The “Left Behind” books, the first of which was published in 1995 and the most recent in 2003, are the collaborative product of the Reverend Tim LaHaye, who, as the founder of Tim LaHaye Ministries and cofounder of the Pre-Trib Research Center, is in charge of ensuring that the fictional action conforms to his interpretation of biblical prophecy, and Jerry B. Jenkins, who, as the ghost or as-told-to writer on books by a number of celebrity authors (Billy Graham, Hank Aaron, Orel Hershiser, Nolan Ryan), actually does the writing.
In the past eight years the eleven installments that so far make up the series (Left Behind, Tribulation Force, Nicolae, Soul Harvest, Apollyon, Assassins, The Indwelling, The Mark, Desecration, The Remnant, and Armageddon, which made its first appearance on the New York Times fiction best seller list last April as number one) have together sold some fifty-five million copies, a figure which includes hardcovers and trade paperbacks and mass-market paperbacks and compact discs and audiobooks and e-books and comic (or “graphic”) books, but does not include either the study guides to the series (“using excerpts from the Left Behind novels and pointing readers to the prophetic passages of Scripture”) or the “Left Behind” military thriller series (“story lines of its own, but parallels the Left Behind books”). Neither does the fifty-five million figure include the merchandising of calendars and devotional readings, or the companion series for children between ten and fourteen, “Left Behind: The Kids,” thirty-some volumes in which “four teens are left behind after the Rapture and band together to fight Satan’s forces.”
The adult series, which offers essentially the same story line, begins as brisk enough reading. Captain Rayford Steele, a husband and a father and a senior pilot (for an American carrier) with secret lust in his heart for his flight attendant, Hattie Durham, has his 747 on autopilot over the Atlantic for a 6 AM arrival at Heathrow when Hattie pulls him into the galley to advise him that more than one hundred passengers, including every child aboard, have simultaneously vanished from the aircraft, leaving their clothes and belongings in neat piles on their seats. By the time Captain Steele, who has next learned that European airports have closed but whose fuel supply is fortunately still short of the point of no return (“I hope this puts your minds at ease somewhat,” he tells his remaining passengers), has managed to change course and return the 747 to O’Hare Chicago, it is clear that the disappearances on his flight were no isolated phenomenon: all over the world, millions of people have at the same instant vanished, leaving behind not only their clothes but also (one of many details in the series that tend to dampen its possibilities for wonder) their “eyeglasses, contact lenses, hairpieces, hearing aids, fillings, jewelry, shoes, even pacemakers and surgical pins.”
Any fundamentalist Christian would recognize that what has happened here is the Rapture, the moment when, according to the fundamentalist reading of …