by E. Stephen Burnett
Originally posted on the website Speculative Faith. (Part 1: June 20, 2007; part 2: June 27, 2007; part 3: July 11, 2007)
(Reprinted with permission January 2016)
Part 1 of 3
“Well, I’m back.”
— Samwise Gamgee’s final words, The Return of the King
Firstly, I must apologize for being absent these past several weeks. My last column, about the film Spider-Man 3, was written and published [on the Speculative Faith website] in early May. Since then I have written nothing to fill my slots on Wednesdays, finding myself at first out of town for weeks on end, and then afflicted with a profound bout of writer’s block.
Now, 1.5 months and one job change later — to a position that involves much writing, oddly enough — I am ready to resume my weekly duties as columnist and cyber-promoter of the Christ-honoring speculative fiction genre: the field of literature that will surely, take over Christendom at last, even if we must wait for the New Heavens and New Earth to have that happen. I thank you all for your patience and hope I can make it up to readers of Speculative Faith with future columns.
Finally ending the end-times thrillers
My reading of such fiction has been lax during my absence, save perhaps for the certain double-book-length fifth installment in a highly popular fantasy series.
However, I have also recently read the last novel in another highly popular — though certainly not as well-executed — series about the End Times. That would be Kingdom Come, book no. 16 of the Left Behind series, and supposedly the final installment.
Yes, I’m another one of Those. Or rather, I was one at one time: a Left Behind freakazoid.
I have been hanging onto Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ bestselling apocalyptic neo-thrillers since reading the first volume in 1997. Eventually I got to the point of reserving each succeeding hardback at the Christian bookstore in advance, eagerly awaiting its release date with almost an anticipation more worthy of the Second Coming itself, until finally — oh, joy! — I was able to stop by the store to pick up the new novel, and usually finish it by the next day. Since the “real” series ended with Glorious Appearing in March 2003, I have lost that level of enthusiasm. However, I continued to retrieve the books in a similar street-date manner, even up to last year’s The Rapture.
For the first time, I did not follow this routine for Kingdom Come, which takes place in a literal 1,000-year kingdom on Earth that follows Christ’s return in Glorious Appearing. Instead, still somewhat disillusioned by The Rapture’s stunningly un-rapturous portrayal of journeys to the intermediate heaven and such — and frankly, wondering if I even believed in a secret “pre-second coming” of Christ at all anymore — I held off on buying Kingdom Come. Those books are rather expensive, after all.
Instead, months after the release date, I grabbed the volume at the library and finished it two days later. And now, in addition to doubting the Biblical validity of the Rapture doctrine, I’m now in serious doubt about a literal Millennium. Who’d have thought this would be possible? that I would gain this from a book that so heavily advocated that exact view?
A dearth of fantasy for fantastic events
Some years back I pored over books on prophecy by Tim LaHaye and other writers, whose work made me quite convinced that 1) Christ snatching Christians from Earth would precede the Tribulation; 2) there would be seven years of an evil global government and divine plagues with the Antichrist, the False Prophet and everything; 3) Christ would return and reign over 1,000 years of relative peace, after which would be a final Satanically-inspired rebellion, followed by heaven at last.
But I am slowly coming to realize that little of this seems to make any sense — not when portrayed in nonfiction, with Biblical support — but when set to the music of fiction.
This is perhaps not the fault of fiction per se, but of Jerry Jenkins. I say this mostly because Jenkins is not a fantasy writer.
Left Behind’s original volumes were quite contemporary, light on the supernatural elements — the Rapture was overall portrayed realistically, despite the radical concept of people vanishing out of their clothes. As the Biblical plagues began, the series still read more like science fiction than anything else. I even bought into the demon locusts from the bottomless pit — partly because Jenkins included a few very interesting chapters about them, suspending disbelief for only that long, and then promptly ignored the demons in favor of more-epic elements, such as refueling planes and childbirth. Ahem.
Only when the demonic horsemen showed up did the story’s fantasy elements truly begin. And when the Beast rose from the dead and Jews started fleeing to the desert, things became slightly more interesting.
The problem was that Jenkins did not approach these elements as fantasy. While speculating, of course, on the manners in which God might protect his people, he didn’t nearly go far enough to be fantastically interesting. Other than people getting shot at and the bullets, missiles, etc., passing right through them, most described miracles would simply pattern themselves off those in the Bible, such as people surviving in a fiery furnace, or seeing light while others stumbled around in darkness.
But if we really can expect to see the Tribulation and such things someday — and I’m not saying they won’t happen; you are welcome to attempt re-persuading me to adhere to this view — should we not expect God to work miraculously in new ways rather than simply plagiarizing Himself?
That is what fantasy does. It does not merely repeat the Bible’s descriptions of true-life, supernatural events, because after all, we shouldn’t ever think outside of those anytime. Rather, a great fantasy takes into account the supernatural, awesome power of God — or His fantasy-world Equivalent — and invites readers to imagine what the possibilities are — most optimally, without contradicting Scripture.
But Jenkins’ series dared not to speculate upon, at least to the extent that I would have, the weird and utterly incredible, seemingly indescribable, events that might occur upon Christ’s physical return to Earth. And why not? Probably because to do so — to picture the new things God might do at such a time that are not directly forecast in Scripture — would generate outrage among readers, who are convinced that the Left Behind series does, or should, only rarely speculate on future miracles that aren’t forecast in Scripture, and nothing further whatsoever.
In my next column, I’ll explore more specifically how LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ final volume Kingdom Come failed completely to plant in me a yearning for that Earthly kingdom (if indeed it will really occur; again, you are welcome to argue as I haven’t yet made up my mind on this issue); and how instead, a nonfiction book like Randy Alcorn’s Heaven or a completely fantasy series like Lord of the Rings succeeds much better in making me long for the Creator/Savior and Heaven.
Yet in the meantime, what have been your thoughts about the Left Behind series? Do you consider its portrayal of end-times events “realistic,” because something like them will Really Happen Someday, as do its authors and many readers? Or can we consider these books as closer to fantasy/science fiction — a view that, I contend, may have made the stories better had the authors held that perspective themselves?
[TOM’s note: the original article contained a comments page, which is not reproduced here.]
Not blown away by Kingdom Come, part 2 of 3
Last week’s column, about the seeming failures of the Left Behind novels and particularly its last volume, brought many in-comment criticisms of the 16-installment series on both fiction and theological grounds. No one stepped up to defend Tim LaHaye’s understanding of the end times, or Jerry Jenkins’ style in portraying seven years of the Tribulation in fiction form.
Let me therefore be the first to support these guys more, at least here, and divulge that once upon a time, I had a few interactions with Jerry Jenkins on the (now-closed) “Left Behind” online message board. He was a great guy from what I could tell, with quite the sense of humor.
One of my first cyber-columns was a piece spoofing wacko-Christian predictions of the Second Coming: after a string of nonsensical “connections” between Biblical verses, supposed original languages and numerology, I set the date at April 1, 2000. And only a few people actually understood this as a satire — Jerry Jenkins among them. I still recall, nearly verbatim, his advice to other board participants: “The Indwelling releases March 30, 2000, so if you’re right, read fast!”
Anyway, that is my disclaimer of sorts, ensuring that my criticisms of the series do not cross over into perceived slams against its authors. My now-dislike of some of the Left Behind volumes, chief among them the most recent release Kingdom Come, in no way reflects any dislike for Tim LaHaye and “Super J,” as I used to call him.
At the same time, though, I sincerely doubt Kingdom Come will be very high on the reading list of timeless titles in the New Heavens and New Earth — or the real Millennium, assuming it does occur. Its portrayal of the prophesied “thousand years” is unimaginative, and failed to result in me, anyway, any sort of yearning for the “real” thousand-year period, or the New Heavens and New Earth to come. To me, only fantasy literature can do that — and Kingdom Come would never qualify as fantasy fiction.
The first 12 books in the Left Behind series took readers through the seven-year Tribulation, including dozens of main characters and even more peripherals, 21 judgments and plagues, lots of action, and one villainous Beast and an evil Earthly empire, to be sure. In those one can find conflict aplenty, lots of death, destruction and significant levels of special effects from said judgments and plagues.
The next three volumes, prequels to the very first book, didn’t have as many supernatural occurrences but still, enough evil going around to make things interesting.
Kingdom Come nukes that approach thoroughly in favor of a dull and passionately uninteresting tour through LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ imaginings — sort of — of what the Millennial Reign of Jesus Christ on Earth might be like — or at least a few months of it. Most of the described events take place just short of 100 years into the era, a few years before the first expected waves of non-Christians are expected to start dying. (Yes, non-Christians exist during the Millennium but they automatically assume room temperature before blowing out their birthday candles — the authors base this on an obscure verse in Isaiah.)
Ergo, with world events finally proceeding quite nicely, there isn’t much to do — plotwise, that is. The storyline’s bulk is taken up with ripped-from-Scripture descriptions of the restored Temple (theologically dubious; why would we need another literal Temple and sacrifices under the New Covenant?), and then a bunch of dialogue and goings-on within an absurdly acronymed children’s ministry, inordinate levels of attention given to the nation of Egypt’s bad attitude and the need for a name change, some romance here and there, and, perhaps worst of all, chapter-length accounts of Bible stories with no speculation at all beyond anything anyone could learn from the Bible itself.
I am sure the actual Millennium, if it does occur, will be more than interesting.
Yet in a rather obvious attempt to scrounge for whatever conflict elements could be found, Jenkins winds up trivializing the notion of a peaceful Kingdom, absurdly portraying people’s interpersonal problems, for instance, although Christ is supposedly right there in Jerusalem and the saints are all over the place, any one of whom could just fix everything easily.
Meanwhile, somewhat interesting theological concepts could have been realized so much better in the realm of fiction, among them the seeming Scriptural forecast that nonbelievers will be present in a literal Millennium and will eventually join up with Satan for a final, though anticlimactic, showdown when the thousand years have passed. Again the narrative lets us down: a quasi-religious group called The Other Light is present fairly early on in the hodgepodge storyline, but isn’t so scary at all. Its beliefs are absurd — its advocates, transparently silly. (Non-Christians have often been shown as frightfully stupid throughout the Left Behind series.)
But again, that obstacle shows itself anyway: a novel about a utopia can’t have much conflict without disrupting the utopia, but an honest portrayal of the utopia would be boring. This seems an insurmountable catch-22 — and as I’ve said before, it didn’t help that Jenkins hasn’t much bothered about genre-shifting the Left Behind storyline from contemporary/thriller to fantasy.
Yet the Millennial Kingdom (thought the concept may be theologically up in the air) and the New Heavens and New Earth to come (much more clearly described in Scripture) will naturally be environments absolutely bursting with fantasy-story elements. Thus, only a fantasy style, attempting to render the real Heavenly elements or else portraying a parallel world, can even approach doing a future-forecasted utopia justice.
Fantasy forecasting Heaven
Frankly, once I put down Kingdom Come, I dove somewhat frantically for the next (and so far, last) books in the Harry Potter series. And I found in them — in this “pagan,” Godless, disobedient-kid-intensive, neutral-supernatural series — much more incentive to long for a new world to come, where the fantastic is no longer mere fiction, than I did in a novel about the “real” new world to come.
Have you found this yourself? — that a “secular” movie, musical composition, or work of literature can bring out in you that God-given desire for the next world — the world that was meant to be — more effectively than a bit of specifically “Christian” artistry did?
Meanwhile, what may be continued perspectives on the Left Behind series and its contributions to Christendom, or the perceptions of Christendom by others?
In my next column, I hope to explore the potential of alternatives: issuing suggestions for some author somewhere, perhaps merely a 30-years-later version of myself, to create a better portrayal of the New Heavens and New Earth / Millennium for use in fiction form. As Christ-followers, we really should be fixated more often on the world to come anyway, right? It’s not that future world’s Creator’s fault we make the future world seem so dull in our theological constructs, and worse in our fiction works. Surely something can be done about this very weird quandary.
[TOM’s note: the original article contained a comments page, which is not reproduced here.]
Not blown away by Kingdom Come, part 3 of 3
In my first column in this incidental series, I started picking — affectionately, though critically — on the final (we might hope, anyway) volume of the Left Behind end-times fiction series, Kingdom Come.
My chief complaints about that novel are first, that it attempts to portray a future utopia under Jesus Christ’s rule while inserting some semblance of conflict for dramatic interest, which both 1) cheapens the utopia and 2) makes the superficial conflict frightfully dull.
But more than that has been my other annoyance about scene-scribbler Jerry Jenkins’ portrayal of the Millennium. My objection, outlined mostly in the second part of this series, is chiefly because he’s a contemporary-fiction guy trying to make everything so “realistic” about a future world like that — so much so that he subconsciously dismisses any inclination toward fantasy. And that is exactly what an ambitious novel like Kingdom Come could have used most.
Last time, I wrote:
[T]he Millennial Kingdom (thought the concept may be theologically up in the air) and the New Heavens and New Earth to come (much more clearly described in Scripture) will naturally be environments absolutely bursting with fantasy-story elements. Thus, only a fantasy style, attempting to render the real Heavenly elements or else portraying a parallel world, can even approach doing a future-forecasted utopia justice.
When I think of Heaven, now, I think of very little I’ve read in specifically evangelical literature — partly because so much of that is so focused on the here-and-now, rather than the world in which we Christ-followers will dwell for eternity. Among contemporary Christian authors, only author Randy Alcorn has dared speculate on the specific, real-world, intermediate Heaven, and the New Heavens and New Earth, in fiction format — and even more effectively, I think, in his nonfiction book Heaven. But even he does so within a contemporary setting, at least from what I’ve read thus far.
Might someone, though, someday consider the challenge of speculating upon the Millennium and/or the New Heavens and New Earth, in fantasy or sci-fi form — and not even a fantasy-world equivalent?
As a Christ-follower, no doubt exists in my mind that the Earth will undergo an incredible refurbishment someday, transforming into something even better than its original existence before the Rebellion described in Genesis.
But let’s assume that the Millennium will occur first, as believe the authors of Kingdom Come.
Satan is locked up and they’ve thrown away the key, at least temporarily. Christ is ruling in Jerusalem, along with King David and everybody. The Temple is restored (which, theologically, makes little sense to me because believers are the Temple now and no further need exists for a sacrificial system!). Certain facets of entropy have been revoked, and it’s impossible for believers, anyway, to want to sin. (They don’t even want to want to sin — an incredible notion, that, and something Christians can only dream about for now.) Still, according to this view, some people, come down from Heaven, have an advance shot at glorified bodies; others, having eked out their lives through the Tribulation, still have Body Version 1.0 — somewhat of a bummer, come to think of it.
What differences would exist between these forms of existences? Would the glorified-body people have mental or physical powers that the non-glorifieds would not? Could they glow? Solve for the last digit of pi? Fly? Perhaps even “apparate” in the manner reminiscent of advanced wizards in Harry Potter?
This calls for in-depth imagination and speculation — something Jenkins has not done. And it’s likely he could never do this anyway, given that, on the surface, such things seem insane and un-Biblical and many of the Left Behind series’ audience members would go mad. For certain people, perhaps, only a Cliffs-notes-style barebones summary of nearly exactly what the Bible says about the Millennium, no more, no less, will be accepted; and speculation beyond what Scripture has told us is forbidden. (This is partly why, in Kingdom Come, cameo appearances by saints such as Joshua and Noah result only in long, dull rehashes of anything you could have ever found out about them already in Sunday school.)
Yet there is so much about the New Heavens and New Earth (or Millennium, whichever comes first) that we’re not told; and that, of course, makes sense — why would God want to ruin all the surprises?
What about technology? Kingdom Come skipped any incredible advances people could have developed in 1,000 years of near-absolute perfection. In merely a tenth of that time, humankind would surely have developed means of transport much more interesting than mere cars or planes (portrayed, rather listlessly, as being alive and well in their modern-day form a century into Kingdom Come’s Millennium). Meanwhile, our communications would be fantastic. Our nanotechnology would be astounding. And you know we would have developed warp drive by then. Can you say New Jerusalem Spaceport?
Combining the Kingdom with conflict
The quandary remains, though: how to tie in a fiction portrayal of a future perfect world — with thrilling adventure and exploration aplenty, to be sure, but no fighting — with potential for dramatic tension that marks the best fiction.
Perhaps an element of time travel could tie a human visiting the New Earth and returning to the present one, thus preserving necessary conflict but also allowing a writer to speculate on the perfect Kingdom to come. Perhaps a team of scientists could develop a virtual equivalent of Heaven. Or maybe even members of the angelic dimension could transfer from the New Earth to the historic old one for adventures; the Creator is outside of time, after all.
Surely someone could take a crack at this sometime. I’ve pondered the concept much myself, of course; and I suppose I can try for it if no one else does. Author Douglas Hirt, after all, “beat” me to the whole pre-Flood-world-as-fantasy-realm concept in his fantastic Cradleland trilogy and I loved his execution — therefore, I wouldn’t mind much if someone was inspired by anything I’ve written here. But fantasy and science fiction can do it, where traditional, limited-to-the-Bible stories dare not go.
While such a story would be speculative, of course, and perhaps contain things its author might like to correct in the real Heaven, the overall effect will be superlative: it will awaken within readers that desire for a new world, to go beyond our fallen and corrupt present-day existence, to yearn for a universe which Christ has at last, finally and fully, restored to the way it was meant to be.
When I picture the future Heaven, with or without a Millennium preceding it, I will likely never recall a scene from Kingdom Come. Instead, starships and the Shire will come to mind. I visualize a real-life and functioning Enterprise NCC 1701-D replica in spacedock over the New Jerusalem. I picture rolling green hills from the Hobbits’ homeland, majestic mountains overhung with epic soundtrack-level music, a seven-tiered city carved from stone. Swimming up waterfalls, flying on an eagle or dragon, or helping test a new transporter beam come to mind …
Oh yes. It will certainly be awesome. And it will last forever. That perhaps is more worth writing about than many other present-Earth, Christian-literature themes we can come up with today.
Meanwhile, what about you? Do certain fantasy and science-fiction story elements result in you a yearning for the New Heavens and New Earth? How could Christ-honoring stories further benefit from the perhaps-accidental inclusions in secular stories of elements reminiscent of Heaven? And what mistakes have Christians made, in fiction and otherwise, in cheapening or overly mythologizing the very real nature of the world to come?
[TOM’s note: the original article contained a comments page, which is not reproduced here.]