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It's the End of the World and the Writing is Bad
by Daniel Radosh

As we approach the millennium and, many believe, the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies about the end of the world, I have discovered that there are five horsemen of the apocalypse: Pestilence, Famine, War, Death and Crappy Novels About the Apocalypse.

Christian thrillers are upon us like locusts. Because these books are sold almost exclusively in Christian bookstores, their sales haven’t been tracked by the bean counters who compile bestseller lists. But if you believe the publishers, they sell millions of copies—and the year 2000 is expected to be a once-in-a-millennium marketing opportunity. Since I like to be prepared for special occasions, I figured it was time to curl up with some popular Christian millennial novels. I can assure you that pestilence is a sunny day in comparison.

Typical of the genre is The Illuminati, a novel by Larry Burkett set in 1999. Protagonist Jeff Wells is an ordinary American agnostic who would never guess that the earthquake that has just ripped apart Japan and unleashed a devastating tsunami on Southern California is the first sign of what Christians know as the Great Tribulation. Nor would he imagine that the U.S. president, a liberal whose pet causes are gun-control, legalizing drugs and harvesting the organs of crack babies, is a pawn of the antichrist.

Satan plays a key role in every Christian thriller, of course. No whodunits here. In The Illuminati, the Antichrist is a man subtly named Hussein. He is introduced this way: "Hussein had but two passions in life: a deep hatred of Christians and Jews, and a total commitment to establishing Satan's kingdom on earth." So, like, he's a bad guy. Before long he's creating a one-world government, herding Christians into concentration camps, launching nuclear weapons at Israel and replacing all cash with a computer chip implanted into citizens' hands (the “mark of the beast”).

One of Hussein's henchmen is the head of something called the National Civil Liberties Union. Burkett gives us this artfully-written glimpse into his mind: "God, how I hate Christians. No wait, he thought, not God--he didn't believe in God. Anyway, I hate them, he concluded." Also on deck for evil is the secretary of the treasury, "an avowed socialist and atheist," who was seduced into Satan's legions by a woman. "Their mutual interests included an elitist view of themselves, a disdain of religion, and a desire to establish a new world order," Burkett writes. You were expecting piña coladas and getting caught in the rain?

Fighting the good fight, meanwhile, is the Christian resistance, led by the fortuitously named Randy Cross. Holed up in rural Georgia, they nonviolently battle the government with the help of the converted Jeff Wells. Their strategy consists largely of group prayer. Spoiler alert: Good triumphs over Evil.

In his introduction, Burkett allows that he isn’t a prophet. "My biggest concern in writing a novel is that someone may read too much into it." (His biggest concern should have been that anyone would read it at all.) Other authors are more convinced that their fictions will become facts. In 1977, Hal Lindsey published a prophecy book called The Late, Great Planet Earth. Last year he fictionalized it as Blood Moon. "I found myself occasionally disappointed at my inability to raise all of the important and persuasive data and still maintain a readable and fast-paced work of fiction," Lindsey admits. His solution? Devote entire chapters to "data," without even the pretext of storytelling, readable or otherwise.

According to Lindsey's calculations, the year 2007 will bring earthquakes, tsunamis, one-world government, a nuclear attack on Israel, computer implants and so on. Our hero is Jeff Armstrong, an ordinary American agnostic who finds God after comparing current events with the predictions of the Bible and, I kid you not, The Late, Great Planet Earth. Armstrong joins the Christian resistance, holed up in rural Montana, where he meets Erin O'Hara. "What a heck of a time to fall in love," Armstrong sighs, as a the heavens rain hail and fire mingled with blood. In the end, of course, the Antichrist's army is defeated and Christ returns. As for Jeff and Erin, "The Lord Jesus Himself performed their wedding."

Blood Moon ends with a chapter showing the bliss that will come with Jesus’ reign. It’s somewhat anticlimactic, really, as Jeremy excitedly announces his new job “on the personal staff of the Lord Messiah,” while Eric declares, “I’m only interested in having my man’s babies.” The couple then searches for an apartment in Jerusalem, and Lindsey tells us, “It was an exciting time to be looking.” Hey, if the Second Coming can make apartment hunting fun, count me in.

Then there's The End of the Age, by Pat Robertson. A cynic might suggest that the busy Robertson had the aid of ghost writer, but there is no evidence that a professional writer was ever in the same room as this manuscript.

Robertson's protagonists are Carl and Lori Throneberry, ordinary American agnostics until a giant meteor crashes into the Pacific Ocean triggering earthquakes, tsunamis and a one-world government. Morality breaks down and "public displays of sexuality and nudity became pandemic." So there is an upside. Faced with damnation, Carl and Lori are convert to Christianity, and Carl, an advertising executive, repents his contribution to the immorality of society. "We thought you Christians were no better than right-wing thought police," he tells his new pals in the resistance. "It never occurred to me that you were trying to protect us from the wrath of God."

Like the authors of all these books, Robertson spends a lot of time identifying and condemning various villains — as if it matters anymore, what with the outbreak of natural disasters, genocide and nuclear warfare. We meet the President of the United States (an alcoholic womanizer), his First Lady (a power-hungry lesbian), the editor of The New York Times ("a Sixties Marxist who had idolized Che Guevara in print") and Percy DuVal, the gay chief of White House personnel (who "used every trick in the book to fill the highest government positions with those who shared his lifestyle”).

Not counted among the sinners in these books are the Jews, who are generally considered only one step away from being good Christians. Jews are almost universally portrayed as heroes, and their descent into hellfire is tactfully overlooked. Muslims, on the other hand, are the first to join forces with the beast. Burkett, author of The Illuminati, especially admires the Jewish talent for attracting persecution, and his Christians repeatedly gloat that their predicament is "just like the Holocaust." This eventually leads to the antichrist's pronouncement, "We will not make the same mistakes again. First the Christians—then the Jews." —as if the Holocaust were just a huge case of mistaken identity.

The Jewish question brings us to Paul Meier’s The Third Millennium. The protagonists are a Jewish family, the Feinbergs, and young Ben Feinberg's blind, Buddhist Chinese girlfriend. It's a refreshingly interfaith convocation until page 98, by which point they are all worshipping Yeshua, as the Jews call Jesus. The person who converts everyone is the Feinberg daughter's Christian boyfriend, a used-car salesman. Don't take that as ironic commentary on proselytizing; this is, believe me, a genre utterly devoid of irony.

There's the usual mishegoss: nukes, quakes, new world order. A tsunami (yep, another one) hits California and an angel thudres that “judgment has engulfed San Francisco. Their wickedness has been called into account.” The angel then notes that “Los Angeles is in flames and many sections have been leveled. Yet other portions of Orange County stand.” Did the four horsement check voting records or something? When the Antichrist proposes computer implants ("Those supporting me can register their vote by dialing 1-900-666-6666") an Angel appears to Ben and his girlfriend and tells them not to have premarital sex. Also, they must organize a resistance. "What can we possibly do?" the girlfriend says. "A blind Oriental girl and a Messianic Jew aren't going to make much difference." No, but they'd make a nifty sitcom for Fox. Eventually, Moses descends from the sky and tells CNN that he, too, is a Jew for Jesus.

Meier is extraordinarily precise about how events are going to unfold. Large chunks of The Third Millennium are devoted to wonkish numerology that is almost as boring as it is incomprehensible. In his appendix Meier admits that he doesn't know for certain that Yeshua will return in the year 2000—only that it will be some time before 2028. His view on the Bible is, "Take it literally unless the symbolism is obvious." To put it another way: It's all true except for the stuff that isn't.

This dodge is embraced by every practiced eschatologist. The strategy is threefold:

1. If there is some logical corollary to a Bible passage, that's what the Bible was predicting. For example, most of the novelists agree with Meier that the Biblical passage that read, "their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet” describes the effect of nuclear war. In each such instance, and there are many, a character declares, "Everything fits!"

2. If there is no plausible explanation for a Bible passage, it's symbolic. You would never know from reading these novels that the Book of Revelation describes an army riding horses that have serpents for tails and the heads of lions. Meier places the riders on ordinary horses. The other authors seem to believe that the ancient prophet was trying to describe tanks. In cases like this, where everything doesn't fit, the full verse is rarely quoted.

3. If there is no real-world explanation for a Bible verse and it is too difficult to come up with plausible symbolism, it is the literal truth. Revelation predicts that non-believers will suffer a five-month plague of insects that are half-locust, half-scorpion. In almost every book, these creatures appear out of nowhere, just as prophesied. One wonders why God can create these bizarre bugs on his own, but needs humans to start a nuclear war just so to consume flesh.

Revealingly, contemporary End Times thrillers have a precursor that is somewhat different, a 1950 tract called Raptured. In this version, everything that Revelation predicts occurs literally with almost no embellishment. The sun darkens because it does, not because of volcanic ash. Water turns to blood because God turns it, not because a meteor kills all the fish. Yes, Raptured is an extremely dull book, but it shows just how far you won't get with a truly strict reading of Revelation.

The single contemporary parallel that Raptured does draw indicates how silly today's novels will seem 47 years from now (barring their fulfillment, of course). While the recent books fret that credit cards, or in some cases debit cards, are the forerunners of the Mark of the Beast, Raptured knows where the real trouble began: rationing books.

Also in 1950, the sins of the non-believers aren't nearly so sinful. One churchgoer muses about what life would be like if everyone would embrace the Lord. "There would be no lewd movies, no drinking, no wild parties, no dancing, no blasphemy," she thinks. "Yes indeed, this would be a great world." Again, let me emphasize that no irony is intended.

Yet there is an aspect to these End Times fantasies more troubling than their dubious soothsaying. It is, oddly enough, their lack of meaningful moral values. In all the drama of the battle against evil, there is nary a second spare for mercy, charity, redemption or brotherly love. Sure there are many exhortations to accept Christ as the savior, but only to end punishments already being inflicted. Even faith is irrelevant, since in the Last Days proof abounds—angels and Biblical patriarchs appear with regularity to explain exactly what is going on. In Blood Moon, Jeremy Armstrong gets a phone call from Jesus. No doubt through the “friends and family” plan.

What does it mean to be a Christian at the turn of the century, according to these books? Late in The Third Millennium, Larry Feinberg surveys the plains of Armageddon and exclaims, "Thank God, we're the good guys!" For Christian thrillers, that’s as deep as it gets.

A version of this article originally appeared in Playboy, late last century.