Goodbye, Tim LaHaye
When I first encountered Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind (1995), I was sitting on the a sage-colored corduroy coach at my mom’s house. Left Behind rested on a nearby table. It was 1998. I was in my first year of college and already determined to take courses on world religions. My determination proved to be the first of many small rebellions against the Bible Belt. The community college I attended, Chipola, offered a World Religions course taught by rotating group of Christian ministers. I decided to avoid the course; I didn’t need anyone else proselytizing to me. I already had my fill of people trying to get me to attend their church with smiles on their faces and judgment in their eyes. While in high school, a couple of Pentecostal students believed the best way to bring me to Jesus was threaten hellfire and damnation. To them, I was a non-believer (or not quite the right kind of believer), a missionary object instead of a person. Their tactics didn’t backfire, but didn’t work either. I attended their church only once, but the students persisted with a disconcerting combination of cajoling and dire predictions about the fate of my soul. I learned to avoid them altogether.
Yet, sitting in the living room on that average Saturday, Left Behind called to me. Perhaps, it was the stark black cover with bold lettering. Our planet obscured by an orangey haze grabbed my attention. Perhaps, it was the book’s popularity with local churches, including the Assemblies of God church that my mom had recently started attending. Perhaps, I was bored, and here was a book within my grasp.
My mom read Left Behind and described it as a “good book.” As I sat there on the couch with nothing else to do, I decided to give the book a try. I made it through two whole chapters before I tossed the book back on the table. Left Behind’s premise of the Rapture, the ascension of the righteous to Heaven, was intriguing but too far-fetched and fantastic for my taste. I wondered who could actually like the books. Hell, I wondered who could even make it through the terrible prose, flat characters, and judgmental and unforgiving theology.
Imagine my surprise when, years later, the Left Behind series grew to include thirteen books and three prequels. When the series sold over 65 million copies and appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists. Titles from LaHaye’s prophecy library resided on the shelves of Lifeway and other Christian retailers. But the books also appeared at Barnes and Noble, Walmart, and online at Amazon.
What I didn’t know is that my initial encounter and rejection of LaHaye’s Left Behind series was the beginning of my fascination with his end-times theologies. For 17 years, I’ve returned again and again to LaHaye’s doomsday prophecy to try to comprehend the popularity and appeal of his prophecy fiction and nonfiction. What do readers learn from LaHaye? Why do they continue to read his books? Why are they eagerly awaiting the end, and looking for its signs? I learned quickly that the apocalyptic is always political and personal, but I wanted to know more. I needed to understand LaHaye’s appeal and popularity.
So, I combed through the stacks at used bookstores to collect the entirety of the Left Behind series. I found a few volumes of Left Behind: The Kids and the discontinued Left Behind graphic novels. I purchased a copy of the Left Behind DVD for a few dollars; my partner refused to watch it with me with an inappropriate (appropriate) “Hell no.” The more I read and watched, the more I wanted to read and watch. I started ordering titles from his prophecy library and charts that laid out LaHaye’s vision of premillennial dispensationalism with the applicable Bible verses. In what I can only describe as a grandfatherly affect, LaHaye explained to me and other readers, page after page, what we needed to do to guarantee salvation. The world was ending, he wrote again and again, as if saying something repeatedly made it true. So readers needed to stop reading and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Then we could pick up the book again to learn more about the joy of the Rapture and the perils of Tribulation.
I picked up book after book; LaHaye never managed to convince me that the end was near. To be fair to him, I didn’t come to his books for conversion. I’m still not sure what I wanted to get out of his books. One of my mentors asked, “How I could read this shit?” I didn’t exactly know the how; I just knew I could, because there was something I needed to figure out.
My fascination with LaHaye never went away. His books ended up stacked up on my dining room table. My partner noted something about a hostile workplace. I ignored him as I kept collecting and reading, reading and collecting. This fascination was more of an obsession. When images of Jerusalem appeared on the news, I began to wonder where the new temple would be built. When I heard of natural disasters, part of me wondered if this was a sign of the end. LaHaye’s vision of the end of the world took up residence in my brain, and I chided myself for it. My obsession turned into research and articles on Rapture readiness and doomsday politics.
In my Apocalypse in American culture course, I assigned excerpts of Left Behind and Edge of the Apocalypse (a later series by LaHaye and Craig Parshall). Students routinely complained about both the prose and the plot. “How,” I would ask, “did these book sell over 65 million copies?” They weren’t sure, so we read the books together to find out. My students couldn’t quite understand my obsession. I considered writing a book about LaHaye. I considered what thinking about the end of the world on a daily basis would do to my psyche. I pondered the bookshelves weighted down by LaHaye library that I now own. I realized that maybe I already ponder the end way more than I would like to admit. Maybe my obsession is endings.
When I found out that LaHaye died at the age of 90 on Monday, I wasn’t sure how to react. Many others reacted with jokes and snark about the Rapture. Some bid him good riddance. After all, LaHaye was not just a minister and author, but also was a major figure in the Christian Right who founded several conservative Christian think tanks, including the Council for National Policy and the American Coalition for Traditional Values. I didn’t like LaHaye’s theology or politics very much, but I refused to be an asshole about his death.
Immediately, I was struck with a feeling of loss. A man whose doomsday writing I’ve steeped in for years was gone. But more than that, I wondered what it was like to chase the end of the world for most of your life and never see what you had long prophesied. The world ended, but not as he hoped. His world’s end was his death. Over years of reading LaHaye, I often thought he didn’t pay enough attention to how we all die as individuals. There’s an end, in death, waiting for each of us, just not the cataclysmic one that LaHaye always yearned for. Worlds end every day. Sometimes, we fail to take notice.
Goodbye, Tim LaHaye. The world moves on without you, but I fear your doomsday theologies are here to stay.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.