Since they debuted their after-the-Rapture thriller series a decade or so ago, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have not aimed their "Left Behind" books at pleasing the sophisticated elite, the so-called "chattering classes." It's not great lit, and doesn't pretend to be. (Personally, I gave up a few pages into the first volume, when a character was introduced this way: "His coworkers called him Buck, because he was always bucking the rules.")

But the idea behind the series is nothing if not gripping. After all the faithful Christians are sucked up into heaven, leaving jewelry and deflated clothes on the chairs they occupied moments before, the rest of the world is left behind to watch the Antichrist martial his forces for the final battle between good and evil. Many people find the novels, with titles like "Desecration" and "The Mark of the Beast" hard to put down, even if they want to. In fact, some people find them frightening in a mesmerizing way, like a roller coaster. If all that LaHaye and Jenkins are saying is true, then some very big things are at stake; life on earth has more meaning than we expected, and both great dangers and great rewards lie ahead. Some accept this with equanimity, but others find it terrifying. Call them the "chattering-teeth class."

Tim LaHaye has written his new book, "The Merciful God of Prophecy," for exactly that category of reader, in an attempt to reassure them that God is merciful. There is not a little irony in LaHaye's taking up this campaign, which on one level is akin to a person leaping out of the dark shouting "Boo," only to reassure us that the dark is nothing to be afraid of.

LaHaye's belief in the "Rapture," after all, is not one shared by most Christians. It isn't even a belief that has deep roots in Christian history, but is a relatively recent way of interpreting several Scripture verses, and one that LaHaye and Jenkins are responsible for disseminating. While many Christians stop to ask why the "plain meaning of Scripture" would be so obscure that for most of history devout believers failed to perceive it, or why the majority of believers today still are not convinced, many readers of Left Behind might assume this is basic Christianity.

The "prophecy" part of his book aside, however, LaHaye does marvelously well with part about "the merciful God." He begins by addressing readers who associate prophesied events with a God who is angry and longs to punish us. Indeed, many people outside Christian faith, and a few uninformed ones inside, think that this is the kind of God Christianity preaches, one who hates his creation and delights in torturing it. "One who rubs his hands together and grins each time we fail, thereby earning his angry judgment," as LaHaye puts it.

On the contrary, LaHaye insists, God loves us and is seeking to save us from the judgment ahead. Well, if that's the case, some might say, why not skip the judgement altogether? "While many name 'Judge not, lest ye be judged' as their favorite Bible verse, Jesus clearly did not mean that we should consider all behavior equally acceptable," LaHaye says. LaHaye insists that we humans are never invited to be judgmental toward others; we merely recognize that everyone will be judged by God one day. There is, after all, injustice in the world; there are acts of violence and cruelty that go unpunished in this lifetime. If God is righteous, it means that in his Kingdom all wrongs will be made right. Would we want it any other way? Put that way, we can see how judgment is the just flip side of love toward those who have been wronged.

The hard part of this equation is that we all have done wrong things; everyone deserves to be judged for something. The fact that we could finger-point at someone else who wronged us does not put our misdeeds right. Judgment is inevitable for everybody, says LaHaye, and it's coming soon to someone at your address.

This is the tricky balance, between God's inevitable judgment and his unending mercy. It takes LaHaye a whole book to get it across fully, but he does so very capably. The warnings of tribulation to come are indeed frightening, he says, but they are for your own good, just as if a park ranger ran up to your campsite yelling that a forest fire was heading your way. In passage after passage, drawn from Scripture, personal stories, and anecdotes from church history, LaHaye presents a satisfyingly complete and compelling portrait of the God who loves his creation and longs above all to show it mercy.

People who think Christianity is all about scolding and hand-slapping, then, are in for a surprise. Non-Christians who would like an in-their-own-words introduction to the Christian God will find here one that is both winning and inviting. LaHaye writes from an evangelical Protestant perspective, and although I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I found his description of the loving God well compatible with my beliefs; I expect that Roman Catholic brothers and sisters would say the same.

LaHaye has a passionate love of Scriptural prophecy. There are those of us who are skeptical when he states that there are at least 1000 such points in the Bible, half of which have already been literally fulfilled. (The other half still lie ahead-by his guess, in the very near future-and he is thrilled with the possibilities unfolding ahead.) But our hesitation is not materially relevant to appreciation of LaHaye's book. He writes as someone in his mid-70s, who has been saturated in these Scriptures all his life, and has come to love God more and more. We may not be able to see the God he describes as clearly as he does, and might disagree on some of the details of what we do see. But we can see that LaHaye is a man lit up with the love of God, and that makes "The Merciful God of Prophecy" a winsome and appealing read.

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