My favorite End Times novel.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 September 2016

Years ago, I was complaining about one of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind novels. Don‘t remember which one, but I do remember my complaint—for once—wasn’t about the terrible Darbyist theology, but about the poorly-developed characters. Caricatures of characters, really.

The fellow I was ranting to was a bit of a Left Behind fan, so he didn’t appreciate my critique… although he admitted the writing “felt rushed.” There, I don’t agree. My beef wasn’t with how fast the Left Behind novels were cranked out. Some authors only need a month, start to finish, to produce a book. But they produce three-dimensional characters, whereas the Left Behind books produced melodramatic heroes and villains.

“Well fine,” he said, “what’s your favorite End Times book?”

“Easy,” I said, The Stand.”

Yep, this book.

When I realized I meant the Stephen King novel, he was outraged. Which I get. After all, King uses swears in his novels. And some Christians have never forgiven King for his depictions of manic dark Christians in his previous novels Carrie and The Dead Zone. (His Christian characters are way better in The Stand and The Green Mile. But I digress.)

Yes, I have read other End Times novels, books, and so forth. I may as well tell you about a few of ’em, so you’ll know why I picked The Stand over the others.

My childhood End Times novels.

Outside the bible, the first End Times book I ever read was a comic book, Al Hartley’s adaptation of Hal Lindsey’s There’s a New World Coming. You might know I already dissected it here on TXAB. At the time I believed that’s how things’d turn out, so… a little scary.

The next was a novelization of the movie Damien: Omen II. You might only know of the 2006 Omen movie, which was a didn’t-even-bother-to-change-the-script remake of the 1976 original. The movie’s about Damien, a creepy little boy adopted by a U.S. ambassador, who turns out to be the Beast. In the 1978 sequel, Damien somehow aged 10 years in two; he’s way less creepy (military school probably knocked that out of him) but mysterious deaths still followed him around, and his uncle soon figured out he was the Beast. I got it out of my junior high school’s library. Freaked me out a little. According to the book and movie, if you’re the Beast or one of his minions, you have a naturally-occurring 666 mark on your hairline or ring finger. Checked for mine. Not there, in case you were wondering.

Next came 666, by Salem Kirban. Read that in junior high as well; I stumbled across it on the Maypole Church bookshelf one odd afternoon. Apparently I had three hours to kill, so I sat down and whipped through it. It’s a really poorly-written book, as even a naïve 12-year-old like me could recognize. It’s a first-person account of the End Times… which inexplicably switches to third-person. Most of his ideas about the future were stolen from Soylent Green. Seriously; Warner Brothers could easily get Kirban on copyright infringement.

In 666’s version of the then-future year 2000, the planet was covered in nasty pollution, and all the trees but one are dead. The United States was absorbed into giant state-swallowing supercities. The people were reduced to eating “protein cakes” which, same as Soylent Green, were made of people—but unlike Soylent Green, nobody cared. In fact, some End Times Christians, because they had no other food available, used a protein cake for Holy Communion, which made me gag. (Hey, I grew up Protestant; I had never seriously thought of the wafers as literally Jesus.) And the newly-elected president was Brother Bartholemew, a guy everyone loved so much, both parties ran him as their nominee.

Then the rapture took place and Bartholomew turned out to be the Beast. He got shot in the head, but got a replacement head. (See, Revelation says one of the Beast’s seven heads looked like it was killed, yet healed, Rv 13.3 so Darbyists conclude this means the Beast will die and be raised—or fake being raised—like Jesus.) Bartholomew started persecuting Christians, of course… with the help of his laser disintegrating ring, and no I’m not kidding. Started beheading them with guillotines, which was clearly ripped off from A Thief in the Night. In the end, Jesus showed up and saved everyone… but for what happens next, you gotta read Kirban’s lousy sequel 1000. Best if you don’t bother, unless you’re bored and need something to mock.

Them’s the novels. Of course there were End Times movies, which I won’t get into. They reflect all the popular interpretations of the End, though secular movies tend to go with the End of Days spin, and Christian movies with Darbyism. The result is a lot of Protestants seriously think there’s something to Darbyist ideas. As usual, we Christians don’t bother to read Revelation ’cause it confuses us; we read novels and watch movies and that informs our theology. Wrongly so.

The Stand, in summary.

On to The Stand. The shortened version was first published in 1978 and set in the near-future of 1984. The full version was published in 1990 and re-set in the near-future of later that year. If you don’t wanna read the big giant novel, or would rather skip most of the naughty words, it’s been adapted into a 1994 TV version and a 2008–12 comic book version.

Starts when the U.S. government accidentally let loose a superflu virus, and within a week 99.4 percent of the U.S. population was dead. The survivors were naturally immune, and The Stand is about the survivors’ experiences. First they watched society crumble around them—then watched some of their fellow survivors, mentally unequipped to deal with such a catastrophe, also crumble around them.

Then the dreams came. One was of a kindly old lady in Nebraska, a devout Christian named “Mother Abigail” Freemantle. The other was of a dark man. They couldn’t make out the dark man’s face—maybe his eyes and grin, kinda like “the Guy” on Disturbed’s album covers. People began slowly trekking towards these individuals. The dark man scared the willies out of people, yet some were drawn to him anyway, for various personal reasons. Those who gathered around Abigail relocated to Boulder, Colorado. Those who gathered around the dark man went to Las Vegas, Nevada.

The dark man called himself Randall Flagg. (King made him the bad guy in several of his Dark Tower novels.) He wasn’t really human; he wasn’t Satan either, as Abigail made clear. More of a destructive, devilish force in human form. Flagg’s society was a dictatorship: He’d give you technology, power, and modern conveniences, but defy him and he’d crucify you. Literally. There’s one rather icky scene where Flagg’s people nailed a screaming drug addict to a cross.

Though Abigail appointed the leaders of her community, they were more democratic; they even intended to rebuild society based on the U.S. Constitution. But Abigail, worried she was repeating Moses’s mistake of taking too much credit for something God was behind, disappeared—then returned with a message for the leadership: They weren’t appointed to rebuild society. They were appointed to confront Flagg, and take a stand against him. (Hence the book title.)

So, four of ’em left for Vegas. One got injured enroute; one got murdered; two others were captured, to be drawn and quartered by Flagg and his men. But at the last second, a deranged follower of Flagg’s showed up with a nuke. Then God showed up and set off the nuke. Flagg escaped, but crisis averted. So, sorta a happy ending.

Nope, doesn’t look at all like any biblical interpretations of the End Times. Nor really was it meant to. It’s not about the end End Times. More like one of the other judgment days we find scattered throughout human history, as the Cycle keeps repeating itself: God has enough of human evil and puts a stop to it. Like Noah’s flood, like the Babylonian captivity, like the Romans destroying Jerusalem or the Vandals sacking Rome, like the Black Death which nearly wiped out Europe and the smallpox plague which nearly wiped out North America. See, for most of us, the End comes in one of those ways.

And when the End comes, even if it doesn’t come with the sky going black and Jesus appearing in it, we need to remember who it is we’re following. As Abigail put it:

“The Bible, it don’t say what happened to Noah and his family after the flood went down. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some awful tussle for the souls of those few people—for their souls, their bodies, their way of thinking. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that was what was on for us.” King 515 

See, we get so fixated on the very End, we’re never properly prepared for any of the other judgment days. Some of us will figure these disasters are the End, or part of it; they’ll mangle the scriptures trying to make ’em fit into their timelines, and make Christianity look ridiculous to people who are looking for real answers. As Christians are currently doing, when they look at the Islamic State and suspect it’s a legitimate harbinger of the End—and not just another war, or rumor of war, Mk 13.7 which is part of humanity’s status quo.

Human nature.

What I like best about The Stand is how Stephen King gets human nature. True, he has a really bad habit of giving his characters catchphrases, or letting their quirks define them more than they ought. But when it comes to good and evil, to selflessness and selfishness, they act human.

Most Christian novels—and this’ll include End Times books—tend to put the good people in the Christian camp, and the bad people in the Beast’s camp. And the bad people aren’t just garden-variety self-centered bad people. They’re evil. Plotting, melodramatic, scheming caricatures. They’re Bond villains. Real evil isn’t so obvious. That’s part of the reason it’s so evil: It sneaks up on us, and catches us when we’re not looking. It tempts us with the stuff we consider good, and we don’t realize they were snares till our sins are half done.

In The Stand, the schemers and plotters are pathetic. Much like real life. Flagg used their evil to get ’em to do as he wished. Then—because he knew he couldn’t trust such people, any more than the devil could continue to use Judas Iscariot—he quickly dispatched them. Not like Flagg had a careful master plan either: He was making it up as he went along. The Stand makes it quite clear only God knows the big picture. Everybody else is trying to feel things out. God doesn’t necessarily want to give us details. But he does want people who will trust him, and obey.

Not everyone in Abigail’s camp has her faith. Probably no one did. Yet there were good and bad people in her camp, same as in Flagg’s. The only difference between the righteous and wicked is who they ultimately chose to follow. And that nails it right on the head. You’d think Christians would do a better job conveying that in our fiction—that it’s God’s grace, not our works, by which we’re saved. Ep 2.8-9 Yet darned few do.

And when they do, immature Christians piss and moan about it. Like when C.S. Lewis included the skeptical Andrew McPhee in Ransom’s group in That Hideous Strength. To this day, Christians object to a skeptic found among the good guys, and wonder whether he doesn’t just undermine the whole book. It’s as if God extends no grace to doubters, like Jesus did with Thomas. Jn 20.26-29

I don’t know that Stephen King would identify himself as Christian. I do know he understands Christianity. For good or ill, he’s got our principles down, even if he may not believe any of it. I just wish to goodness some of our so-called Christian authors did as well.

And then there’s Left Behind.

Compare The Stand’s “trust and obey” message with the Left Behind novels. In them, the Christians quickly figure out the seven-year End Times timeline. They’re trusting that. Not God so much.

’Cause the Holy Spirit doesn’t actually, personally, direct their steps. They pray to him when they’re in a pickle, and sometimes he gives ’em clues, but he still doesn’t bother to talk to people. Even though he switched the miracles back on for the End Times! The few times God, his angels, or his prophets, speak in these books, they pretty much only quote the bible. It’s so unlike real prophecy, it makes you wonder if LaHaye and Jenkins ever read the Prophets.

Yeah, I actually slogged through all 12 of the initial Left Behind novels. Didn’t bother with the prequels, nor the books describing life in God’s kingdom. Nor the Left Behind for Kids children’s series (seriously, they made a children’s series), the audio dramas, the comic books, nor the video game, in which you get to open fire on the Beast’s forces—but got more points for trying to evangelize them. As if people buy first-person shooters to evangelize instead of shoot. The 12 first books were more than enough. I read ’em when they first came out, mainly because friends and family members were picking my brain about ’em. I grew up knee-deep in Darbyism, so I knew their general outline of the End, but I didn’t know LaHaye’s specific interpretations or quirks.

To be fair, I didn’t think the first book was half bad. But where it all fell apart for me, was the scene at the end where the Antichrist hypnotized a roomful of people into forgetting he just murdered two guys right in front of them. Darbyists, because they don’t believe miracles happen in the present day, do not know how to depict realistic miracles. They always sound like Hollywood special effects.

Some of this is because, in his heart of hearts, Tim LaHaye was kinda hoping Hollywood would buy the rights to his novels and make some megahit movies out of them. Stupidly, he thereafter sold the Left Behind rights to Cloud Ten Pictures, a direct-to-video outfit. I don’t know what he expected those people to make. They created three steaming piles of Kirk Cameron, Action Hero: Now with Less Action and More Altar Calls. LaHaye sued to get the rights back… but inexplicably he granted them to Cloud Ten again, whereupon they produced the 2014 bomb Left Behind—the one starring Nicolas Cage.

The books gradually transformed from interesting scenarios… into a melodrama where you had to suspend a lot of disbelief to keep going. The 12th book, The Glorious Appearing, was downright appalling. Spoiler alert… wait, why am I bothering with a spoiler alert by now?

  • Contrary to what Jesus himself taught, Mt 25.13 everybody now knew the day—though not the exact hour—of his return. ’Cause in their timeline, the great tribulation lasts seven years to the day. You know how literalists can get.
  • Most of the heroes of the books get conveniently killed off, ’cause LaHaye and Jenkins wanted ’em all to get resurrected and live a thousand years in the millennium. ’Cause only the people in the rapture, and those who died before Jesus’s return, were getting resurrected. Seems “we who are alive” 1Th 4.17 no longer get included when you split the rapture and second coming into two parts. (In the next book, Christians who were still alive still got to live a thousand years, but aged extra-slowly. However, people who never turned to Jesus died at age 100, and went straight to hell. Yeah, a lot of graceless ideas mixed in there.)
  • When Jesus finally did appear in the sky, he didn’t touch down; he just quoted himself from the New Testament, and his bible quotes made the Beast’s soldiers individually explode into geysers of blood. Ewww.

As for the reason Jesus only quoted bible: I’m guessing the authors really didn’t wanna put words in our Lord’s mouth. So they settled for bending, folding, spindling, and mutilating his Revelation.

I mean, it’s all so creepy, stupid, and wrong on multiple levels. That’s why I didn’t bother reading any more of these damned books. I knew they wouldn’t get God’s kingdom right either.

Stephen King is a far, far better writer. He wasn’t so doggedly determined to get his propaganda right, he forgot how to tell a compelling story. He didn’t forget—as no author should forget—to create characters I gave a rip about. Whereas the only thing which compelled me about getting the Left Behind books done was… well, that. I had to get ’em done. And once was enough.