Kelly J. Baker
“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of prophecy…the time is near.” — Revelation 1:3 (NASB)
In 2008, some conservative evangelicals declared on email, websites, and forums that the future president, Barack Obama, was not a Muslim in hiding, but decidedly more dangerous. They compared Obama to the charismatic Anti-Christ of the Left Behind series, Nicolae Carpathia. After all, Carpathia began his political career as a junior representative to the United Nations known for his uplifting messages of peace and “One World Religion.” For those primed to look for the signs of the end, Obama was not quite a perfect fit for Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ fictionalized doomsday theology, but, he was close enough.
As speculation swelled online, various websites sold coffee mugs and t-shirts of Obama graced with horns. Since Left Behind readers were employing LaHaye’s books to make their claims, the octogenarian weighed in on the controversy: Obama simply could not be the Anti-Christ because so many people imagined that he was. Further, he reminded people that there can be no Anti-Christ until the Rapture, the ascension of the righteous, occurs. In 2010, LaHaye told Fox News that President Obama’s “socialism” was paving the way for the end times. The president might not be the main villain in the apocalyptic saga, but he was definitely playing a role.
While some might snark at LaHaye’s theology and politics, he is not easy to dismiss, nor is he alone in yearning for the end of the world. In 2010, 41% of Americans polled believed Jesus would return in the next 40 years. A 2011 poll of white evangelicals documented that 67% thought recent natural disasters demonstrated that we are currently living in the end times.
Apocalypticism is a mode to interpret, analyze, and critique contemporary American culture. So-called signs of the end illuminate political concerns, social fears, and dissatisfaction with the world as it stands. LaHaye’s particular brand of end-times theology, dispensational premillennialism, proves as persistent and popular. The Left Behind series, co-authored by Jerry Jenkins, sold over 65 million copies and appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists. Titles from LaHaye’s prophecy library reside on the shelves of Lifeway and other Christian retailers as well as Barnes and Noble, Walmart, and online at Amazon.
LaHaye insists that signs of the end times are everywhere. He seeks to train readers to identify them in both his fiction and nonfiction. LaHaye claims that Revelation alone informs his interpretations of the modern world and all of its perils. In both his prophecy “scholarship” and more recent prophecy fiction, like Edge of the Apocalypse, he classifies and clarifies the signs of the end. He hands over an interpretative frame if you purchase his book. Anything can emerge as a potential sign, but political action, domestically and globally, become ready harbingers of doom. Abortion. Feminism. Conflicts in the Middle East. International campaigns for peace. Political candidates. With LaHaye’s help, the faithful can interpret them.
In Are We Living in the End Times?, LaHaye and Jenkins offer up a guide to “end-time Bible prophecy.” First published in 1999 as a companion to Left Behind, the authors updated and re-issued it in 2010 to engage with the particular dangers of the twenty-first century. They begin with a caveat: “only God can know what the future holds.” Readers must realize that they cannot know the exact date or time of the end, but LaHaye and Jenkins want you to look anyway. They even claim that the “accuracy rate for the fulfillment of Bible prophecy so far has been 100%” (xi-xii). The current generation, more than any previous, has “the ability to rightly evaluate the signs in our times” (xiii). More signs proliferate now than ever before and are hard to miss: the (re)establishment of Israel as a nation, “the hatred of Israel by Russia and her Arab allies,” and China’s growing presence in international affairs (xiii). The establishment of Israel as a nation in 1947 becomes the sign that LaHaye employs as a ready example of fulfillment of biblical prophecy. If this essential prophecy was fulfilled, he suggests, then others must follow.
Are We Living in the End Times? models how you should read and comprehend prophecy. LaHaye and Jenkins assure readers that “prophecy is just not that difficult” (5). Any reader “can understand the major events of Bible prophecy if they spend a little time comparing Scripture with Scripture” while also resisting the urge “to spiritualize” complexities (5). You must rely on commonsense and resist the metaphoric. Signs appear obvious the more you read along with the authors. You also realize a singular depressing fact.
Our world is a goner. Our efforts cannot change that inevitable fact.
Faithful readers also receive comfort in the knowledge that accepting of Jesus as lord and savior will spare you from the apocalypse. The Rapture will ferry you away from the fallen world. The rest of us will be left behind to its horror and torment. Interpreting the signs grants evangelical readers the assurance that they can avoid punishment. We might be living in the end times, but some can escape. Prophecy illuminates the certainty of your fate.
LaHaye, however, is not content to rely upon portrayal of end times signs in the Left Behind series or his prophecy scholarship. He continues to re-imagine the apocalypse for readers.
Fifteen years after Left Behind debuted, LaHaye and co-author Craig Parshall create another end to our world with Edge of the Apocalypse, an apocalyptic mash-up of Tom Clancy style plot with LaHaye’s biblical prophecy. It is the first in The End series followed by Thunder of Heaven (2011), Brink of Chaos (2012) and The Mark of Evil (2014).
The novel is set in a near present. The American economy is bad and getting worse. Politicians focus on their own agendas rather than the concerns of their constituents. The indecisive President promotes global intervention instead of domestic policies. The United Nations polices human rights and tolerance violations on American soil. China and Russia, favored American allies, campaign for peace as a cover for attaining weapons. Who will save America from all these threats? Perhaps, the protagonist Joshua Jordan will? Or maybe it is you, dedicated reader, if you learn how to read the signs.
LaHaye and Parshall describe Jordan as “[f]orty-three, square shouldered, athletic, and dressed in an expensive Italian suit,” who must counter the threat (30). He’s a retired Air Force colonel and an independent weapons designer, who created the RTS-RGS (the Return-to-Sender—Reconfigured-Guidance System), a state of the art weapons systems that deflects incoming attacks with lasers. When a North Korean ship launches “weapons of mass destruction” at New York City, the Pentagon calls Jordan as their last hope (18). Jordan’s team launches the experimental weapon, which returns the “nukes” back to the battleship. The U.S. avoids a terrible disaster.
Jordan emerges as a hero, but the American public is fickle. A confidential session of select Congress members, the “gang-of-eight,” convenes to determine what do with Jordan and his weapons system. While the conservative Senator Hewbright questions how America made it to this bottomed-out place of financial despair, fear, economic crisis, and United Nations’ intervention, the liberation Senator Straworth, only wants to “rip into …Jordan” (61).
Jordan and Straworth face off over the role of government and elected officials. LaHaye and Parshall portray Jordan as a “true” patriot who recognizes the larger global threats to the nation. Straworth does not. Selfishness and capitalism do not motivate Jordan. Instead, he fears that making his weapon system available to the government will leave America unprotected to international threats. Jordan makes it clear that we cannot trust the people we elect to help us; they will likely harm us if given the chance.
Jordan organizes the Roundtable, a small group of men and women comprised of former law enforcement and military personnel, entrepreneurs, judges, and media moguls. Their explicit goal is protecting American sovereignty from the pressing threats of globalism. The Roundtable meets quarterly at Jordan’s rustic Colorado mansion, and its members establish working groups: law, national defense, media, “free-market business,” and politics (156). As the permanent chairman, Jordan leads the Roundtable’s efforts to preserve free speech and religious freedom, as well as the right to own their own highly-advanced weapons systems. If the government will not protect the nation, then Jordan’s cabal will.
This fictional organization is a mimicry of LaHaye’s Council for National Policy (CNP), founded in 1981, a secret conservative action group that actively seeks to mold American domestic and foreign policy. Religious studies scholar Hugh Urban explains that the CNP is the “most powerful conservative group you’ve never heard of,” with members ranging from Ralph Reed, Oliver North, the late Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson to John Ashcroft and R.J. Rushdoony. The CNP focuses on abortion and homosexuality domestically while also focusing on U.S. relations and interactions in the Middle East (Urban, 3). The fictional Roundtable appears remarkably similar to the CNP, which focuses upon limited government, traditional values, and strong defense. The actual becomes fictional; the Roundtable’s concerns are also LaHaye’s.
National decline is not the only threat America faces. Pastor Paul Campbell, the minister of Jordan’s wife Abby, convinces the hero that something larger is happening. Globalism is a symptom of the forthcoming end. Though his wife and children are born-again, Jordan is not. After facing political adversaries and being maligned in the media, Abby convinces Jordan to attend a church service with her entitled, “Globalism—Three Signs of the End Times” (196). Pastor Campbell begins his sermon: “Prophecy is defined…as ‘history written in advance’” (197). (This is a favorite line of LaHaye’s, which appears repeatedly in his writing.) The minister argues that nations working together to “create a new world order” is a sign of the end (202). LaHaye and Parshall write:
Campbell had captured Joshua’s attention. He was beginning to see the connecting points between the Bible prophesies that the pastor was describing and the issues that were consuming his Roundtable….The movement to force United States courts to embrace the international laws of the nations of the world. The mantra calling for a single global government….Joshua wondered for just an instant whether his mission statement in founding the Roundtable might have been too small. So, I wanted to save America…but was that enough? What if all of this is bigger than just the United States? (203)
The pastor’s emphasis on prophecy convinces Jordan that the end is near. He does not emerge from the novel as born-again, but he can read the signs of the end times.
Edge revisits popular themes of Christian apocalypticism: social and political cataclysm, terror/terrorism, fear of government, technology, and globalization, and deep unease over modernity. Yet, it also presents a different vision of both prophecy and nationalism than its forebearers in prophecy fiction. For example, the Left Behind series explores what happens to those “left behind” after the Rapture around the globe. Edge scorns globalism’s impact on American Christianity and the nation. The edge of the apocalypse, then, is for the American population. If America fails, so too does the world. Jordan seeks not to save the world from globalism or new world order, but save his nation solely.
The world is an afterthought.
The political becomes a sign for the prophetic; they simultaneously justify one another. Global intervention becomes a sign of the end because globalism is supposed to be a sign of the end. Prophecy can be read into every moment of not only Edge but also in contemporary politics and global affairs. The signs are everywhere, if only we stop to read them.
The true villain in Edge is not North Korea, multinational terrorists, or assassins, but a more amorphous globalism. While the end was inevitable in Left Behind, Edge offers up an ambiguous end-times theology, in which national salvation could stall doomsday. A few motivated Christian citizens could prevent the apocalypse with proper belief, funding, and weaponry.
Biblical prophecy remains essential as signs unfold. Can we prevent the end or not? The pervasive ambiguity makes Edge stand out from other evangelical visions of the end. While Pastor Campbell assures that the end is coming soon, Jordan fights to change the inevitable. What are readers supposed to do? Look for the signs.
Jordan’s awakening to prophecy is the model for readers to mimic. Edge pushes readers to read signs with more urgency than Left Behind. Anything global is a marker of necessary decline, a precursor to the Beast of Revelation. Any conflict in the Middle East materializes the forthcoming end. The publisher Zonderzan even established Facebook and Twitter accounts for “Col. Jordan” and his sign watching. Jordan posted articles on Israel, al-Qaeda, Russia, and the “harsh restrictions” that Christians face globally. The signs in Edge mirror current events. Look, he seems to say, the fictional is never very far from the real. (Both accounts are still accessible but no longer maintained.)
The signs, however, are not the entirety of the lesson. LaHaye and Parshall seem to hope that groups like the Roundtable and individuals like Joshua Jordan can save America and the larger world, which runs counter to the inherent fatalism of end-times prophecy. Yet, they also want readers to see America as a nation weakened by the increasingly transnational world. Prophecy fiction actualizes not only the forthcoming end, but also a certain conservative evangelical vision of nation in decline.
Edge’s solution is for American citizens to organize, weaponize, and protect ourselves from both global threats and our own government. Readers need to learn how to interpret prophecy correctly because the nation, imagined and real, needs saving. LaHaye’s signs illuminate a tortured vision of the future read through the near present. In the midst of the anguish is the long-standing hope that maybe, just maybe, conservative evangelicals will reclaim a dominant place for themselves in a future world. Or that the destruction of ours will bring about the creation of their own new world.
The signs pile up until the evidence appears insurmountable. Are we living in the end times? LaHaye says we are. Conflict in the Middle East, domestic legislation for same sex marriage, moral permissiveness, and government weakness, signal that the end is sooner than we might think. With each new sign, we move closer to his foretold end. The hoof beats are muffled by distance, but they can be heard. LaHaye encourages readers to prepare. Be ready. Read the signs. Say goodbye to this sinful world. Assure yourself that you are one of the faithful.
Our world is clearly lost, so the faithful tarry waiting for the supposed inevitable end. Fatalism is mostly unavoidable, but LaHaye’s readers can be comforted. They know the signs; they can read them. While they wait, they should probably vote.
Kelly J. Baker is a freelance writer with a Religious Studies PhD who covers higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, American religions, and popular culture. She is the author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America (2011) and The Zombies are Coming! (2013). She can be followed @kelly_j_baker.
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