The Last Disciple: A Review

I'd heard that somebody did a Preterist take on the Left Behind series, so I was particularly interested when a friend sent me this book by Hank Hanegraaff & Sigmund Brouwer. Hanegraaff inherited the Christian Research Institute from Walter Martin, and is known more for his theological and apologetic skills than as a novelist. From the credits at the end of the book, it appears that Brouwer's skills lie more in fiction. Obviously he was the ghostwriter for Hanegraaff's theological take, and unlike many famous Christian "authors", Hanegraaff was willing to share the byline with his ghost.

Although this does not have the same captivating grip as Jurassic Park, Brouwer is no amateur. He wove several plot lines together throughout the book, stopping each thread right at a cliff-hanger, which pushes the reader forward.

Only one of these plot lines carries the central character, Gallus Sergius Vitas, through every chapter; other characters come and go, many never to be seen again. Some chapters are placed in Smyrna, most of the others in Jerusalem or Rome. Roman emperor Nero's shadow is cast over most of the book, but he only comes on stage a few times. The story is really about his political confidant Vitas.

Not long after it becomes clear that the story is about Vitas, the author starts to drop hints that he is about to become a Christian. From a theological perspective this is rather strange, because most evangelicals -- hopefully including Hanegraaff -- believe in salvation by grace alone, that we do not slowly become Christians by becoming more kind and virtuous the way Vitas is portrayed. Rather, God's grace overwhelms our evil nature and makes us good. If there is some gradual improvement in our character (theologically known as "sanctification"), it comes after the conversion experience, not before. I suspect this gradual pre-conversion improvement is a literary device injected by Brouwer to make his central character more likeable in the reader's mind. If Vitas started off as a horrible villain, many readers would indulge their natural abhorrence of forgiveness and refuse to accept him as heroic after conversion. Conversion from unbeliever to Christian is a necessary element of Christian novels. Making it both realistic and credible is an immense literary challenge I never appreciated until now.

Prominently displayed on the front of the dust jacket, and liberally distributed throughout the first half of the book, is a Greek "graphiti"

This is curious for several reasons. The Greek letters chi, xi, and sigma do not spell any Greek word, nor do they represent any credible Christian acronym. In the text the first letter is explained as the first letter in "Christ" and the last letter is the first letter in "cross" ('STAUROS' in Greek), but the middle letter is only explained as "looks like a snake." There are very few Greek words beginning in xi, none of them descriptive of Jesus nor any Christian symbol. The biggest problem with this representation is that "looks like a snake" line, because this is only true of modern Greek minuscules, which were invented some 700 or 800 years after the setting of this story. In the first century setting of the novel, Greek was always displayed only in capitals, which looks like this:
Notice in particular that the middle letter is in three separate pieces and does not look like a serpent by any stretch of the imagination. The book tries say the symbol represents the number 666, but by applying gematria to the Greek alphabet the way the book explains it, I get 320, not 666. Perhaps the author is saving the complete explanation for a later volume. At the end there is a page inviting the reader to decode the symbol at a website, but there is nothing there but a virus (flash) movie, which does not play on my computer.

There are several other minor anachronisms in the story, plus at least a couple geographical faux pas, such as the Roman procurator bringing his armies up to Jerusalem from the sea-coast city of Caesarea on the west, but entering the city from the Mount of Olives on the east. The story ends with Vitas sailing down the Tiber river under cover of night and watching the seven hills of Rome recede in the distance. Anybody who knows anything about rivers knows that they meander a lot, and the Tiber is no exception. The city lights would have disappeared behind the first bend in the river long before receding in the distance.

The average reader probably would not notice these problems. When I finished reading Jurassic Park, my first reaction was "Oh my, did this really happen?" The science was that good. After a few days I began to realize that Crichton's description of the software bugs were not realistic, but computer software is my professional expertise, and it took several days for me to see the flaws. Michael Crichton had done his homework. Sigmund Brouwer's story is a good read, but there was never any doubt that it is fiction.

It's also pretty clear that this is intended to be a series: the book ends not with a satisfying conclusion like Jurassic Park, but with another cliff-hanger not much different from those liberally sprinkled throughout the rest of story. To find out what happens to Vitas and the disciple sharing that ominous boat ride down the Tiber, you have to read the next book in the series.

Before I got to Hanegraaff's admission in the Afterword, it was pretty clear that the purpose of this novel was primarily to rebut the Left Behind series, and only secondarily to entertain. Preterist theology tends to lean very heavily on Matt.24:34 and generally ignore Acts 1:11; this novel does the same. Preterist theology never adequately explains why we have no historical documents carrying essentially the story Hanegraaff and Brouwer weave for us as fiction in this novel. If the destruction of Jerusalem -- clearly central to the story line, but not consummated in this book -- were all that John was writing about in his Apocalypse, why have we no contemporary Christian documents at all saying so? Everybody knows the first Abomination of Desolation prophesied by the prophet Daniel was Antiochus Epiphanes, and we have a contemporary historical document (the book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha) describing the event as eyewitness; where is the Christian Maccabees? All we have is this fiction, wishfully written nearly 2000 years after all eyewitnesses have died. A good story, but still very fiction.

Tom Pittman