Apocalyptic Science Fiction Series Becomes a Long-Running Smash Hit

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.

"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.

Commentators have objected to Left Behind's politics and views on other religions. In the books, the Antichrist becomes secretary-general of the United Nations, and uses the organization to create a global government. A Catholic cardinal becomes an aide to the Antichrist in the books, and the protagonists of the story set out to convert 144,000 Jews to Christianity, in what is described as a necessary step for the Second Coming to occur.

"Politically, it does have some underlying assumptions," says Goff.

Standing Firm by the Bible

Lahaye and Jenkins defend their work as Biblically based.

"If people want to say, 'Well you're exclusivist, only Christians go to heaven,' Jenkins says, "Well yes, that's what we believe."

That does not mean they are against those practicing other religions, they say.

"We believe there are many Catholics that are true believers," he says. "We certainly aren't anti-Catholic; we certainly don't say all Catholics are going to hell or anything like that."

LaHaye has no qualms expressing his unease with the United Nations and moves toward increased globalization, like the introduction of the euro. The Antichrist will form a one-world government, he says, and the United Nations could be the instrument used to do it.

"They're trying to solve the world's problems without any leaning on God," he says of the international body.

Some critics have been concerned that Left Behind readers might come to expect the Rapture to happen relatively soon. They might fail to make long-term plans for themselves, or could become disenchanted with Christianity when the Rapture does not happen when they expect.

It's a worry that LaHaye takes seriously, but he says he believes the books haven't inspired any extreme behavior.

"So far we've not had any reports of people doing bizarre things," he says. Instead, he thinks the possibility of an imminent Rapture draws people to the faith.

"If you believe that Christ could come in your lifetime then your going to live more zealously and committed," he says.

"We're well over 2,500 people who [have written to the authors and] said, 'I became a believer because of these — actually became Christians because of this,'" says Jenkins. "And needless to say, for us that's more important than best sellers, or money, or anything else."