March 14, 2002

In the multimillion-selling "Left Behind" books, the planet is constantly in peril: Jets crash, folks evaporate from their clothes and locusts swarm with a sickening hum that heralds the end of the world as we know it.

The newest "Left Behind" installment, "Desecration," topped national best-seller lists out of the box - and finished last year No. 1, according to Publishers Weekly. The book knocked John Grisham out of the top spot he has held since 1994.

So pitched is "Left Behind" mania that with the October release of "Desecration," readers snaked through the Mall of America, waiting hours for authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, who also pens the "Gil Thorpe" sports comic strip, to autograph books.

And only a month before, interest in previous volumes soared even as the World Trade Center towers toppled. Sales for book one, "Left Behind," doubled after Sept. 11, while other series titles rose 60 percent or more.

Call it apocalyptic fever, post-Sept. 11 catharsis or the latest pop fiction trend; the popularity of such a series has been unprecedented. Still, many recent converts might not be aware of one stranger-than-fiction asterisk. The authors believe their works are true from a biblical standpoint: 100 percent true.

The overarching plot, based largely on the book of Revelation, goes like this: All saved Christians, dead and alive, get snatched into heaven. Those with weak faith get "left behind" to fight the Antichrist. A seven-year tribulation of plagues and an earthquake ravages the planet. Then Jesus Christ returns in glory to rule for 1,000 years.

Christian critics from scholars to satirists treat the premise of "Left Behind" as flawed - or just plain cracked. "It's silly because playing games with Revelation is like a Chinese puzzle; it gets you nowhere," said James Finn Garner, author of "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories" and more recently "Apocalypse Wow! A Memoir for the End of Time." "God created the subtle creative ticking of the universe. This is just a sledgehammer."

Knowing where the naysayers stand, LaHaye and Jenkins are steadfast. "I believe the kind of stuff I'm writing about is going to happen someday," Jenkins said. That viewpoint was only reinforced by the events of Sept. 11. Jenkins was in Manhattan, 30 blocks north of the towers when they were hit.

"Even for me, it made it so real," Jenkins recalled. "Writing about the rapture, if a pilot disappears, his airplane would crash. All you can do is imagine it. But now, everyone watching (on TV) has this same reaction: Am I watching the news or some `Towering Inferno' movie?"

Here is how Jenkins sees it: If not an apocalyptic sign, Sept. 11 was a grim glimpse of what the end might look like. "In a way it just affirmed what I was doing, that if we had some sort of disaster, there would be this huge scenario where the country would shut down," he said. "People would have to wonder, `Would there be more?' and `What does this mean for our future?'"

At a minimum, the future of the "Left Behind" franchise looks sound. Pop fiction fans have embraced the series, launched in 1995, like manna from the Houses of Grisham, King or Steel. The nine novels have sold 50 million copies total; by comparison, Grisham sold almost 61 million in the 1990s, followed by King (38 million) and Steel (37.7 million).

Book 10, "The Remnant," is slated for a July release; the dozen-book collection should run its course around Summer 2004. There's also an 18-book kid series, comic-book novels, a movie and translations of the original tomes in 19 languages, with another seven pending.

In Christian publishing, even a run of 100,000 copies equals a huge hit. Dan Balow, director of business development for Tyndale House, declined to reveal how much Tyndale House has made from the texts, but the company's sales, $44 million in 1998, were expected to break $180 million last year. In between, LaHaye and Jenkins tripled Tyndale's profits in 1999. Last year, the publisher spent $3.5 million to promote "Left Behind," according to Christianity Today (Earlier this month, LaHaye signed a separate $45 million, four-book deal with Bantam.).

"It's not just Christians buying these books," said Lynn Garrett, religion editor for Publishers Weekly. "Obviously, people just find them a good read and buy them as thrillers. In Sweden, they're read as science fiction. But in this country, the theology behind these books is so woven into culture that people who are not evangelical Christians are familiar with the themes-the end times, the revelation, the second coming of Christ. It's not just religious but cultural."

Prior to "Left Behind," Jenkins was a writer with many irons in the fire. The former editor of Chicago's Moody Magazine, he was also noted for his ghostwritten or as-told-to autobiographies of sports figures (Mike Singletary, Walter Payton, Nolan Ryan, Hank Aaron) and the Rev.

Billy Graham.