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Jack Chick, This Was Your Life

Tract cartoonist Jack Chick left behind a legacy of wild and harmful Christian speculative fantasy.
| Oct 27, 2016 | 12 comments |

Remember those cartoon evangelism tracts by Jack Chick, who most famously wrote “This Was Your Life” and other comic-strip-oriented literature intended to help save souls?

On Monday Chick Tracts announced Chick had died. Christianity Today later reported it.

Perhaps now, as the Facebook post implied, Jack Chick himself is that man in silhouette before the giant robed faceless God on a throne, awaiting entrance into the clouded kingdom.

Alas, Jack Chick left behind a legacy of wild and harmful Christian speculative fantasy.

This Was Your Life

Jack Chick seemed to take special delight in drawing demonic creatures—a practice that Christian cultural fundamentalists ordinarily forbid.

Jack Chick seemed to take special delight in drawing demon critters—a practice cultural fundamentalists ordinarily forbid.

Chick’s “This Was Your Life” was one of the first tracts I ever read. At the time my family was attending a conservative/fundamentalist church, one in which women wore head coverings in addition to their natural long hair. Post-service conversation must have been dull. So child-me meandered into the lobby. I found reading material? Hurrah! But it was boring: evangelism tracts full of words. Wait! What’s this? Comic-strip tracts?

I was intrigued. I read the only ones they had. Later more copies ended up in that certain drawer in my mother’s desk. We never passed them out. They were there in case of tract-evangelism emergency, along with more-staid offerings like “The Four Spiritual Laws.”1

Of course, our tracts included at least one copy of Jack Chick’s “This Was Your Life.”

In “This Was Your Life,” a worldly man dies and an angel takes him to heaven. He skips directly to the Great White Throne judgment predicted in Rev. 20 (after the Millennium, whatever that is). God sits there, a giant faceless robed figure looking somewhat like a 1950s propaganda poster. The Lord calls for nervous protag: “Next! Review his life!”

All of heaven watches a giant movie screen review every sinful moment of protag’s life. It starts with his childhood (he is rather ugly even as a baby), then moves forward. Heaven’s archive single out egregious sinful moments such as: telling a dirty joke, lusting after a woman, and going to church but caring more about a ballgame. “Bunk,” protag decides, “I don’t need Christ! There’s nothing wrong with me! I’ll make it MY way!”

None of this is unbiblical. Scripture does say that at God’s judgment, “The dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.”2 A separate book, “the book of life,” records names of the saved—just as the tract shows.

An alternate-universe version of the story follows: protag repents and believes in Jesus, lives a transformed and godly life, then exits Earth and heads into eternity saved.

The world of Jack Chick: faith, fantasy, fallacy

This Was Your Life, Jack Chick“This Was Your Life” is highly fanciful speculation, with only a few biblical details fudged:

  • Protag undergoes a kind of unconscious “soul sleep” until God’s future judgment.
  • When protag awakens to the word “Arise!”, this refers to the future resurrection. But he ascends in a ghostly form out of his body. Resurrection = bodily. There’s no in-between.

Other tracts went even further afield, with questionable to outright false notions, such as:

  • Humans can cast curses or be cursed (other than being under the curse of God’s wrath).
  • “Harry Potter” books teach people to use Ouija boards (the books never mention these).
  • If you die without evangelizing enough, you’ll feel bad about it in Heaven.
  • The Roman Catholic pope is the Beast of Revelation 13.
  • Non-Christians frequently say, “HAW, HAW!”

Far more interesting is Chick’s fantastic ability to show things and engage speculations that Christianity or else his own culture—or “Chickverse”—would ordinarily forbid:

  • It’s okay to draw or look at images of God on the throne (but what about Exodus 20:4?).
  • It’s okay to draw or look at images of sexy women (within certain parameters).
  • It’s okay to draw or look at images of demons or Satanic(?) creatures, complete with traditional bat-winged things as well as vampires, ghoulish witches, and werewolves.
  • It’s okay to write/draw fanfiction about Heaven, Hell, and false religions’ origin stories.

The Beast, Jack ChickThis leads to a fascinating contradiction:

  1. Chick Tracts preached against—and were set in a Christian subculture that discouraged—good things like fantasy, and bad things like lust, obsession with demons, and deception.
  2. Chick Tracts showed some of the most fantastical imaginings of biblical ideas, while also showing images that (by their own logic) could promote idolatry and lust. Meanwhile, the tracts contained plain lies against other people, not only Roman Catholics and Muslims, but fans of fantasy stories such as “Dungeons and Dragons” or “Harry Potter.”

So what should we make of Chick’s legacy?

"The Nervous Witch" attempts to condemn secular dark magic. In response it advocates Christian white magic.

“The Nervous Witch” attempts to condemn secular dark magic, but advocates slander and Christian white magic* mysticism. (* See the article series “Christian White Magic,” available at Speculative Faith.)

For me, the tracts were a curiosity. I enjoyed reading the ones I’d found. But even as an older child, I never tried to give them to anyone; I doubted they were suitable for that. But other people report these tracts really messed some people up. Or perhaps rather, the toxic and un-biblical Christian subculture they associate with the tracts messed them up.

And make no mistake, this kind of fundamentalist culture is harmful. To “evangelize,” its members promote slander of already-false religions’ backstories (when mere comparison to God’s word would do the job). This culture says “thus saith the Lord” when in fact the Lord has never saith (about the Beast being Catholic, the Rapture, legalistic notions, and King James Version-only-ism). And this culture implicitly promotes hypocrisy by saying, “It’s okay for Jack Chick to draw fairly awesome cartoons for fantastical stories and falsely claim they are fact, but you’re not allowed similar stories even under the label ‘fantasy.’”

At the end, I cannot render final judgment: Jack Chick went to hell, or Jack Chick went to Heaven. But I do suspect he’s in Heaven. Because crazy Christians sometimes do mean well. Yes, even if they claim Catholics eat “death cookies,” or “Harry Potter” fans worship Satan.

Like Catholicism and fantasy novels themselves, Chick Tracts are an absurd mess of grace and idolatry, truth and lies, and artistic skills that reflect God versus artful lies that do not.

What is your experience with Chick tracts or the Chickverse, particularly given these tracts’ bizarre role in Christian fantasy?

  1. The Chickverse runs according to these basic rules:
    • There’s a spiritual war on for the souls of men and women.
    • God and angels are good and look good (muscled, stern faces, feathered wings).
    • The devil and demons are bad and look bad (horns, fangs, wicked grins, bat-wings).
    • Human beings are neutral and trapped in between.
    • Additional forces conspire to ensnare their souls—forces including but not limited to Halloween, spells, the Occult, Roman Catholicism, Islam, and bad Bible translations.
    • Believers die and pass into a cloudy heaven forever. Unbelievers die and are thrown into the lake of fire. (Chick’s images for these were appropriately iconic and horrifying.)
    • Everything is moving to an End Times, including rapture, tribulation, and judgment.

  2. Revelation 20:12.
E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Travis Perry
Editor

I think it is fair to say that some Chick tracts like “This Was Your Life” and a few others were good, even if not wholly accurate (“A Love Story” was another goodie). Others were harmful. If you look at the history of Jack Chick’s life a bit, he produced his good ones early in his career and got increasingly obsessed with witchcraft and Catholicism and “fighting them” over time.

Part of his problem seems to be he began quoting books by supposedly repentant ex-witches (one was named Rebecca Brown if I remember correctly) who actually seem to have simply made up out of thin air a whole lot of off the wall details about witchcraft, Catholicism, and the spiritual world with no basis in reality. Chic believed it wholeheartedly, but he shouldn’t have.

So I think your post missed an opportunity to talk about Chic’s vision not being sinister or dangerous at one time and having gone through that transformation. And it went through that transformation because Chic accepted a lot of information as true without any confirmation or any sense of skepticism on his part.

I think that contains a real lesson for Christians–we need to be wise enough to consider our sources carefully. Lest we be wholly distracted from doing good into doing harm.

R. J. Anderson
Member

Thanks to reading “This Was Your Life” as an impressionable child, I spent years terrified that even though I was a believer in Christ, when I died God would put all my sins up on a giant movie screen in heaven and show them to everyone. Thanks for that, Jack Chick.

Around that same time I also remember visiting another Christian family who owned the Jack Chick “Crusaders” comics, reading a lurid full-length colour story about missionaries casting demons out of a boy in India, and subsequently spending the entire night awake and trembling in bed, scarcely able to breathe for terror that I would somehow accidentally pray to Satan and become possessed.

Yes, some of the things Chick taught in his tracts were true and Biblical, but they were massively outweighed by the gruesome fantasies of his imagination. Not to mention the smug self-righteousness, the lecturing tone, and the contempt for non-believers that radiated from nearly everything he wrote. I hope and pray that he knows better now, but it’s too late to undo the damage he caused on earth.

Lisa Smith
Guest

Although there are many things that make me sad about not growing up in a Christian home, there are also things that I am very happy about. One being that I was spared some of the ludicrous excesses of Christian evangelical fundamentalism, including this fellow’s tracts, from what you say here. And perhaps he wasn’t as popular in Canada? At any rate I had never heard of Jack Chick until yesterday, when I heard that he had died. The only tract I saw once I got involved in a church around the age of twelve was The Four Spiritual Laws. Phew.

Paul Lee
Member

I encountered two or three different Chick tracks in my childhood. One of them, I didn’t even get from church. I don’t remember where I found it, but it depicted hell vividly. It showed a guy who died and went to hell, going down the tunnel and ending up in a square torture chamber full of demons of all shapes and varieties, before the chamber was opened to reveal the Lake of Fire. I left that tract in a rented bowling shoe at the bowling alley, following one group outing. I saw the bowling alley guy find it.

Then I think there was a relatively benign one about two kids talking about hell, and a different one with an airplane in it. Both from church. Both of those contained defeater arguments against relativism, in some form or another. I may have picked them up and dropped them places, in the supermarket, etc. I certainly did so with other tracks. Because that’s the only way I knew how to God’s war.

Julie D
Guest

I read one or two once when I saw them on the floor in a train, but …shakes head…

Kirsty
Guest

The only Jack Chick tract I have come across in real life (as opposed to reading critiques of them on the internet) was ‘This was your life’. It was the kind of thing I would have supercilliously looked down on, as trashy and old-fashioned…

…BUT. It lead to a really good conversation with my driving instructor, who had been given it and wondered what I thought. It had made her think, and lead into a good conversation about the gospel – something I am not good at doing usually. Which kind of taught me not to look down on things for superficial reasons like style and datedness. God can use anything!

Which is not to disagree with anything in this article.

Kirsty
Guest

One interesting thing I noticed in ‘This was your life’ – the non-christian version of the guy was drawn in cartoon style, but the christian version more realistically. Which suggests to me that it’s more boring to be a Christian… 🙂

Tim W Brown
Guest
Tim W Brown

My primary memory of Chick tracts is ‘Dark Dungeons’ the anti-D&D pamphlet. I started playing D&D in high school, and became a Christian just a few years later (my family never went to church while I was growing up). When I read the tract, it was/is so ludicrous, such a collection of wacky distortions and fanciful caricatures that it is still only useful in my eyes as a joke, a sad and harmful joke. It gets pretty much nothing right about the game Dungeons and Dragons, and the universal reaction among players (Christian or not) who have read it (in my experience) is not just a derisive laugh at the stupid portrayal of the hobby, but for most of the non-Christian gamers I’ve known, it reinforces the stereotype of Christians as idiots living in a delusion that doesn’t even deserve the dignified name ‘fantasy.’ Every Chick tract I’ve seen (which admittedly is only three or four) has only reinforced my distaste for the mindset that would produce such blatantly distorted propaganda, and do so in the name of Christ.

Sarah Parks
Member

I can only remember finding Chick tracts in two places – one was a mission for the homeless, the other was a church we attended when i was in grade school (oddly enough, one of the less-conservative churches we’ve ever attended). I found them kind of interesting, partially because at that age the more over-the-top the drama the more interesting it was.

Mostly, though, they were confusing. The stuff that sticks out at me — D&D, Catholicism as false teachings — was contrary to my parents’ experiences and what they had taught me, and i was young enough when i read them that a good bit of it went over my head.

Really, the worst thing about my memories of Chick tracts is that he wasn’t the only one to write this kind of stuff. I remember reading some pamphlet or other, no idea by whom, that claimed the rapid technological progress of the past century was the result of outside interference (i.e. demons).

Nicole Rodriguez
Guest

People can’t stand Jack Chick because he told the truth. I have spent the past two years researching all the topics that he speaks on. Have you ever actually researched the Catholic Inquisition or the blasphemies that the Pope says? The pope literally calls himself the Vicar of Christ, he calls himself the embodiment of Christ on Earth! Everything that Jack chick has said has been true, and if you verify the sources you would know that! All it takes is some Curiosity on your part and willingness to know the truth. Why do you think so many people hated Jesus? Because he told them that if they didn’t repent and believe on Christ, (stop being evil) then they were going to go to hell! “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!” how many times do you remember hearing that in the gospel? Yes many times, that’s what I thought. People sure don’t like to hear that message! ” you will be hated because of me but remember people hated me first” I recall Jesus saying something like that…