It's a series of suspense books where everybody already knows the outcome, in a genre that few have taken seriously. And it's sold more than 50 million copies.
Left Behind — a series of Christian potboiler novels about the Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Second Coming — has become a runaway hit since the first volume was published in 1995.
While far less well known, the books routinely rival the offerings of John Grisham and Tom Clancy at the top of the best seller charts, and a new comic-book serialization of the original Left Behind book is selling as well as such hits as X-Men.
The ninth installment in the series of novels, Desecration, released at the end of October, topped multiple best seller lists and may claim bragging rights as the top hardcover of last year, with just three months on the shelves.
"The race is going to be between Desecration and Grisham for the top fiction hardcover [title] of 2001," says Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly, which publishes its annual best seller list in March.
The series, whose only setback has been a movie that did poorly at the box office, have been part of the ongoing success story of Christian-oriented popular culture. Christian music had its best sales year in 2001, for example, increasing 12 percent while overall music sales declined slightly. Left Behind's publisher, Tyndale House, reported a marked increase in orders for the series in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, with paperback sales for the first book doubling in the second half of September.
Rapture at 35,000 Feet
Left Behind begins with the Rapture — the moment when evangelical Christians believe millions of people who have been "saved" suddenly disappear as they are called up to heaven.
In the book, the Rapture occurs as the protagonist, airline pilot Rayford Steele, is flying to London, flirting with a flight attendant and complaining about his wife's zealous Christian faith.
"I was on an airplane and the thought came, 'What if the Rapture occurred on an airplane ride?'" says Tim Lahaye, one of the series' creators, recalling how he first conceived of Left Behind.
The books follow the odyssey of Steele, journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams, and their friends and allies who are left behind to face the seven-year Tribulation, when the Antichrist rises to power. At the end of the Tribulation, which will be described in the 12th and final book of the series, is the Second Coming, when Christ returns to Earth to rule for 1,000 years.
Satan: the Quintessential Villain
Few critics have described the books as great literature, but many admit they can be fun and engaging, with fast-paced plotting, global drama, regular cliffhanger endings and what has to be the quintessential villain: Satan himself.
"How much bigger a cosmic story can you get than good versus evil?" asks Jerry Jenkins, co-creator of the series.
The events of Left Behind are based on the writings of Lahaye, a well-known evangelical Christian minister who describes himself as a "prophecy scholar."
The books are based on Lahaye's detailed outlines of how the Rapture and the Tribulation will unfold, but are actually written by Jenkins, a professional writer who has written books with Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Billy Graham, among others.
Both men are unapologetic about the Christian message of Left Behind, and say their underlying goal with the series is to bring people to Christianity.