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.

LaHaye, a teacher of biblical prophecies who is based in El Cajon, Calif., concocted "Left Behind" as a way to spread his conservative beliefs. "I've taught prophecy for more than 20 years," he said. "I realized there is a growing army of people who've never read non-fiction. So I got this idea of using fiction to teach Biblical truth."

After getting turned down by Christian author Frank Peretti, LaHaye met with Jenkins. Over a lunch meeting at a restaurant in Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Jenkins pondered whether the whole concept might run the risk of being hokey. But he took it on, in large part because he shares LaHaye's views (LaHaye provides theological outlines for the books, Jenkins writes them.)

"One of the reasons these books do so well is that Revelation is complicated and people need someone to explain it for them," said Gary DeMar, author of "End Times Fiction: A Biblical Consideration of the `Left Behind' Theology." "But a lot of people haven't actually gone to the Bible and tried to work these things out for themselves."

DeMar, president of Atlanta-based Bible education company American Vision, has another explanation for Christ's second coming. "Jesus said he would come within a generation with His judgment and quite literally this is what happened in A.D. 70," he said. "The temple was destroyed, a million Jews were slaughtered by the Romans under Titus and 50,000 Jews were taken into slavery. There were very few Jews in Jerusalem until the 20th Century."

In the books, the authors have a fixed view to be sure - one shared by many evangelical Protestants - that excludes those of other faiths from heaven's glory. This even means some Catholics; one character, Cardinal Peter Matthews, goes in league with the Antichrist and his Enigma Babylon One World Faith, which teaches the tolerance of all beliefs.

Critics charge this oozes smugness. "The `Left Behind' series is literally a depiction of what happens to other people," DeMar said. "It's as if people view it from afar; `Oh, look what happens.' It's as if they can sit back in comfort and luxury and say, `I know what the future holds.' But my guess is that if it were the other way around, and it was going to happen to them, it wouldn't be as popular."

"Twenty years ago, LaHaye was worried that the Soviets were going to set off the apocalypse, so that's how sturdy apocalypse is to me," said Garner, who was raised Catholic and is a practicing Presbyterian. "You could create a couple of careers out of that."

The pop fiction writing style bothers Garner too. "The parts I've read are really lame, they leave the taste of cardboard in your mouth," he said. "The characters all have names like `Buck' (and belong to) `the Tribulation force.' Some readers live in a cartoony world, I guess."

Jenkins takes exception to such objections, though he does go to sci-fi ends to depict the 21 plagues of the tribulation, a seven-year period when the Earth is in chaos.

"The particularly fun one, even though it's horrible, is in book five, `Apollyon,'" he said. "It's where this plague of locusts covers the Earth and can sting like scorpions. It has a face like a man, hair like a woman, teeth like a lion and looks like a locust. I remember writing that their wings sounded like they were metallic. ... It's a smorgasbord of senses for the novelist."

The authors will not predict when the apocalypse might hit the fan. "Jesus said, `No man knows the day or the hour,'" LaHaye said. "I think most of the people who cite exact dates are crackpots. We have stayed away from that because we don't know. What we have tried to say is that it could be any time: today, tomorrow, next week."

Now 75, LaHaye believes he may live to see it. "I expect to live another 35 years; I've been jogging regularly for 35 years and I think that puts more miles on your speedometer," he said.

Just the thought of it leaves him in, well, a rapture.

"It will be the most magnificent experience I have had in my life," he said. "All Christians from the time of Christ until the present time will be resurrected into a crowd, and we meet the Lord in the air, and we're taken back into the father's house for the next seven years. It's a beautiful story, and Jerry and I are just privileged to help make it known."

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