Dec. 24, 2006 -- The antichrist has come to Earth, and the forces of good are battling the forces of evil. Your mission: to convert or kill the non-believers.
That's the premise of the new personal computer videogame "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" -- a game caught in a harsh theological and political controversy.
Liberal Christian leaders such as the Rev. Tim Simpson, a Presbyterian minister and the interim president of the Christian Alliance for Progress (LINK), are demanding the game be pulled from store shelves.
"It's essentially faith-based killing," Simpson says, arguing that the game twists the Gospel. "The religious right envisions sitting down by the fireside -- Mom and Dad, Johnny and Susie -- killing all their non-Christian opponents inside the game and imagining this is what, in fact, God wants."
But Troy A. Lyndon, CEO and co-founder of Left Behind Games (LINK), disputes this notion, arguing players learn the value of prayer -- key to success in the game.
"The truth is, you can win our game without firing a single shot," Lyndon says.
True to the popular "Left Behind" book and film franchise, the game begins with a short video of the Rapture, when believers in Jesus are whisked away to heaven, leaving behind non-believers and Satan's forces -- a secular United Nations-esque army called the Global Community Peacekeepers, led by a smooth-talking anti-religious man named Nicolae Carpathia.
Then the game begins. In New York City, settings that include Soho and Chinatown, the "good guys" form the Tribulation Forces, a Christian community and militia that battles the evil Global Community Peacekeepers. In 40 comprehensive and, at times, complex missions, players evangelize New Yorkers and gather resources while fending off their enemies. Good guys need to pray throughout the game in order to function, while also killing the enemy using tanks, helicopters and rifles.
Critics worry the game could be used as propaganda -- depicting the United States as trying to convert the Muslim world.
"That the game has a character in the Satanic Army named Amir Mohammed Salaam cuts very quickly to the fact that the game is based on intolerance," says Clark Stevens of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (LINK), which monitors conservative religious activists.
Adds Christian conservative videogame critic Jack Thompson, "Imagine the response in the Muslim world: 'Get Osama on the satellite phone. Some knuckleheads in the video game industry in America just assured us one million more recruits with the 'American pop culture is the Great Satan' angle. Praise be to Allah!'"
Simpson and other groups are calling for retail giant Wal-Mart to stop selling the game. Wal-Mart has rejected that call.
"We chose store locations where we anticipated customer demand for the product, and the product has been selling in those stores," the retail chain says in a statement. "As always, the decision on what merchandise we offer in our stores is based on what we think our customers want the opportunity to buy."
The game has fans in the conservative evangelical community. A reviewer writing for Plugged In Online (LINK), part of the conservative group Focus on the Family, calls "Left Behind: Eternal Forces "the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior -- and use to raise some interesting questions along the way. Production company Left Behind Games is pushing it as an evangelism tool for teens, and I can see that, too. You certainly don't have to be an eschatologically minded seminarian to appreciate it."
"LB:EF" has its secular fans as well. Writing in Wired (LINK), reviewer Clive Thompson praised the game as a "classic real-time strategy game" that surprisingly "actually kind of rocks."
The Theology Behind the Game
Tim Lahaye, co-creator of the Left Behind book series (LINK), which has sold more than 60 million copies, subscribes to Christian teachings in which believers will be whisked to heaven during the Rapture, leaving behind non-believers and Satan's forces.
"People are reading the Bible like never before," LaHaye says. "They have questions about the future. We come along, in a fictional way, present the truths in the book of Revelation."
What LaHaye sees as truths, many Christian leaders dispute. And Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith adds, "The game and the belief system behind it are dangerous, because they teach that Judaism and other non-Christian faiths are not valid. Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians are seen as incomplete unless they convert, a concept that is contrary to the American ideal of respect for all religions."
True to LaHaye's books and this theology, the "Left Behind" game can be violent; it is rated "T" for Teen -- recommended for those age 13 and older -- though the game makers point out no blood or gore appears after characters are killed.
As Clive Thompson noted in Wired, "the ultimate, and gorgeous, irony of this game," seems to be that fans of the Left Behind franchise "are apparently more worried about simulated violence in video games than about believing an actual prophecy of the future -- endorsed by their spiritual leaders -- in which their friendly Jewish, Islamic and atheist neighbors have their tongues dissolved in screaming agony by a fire-eyed Jesus."
Left Behind Games CEO Lyndon argues that the game also teaches that violence has consequences.
"If you shoot, you lose spirit points," Lyndon says. "So it's more effective to use prayer and worship whenever possible."
Simpson, however, calls this part of the game particularly troublesome.
"When the player kills an individual, his or her spirit score drops and it's very important to keep one's spirit score high," Simpson says.
But he notes that after a player kills, he or she can click the pray button, raising the spirit points, "so then you are ready to go out and kill all over again and repeat the process. That is very different from the values of the Gospel."
It's up to consumers whether to give their children this game this Christmas, the birthday of the prince of peace.
ABC News' Ed O'Keefe, Terry Moran and Ted Gerstein contributed to this report.