END TIMES: The Left Behind Books
If anyone should be resting easy about the approach of the millennium (whether it be 2000 or 2001), it should be Bible-believing Christians. There's nothing in the scriptures to arouse concern about the date. Although the New Testament's The Revelations of St. John the Divine predicts a "millennium" -- it is not a worldwide disaster, but a peaceful thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth that will occur before the Final Judgment. Moreover, as used by St. John, the word "apocalypse" is synonymous with the word "revelation" -- an alternative title for Revelations is, in fact, The Apocalypse of St. John the Divine. (The word stems from apokalyptein a Greek word meaning "to uncover," not catastrophic destruction. )
"Apocalypse," however, has come to broadly mean any end of the world-as-we-know-it. The Final Judgment, the end of days, the desolation predicted by the prophet Daniel is certainly a part of Christian thought, but Jesus Christ Himself warned that no one would know when it would occur --"But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven..." (Mark 13:32). (Not that such divine admonition has stopped a passel of predictions being made over the last two thousand years.) Despite this, some individuals and sects -- Christians among them -- have associated the turn of the century with the coming of some sort of new religious age. Since, in general, endings and beginnings of any type can be unsettling, perhaps some amount of consternation is inevitable no matter what your belief structure is. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have turned this concern into fiction with the hugely popular Left Behind series. End-of-the-world novels -- from the science fictional A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller to James Blish's BLACK EASTER and THE DAY AFTER JUDGMENT to the dark fantasy of THE STAND by Stephen King -- are nothing new. Even evangelist Pat Robertson turned prophecy into fictional horror with his THE END OF THE AGE. But, the books by LaHaye and Jenkins are of particular interest as they have become bestsellers with numbers to rival Stephen King. The first hardcover printing of ASSASSINS, the latest and sixth in the series, was one million copies and another 700,000 have been sold beyond that. According to publisher Tyndale House, more than 10 million copies of the Left Behind books -- not counting audio books and ancillary products -- have been sold. A related series for children -- watch out R. L. Stein -- has sold more than 2 million of its first six titles. (Altogether 48 of the "Left Behind: The Kids" books are planned -- six per year. The next two are scheduled for release in May 2001.)
Although much of the success of the books originally came from word-of-mouth, by the end of April 2000. Tyndale House will have spent more than $1 million to promote the series. The seventh book, THE INDWELLING, is due May 30 of next year. The figures would be great for any series, but for Christian-fiction it is phenomenal.
The idea for the series came from LaHaye, a self-described "prophecy scholar," who provides the biblical interpretation and plot outlines. A retired Southern Baptist minister. LaHaye has authored more than 45 non-fiction books on religious, relationship and family topics. He espouses the "pre-Tribulation" theory: those who believe in Christ will be "Raptured" or taken straight heaven. Everyone else is "left behind" to suffer through a seven year period of nastiness (the Tribulation) during which the Antichrist emerges. This period culminates with the return of Christ to earth, His triumph over the Antichrist and the beginning of one thousand years of peace -- the biblical millennium. Jenkins, the author of more than 130 books including collaborative biographies with sports legends Hank Aaron and Walter Payton, turns the evangelical doomsaying into fiction. The books focus on a group of people, the Tribulation Force, who become Christians after the Rapture.
The books success may tie in to fears exacerbated by Y2K, but the authors themselves never give a specific date for the End Times, although the settings are obviously near-future. (However, in ARE WE LIVING IN THE END TIMES?, a non-fiction books released in November 1999, the co-authors examine the basics of end times prophecy and give 20 detailed reasons why they believe the "current generation" could see the Rapture.)
Although the authors might be uncomfortable with the designation, the Left Behind series can definitely be labeled as "horror." [Jenkins, in an undated interview on Amazon.com states he is reading BAG OF BONES and is a "big fan" of Stephen King (among others), but qualifies that by saying, "not his horror stuff but things like MISERY and THE GREEN MILE." Sorry, Jerry, those are horror novels, too!] The Left Behind books tap into readers' fears of the future and evoke terrifying emotions.
With sales in the millions, a lot of folks other than Christians who already believe in LaHaye's view of theology are responding to the cliff-hanging, techno-thriller novels. (His pre-millennial dispensationalism may be popular with many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, but it is is not supported by a majority of Christians. For instance, few Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian theologians accept "pre-Trib" ideation.) Like many bestsellers -- the sales are not due to the books' literary merits. The writing is no more than adequate and the characters are as flat as the pages on which they are written. Still, the books have gripped the imaginations of millions with their blend of suspense, adventure, conspiracy, destruction, some romance, and quite a bit of religious rhetoric. They obviously connect on some level with a lot of people. The first book, LEFT BEHIND (1995) begins with pilot Rayford Steele musing in his cockpit about infidelity. His wife has turned annoyingly religious, so he sees no reason not to put the moves on gorgeous flight Attendant Hattie. But his timing is off, Hattie's upset because some of the 747's passengers have suddenly vanished -- leaving only their clothes, spectacles, accessories, and in-flight luggage. Fulfilling bumper sticker- prophecy, the Rapture has occurred leaving driverless cars, crashing planes and other calamities. In no time Romanian (like Dracula) Nicolae Carpathia is trying to establish a world government and single religion. Carpathia is brilliant (he speaks nine languages,) handsome ("a young Robert Redford") and has been named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." Steele joins with his adult daughter Chloe (all the children and babies have been taken in the Rapture), journalist Cameron "Buck " Williams, and pastor Bruce Barnes to form an underground Antichrist-fighting group, the Tribulation Force. "The task of the Tribulation Force was clear and nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaotic years the planet would ever see."
In sequels TRIBULATION FORCE, NICOLAE, SOUL HARVEST, and APOLLYON the good guys find a spiritual leader in Tsion Ben-Judah, a former rabbinical scholar and Israeli politician turned to Christ. The Force continues to battle evil as prophecy -- war; famine; "the wrath of the Lamb" earthquake;a temporary darkening of he sun, moon and stars; a scorching of a third of the earth, poisoning of a third of the water; various plagues -- is usually quite literally fulfilled. By the time a cavalry of two hundred million demon horsemen slay another third of the remaining population in book number six, ASSASSINS, even Rayford Steele thinks it is a "wonder anyone remained sane." Meanwhile he plots to assassinate the Antichrist with a super-handgun. The sixth book ends after the 1261st day of the Tribulation in an atmosphere redolent with resurrection -- we aren't quite halfway through the seven years. A total of twelve books are planned.
The Left Behind series has a lot in common with oldtime pulp fiction. Similar to those penny-a-word writers, Jenkins has stretched his plot out as far as possible. And, as often with the pulps, there are stereotypical and sometimes negative portrayals of women, Jews, Catholics and the media; millions slaughtered, humanity decadently running amok, an exotic and powerfully evil potentate, a small band left to defy the subjugation of a planet, etc. Unlike most fiction -- pulp or otherwise -- the series is unabashedly used to evangelize. LaHaye and Jenkins use fear in a manner alien to other horror writers -- to convince us that their interpretation of God is the true belief.
Of course, page-turners can be more than sheer entertainment. The best works of fiction -- especially the best horror -- often call on us to ask the higher questions, to accept that there is something beyond what we perceive as reality. Although LaHaye and Jenkins do not claim that God told them what to write, they admit to believing in what they have written and hope the books will lead readers to become "born again" Christians. There's nothing wrong with this -- Harriet Beecher Stow's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN was anti-slavery propaganda, Charles Dickens' novels helped improve social conditions in the 19th century, L. Ron Hubbard's books have attracted believers to Scientology -- but it does make one a little uneasy. Some evangelical ministers have condemned J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter fantasies for featuring wizardry and witchcraft. According the THE NEW YORK TIMES it has been suggested by some Christians that the books are the work of the Devil, popularity -- more than five million hardcover and two million paperback books sold in the United States alone so far -- evidence of satanic strength. Is the success of the Left Behind books, therefore the work of God? Or perhaps all mega-booksales or demonically induced and therefore La Haye and Jenkins are unsuspecting tools of the Devil? Perhaps the Antichrist is already among us?
Christ himself warns us, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." (Matthew 7:15)
Perhaps it is best to remember that the Left Behind books are, indeed, fiction.
A Note on the Author: At various points in her life, Paula Guran worked as a pastoral assistant, edited a church newsletter and helped a minister write sermons. As a child, she often won Bible drills.