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.

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12 Comments

  1. on October 14, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn.

  2. Susan Dupuis
    on October 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, that’s some pretty good insight there. Thanks, good post.

  3. on October 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Bravo! That “old-school SF love of delving into the consequences of unexpected events” results in one of my favorite genres of fiction. FlashForward is, to this point, at least semi-interesting in that regard. I think I’ll be keeping it on my DVR schedule for a while.

  4. Jeff Smithpeters
    on October 14, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Your recounting of the Left Behind rapture scenario begs a question that should chill Christians to the bone. Why would a God who would visit such tragedy on the world in the interest of rewarding a mere splinter of humanity be worth our worshiping and trusting? Wouldn’t this God have demonstrated he has no more compassion than a boy for the toy soldiers he melts with matchsticks?

    No wonder the Christian Right is often so dismissive of the sufferings of those not of their own faith and so often falls in line when we go to war on innocents . . . they’re only behaving as their God would.

  5. Wendy
    on October 14, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I tried the Left Behind series. I really did. I couldn’t get more than about fifty pages into the first book – just about the point you focus on. Everyone’s going about their day, the rapture comes, then BOOM the main character is suddenly saying “Where’s my wife and son, oh gee, that’s too bad?” And instead of freaking out, he starts saying “Gosh, I should have been a better Christian! Guess you showed me, God!”

  6. Kismet
    on October 14, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    And this word spanking is yet another reason I love you so much Doc.

  7. on October 14, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Do you post over at Slacktivist much? I read LBF regularly too, and I think I found this blog completely independently of that (I think it was the “If Christians made video games like we made t-shirts” post on Digg or Fark that got me to subscribe.)

  8. on October 14, 2009 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Jeff: It definitely foregrounds the question of theodicy. What’s presented in Left Behind is not that out of line for the Old Testament God, who was focused on a splinter of humanity and cared nothing for anyone else; it’s rather out of character for how Jesus presents God, and is a weird perversion of the evangelical impulse — sort of an “I’ve got mine, ha ha ha, and we’re not going to help you!” As Fred Clark points out over at Slacktivist, that’s a thread throughout the series. He’s partway through book 2, and there’s a select core of newly-minted believers who know what’s going on, know that Nicolae is the Antichrist, and respond by making sure they don’t tell the rest of the congregation about him.

    Note that the idea of the Rapture isn’t core to Christianity, and in fact wasn’t introduced until the 1700s. The specific brand of Rapture that LaHaye and Jenkins is peddling is even newer.

    Dylan: I’ve been a regular reader for years, but I don’t comment over there. That’s mostly laziness on my part more than anything else.

  9. on October 14, 2009 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Coincidentally, my mother actually suggested (in a randomly speculating, not particularly serious way) the upcoming Rapture as one explanation for why they were all seeing visions. Naturally, those who had no visions of the future were the ones who were already taken away.

  10. on October 15, 2009 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Have you looked at “Right Behind”? It’s linked from Slacktivist and is a collection of short pieces suggesting how characters who were something more than spokespeople for the authors’ propaganda would react to the events of Left Behind. Also, there’s one where they rewrite Tribulation Force as an episode of Seinfeld.

    Every once in a while, I see a car with a bumper sticker that says “In the event of Rapture, this car will be unpiloted”. The glee in the tone at the thought of turning their gas-guzzling SUV into a two ton dumb-fire torpedo aimed to negligently murder heathens makes me want to run them off the road.

  11. on October 15, 2009 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Jota: That is frighteningly plausible, and also points out that you’d have zillions of competing explanations for any event like this. There’d be a lot of flavors of religions offering up one potential explanation or another, Art Bell would come out of retirement to listen to people talk about government experiments or aliens, and the Internet would burst into flames from all of the arguments.

    Ross: I’d missed that! I need to go through those now.

  12. on October 27, 2009 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    That is frighteningly plausible, and also points out that you’d have zillions of competing explanations for any event like this.

    I think that was gone into in the original novel. It’s been a while, but if I recall correctly, Sawyer interspersed the narrative with clips and excerpts from newspapers and magazines discussing the Flash-Forward event, with everything from the news reports on new cults and “expert” explanations, to classified ads saying “Hey, I totally caught a glimpse of the last three numbers for the big lotto win, did anyone see the first ones? Get in touch, and we’ll make a killing.”

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