Title: Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church Was Left Behind
Author: Robert M. Price
Publisher: Prometheus Books
• Makes complex theology accessible to a general audience
• Written with wit and humor
• Provides a new ending for the Left Behind novels
• Probably won't be read by the Christians who really need to read it
• Review and analysis of modern, popular apocalyptic literature and theology
• Explains the flaws in premillennialist interpretations of the Bible
• Reveals the course of apocalyptic thinking in American culture, religion
This is not an easy subject to get into. First, it requires real knowledge about Christianity, biblical interpretation, American Christianity, and of course the history of apocalyptic beliefs. It also further requires some knowledge of American culture generally in order to place this phenomenon in its proper context. Finally, one needs access to the material in question — books that have been published for a small religious niche and aren't widely available in mass market bookstores.
Maybe that's why there isn't a large body of research already available about this, but there is one book which not only explains what's going on, but does so in a manner that's easily accessible to a general audience: Robert M. Price's Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church Was Left Behind. Professor of Scriptural Studies at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, Price has written extensively on biblical issues and how they connect with popular culture, making him perhaps the best person to write a book like this.
The most interesting facet of this subject may be how weak the entire scriptural basis is for the theology of books like the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Before he even examines the popular novels about the apocalypse, Price goes through the verses in the Bible which are used by some fundamentalists and evangelicals to argue that there will be a rapture of the faithful, that this will occur before an era of tribulation, and that after this tribulation Jesus will finally return to earth to vanquish Satan once and for all. Price also looks at the verses used to try to determine when exactly all this is supposed to occur.
I said that premillennialism is "weak," but that might be an overstatement. As Price makes clear, there really can't be any doubt that Jesus' promise to return was a promise made to a particular group of people and that he would return to them — not some vague point in time in the future, but rather in the very near future. This was certainly how early Christians read the promise, but it quickly became evident that it simply wasn't going to happen. They had to develop ways to reinterpret the promise rather than admit that they had been living a falsehood.
Those reinterpretations continue to live, to be remade, and to give Christians the belief that an ancient and overdue promise really will be fulfilled. Someday. Hopefully soon. Christians need symbolic, allegorical interpretations of the biblical text because the original literal intentions just aren't credible anymore. Allegorical readings are supposed to be more "sophisticated" than literal readings, but the only ones who serious believe this seem to be the ones developing and promoting allegorical readings of the ancient texts which wouldn't be treated as very relevant if they continued to be read more literally.
American apocalyptic literature is usually associated with just the Left Behind series of novels, but the earliest example appeared in 1905 and the genre has been expanding ever since. It is here that Price's sharp wit shines through strongest. Some apocalyptic novels aren't very good, though they can be a fascinating insight into the beliefs and attitudes of a certain type of Christian at that time.
The Left Behind books are given the closest analysis, revealing a multitude of theological and even narrative problems. Price tries to be generous towards the writing itself and avoids criticizing Jenkins while focusing his attention on LeHay and the books' theology; unfortunately, so much of the books is so bad that it's impossible to avoid pointing some of this out. It's amazing that these books have become so popular, given how bad they are, but they do tell many Christians something they desperately want to hear: Jesus is coming soon, they will go straight to heaven if they simply believe the right things.
All the evil atheists, evolutionists, secularists, Muslims, false Christians, and the like will have to endure tremendous torment as retribution for their failure to make Jesus their personal Lord and Savior — and, I suspect, for all the persecution they've put Christians through by not letting them run everything according to their narrow theological standards. This is the theology of ressentiment, popular in Christianity since some of the earliest Church Fathers extolled how Christians would be able to sit in heaven and observe through all eternity how the wicked would be tortured in hell.
Even if the scriptural support for this theology weren't so poor, the gross immorality of it should be more than enough to drive decent people in the other direction. It says a lot about Christians, and American Christians in particular, that these ideas have played such an important role in their religion for so long.