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 Thessalonians (“first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are still alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air”), true Christian believers will be taken up, or “raptured,” into heaven. Since all the true believers in the “Left Behind” series have vanished, however, those still on the scene are initially confused. O’Hare itself is littered with planes that crashed on approach when their pilots disappeared. Highways are clogged with the crashes of cars with disappeared drivers. CNN runs videotape showing the disappearance of a fetus from a woman in labor and the disappearance of a bridegroom as he slips the ring on the bride’s finger. Morgues and funeral homes report corpse disappearances.
Cameron “Buck” Williams, a young star reporter who happens to have been one passenger on Rayford Steele’s 747 who did not disappear, deftly restores his computer to working order (he had cut its wires on the plane in order to splice them to those inside the one operable telephone), and receives, from his executive editor in New York, a message reminding him, rather weirdly under the circumstances, of other stories in the hopper:
I know all anybody cares about is the disappearances. But we need to keep an eye on the rest of the world. You know the United Nations has that international monetarist confab coming up, trying to gauge how we’re all doing with the three-currency thing. Personally I like it, but I’m a little skittish about going to one currency unless it’s dollars. Can you imagine trading in yen or marks here? Guess I’m still provincial.
This communication appears on page 57 of the first volume of the series, Left Behind. Those brought up short by “the three-currency thing” (if not by the entire e-mail) may well not remember that we were told on page 9, where it was easy to skim past because Hattie Durham was still searching the lavatories for passengers missing their surgical pins, that “streamlining world finance to three major currencies had taken years” and that “a move was afoot to go to one global currency.” The editor’s message to Cameron Williams contains further alerts to the action to come, striking, bemusingly, the same note of editorial shoptalk:
Political editor wants to cover a Jewish Nationalist conference in Manhattan that has something to do with a new world order government…. Religion editor has something in my box about a conference of Orthodox Jews also coming for a meeting…. The other religious conference in town is among leaders of all the major religions, from the standard ones to the New Agers, also talking about a one-world religious order…. Need your brain on this. Don’t know what to make of it, if anything.
So. Even before Rayford Steele reaches home to find what he fears, that his devout wife and son are among the raptured and that he and his “skeptical” daughter (a Stanford student) have been left behind, we are already into monetary policy, the United Nations, “internationalism,” “the new world order,” the Realpolitik of the populist right. One of those left behind, the assistant pastor at the church attended by Rayford Steele’s wife and son (although not by Rayford himself, who, like many other characters in the series, had favored a church where “the people were nice, but it might as well have been a country club”), scours the Bible for clues, and calls a meeting to announce that “I’m onto something deep here and wanted to share it.” Not surprisingly, given the “Doctrinal Statement” of Dr. LaHaye’s Pre-Trib Research Center (“We believe that Christ will literally rapture His church prior to the 70th week of Daniel, followed by His glorious, premillenial arrival on the earth at least seven years later to set up His 1,000 year kingdom rule from Jerusalem over the earth”), the pastor has come to the conclusion that the Rapture marks the beginning of the seven years of the Tribulation. This “pre-tribulational” view, and in fact the innovative idea of the Rapture itself, shared by LaHaye and those other fundamentalist Christians who hold that believers can be taken into heaven without enduring the Tribulation, entered the evangelical ether in England around 1830 and reached American fundamentalists in the early twentieth century via Cyrus I. Scofield’s annotated Scofield Reference Bible, which taught the view in its notes. The assistant pastor lays it out:
The first twenty-one months [after the Rapture] encompass what the Bible calls the seven Seal Judgments, or the Judgments of the Seven-Sealed Scroll. Then comes another twenty-one-month period in which we will see the seven Trumpet judgments. In the last forty-two months of this seven years of tribulation, if we have survived, we will endure the most severe tests, the seven Vial Judgments. The last half of the seven years is called the Great Tribulation, and if we are alive at the end of it, we will be rewarded by seeing the Glorious Appearing of Christ…. Christ will come back to set up his thousand-year reign on earth…. Again, if I’m reading it right, the Antichrist will soon come to power, promising peace and trying to unite the world…. I fear it may be very soon. We need to watch for the new world leader.
In fact the Antichrist has already appeared, in the person of a previously obscure Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia, an advocate of global disarmament who has mysteriously emerged, under the shadowy guidance of a cartel of “international money men,” to unanimous acclaim. Cameron “Buck” Williams has already interviewed him. Hattie Durham is already angling for an introduction to him, and four books later, in Apollyon, will miscarry his child. (She wanted an abortion, but was discouraged from this course by Rayford Steele and the other new believers whose opposition to abortion apparently extends even to the child of the Antichrist.)
Carpathia, “a strikingly handsome blond who looked not unlike a young Robert Redford,” speaks at the United Nations, where he displays “such an intimate knowledge… that it was as if he had invented and developed the organization himself.” He is fluent in nine languages, “the six languages of the United Nations, plus the three languages of his own country.” He discusses the Last Judgment and the Second Coming at the opportunely scheduled ecumenical religious conference. He has a “scientific” explanation for the disappearances (“some confluence of electromagnetism in the atmosphere, combined with as yet unknown or unexplained atomic ionization from the nuclear power and weaponry throughout the world”), and dismisses (“compassionately”) a tentative suggestion that “this was the work of God, that he raptured his church”: “If there is a God, I respectfully submit that this is not the capricious way in which he would operate. By the same token, you will not hear me express any disrespect for those who disagree.”
He is named People‘s “Sexiest Man Alive.” He appears on late-night. His agenda is clear, and designed to strike anyone familiar with the rhetoric of the Christian right as sinister: “We must disarm, we must empower the United Nations, we must move to one currency, and we must become a global village.” He lays out the conditions under which he will accept appointment as secretary-general of the UN, and meets with the heads of the world religions to ask for resolutions supporting those conditions: a seven-year peace treaty with Israel, the relocation of UN headquarters to Iraq, where Babylon is to be rebuilt, and the establishment of a single world religion, headquartered in Italy, in exchange for which he will help the Jews of Israel rebuild their temple. “The man is brilliant,” Cameron Williams’s publisher announces. “Not only have I never seen someone with such revolutionary ideas, but I’ve also never seen anyone who moves so quickly.”
We understand immediately: this will be an end-times scenario with a political point. These are not books that illuminate Christian theology. The apocalyptic events of Revelation roll out in their appointed order, each judgment more literal than the last (another tenet in the Doctrinal Statement of the Pre-Trib Research Center affirms that “we believe the Bible should be interpreted normally, as with any other piece of sane literature, by a consistently literal hermeneutic which recognizes the clear usage of speech figures”), famine giving way to pestilence, fire to the falling star to the darkening of the sun by a third (“We’re going to have to determine what this means to all our solar-powered stuff” is Rayford Steele’s typically process-oriented response to this development), the plague of locusts to the plague of two hundred thousand brimstone-breathing horses to the plague of boils, the sea turning to blood, and, in Armageddon, the Euphrates drying up. What might seem to be the lesson of the Christian litany, that only through the acceptance of a profound mystery can one survive whatever spiritual tribulation these poetic fates are meant to signify, is not the lesson of the “Left Behind” books, in which the fates are literal rather than symbolic, and the action turns not on their mystery but on the ingenuity required to neutralize them: a surprising number of the series’ beleaguered band of Christians turn out to have been trained, conveniently, as pilots, computer hackers, document forgers, disguise experts, black marketeers, interceptors of signal intelligence, and medical trauma specialists.