"We love the idea of influencing the hearts and minds of millions of people," says LaHaye. "It shows that people are interested in Christianity. The amazing thing about this success is that [the books] are unashamedly Christian. And we deliberately want to be that way."
The two creators hoped the books would eventually sell a couple hundred thousand copies, but had no expectations of topping the best seller lists.
"I've been writing for 40 years, with 12 million books in print, but I've never seen anything like this,"says Lahaye.
Revealing ‘God’s Plan’
The books have taken off despite little attention from mainstream publications. The original novels have spawned a series of childrens' books, audio books, and the recent graphic novels — comic book serializations of the story. In total, sales of the various Left Behind books passed the 50 million mark in 2001.
Many agree the books have hit on a powerful formula for success: an entertaining, suspenseful story about events and conflicts on the grandest scale, that also promises to educate readers about the fate of the world.
"Any good fiction book has to make the characters real. I think they have done that," says Ron Zimmerman, who works at the Christian-oriented Provident Bookstores outside Cleveland, Ohio. "We have people who just can't wait to read the next one."
Marjorie Daley, a manager at Christian Publications Book Store in New York City, says the books are successful because they provide an easy way to learn about Biblical prophecy.
"You're living in the age — the end of time. They're curious to know what's going to happen," she says. "They want to understand."
LaHaye believes the books have tapped a deep desire for fiction that reflects and embodies Christian spiritual beliefs.
"People are uncertain and want to know what the future will hold. And the Bible has the only credible story for the plan God has for mankind."
Jenkins agrees. "I think among the general society, there's a hunger for God," he says.
Some Christians Less Than Rapt
With success has come some controversy, from both inside and outside the evangelical community.
Some evangelical leaders have objected to LaHaye's interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Specifically, they argue the Bible says the Tribulation will occur before the Rapture (when all true Christians are suddenly transported off the Earth). Others say LaHaye's attempt to take the confusing events of Revelation literally is misguided.
"Overall it's not a theology and understanding of the End Times that orthodox Christians hold to," says Rodney Clapp, the editorial director of Brazos Press, a Christian publisher, and author of Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs.
Some Christian critics also object to the idea that people can be saved after the Rapture. The suspense of the Left Behind books largely comes from whether those still on Earth after the Rapture will accept Christianity and be saved.
"That's a highly controversial point among evangelicals who believe in the Tribulation and Rapture," says Philip Goff, a professor at the Center of the Study of Religion and Culture at Indiana University.
Outside the evangelical community, critics have voiced a host of concerns about the books.