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Theodicy and The Left Behind Series

Theodicy and the Left Behind Series

There has been a series of theodicies that have been put forward during the past two thousand years. Currently, academic theologians tend to prefer some version of what is called the Irenaean theodicy, first developed by St. Irenaeus, Father of the Church, in the first centuries of the current era. In this theodicy the world is seen as a vale of soul making, a testing ground and “school”, in which physical and moral evil are permitted to exist in order to test and educate souls in their journey toward God. The American theologian-philosopher John Hick is the most prominent proponent of this version of theodicy. He argues, embracing Darwinian evolution as a template, that humanity is in process of growing toward a collective and individual goodness it has not yet achieved, and he even suggests that God is doing something like the same thing. Thus if this is not now the best of all possible worlds it is tending in that direction and we can predict a gradual reduction in both moral and natural evil as humankind progresses.
Irenaean theodicy traces evil to two sources. God permits or even arranges natural evils as a way to temper and teach the soul how to be holy. The assumption here is that suffering is a form of moral education, as well as an examination of character. Second, human evil is a function of free will, which in Irenaean theodicies is tempered by the idea that earlier versions of humanity had less self-understanding and therefore less freedom of choice. Freedom, like everything else, develops in this theodicy.
This inherently developmental theodicy that sees evil as phase rather than as a permanent feature of the world’s history, and which therefore sees evil as provisional and entirely eliminable, is countered by two theodicial models that offer a more fixed sense of both good, God and evil. In Augustine’s theodicy, which appeared somewhat later than Irenaeus’ and has been considerably more influential in theological circles, Augustine argues that the ultimate source of both natural and moral evil in the universe is free will. The heart of Augustine’s argument is that creation as it came from the hand of God was essentially good. It had to be good because God is both good and perfect and a perfectly good Being cannot create what is not good. But this account leaves evil out of the explanation. Augustine reintroduces evil by arguing that it is not part of creation at all and therefore not a divine product. Rather, evil is a sheer absence of goodness, a form of non-being, pure ontological negation.
At the same time, however, Augustine makes the picture more complicated and the waters muddier by asserting that the ultimate source of this negation lies in the human will. As the story of Adam and Eve suggests, it was the perverse desire of our first parents to become gods, their sheer negating of the way Being is, that created both physical suffering and death, on the one hand, and moral evil on the other. We note the paradox. God created free will, and it is good. In Augustine’s view, which is a commonplace in philosophy until recent centuries, the will has a natural tendency to will the good. But, somewhat mysteriously, this will whose nature it is to will the good can also choose not to will the good. It can will the apparent good, or the good that seems good in the short run. In so doing it can will against the very structure and meaning of Being. It can, that is, act in defiance of God and the order of His creation. It can sin.
Of course such negative acts cannot ultimately undo the order of the world. Evil always loses and is eventually banished. But it can never be obliterated once it begins, and so Augustine’s justification of the ways of God to man includes at or near its center the idea that there is a completely unpredictable “sport” element in the Creation, in it but not of it, an element that can appear at any time to throw things temporarily off course.
If this element did not exist neither would the human ability to choose to obey God and to accept His gifts. And if this element did not exist there would have been no Fall, no sin, and no alienation of humankind from God, no Covenant, no Incarnation, and no Resurrection. The entire histories of Judaism and Christianity and by extension Islam depend on the existence of this negation. It is from this that Jesus saves humankind.
In Augustine then it is not really a question of justifying God’s ways to man, except for the crucial explanation of evil as privation and non-being, characterizations that absolve God of any responsibility for evil.
But we note, as we said above, that this theodicy presumes that good and evil are fixed meanings that do not evolve and that, on the contrary, human history began when Adam and Eve, who were innocent and pure and therefore better than us, fell from this blessed state. Augustine’s is an anti-Darwinian view of things, more consistent with the degenerative historical models of the ancient world than with evolutionary ideas, and this is one reason why Augustine’s scheme has fallen out of favor in the last century.
Leibniz’ theodicy differs from Irenaeus’ in that Leibniz account of the origin and meaning of evil has no developmental component. The meaning of the world, the way it will be structured, are determined from eternity and, even if this world appears to follow an evolutionary trajectory, that trajectory is the visible representation of a perfectly calculated plan all of whose lineaments have always already been laid out. Leibniz differs from Augustine in refusing to make sin the central explanatory category in his system. Leibniz presumes human innocence, to some degree, and in that context asks how God can allow, cause or sustain suffering among these innocents.
Leibniz’ answer is, to put the matter perhaps too crudely, a static, much more logically rigorous version of Irenaeus. He argues, in effect, that there is evil in the world, both natural and moral, because in crafting a world that incorporates the greatest possible perfection in being in the inter-relation of its parts and in each part severally, and in making that world as various and law like as possible, God is constrained, by His very nature as all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, to build some of what looks to us like evil into the grand plan. He must do this because in creating God is introducing finitude into His scheme, and finitude (here Leibniz reminds one of Augustine) has inherent limitations, an element of Augustinian non-being or disorder. God chooses the best possible combination of beings to make this world – He must – and therefore this must be the best of all possible worlds. What seems evil in our small perspective really is evil to us. But in the bigger picture, which we cannot clearly see because of our local position in the whole, this is not really evil but an element that works for the greatest possible good.
But do note the word “possible”. This is not a perfect world, in a non-contextual sense. Only God is perfect. Each element is perfect in its kind, and the combination is the best possible, but the world falls short of perfection because it is finite. But what matters most for my purposes is that Leibniz never attributes the existence of evil in the world to a sport element, but to ignorance of the larger picture.
We note that in all these theodicies, whatever their real differences, there is a kind of rough ontological economy. In the last analysis things are going to work out. Humanity will evolve to a general condition of holiness; evil will be defeated and good vindicated; this world will keep being the best possible world. In none of these accounts is there any final asymmetry, no excess of evil that needs to be fought, and no necessary catastrophe to set things back on balance. Even though the covenant on Sinai, if one is a Jew, or the incarnation and resurrection if one is a Christian, constitute major interruptions in human history, occasions when God miraculously intervenes to set things back on track. A good Irenaean has to read such events as elements in the evolution of the species, as did Teilhard de Chardin. A good Augustinian sees these interventions as necessary countermeasures to Adam’s sin that is as ways to reinstate the intended trajectory of human history that was derailed by Adam and Eve. And Leibniz would read these events as entirely non-interruptive. They had to have been planned from all eternity, or they would not have happened, and thus are not interruptions at all.
This background is important because in the LB series there are echoes of all these traditional theodicies but none of them is used as a final template. And the whole question of theodicy, that is, of justifying God’s ways to men, has a different twist because in the LB series God’s relationship to men is a paradoxical mix of solicitude and vengeance, both of which will be justified by LB’s authors.
The LB theodicy, pieced together from statements in the novels and from ancillary interpretive work by Tim LaHaye (see below), begins by looking indistinguishable from a mix of Augustine and Leibniz. From Augustine LaHaye and Jenkins draw the idea that the world as God created it was good and that it was human sin that introduced both moral and natural evil into human affairs. But in the LB authors there is no suggestion that evil is a mere privation, an ontological lack. One gets no hint of a felt need on the part of the LB authors to account for the presence of evil, perhaps because of the Leibnizian, shall we say more accurately, the Calvinist, strain in their thinking? Evil is a privation in Augustine because in his view of the world there is no proper room for defects. God is perfectly good and had to create a good universe. Augustine is not clear about just how good such a universe must be, but he does know that it cannot contain anything evil as a constitutive part.
But in Leibniz’ view of things, a more holistic one, there cannot be elements of sheer non-being in the great chain of being. Every ontological “chink” has to be filled, and has to have been filled entirely from eternity. Therefore if there is what appears to be “evil” it must really be a building block of the whole structure, an inevitable part of a totality whose perfection is specified not to be absolute but to be relative to its status as a creation, as something essentially derivative. Thus evil is not a privation, an exception, but a part of the whole.
One would imagine that this view of evil would not be compatible with a traditional Christian view of the world as a place corrupted by sin. Sin and Augustinian definitions of evil as pure privation seem to fit well together. But LaHaye and Jenkins are also Calvinists. They believe that the course of history, and by extension the history of sin and evil have always already been foreordained by divine will. It is not clear, in the LB books, whether God necessarily wills the way history will go, and how men will act, or whether he chooses this route from among others. But one does get the sense that the way the world proceeds emanated as a necessary consequence from the very mind of God. Thus evil, even though it has the negative effect of alienating people from God, is also a necessary component of the order of things rather than a mere privation.
The high status that evil enjoys is indicated by a significant way in which the LB theodicy deviates from both the Augustinian and Leibnizian versions. While Augustine allows that the original sin introduced suffering and death into the world, and thus that human evil changed nature, he does not go so far as LaHaye and Jenkins, who firmly believe that Adam and Eve’s sin not only changed nature for the worse but delivered the natural world over into the hands of Satan, to rule until the Second Coming of Christ. Far from being a mere privation, evil in LaHaye and Jenkins, in the person of Satan, occupies and controls the natural world and the hearts of most humans. And, unlike Leibniz, the part that evil plays in the system of the world is not ultimately unifying but disremptive. The reign of evil creates the conditions for ultimate chaos and destruction, and for the very ending of the world and the universe. In Leibniz the world is and remains a well-ordered ontological machine, ticking along in a steady state. In LaHaye and Jenkins the evil that is necessary for the order of the world is such that it finally contributes to the destruction of that order and the dismantling of the world.
The evil that is necessary to the order of the world is also, in LaHaye and Jenkins, a force that condemns a high percentage of God’s creatures to eternal torment, an outcome that Augustine might find acceptable but one that Leibniz could not abide. Even Augustine, and certainly the preponderance of later Catholic theology, would find something both morally repellent and ontologically skewed in the idea that a good and loving God would craft a world, that He knew, from eternity, would be one in which most of His creatures would reject him and be lost forever. But this is precisely the world, that LaHaye and Jenkins argue God made, not accidentally but from eternity, as the only world that there would or could be. Evil as sheer destruction and tendency to non-being, evil as Augustinian privation, is built into the LB world as kind of Leibnizian building block: into the best of all possible worlds then is built the worst of possible materials – the seeds of that world’s destruction.
LaHaye and Jenkins also rejoin Irenaeus. They too believe that events in the world, especially natural ones, can be used to teach people where their best interests and choices lie. They agree that suffering is a great teacher. But they reject the idea that humankind is progressing toward greater goodness, tutored by suffering. Rather, LaHaye and Jenkins stand firmly in the camp of those who see the modern world as a breeding ground for everything they hate and oppose – secular humanism, moral relativism and the idea that human beings can find happiness and salvation by their own wits and actions. Today’s world, precisely because it offers more tools for exercising power over the world, draws people away from their sense of dependence and makes them less willing to place their fate in the hands of a saving God. So they reject the idea that this world is a progressively more advanced vale of soul making and argue instead that people today are at least as evil as people ever have been.
On the other hand advances in technology do not put off LaHaye and Jenkins. Clearly, the invention of corporate jets, satellite phones, high-speed internet-ready laptops and advanced weaponry do not strike LaHaye and Jenkins as bad things. It is the intellectual pride and snobbery of the modern world, its unwillingness to accept and obey Jesus, that worries them, not advances in electronics and micro processing, all of which they seem to embrace as Good Things when they are employed by the right people. Clearly, the world was not entirely corrupted by Adam’s sin. Men retained enough intelligence to produce extraordinary things, and the Trib Force uses all such technologies happily and effectively. In fact the members of the Force are all highly skilled technocrats and gear heads: pilots, computer wizards, high-level managers and executives, and disguise artists, as well as professional soldiers. There are no poorly educated or unskilled Tribulation Saints who play a large role in the series. Here we have a distinct echo of the Augustinian idea that creation is good, if currently flawed. LaHaye and Jenkins are by no means Luddites or the sorts of Christians who believe that a simple life is the best life.
But if LaHaye and Jenkins do not see progress toward moral self-awareness in human history, this does not mean that they do not believe that soul making can go on in the individual. Even though they are clear that human beings can do nothing to merit their salvation – in this they are pure Reformation thinkers – they also seem to believe that coming to belief is not a simple process, nor is it based on simple trust in God. In this regard they are closest to Leibniz. Both Leibniz and the LB authors believe that there is a grand plan for the universe. Augustine also believes this, of course, as did Irenaeus and as does anyone else who makes theodicies. But LaHaye and Jenkins are closest to Leibniz in that both he and they think that the plan can be known, if not in its entirety, then at least in some detail and in its larger logical outlines by human beings, sinner or not.
In fact this might be the real key to understanding the attitude LaHaye and Jenkins take toward the problem of evil. They believe that the truth about human history is clearly outlined in Scripture read as prophesy. The things that prophecy foretells can be understood through a close hermeneutical analysis of the texts, and one need not be saved to get the right answers. This is proven by the fact that the Rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah, who later becomes the principal theologian and scriptural scholar for the Tribulation Force, uses Scripture as evidence in coming to the conclusion, after several years of study, the Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. During the time he was crafting this conclusion Ben-Judah was a Jew, still technically a sinner and damned. But even under those circumstances his reason was not sufficiently impaired to keep him from discerning the truth. Of course, Ben-Judah needed to have the truth offered to him in Scripture. Had he studied any other books, no matter how well founded in evidence and experimental testing, he could not have come to the conclusion to which he was led by Scripture. So in this sense he was Go
At the same time however Ben-Judah’s reasoning powers were sufficiently acute that he was able to get the truth when it presented itself to him. The Rabbi, trained in the eristic traditions of Talmudic scholarship, used every logical device at his command to generate counterexamples and competing hypotheses to eliminate the claim that Jesus was Messiah. And he failed, partly because of the compelling logical picture painted by prophecy, partly because he was intelligent enough to understand that picture, and partly because a loving God was guiding him. But what ultimately matters here is that Ben-Judah can convince himself on the basis of reason that the Jesus proposal best fits the traditional rabbinic characterizations of the Messiah, as well as the prophetic literature of the Bible.
The point here is that for LaHaye and Jenkins God has laid out his plan for history in some detail in the Bible, and it is available there for any intelligent reader who takes the time to sort carefully through the text. The plan for the seven-year Tribulation and the Glorious Appearance of Jesus is even more clearly laid out in the book of Revelation and in several Old Testament prophetic texts. What counts here is that close readings and good hermeneutics will reveal the plan and make the act of faith not only beneficial but also eminently reasonable. And if one is not endowed with the intelligence or time to study prophetic texts with sufficient care to make them yield the truth, then all one need do is listen to those who do have the time and skill, then apply one’s own perfectly good reasoning powers to their arguments. The plan of history is always already there for the seeing, so that no one need be left out, and none remain unsaved.
In the work of both Spinoza and Leibniz, no matter how it differs in other ways, one finds the idea that if one studies ones position in the scheme of things with sufficient care one can find out one’s moral place in the grand scheme of the world and do the right thing. The same is true of their predecessor Calvin, with the caveat that in Calvin’s grand scheme it is not always easy for the believer to tell whether he or she is among the saved. In this regard LaHaye and Jenkins, lovers of reason and technology that they are, are much closer to the spirit of the great rationalists. They, like Leibniz and Spinoza, believe that human beings – all human beings -- can, with proper attention and reflection, figure out where they stand in the scheme of things and act accordingly.
Under this description their apparently cruel theodicy makes more sense. If every human being has both the reasoning powers and the texts to show him or her precisely what God is planning as well as what He requires then there is really no good reason why anyone should not have committed his or her life to Christ. The technology of the Tribulation period reinforces this idea: in that period no one on earth could possibly not have heard the message being broadcast by the Tribulation saints, and so no one is left out of the picture. Whether people in the past had sufficient chance to hear the Gospel and study prophecy is another issue, one on which LaHaye and Jenkins either remain silent or to which they give facile answers that do no persuade. But for their Tribulation period no one can honestly claim that he or she is not a follower of Jesus because the message has not been available.
Under these circumstances God’s vengeful wrath and His murderous attacks on humanity might make more sense. If people still keep rejecting God’s mercy even when they know exactly what it means and how to accept it, then they could be seen to be guilty of a form of disobedience that under the circumstances of the End Times might make them liable to divine sanctions. Still, the brutality and terrorist sensibility that sends world-wide earthquakes, boils, stinging insects and seas turned to blood, that dims the sun and plunges the world into darkness, that makes human life miserable, nasty, brutish and short, seems like a strange over-reaction to human truculence and bad hermeneutical habits. If God really were all-powerful, why would it so offend Him to be discounted by His puny creations? Yet for LaHaye and Jenkins this point is hardly worthy of discussion. It is only in the eleventh novel of the series, which takes the reader almost to the second of Jesus’ Glorious Appearance, that serious and oddly unanswered questions get raised about the justice of damning otherwise good people who do not happen to have become believers.
More pointedly, Rayford Steele, the most prominent of the novels’ protagonists, questions why God would not let Shelley, the secretary at Anti-Christ’s home office, who helps the Trib force with crucial information, be saved. She knows that the Christian/post-Christian proposal is true and yet cannot embrace it because she has taken the mark of the antichrist and this forbids her from choosing Jesus. For reasons that remained unexplained God will not allow those who have taken the Antichrist’s mark to freely choose Jesus, even though other people who have survived the Tribulation without the mark, recalcitrant Muslims and Jews and survivalists, can still embrace the Lord and be saved. Shelley is a good person. She helps the right side, risking her own life. And yet Rayford can offer her nothing but the hope of a painless death. He knows that no matter what she does, no matter how good she is otherwise, and no matter that she now believes that Jesus is the answer, Shelley is going to Hell. This gives Rayford pause. He never questions his own belief, or even God’s ultimate goodness. He just wonders, and is uneasy, and understands that this is the way things must be even if he cannot fully understand them. Divine wrath must be satisfied with the blood of countless millions and with their damnation.
We close by noting something that hints at, rather than directly reveals, LaHaye and Jenkins’ take on God and evil. At the close of the eleventh novel, Armageddon, which takes us to the moment right before Jesus reappears in Jerusalem, LaHaye and Jenkins kill off every one of their main characters, the heart of the original Tribulation Force! The resourceful Albie, an Iraqi Muslim turned believer, is shot dead while trying to strike a deal to help believers trapped in Babylon, the Antichrist’s city. Chloe Steele is captured and publicly martyred by guillotine; Rayford Steele is thrown off his ATV by a bomb blast, even in the protected city of Petra where believers are thought to be immune from attack. The bomb does not harm Steele but, rolling down a steep slope because of the concussion, he sustains fatal head injuries. Both Buck Williams, Chloe’s husband and the editor of the underground Trib Force news ‘zine, and Tsion Ben-Judah, chief thinker and preacher for the Force, are shot and killed in the battle for Jerusalem, between Global Community forces and die-hard Orthodox Jews.
LaHaye and Jenkins live in a world in which God kills even His most loyal servants moments before they can embrace their Savior. Of course Chloe and Buck and Rayford and Albie and Tsion are instantly united with Jesus in their deaths, and will return with him to Jerusalem, but it reflects LaHaye and Jenkins’ sensibility that their God will withhold the small favor of allowing His best to avoid the humiliation and pain of death. They too must suffer, no matter how much they have given. Perhaps LaHaye and Jenkins see these deaths as offering these people the chance to be martyrs; that they see death in this way suggests what might be the secret driving force of their theodicy: they believe that humans, qua humans, deserve death at God’s hands, no matter the merits of those killed. Here we get the hint, and it is admittedly only a hint, of a dark truth: perhaps LaHaye and Jenkins believe that God has every right to murder His entire creation, because they have, after all, and despite His saving acts, been a spectacular failure that must be erased to reassert God’s power over His universe.

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