Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are
the authors of the best selling novels popularly referred to as the Left Behind
series. These two have probably done as much as anyone to make the term "rapture"
familiar to a majority of Americans. To date the duo have sold more that 65 million
copies of the twelve book series, including several million books translated into
16 different languages and sold around the world.
Given the staggering
popularity of these novels, one wonders what is the secret of their appeal? In
attempting to answer this question for myself, I took a second look at book number
seven in the series. Immediately upon publication, "The Indwelling"
catapulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, a remarkable achievement,
especially when one considers that the Times does not even count sales from Christian
bookstores. This book shares the premise of all the other Left Behind novels.
LaHaye and Jenkins follow a plot which they tell us is simply a dramatization
of events foretold in the Bible. In "The Indwelling" we find ourselves
midway through the seven year period which the authors refer to as the Tribulation.
It's a chaotic time for the peoples of the earth. Just three and a half years
prior to the events described in this book, every born again, Bible believing
Christian had been "raptured" directly into heaven. Without these devout,
decent, and faithful people around to defend the cause of goodness and truth,
control of the world falls into the hands of the handsome, charismatic Nicolae
Carpathia, leader of the new world government. Carpathia is a native of Romania,
a humanist and pacifist, the former Secretary General of the United Nations.
and LaHaye would have readers believe that the remaining population of the United
States is so caught up in adulation of Carpathia, who has been designated by "People"
magazine as 'the sexiest man alive," that Americans vote this country out
of existence and willingly submit to the sovereignty of a world government which
the Romanian has set up in a place called the New Babylon, somewhere in the Middle
East. This book opens with Carpathia's assassination and it ends with his resurrection.
Or so it appears. In fact, the resurrected Carpathia is nothing less than Satan
incarnate. Satan, banished from heaven, has come to rule the world as the anti-Christ.
For the faithful who dare to resist, the future looks bleak. But a small band
of true believers, including Rayford Steele, a former pilot, Cameron "Buck"
Williams, editor of the cybermagazine "The Truth" and a few others,
put up a valiant resistance. They fight on, against all odds, inspired by the
hope that one day, they too, may be lifted out of the present darkness and distress
to be united with the Savior and his loved ones in heaven.
it does not distract from the popularity of these books that this scenario is
not now, nor ever has been, the prevailing view of what happens at the "end
of times" within most Christians churches.
In fact, the
concept of a Rapture that carries Christians safely away from a world that is
about to fall into chaos is a relatively recent development. First conceived by
John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren in 1827, it entered widespread public
currency with the publication in 1909 of the Scofield reference Bible. Among the
most strident critics of the rapture scenario are millions of evangelical and
fundamentalist Christians who find it a fatally flawed reading of the Bible itself.
Needless to say, those of us who do not believe that events in the early years
of the third millennium are predicted and predetermined by biblical prophecy find
such scenarios more fantastic than science fiction. Still, writers like Hal Lindsey
and Jenkins/LaHaye have revived the 19th century theory by packaging it just that
way, transforming an obscure religious doctrine into a form of entertainment.
I first encountered the works of LaHaye and Jenkins during the panic over
the Y2K computer bug several years ago. Remember Y2K? Now that computer
bug is largely forgotten, but in 1999, there were those who felt that the consequences
of this peculiarity in the way dates are calculated on personal computers might
mean catastrophe for our planet. Among those warning that doomsday was near were
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. For many years they have been predicting a planetary
catastrophe, and the little computer bug appeared to them, exactly the trigger
that might set off the meltdown. The stock market would crash. The electric
power grid would be shut down. Food supplies would be cut off. There
would be panic in the streets. Driven by fear, people would willingly place their
fate in the hands of an unscrupulous ruler who would take control. Soon the fictions
contained in their novels would become fact, exactly as the Bible says they would.
But, not to worry, for just as the storm was breaking, faithful believers would
be miraculously rescued. As many as eighty million American Christians would be
spirited away to heaven, while the whole world sank into chaos. As we all know
now, nothing remotely like this happened.
Has this made any difference
in the thinking of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins? Not in the least. Rather than
lightening up, they have simply found other signs that the end is near. The terrist
attacks of Sept 11, 2001 seemed to confirm the fears that they mistakenly associated
with the Y2K computer virus. Now it is clear, writes Tim LaHaye: "This world
of ours is going to become more violent and troublous than any period in history."
be sure, the wave of terrorist, suicide attacks has been of concern to most people,
especially in the US. But does twenty-first century terrorism make this
a time "more violent" than any period in human history? Have the past
two years been more violent and "troublous" than the Dark Ages?
Worse than the violent years of the Civil War? Worse than World War II with
the holocaust and the unleashing of the atomic bomb? 50,000 Americans lost
their lives in the Vietnam War; 3,000 in the Sept 11 terrorist attacks. Does this
make the opening years of the 21st century more violent than any other in history.
Such realistic questions aside, Jenkins and LaHaye have no doubt about it. This
scenario is all part of God's plan; we are entering a period of tribulation in
which billions of people will die a brutal and violent death. And the amazing
thing is, they expect people to believe that this is part of the "good news"
first proclaimed by Jesus Christ who came that the world might be saved. How stupefying
a transformation, as "good news" and a proclamation of "peace on
earth" becomes the dire forecast of death and destruction for the overwhelming
majority of the world's people.
American as Apple Pie
I return to the question raised at the outset. Why are these novels so popular.
Let me offer one suggestion. They are as American as apple pie. They traffic in
the currency of one of the most powerful American myths: that of the hero who
rescues the damsel in distress. Remember those grade B cowboy movies from the
silent movie era in which the heroine is tied to the railroad tracks. The locomotive
is already in view, thundering toward her helpless body. Suddenly, from out of
nowhere, the cowboy on the white horse, dashes to the rescue. He cuts the
ropes and releases the beautiful girl just in the nick of time. The pair ride
off into the sunset to live, we are led to believe, happily every after. This
secular myth has been reincarnated of late in such things as a television show
that featured young women competing for the right to marry a millionaire and multimillion
dollar state lotteries that hold forth their promise of instant rescue from the
humdrum of daily life and access to the lifestyle of the rich and the famous.
The Left Behind Series suggests that you too can be the winner of the great
Prize in the Sky. Escape from this world of woe to be with those you love in heaven!
The worse one can make the woe of the world appear, the greater the longing for
escape, and the greater the hunger for the Savior, whether in the form of the
winning ticket in the State Lottery, the handsome millionaire, or the ultimate
hero, Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, in being so predictable, these novels are
not only bad fiction, they are bad faith. The real strength of Christianity lies
not in the offer of a miraculous escape from the troubles of this world, but in
the inspiration to resist them. God offers not a last minute rescue for a few
believers while the majority of the human race perishes in chaos, but the hope
that was expressed so well by Jesus Christ himself in the words of his prayer,
that God's will may be done "on earth as it is in heaven."
placed us upon this troubled planet to be its caretakers, not a frightened people
who rush for the exit doors at the first sign of trouble.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.