BYLINE: CARLOS HAMANN
WASHINGTON, Set 26, 2003 (AFP) – Unmanned cars careen out of control and planes plunge to Earth as millions around the world suddenly disappear. They’ve been “raptured” to heaven — and those left behind face seven years of war, famine and natural disasters before the return of Jesus Christ.
That’s the premise of the best-selling “Left Behind” series, novels based on what the authors claim are biblical prophecies.
With more than 40 million copies sold since 1995, these fast-paced thrillers sell just as well in the United States as the works of any big-name paperback author.
“The series is wildly popular,” said Bill Andrews, manager of the Jesus Bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia. “It is the right theme for the right time in history.”
Wars in the Middle East, terrorism, blackouts, plagues: Millions of Americans believe these are signs that the end is near, and they are willing readers of apocalyptic literature.
The trend gained force in 1948 with the re-founding of Israel, which many evangelical Christians believe is the prelude to the return of Jesus Christ, who they say will preside over 1,000 years of heavenly bliss on Earth.
In the 1970s, “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey, which tied current events to apocalyptic biblical passages, was a blockbuster bestseller.
Today, a whopping 59 percent of Americans believe that the final book of the Bible, Revelation, accurately prophesies the end of the world — which 17 percent believe will come in their lifetime, according to a June 2002 Time/CNN poll.
Thirty-five percent also have been paying closer attention to the news and how it relates to the end of the world since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, while 25 percent believe the attacks were predicted in the Bible, according to the same poll.
The first book in the series, “Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days,” came out in 1995. All good Christians are whisked off to heaven — leaving behind their clothes, their glasses and even their dentures. The survivors, however, can redeem themselves during a period of living hell before Jesus Christ returns.
The 11th installment in the series, “Armageddon,” came out as US-led forces were storming Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In the book, the Antichrist — a former head of the United Nations — rules the world from Baghdad, or “New Babylon.” A band of surviving Christians and converted Jews must gather to help Israel hold off an invasion by Satan’s massive army.
Series co-authors Jeremy Jenkins and Tim LaHaye are superstars in fundamentalist Christian circles. Jenkins is the writer, while LaHaye, a retired preacher, provides “the outline of prophecy based on biblical text,” according to the official website.
“Fundamentalism and evangelicalism follows a variety of apocalyptic visions,” said Martin Marty, a historian of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
But the theology behind the “Left Behind” series “wins out” over the others because its proponents have been good at “tying their interpretation to current affairs,” Marty said.
This theology, called dispensationalism, was first developed in the 19th century by a Scot named John Nelson Darby. Its proponents pick different biblical passages and join them together like a jigsaw puzzle for what they say is a view of the future.
Is the series based on the Bible? Baloney, say Catholics and mainstream Protestants.
Christians have long been split on whether to read parts of the Bible — particularly Revelation — as describing past events metaphorically or future events literally.
Mainline Christians prefer the former interpretation, while evangelicals prefer the latter. Mainline Christians also complain that while fundamentalists read the Bible literally, they take it metaphorically when it suits them.
US Catholics have complained that the series is offensive: In one book, a cardinal becomes a top aide to the Antichrist, while the Pope becomes a born-again Protestant and is raptured into heaven.
The series can be equally offensive to Jews and members of other religions, however, for only those who embrace Christ are saved in the books.
Even some Christians who believe that Jesus will return one day are turned off by “Left Behind.”
“Don’t look at the newspaper to interpret the Bible,” said Dennis Johnson, a professor at the Westminster Theological Seminary in San Diego, California. “God is not going to give us a detailed timetable.”
The final installment in the series is scheduled for 2004, but “Left Behind” will live on through novels that run parallel to the plot line.
Spinoffs include movies, children’s books, board games — and, in case you are raptured, videotapes to leave behind for friends and relatives, explaining what happened.