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The Left Behind Series
Bad Fiction; Bad Faith

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.

Jenkins 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.

Apparently 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." 

To 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

So 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." 

God 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.

And, speaking of the Devil ... what about the Sign of the Beast ?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.