This story first appeared on Beliefnet in May of 2000.
The best-selling book of the 1970s was a religious title, Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth." It told of how the birth of modern Israel signaled that we were in the "end times," that the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic portions of Scripture predicted that the Antichrist's arrival was imminent, that Christians would soon be raptured (taken up to heaven by Jesus) before all the bad stuff started happening, but after seven years of "tribulation" Jesus Christ would return to Earth and usher in a millennial reign of justice and peace.
For all those who think we have become much less religious as a nation since the disco era, please note: The Left Behind series, a serialized novelization of Hal Lindsey's end-times scenario by fundamentalist preacher Tim LaHaye and professional writer Jerry Jenkins, have sold more than 25 million copies. A complementary series for kids has sold more than 5 million. All told, more than 40 million Left Behind products have been purchased. The latest novel, "Desecration," number nine out of a planned 12, will appear on The New York Times bestseller list almost immediately after its Oct. 30 release. A Left Behind comic-book series is on its way.
In case you have been left behind by all the hoopla, here is what you need to know--skipping, for the moment, the elements of eschatological soap opera, the romances, births, murders, and nuclear explosions, the first nine books entail: Millions of born-again Christians and all children, from early teens down to those in utero, disappeared. Even their clothes lie around the sidewalks and stores--wherever their occupants happened to have been standing.
The world fears some alien attack or some apocalyptic natural disaster and never figures out the common denominator. So, appointing the newly installed president of Romania, Nicholae Carpathia, general secretary of the United Nations (because he made a moving speech about peace and disarmament) the planet's nations agree to give up their sovereignty, their weapons, even their names. Nicholae, as his friends call him, splits the world into 10 regions, orchestrates a seven-year truce between Israel and its enemies, moves the U.N. headquarters (renamed the Global Community) to the world's new capital, New Babylon, in Iraq. A new era of peace and prosperity has begun.
But wait. Not all is right in this utopian village. A backslidden fundamentalist pastor who sees the error of his ways only after almost everyone he knows is raptured pulls together a ragtag group of new believers opposed to Carpathia. They call themselves the Tribulation Force, and they know who Carpathia really is: the Antichrist. And they know how to stop him.
The Tribulation Force is led by Rayford Steele, an airline pilot, who has reconciled with God over his feelings of rage and vengeance. The new novel finds Steele in the desert headquarters of the Trib Force, readying to rescue Israelis on the run from the Antichrist. In all the books, the pacing feels more like a weekly TV drama than a Stephen King thriller.
It hardly need be said that the "Left Behind" series leaves itself open to mockery--but no more that Danielle Steele or a host of others who sell tons of books. What makes these books worth examining more closely is what they tell us about the mindset of those millions of people so poorly understood by the media: evangelical Christians (of which I am one).
As the "Left Behind" sales figures show, this is a group of not inconsiderable numbers, who take the theological premises of the novels seriously enough to be entertained--or more than entertained: Not a few have used these books as their entryway into the kingdom.
The novels put in bold relief a few of the beliefs of those millions:
God is active and involved. The evangelicals' God is no philosophical construct; he is not merely the Ground of Being. God works dramatically. In Book 7, "Assassins," he brings back Elijah and Moses to preach before the Wailing Wall and resurrects them three days after being killed by the
Antichrist. And God attends to the smaller pastoral issues: He is concerned that Steele's inner life is out of whack and works to restore him. This is the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, a character that cares, acts, interferes, and will throw in a miracle when needed. Readers enjoy these novels because they hear the echo from their Scripture readings. God is here, and he is not silent.
It is Jesus or nothing. Nicholae Carpathia says he respects the views of those who disagree with him but admits that those who hold to "exclusive" and "intolerant" positions about religion are dangerous. Evangelicals get nervous when politicians talk about "tolerance" and "inclusion" because they believe it is one step toward "compromise" and "corruption." They hold to an exclusive salvation; only Christians need apply. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, and agnostics are wrong. If you don't find Jesus, the Antichrist will find you.
It is "us" versus "them." "Them," of course, are headed up by Satan. You want to be an "us," which means fighting "them." This mentality has echoes in the present. It helps explain why so many evangelicals spoke of Sen. John McCain as the enemy during the 2000 presidential primaries. Once the religious right anointed George W. Bush "God's man," evangelicals had a hard time thinking of another--even another conservative Republican--as "also a good option." Either you are doing God's will or you are opposing God's will. Christianity is rational. Check out this scene from "Tribulation Force": Israel commissions their top rabbi to study the signs predicting the coming of the Messiah, he runs through Christians' favorite prophetic verses in the Hebrew Bible and announces on TV, "Jesus Christ is the Messiah. . . . There can be no other option." In other words, the truth of Christianity is obvious to anyone with an open mind. LaHaye's characters are most often converted when the Bible exactly predicts what is happening during the end times; the Gospel "makes sense."
But the emphasis on rationality goes further. Steele's spiritual failure is described this way: "the illogical had invaded. The man who prided himself on his pragmatism found himself living by his emotions." Despite their embrace of the supernatural, evangelicals are good sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Non-Christians are stupid and have no character. The idea of the good, intelligent pagan who rejects Christianity is not considered, and if a non-believer shows any intelligence or politeness, it's a good bet he or she will be Christian before the novel's finale.
The Bible is true, but our theology is shallow. LaHaye and Lindsey's view of the end times is an invention of the 19th-century British Bible student John Darby, called dispensationalism. Only a few fringe scholars in evangelical institutions of higher learning would support the details of the "Left Behind" scenario. Many evangelical scholars believe that Revelation refers to events of the late first century or that its literary metaphors have a spiritual purpose rather than a predictive one.
Still, the masses like LaHaye and Jenkins, even though their theology makes it logical to kill all children at age 10 in order to guarantee them a ticket to heaven or that God does not want Christians ever to suffer and so removes them in the Rapture before there is tribulation. (Tell that to contemporary martyrs.)
We love gadgets. Evangelicals may be primitivists religiously, but we are not Luddites. The work of the Tribulation Force is carried out by cell
phones, websites, Gulfstream jets, and Land Rovers. Exploiting technology for the kingdom has been a hallmark of the Billy Graham crusades and others before him.
Profits battle with the prophets. When the "Left Behind" series took off, the publisher, authors, and agents got together and decided to expand the series to 12 volumes, thus making it less likely that people will continue with the series to the very end. The pacing also slowed considerably to stretch out the seven years of Tribulation (18 months of which are simply skipped) over 12 installments.
It is hard not to conclude that they decided upon a less effective series in order to make more money. The Christians in the book tend to be well educated and well-off. While prosperity is not taught as a right of believers, it is at least hinted that it is.
A friend asked me whether she should read "Left Behind," because a co-worker told her it tells what is going to happen and forces you to take a spiritual inventory of your life. I gave her my view of the books, which served to squelch her interest. I regretted having to be honest. I know God is not beneath using imperfect tools to do his work, and my friend may have heard God speaking through these pages. Such is the God of the evangelicals.