it goes like this:
Non-Christian: “I go to church, I believe in God, I’m a pretty good dude, That should get me into heaven, right?”
Christian: “Nope, there’s more to it than just that.”
Now, if these conversations continued on in like a chill way like that, it’d be ok because these books totally are about spreading the Gospel and so forth. But they’re never chill, instead continuing like this.
Non-Christian: “Hey man I don’t know why gotta be all up in my face about this. You’re a real piece of work and I hate you.”
The main issue I have here is that for about 14 of the 16 books, the Christians generally do not care that much about anyone but folks who have already converted and those nonbelievers who they were already friends with. The souls of billions are at stake, and they’re all important, we’re told, but even so you never see any of our heroes mourn the death of an unsaved person who is now burning in hell. They might weep for several books in a row about their dead saved friends, but there’s a disturbing lack of general anguish about a conflict that has higher stakes than any other in history. They just never feel the weight of that struggle beyond the emotional turmoil caused by whatever has happened to them personally. It’s very strange. There are so many reasons to be an emotional wreck in this situation, but they mostly avoid the most obvious ones. You know, the ones that involve giving a shit about the lost folks out there.
Narratively, this created a huge divide between me and almost all of the good guys. In this story, their moral superiority is clearly warranted because they are right about everything, but the lack of humanity is hard to get behind. And unfortunately, a related issue I have with how this story is told probably prevented many readers from taking note of this. Which leads me too my next item…
2. Nearly everybody the heroes are friends with are converted before they die
The Left Behind series is written by a pair of Evangelicals who operate under the Revivalist tradition, which means they’re big on the “don’t put off your decision for Christ because you might leave here and get hit by a bus” conversion tactic. Sure, that might be a little annoying IRL, but in the context of this story it’s totally warranted because most everybody does end up dead by the time it’s over.
There’s a totally easy way to sell that message that our authors completely missed, though. Like, this is so obvious that it’s pretty shocking they could write all these books without ever going there. See, over the course of this series there is not even one recurring character who one of the protagonists likes confirmed as dying unsaved. Not one!
We’re talking about a series that goes really hard on “You have no idea when you might die and so putting off coming to Christ is a bad idea,” and yet every major sympathetic non-Christian ends up converting before it’s over, some making it through most of the series before giving in.
There is an interesting doctrinal discussion to be had about that — some Protestant denominations believe that God predetermines who will be saved, but our authors are not in that camp. And if you’re going to use the possibility of random, immediate death to try to pull non-Christian readers into your camp, you really ought to just go for it.
But the more immediate issue for me is that this undercuts a major theme. The “you could get hit by a bus” message is like Chekov’s gun here, except it’s never used. They never deliver on that threat, and so the threat seems meaningless. They’re just not willing to go there and show someone dying unsaved, despite filling pages with copious graphic violence. It just becomes super difficult to take that threat seriously when every non-dickish person the good guys preach to ends up joining them.
3. Huge time jumps, and glossing over important details
Twice in this series — in the second book (“Tribulation Force”) and the 11th (“Armageddon”) — they skip forward more than a year. The first time they did this, it was a little bit understandable — basically, there’s a lull before God’s judgments and all the war and death really kick into gear, and I suppose in the interest of getting to the action this is acceptable in some sense. (Not in every sense, but we’ll come back to that in a minute.)
Then, in books 10 (“The Remnant”) and 11 we get a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the entire second half of the seven-year span of the original 12 books. The series is weirdly unbalanced in the telling of this story — we got six books covering the first three-and-a-half years (including a time skip over nearly 18 months), three books that covered a single month right in the middle, and then the last three-and-a-half years are given just two books. About a year from the end, at the close of book 11, it jumps straight to the final week. The final novel, no. 12 (“Glorious Appearing”), then handles that last part.
Now, maybe they didn’t know during the second book that they’d end up doing 12 total, and then three prequels and then a postscript novel about what happens after it’s all over. And maybe the speed run through the last several years can be chalked up to the publishers taking an “OK, maybe we should start winding this down” stance even though they ended up putting out the prequels and postscript novels starting a year later.
While I said the first time jump is kinda understandable, it’s still bad for one super huge reason. See, the leader of our band of hero Christians, Rayford Steele, meets, dates and marries a woman named Amanda White during this time jump, and then during the present narrative she is never around and is then gets killed off when her plane crashes during a massive global earthquake strikes during book 3.
And so in book 4, Rayford does little but tell everyone he doesn’t believe she’s dead until he finds her body in the crashed plane at the bed of the Euphrates River. And then in books 5 and 6 he mopes around and talks about how he really wants to murder the Antichrist before eventually jeopardizing the life of one of his friends to fly to the Middle East and take an actual, ahem, shot at it. And on top of that there’s a subplot about how maybe she was a spy for the bad guys.
All this drama over a character we know absolutely nothing about.
The second time jump doesn’t do anything like that, but it does undercut the climax of this entire sprawling story by removing any and all dramatic buildup. This is the literal Biblical End of Days, but it loses a lot of weight by just being all “Welp, here we are, at the end here. Check out all this carnage, bro.”
4. Satan is a total goon
You could debate the merit of the Left Behind series’ take on Biblical prophecy all day, but there’s one thing from the Bible that Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins are just comically and inarguably wrong about: Satan.
Yep, Lucifer is a bad dude, and the villain of history, but according to the Bible he’s not a total moron, and he knows he’s the underdog. In essence, the Bible describes Satan as the ultimate trickster, the “father of lies” and somebody who uses Scripture in his own twisted way to mess with people. One of the most famous stories about Jesus involves him wandering in the desert for 40 days while Satan hounds him and quotes the Psalms of David at him.
The point is that the devil reads the Bible and knows that shit. And yet, after Satan possesses the body of the Antichrist at the chronological halfway point, he just acts like a total goon. There’s this whole big scene in which he murders a pig and bathes in its blood in the new Jewish temple in Jerusalem on live TV. People see it and are pretty much like “Uh, wait, I think maybe the leader of the world is actually just insane instead of cool.”
This goes down at a particularly inopportune time, as it’s right when the world government starts to get people to take the Mark of the Beast that is supposed to serve as everyone’s debit card as well as a sign of loyalty to the Antichrist which non coincidentally also damns to hell those souls who take it.
Aside from that, he generally acts like an hysterical lunatic for the rest of the series. There’s no trickery, just brute force and lots of yelling and Darth Vader-esque on-the-spot executions of staff members who displease him. This spiritual war is entirely about winning hearts and minds, but this version of Satan is just awful at that even though in the Bible that’s like his entire thing.
5. A couple of the later books are actually pretty good
I know this doesn’t sound like a complaint, but it’s not unlike fans insisting a TV show gets good a couple seasons in or a video game gets good after 30 hours. I mean, is it really worth it to read nine awful books in order to get some decent nuggets after that? No, not really.
But the thing is that the change in quality is rather abrupt, and it’s nearly all contained in books 10 and 11. The prequels, which were written after those, are thoroughly hideous, and the epilogue novel “Kingdom Come” is probably the worst of all of them. But in “The Remnant” and “Armageddon” you actually get some humanity in the story briefly, and suddenly everything gets much more interesting.
Those two books are notable for featuring characters who have accepted the Mark of the Beast who are actually sympathetic and even *gasp* a couple that our heroes befriend. Characters who realize they were wrong and wish they could choose Jesus but it’s too late because they have the Mark. And that’s great! It’s exactly the sort of existential struggle that this series should have been exploring all the way through.
Of course, when these people do end up dead nobody cries for them. There’s no “I liked her as a person but she’s in hell now” internal monologue. That would be going too far, I guess, since they had their chance tsk tsk. But still, it was nice to see glimpses of true human sympathies come through. It was also nice to see prose that spends less time trying to convert the reader and more time telling the story. (More on this in the next point.) The cast also diversifies nicely in these later books, whereas it was dominated primarily by white Americans for most of the previous books.
It’s such a stark change from how the series had gone that I couldn’t help but wonder as I was reading if Jerry and Tim actually wrote this. This tonal shift, combined with some pretty odd continuity errors that tended to pop up between books — like at the end of one book the world currency is dollars and at the beginning of the next it’s “Nicks,” or the true identity of the Antichrist’s murderer being a closely guarded secret in one book and the common knowledge the next — led me to think there was a team of ghostwriters involved. They did put out 12 books with 400+ pages out in nine years, a tall task for any writers much less ones who have author credits on a bunch of other, completely unrelated novels during that stretch of time.
Either way, the prequels and the final denouement of Left Behind feel more like classic Left Behind. Allow me to explain.
6. These books are chock full of really banal personal bits
The biggest single struggle for readers of Left Behind is probably going to be that a really significant amount of text is devoted to, for lack of a better description, preaching to the reader. Obviously, this is a book about the end of the world according to the authors’ interpretation of Scripture, and so preaching is going to happen within the story. You’ve got to know that’s what you’re getting into when you pick these things up.
But there are a number of occasions where they go beyond trying to communicate this message organically through the story and instead beat you over the head with it. It’s like the Paul Haggis film Crash, except, you know, it’s 16 400-page novels.
Left Behind reaches peak head-bashing in the prequels, which have a rather astonishing parallel structure featuring two biographies up to the beginning of the original book, one good and one horrible. The good one is about the Antichrist, which is some pretty fun conspiracy stuff and an amusing riff on The Omen. The bad one is about Rayford Steele.
Honestly, it’s pretty weird to even want to write Rayford’s backstory out for everyone to read, and they went the worst possible route with it. More or less, it’s just a regular, boring story about a regular, boring dude. Rayford was already a crap character, but he’s much more of a crap character without a cause and a fight. He never did anything interesting or fun so far as I know, and his story is super generic — his dad wanted him to take over the family business but Ray decided to rebuff him and become an airline pilot. No, I’m not making that up.
And there’s a whole lot of little vignettes where somebody asks Ray if he has Jesus in his heart and Ray responds with a “You think you’re better than me?!?” And once Ray’s wife does get Jesus in her heart, Ray just becomes a huge dick to her. Ray is pretty much a stereotypical upper-middle class honky from Middle America who ain’t gonna let anyone tell him what to do, damn it, and it’s super grating.
Admittedly, that’s kind of the point, but it’s so banal. There’s a reason most people don’t get published biographies.
Running parallel to that extraordinarily dull tale is the story of how the Antichrist came to be, in three parts. First is the amazing Satanist conspiracy that created him by artificially inseminating an asexual woman with the combo sperm of two gay men (all three of whom are atheist academics who work at a university). This part is fun to read, and there’s actual conflict in it. The mother is afraid of these spiritualists, and eventually becomes convinced that God and the devil are real but all the concepts are new to her and she doesn’t know what to do.
The next part is Young Antichrist’s childhood, and he’s pretty much Damien, detached and clearly creepy and comically precocious, like an evil Dakota Fanning circa 2003. And finally we get his adult years and rise to power, and this is less fun as he’s pretty much one-note. But this story is goofy enough that it’s still worth it to see it to the end. Ray’s story, by contrast, is deadly serious despite having nearly no stakes.
This dichotomy in the three prequels is emblematic of why most of the books feels almost unreadable at times. Storytelling art is supposed to trick you into accepting a message by layering it into a tale that is interesting without making it immediately obvious how they’re going to try to manipulate you. Left Behind doesn’t even try to manipulate; it just tells you straight up over and over and over what it’s trying to accomplish by having you read it. The Rayford side of the prequels is there for that purpose. It’s so dull because it’s a pamphlet, not a story worth telling in a novel. The Antichrist side has all the same messages, but they are layered in so that half is far more consumable.
I couldn’t leave without briefly discussing the final book in the series, “Kingdom Come,” because it’s just remarkable how it turned out. After the seven years of judgment and tribulation ended, Jesus set up shop on Earth and ruled for a thousand years, and that’s what this book is about.
But even with Jesus physically hanging out, there are dissident fanatics, and there’s a really compelling conflict there. See, in this “millennial kingdom” the rules are the same as before; you gotta come to Jesus and follow the Bible and so forth. If you do, you’ll live until the end of the Kingdom and then go to heaven forever. Abstinent folks, on the other hand, will die on their 100th birthday. The fanatics, knowing the rules, persist and happily go to their deaths having helped grow the cause.
This is a tale worth exploring, but for whatever reason nearly all the present-day narrative takes place 93 years into the thousand. And then with a few pages to spare, it jumps to the end where Jesus dumps the dissidents into hell and takes everybody else up into the sky. And that’s it. In a video game we would joke about the developers running out of money. It’s a little more difficult to figure it out when you’re talking about the capper on a decade-long series that printed money.
But I’ll admit that the complete absence of a narrative conclusion is probably the most fitting way Left Behind could have ended.
And as to the film iteration? We’ll have to see how Nicolas Cage takes on the role of Rayford Steele when the movie hits theaters this week.