Are you familiar with this End Times publishing success story? A “Bible prophecy expert” writes a gripping novel about the earth’s final days, opening with the Rapture and an airplane flight and continuing on into the Tribulation period. It features a decent but initially unbelieving reporter, a grief-stricken husband whose wife has been raptured while he and his daughter have been “left behind,” a corrupt Catholic leader who becomes the head of a one-world religion, and a charming but thoroughly evil global dictator, the Antichrist. Published by Tyndale, it sells slowly at first but eventually becomes a bestseller.
The Left Behind books by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins? Nope—guess again.
The apocalyptic novel is Salem Kirban’s 666, originally published by Kirban in 1970, then published by Tyndale a few years later and finally re-published in 1998 by AMG Publishers. It was the first and perhaps only Rapture novel of the 1970s and, according to its cover, sold over 500,000 copies in its first ten printings. Kirban’s novel is based on the same sort of over-the-top dispensationalism popularized by Hal Lindsey (whose thirty-million-seller The Late Great Planet Earth was also published in 1970). It is poorly written, stereotypically anti-Catholic (discourses on the evils of Romanism are abundant), and sometimes unintentionally funny (the Pope, one character lectures, is able to “beautify . . . saints”). Kirban, a former Vietnam War correspondent, went on to write a number of books on Bible prophecy and the End Times, including his own “reference Bible.”
Tim Lahaye also has a Prophecy Study Bible, recently published also by AMG Publishers. Publishing a “reference” or “prophecy study” Bible in the mold of Cyrus I. Scofield’s influential Reference Bible is apparently a sign that an author has reached expert status in the lucrative and increasingly competitive world of biblical prophecy—or, more precisely, of interpreting what the Bible supposedly states about the future. There is plenty of jockeying for position at the top of the Rapture literary heap, as a visit to your local Christian bookstore will confirm.
Which brings us back to the plot of Lahaye and Jenkins’ Left Behind story (now eight books in length and heading for a total of twelve) and Kirban’s 666. They are remarkably similar, as this comparison shows:
- Left Behind features a non-believing reporter as a central character; 666 features a non-believing reporter as the main character.
- Left Behind begins with a scene on an airplane flight where a main character (a pilot) is when the Rapture occurs; 666 begins with a scene on an airplane flight, where a main character (a reporter) is when the Rapture occurs.
- Left Behind has a main character (the airplane pilot) whose wife is a Christian and is raptured along with his son while he and his daughter are “left behind” 666 has a main character (the reporter) whose wife is a Christian and is raptured, along with two of his children, while he and one of his daughters are “left behind.”
- In the Left Behind series, the pilot’s daughter becomes pregnant, and her baby is in danger due to the Antichrist’s persecution; in 666 the reporter’s daughter becomes pregnant, and her baby is in danger due to the Antichrist’s persecution.
- Left Behind’s airplane pilot begins reading the Bible (crying over it in his bedroom) and later discovers 1 Corinthian 15:52–53; the main character of 666 reads the Bible (crying over it in his bedroom) and immediately comes across the very same passage.
- The Left Behind series features an American cardinal who becomes the head of a one-world apostate church; 666 features “Brother Bartholomew,” a Catholic leader who becomes the head of a one-world apostate church.
- Both books are filled with characters who do little but fly around the globe, reading the Bible and applying it to the events around them. Many of these characters have access to high places, especially the Antichrist and his inner circle.
- Tyndale Press published Left Behind (1995); Tyndale Press published 666 (1973).
These similarities are noteworthy, I think, for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with Lahaye’s claim of originality for his series of books. In an interview in the March 28, 2000 issue of the Assembly of God magazine Pentecostal Evangel, he insists that “Left Behind is the first fictional portrayal of events that are true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy. It was written for anyone who loves gripping fiction featuring believable characters, a dynamic plot that also weaves prophetic events in a fascinating story” (emphasis added). He also says, “While I was on an airplane flight in the 1980s, I got the idea for a novel about the Rapture. The idea percolated for years.”
Not only did Kirban beat Lahaye by a quarter-century to the dubious distinction of writing the “first fictional portrayal” of a Bible-prophecy view of the End Times, it appears that Lahaye’s Left Behind isn’t even the first Rapture novel published with that title. In July of 1995 Harvest House Publishers, a prominent Fundamentalist publishing house located in Eugene, Oregon, released husband-and-wife team Peter and Patti Lalonde’s end-time novel Left Behind. The first edition of the Lahaye/Jenkins’ novel was released in November 1995.
The publisher’s blurb describes the Lalondes’ book as “a revealing and intriguing look at the time on Earth between the rapture and Christ’s second coming. Designed to be a witnessing tool as well as informative reading, this book answers questions those who have not received Christ will have after the rapture.” While its cover notes that there are “over 200,000” copies in print, the sales of the Lalonde book were eventually dwarfed by those of the Lahaye/Jenkins’ work of the same name. Ironically, the names of Lalonde and Lahaye would become linked when Lahaye and Jenkins sold the movie rights to their books to Peter Lalonde’s movie production company, Cloud Ten Pictures. (Lahaye has since sued Cloud Ten Pictures in an attempt to regain movie rights.) Left Behind: The Movie was released on video in November 2000, and in February of this year it had a short-lived theatrical release.
Lahaye has been in the Bible prophecy business for over thirty years. I find it difficult to believe he had no knowledge of the books by Kirban and Lalonde. While recycling might be good for the environment, it isn’t very appealing when it comes to literature. Needless to say, most readers who accept as Gospel truth the end-time scenarios found in Left Behind have no idea that many of Lahaye and Jenkins’ major plot elements and characters can be found in a book written over thirty years ago.
Beginning in the 1830s with John Nelson Darby—the father of the Rapture—dispensationalists like William Blackstone, Scofield, Dwight L. Moody, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles Ryrie, Lindsey, and Kirban have been claiming that the Rapture will occur in their lifetime or within “this generation” (Lindsey’s favorite phrase). However, if readers learned a bit of the history of the Rapture, they might not be so prone to fall for it in all its various forms—especially as recycled, warmed-up, Left Behind leftovers.
While “Bible prophecy” experts like Lahaye continue to miss the mark about the future, the Left Behind books have in a way fulfilled the words of Scripture in Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”