FlashForward Eschatology

FlashForward is a new ABC show about what happens when everyone on Earth passes out for about two minutes and sees a vision of what they’ll be doing in six months. The show is most concerned with What It All Means — why did everyone get a glimpse of their future? and is that future fixed? — but I was struck by the aftershocks of the event. Since people lose consciousness, there are all kinds of terrible accidents, from drivers having wrecks to pilots augering in their 757s during landing. Days later, buildings still smolder where they were struck by news helicopters. Children re-enact the event, asking each other, “What did you see this time? What did you see?” An FBI Assistant Director eulogizes the agents who died. One character on a nearly-empty aircraft sits next to an airline exec who is there to reassure the public that flying is safe again, the punchline being that the exec is scared shitless.

While these are only minor events in the storyline, they help make the show seem more real. Watching them, I found myself thinking, this is what Left Behind should have looked like.

Left Behind tells the story of what happens when God raptures — that is, kills off and snatches away — all of the “real” Christians and also all babies and young children. It was a runaway best-seller. It was also a terrible book, both in theology and in construction. Over at Slacktivist, Fred Clark’s exegesis of the series has been running since October 2003, and it’s taking him so long to catalog all of the series’ sins that, six years later, he’s only 100 pages into book two.

FlashForward shows how shoddy the worldbuilding in Left Behind is. In FlashForward, everyone wants to know what happened. In Left Behind, they’re so incurious that they don’t even think to search the clothes of the raptured to see if, I don’t know, they’ve been turned into red dust or shrunk down or something. The book mentions wrecked planes and choked cab lines, but a day later everything seems back to normal and the planes are flying on time.

Let’s do a couple of back-of-the-envelope calculations. The Fifth National Survey of Religion and Politics pegs the U.S.’s traditional evangelical protestant population at 10%. Assume a third of that 10% agreed with LaHaye and Jenkins’s outlook and thus were raptured. The U.S. population is about 300,000,000 people, which means 10 million people in the U.S. vanished at once. The equivalent of the entire Chicago metro area is gone. Never mind the cabs, think of the chaos on streets and interstates across the country. If one in ten of those True Christians is in a car at the time, you’ve got the potential for 100,000 simultaneous wrecks. That’s nearly two months worth of U.S. auto wrecks compressed into one minute. How long would it take to clear them away?

And what about hospitals? You’ve got expectant mothers whose babies vanished as they were giving birth. What’s that going to do to the doctors and nurses who weren’t also raptured? What kind of post-traumatic stress will labor and delivery staff have? Oh, and were any of the True Christian doctors operating at the time, leaving a patient to die?

Meanwhile, all over the world, parents called out for their kids and got no response. Kindergarten teachers were suddenly facing empty classrooms. Nannies on the Upper East Side, hearing the panic spreading through New York City, looked into the strollers they were pushing and began freaking out about losing their charges.

What happens the day after everyone is raptured? When there’s no need for daycares any more? When pediatricians have no reason to go to work? When firefighters and policeman may have a literally decimated force at a time when every single one of them is needed? Left Behind has answers for none of these. In fact, it doesn’t even ask the questions.

FlashForward has a leg up on Left Behind. It’s based on a science fiction book by Robert Sawyer, and while Sawyer may not be that good at creating believable characters, he’s got that old-school SF love of delving into the consequences of unexpected events. LaHaye, meanwhile, is a minister; Jenkins, the writer of the two, churns out formulaic children’s books, mysteries, and comic strips. Neither of them seem interested in anything beyond beating their polemical views into readers’ heads. Their science fiction begins and ends with their Biblical prophesies, which they assembled from disparate scraps of the Bible like a ransom note from newspapers.

When you think about it, the Rapture as described in Left Behind would be a terrible, bone-chilling event. The ramifications are huge. Yet Left Behind doesn’t pause to acknowledge it. When your novel can’t even match the tiny amounts of worldbuilding that can be squeezed into a 42-minute TV show, you’re doing it wrong.