In June 1970, a youth pastor from Southern California published a book titled The Late Great Planet Earth. It would become the best-selling nonfiction book of the decade, going through more than 100 printings totaling 35 million copies and making Hal Lindsey a household name. Lindsey continues writing “end-times” prophecy books (close to 20 at last count) and also peddles his teachings through a regular television program, speaking engagements, and Holy Land tours.
But Lindsey’s long and lucrative reign as king of the Bible prophecy ended a few years ago. In 1995, Tyndale House published Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days, co-authored by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Initially meant to consist of seven books, the ongoing series—now expanded to 12 novels––has sold well over 10 million copies, setting a string of publishing and sales records. The seventh book of the series, The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession, was released in May 2000, and immediately recorded several milestones, including being the first work of Christian fiction to be number one on the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly bestsellers lists.
The series has become an industry, with a Left Behind series for kids, audio tapes and compact discs, and a major motion picture in the works. The popularity of these books and the thinking behind them is worth examining, since their readers include many Catholics, and nearly everyone knows someone who has read part or all of the series.
While Lindsey was an unknown at the start of his rise to publishing stardom, neither Lahaye nor Jenkins were strangers to success in the evangelical Protestant publishing world and beyond. Jenkin’s website (www.jerryjenkins.com) provides an impressive list of one hundred books that he has authored or co-authored, including best-selling autobiographies by Billy Graham, Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, and many other celebrities.
Lahaye, a graduate of Bob Jones University, has been a well-known pastor, author, and speaker in various evangelical circles since the 1970s, pastoring a mega-church in San Diego, founding FamilyLife Seminars and the PreTrib Research Center. He has also authored non-fiction books on marriage, sexuality, personal growth, and, of course, Bible prophecy, to the sum of several million copies (see www.timlahaye.org).
Novels about the end times and the Rapture have been popular fare within Fundamentalist and Evangelical circles since the 1970s, and in many ways the Left Behind books are of the same ilk as their predecessors. Lahaye provides the general storyline, and Jenkins does the actual writing. The books attempt to render the events of the Book of Revelation in a fictional narrative, following the lives of several characters in the aftermath of the Rapture—the secret, silent removal of “true Christians” from earth prior to the seven years of Tribulation.
These characters discover that they’ve been “left behind,” come to accept the biblical “truth” of the Rapture, have “born again” experiences, and begin working to save as many souls as they can from impending destruction and the emerging Antichrist. All of this is in keeping with the premillennial dispensationalist view of the end of the world, which is the preeminent eschatological system of conservative American Protestants (see “Waiting For The Rapture In America,” This Rock, April 1999).
From a literary perspective, the Left Behind books are less than impressive, even for fans of supermarket paperbacks. The writing is mediocre—saturated with clichés, filled with wooden dialogue and two-dimensional characters. Take this exchange between Raymond and his daughter, Chloe, after realizing his wife and son—her mother and brother—have been raptured:
“You’re saying the only logical explanation is God, that he took his own and left the rest to us?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“I don’t want to hear this.”
“Chloe, our own family is a perfect picture of what happened. If what I’m saying is right, the logical two people are gone and the logical two are left.”
“You think I’m that much of a sinner?”
“Chloe, listen. Whatever you are, I am. I’m not judging you. If I’m right about this, we missed something. I always called myself a Christian, mostly because I was raised that way and I wasn’t Jewish.”
“Now you’re saying you’re not a Christian?”
“Chloe, I think the Christians are gone.”
“So I’m not a Christian either?” (165)
But the writing and characters hardly matter. The real point of the series is to present a theological system, as evidenced by the seemingly endless pages filled with sermons, lectures, explanations about the Rapture, impending doom, and . . . well, the Rapture. In essence, the books are “tract-novels,” stories wrapped around big chunks of proselytizing.
This is not lost on many readers, as a perusal of their reviews on the Internet indicates. Some readers who were not Christian expressed annoyance at the “religious jargon,” but many others were enthusiastic. One reader gave this revealing defense of the books:
“I have a hard time understanding those who berate this or any of the books in the series. Except the fact that their [sic] blind to the truths revealed. You have to remember that this is biblically based fiction. And the authors are trying to get a message out. Will you hear it? . . . These novels were inspired by God—to give a realistic look at the horrible ordeal that those who’ve been left behind will endure during the tribulation. The point is . . . you don’t have to be. Left behind that is. This series has given enough truth that those who haven’t yet made a decision to follow Jesus Christ, have been given a chance to see what they’ll endure if they refuse to acknowledge him as Lord. That’s the whole point of these novels. I’m thankful that I won’t have to endure it, but I am concerned for those who will” (www.amazon.com, June 13, 2000).
A notable feature of the Left Behind books is the absence of denominations—characters are either Christians or destined for destruction. The Catholic Church apparently doesn’t exist, which is not surprising for a couple of reasons. The first is a theological one: Dispensationalist system stresses that the “true Church” is invisible and that “true Christians” come from every sort of denomination, making such distinctions meaningless. Of course, what constitutes a “true Christian” usually involves adhering to substantial portions of the dispensational perspective.
The second reason is practical. Christian novelists such as Lahaye know that Catholics make up a substantial part of their market. Thus, when a reader claimed that one of the books depicted most Catholics as being “left behind,” Jenkins responded by saying the books are “not anti-Catholic” and that “almost every person in the book who was left behind was Protestant. Astute readers will understand where we’re coming from. True believers in Christ, regardless of their church ‘brand,’ will be raptured” (www.amazon.com, August 26, 1999).
The co-author’s reply is accurate––the novels aren’t anti-Catholic per se, although their worldview is in opposition to Church teaching. But Jenkins’ response doesn’t tell the whole story. For that one must turn to Lahaye’s three “non-fiction” books on Bible prophecy. Two of these––Rapture Under Attack and Revelation Unveiled––are recently revised and reprinted editions of earlier books. The third, Are We Living In The End Times? is a new release co-authored with Jenkins. Rapture Under Attack is an emotional defense of the pre-tribulational Rapture, light on scholarship and heavy on rhetoric. For example, it includes the ironic claim that both “a-Millennialism and post-Millennialism” use methods of Scripture interpretation similar to that of Christian Science, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Armstrong’s World Church of Tomorrow “and most of the cults” (223)—a remark that shows Lahaye’s polemical bent as well as his lack of scholarly honesty.
More interesting are the latter two books, since both are packaged to tie-in with the Left Behind books. Both contain anti-Catholic attacks that would make Jack Chick, Loraine Boettner, and Dave Hunt proud—especially since much of the material is taken directly or indirectly from those authors.
In Revelation Unveiled, Lahaye uses the traditional Fundamentalist tactic of correlating the church of Thyatira (Rev. 2:18–29) with the “Pagan Church” of Rome. This apostate Church mixed paganism with Christianity, which resulted in the Dark Ages and the existence of “Babylonian mysticism,” a term used repeatedly to describe Catholicism. Boettner’s infamous list of “doctrines” is provided (66), including the especially horrible practices of using holy water and singing the Ave Maria.
Lahaye later praises “the greatest book ever written on [Babylon] . . . the masterpiece The Two Babylons by Rev. Alexander Hislop . . .” and states that to his knowledge the book has never been refuted (266). This indicates the low level of scholarship he practices, not to mention his ignorance of extensive Catholic apologetic material (and historical scholarship) refuting the bizarre claims of Hislop and others like him. After reproducing several paragraphs of Hislop’s book, Lahaye says that “after reading the above quotations, you may be inclined to think me anti-Catholic, but that isn’t exactly true; I am anti-false religion” (269).
Are We Living in the End Times? , co-authored by Jenkins and laced with excerpts from the Left Behind series, is cut from the same anti-Catholic cloth. Writing about the “Mystery Babylon religion,” the authors make the remarkable and unsubstantiated claim that “[e]very false religion in the world can be traced back to Babylon.” Babylon “is the mother of all false religions and Jerusalem is the mother of true faith,” while Rome “is the mother of an unholy mixture of the two” (172). The history of Christianity’s demise into pagan practices such as “prayers for the dead, making the sign of the cross, worship of saints and angels, instituting the mass, and worship of Mary” are presented in breathless Chickean fashion (173–174).
The “spiritualizing of Scripture” instituted by Augustine is pinpointed as the key moment in the decline in “scriptural authority” (174), while the disappearance of the scriptures for 1,100 years is explained: They “were kept locked up in monasteries and museums” while “the Dark Ages prevailed” (174). After Lahaye and Jenkins note “that as many as 40 million persons were killed during that period when Babylonian mysticism controlled the church” (175), one can only come to one conclusion: The authors are anti-Catholics of the classic Fundamentalist variety—and proud of it.
Despite the authors’ biases and abysmal scholarship, the Left Behind series will likely continue to set sales records, and the sort of Bible prophecy that Lahaye and Jenkins propagate will continue to live on. The gimmick of premillenial dispensationalism is that it rests on the hinge of the Rapture, which does not rely so much on dates as on world events. Thus, any given day’s events can be read into this “end-time” system, guaranteeing longevity for the purveyors of such “prophecy.” As the end of time keeps moving beyond our reach, millions of people have left behind their cash at their local bookstore in exchange for Lahaye and Jenkins’ flawed vision of the future.
Lahaye and Jenkins’ “Bible Prophecy” books
Left Behind series (Tyndale):
1. Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (1995)
2. Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of those Left Behind (1996)
3. Nicolae: The Rise of the Antichrist (1997)
4. Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides (1998)
5. Apollyon: The Destroyer Is Unleashed (1999)
6. Assassins: Assignment—Jerusalem, Target—Antichrist (1999)
7. The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession (2000)
Rapture Under Attack (Multnomah) (1998)
Revelation Unveiled (Zondervan) (1999)
Are We Living In The End Times? (Tyndale) (1999)