LEFT BEHIND

By Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins

Tyndale House. 470 pp. $22.99;

Paperback, $15.99

ASSASSINS

By Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins

Tyndale House. 413 pp. $22.99

Reviewed by Douglas E. Winter

"But of that date or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven."

-- the Gospel According to Mark 13:32

Although the coming millennium has more ambiguities than a politician on the stump -- even the time of its arrival is subject to debate -- there is one certainty: Whenever it arrives, this millennium is meaningless to students of the Bible.

This may come as a surprise to those who assume, or have been misled into believing, that the year 2000 (or 2001) has scriptural significance -- or even triggers or fulfills Biblical prophecy. It doesn't. The millennium heralded in the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine is the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth, during which peace will prevail before the final judgment. If we live in Biblical End Times, then the year that matters is either 1948 (Israel's nationhood) or 1967 (Israel's retaking of Jerusalem), which is said to fulfill Christ's Olivet Discourse, whose parable of the fig tree (Matthew 24: 32-34) concludes: "This generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place."

As the alternate title of St. John's delirious masterwork tells us, apocalypse -- from the Greek apokalyptein, to uncover -- means revelation, not catastrophic destruction. Just as Revelation is the last book of the New Testament, the final years of a century -- and particularly those of a millennium -- are latent with apocalypse. It is a global anniversary and, inevitably, a time of summing up and looking ahead. But as the clock winds on toward triple zeroes, our appetite for The End seems ravenous. Disaster is in again, and the bigger the bang, the better -- for prophets and profits.

Religion has powered seminal end-of-the-world novels from Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz to Stephen King's The Stand; but Christian evangelists traditionally have stuck to prophecy texts such as Salem Kirban's I Predict (1970) and Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which, despite originally scheduling The End for 1981, remains the most popular religious book written in our time.

The transition of the prophecy genre into fiction was signaled by Pat Robertson's disastrous disaster novel, The End of the Age (1995) and Lindsey's Blood Moon (1996), but it has been perfected in the breathtakingly popular "Left Behind" series by Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which premiered in 1995. Jenkins is known for collaborative sports biographies; La Haye is a veteran evangelical doomsayer whose The Beginning of the End (1972) was revised in its 1991 edition to remove the suggestion that the 1990s were the End Times (he now prefers an unspecified date within the next 50 years). With its latest installment, Assassins, now in bookstores (and already on Book World's bestseller list), the "Left Behind" series has sold more than 8 million copies -- and it is a marketing machine, with audiocassette editions and a separate, six-book young adult series called "Left Behind: The Kids."

This is by no means a literary accomplishment. The novels are a competent but stodgily written blend of B-movie science fantasy and horror with the tenets of pre-millennial dispensationalism, which teach that the End Times will commence with the "Rapture": True Christians will be transported instantaneously to Heaven, leaving friends and family behind for a seven-year Tribulation overseen by the Antichrist, who denies food and shelter to those who do not accept the Mark of the Beast. Christ will then return to Earth and overthrow the Antichrist, bringing on a golden age of peace -- the Biblical millennium.

A competing theory, historic pre-millennialism, rejects the idea of a Rapture and contends that Christians will not escape the Tribulation; it is the foundation of some survivalist movements. Amillennialism, on the other hand, holds that Christ's return will mark the immediate destruction of the world, while post-millennialism (or dominion theology) argues that Christ's actual return will follow the 1,000-year period of peace.

These divergent views underscore the curious collision of fundamentalist inclinations toward reading the Bible both literally and as prophecy. (Some creationists insist that God created the Earth in seven days because Genesis says so, yet accept prophecy based on Daniel, which simply won't work unless you interpret "days" and "weeks" to mean "years.") The "Left Behind" books thus urge the literal truth of Biblical prophecies while rewriting them as entertainment.

If the Bible is to be read literally, why do we need mediators, particularly those who twist its words into fiction? The simple reason, ignored or downplayed by many fundamentalists, is that Jesus was a consummate storyteller. His favorite teaching device, the parable, spoke elegantly through symbols and metaphors. The "Left Behind" books, unfortunately, do not.

The hero of Left Behind and its sequels is everymanish Capt. Rayford Steele. While piloting a packed 747 over the Atlantic, he contemplates an attractive flight attendant who lacks his wife's annoying religious mania: "God was OK with Rayford Steele. Rayford even enjoyed church occasionally. But since Irene had hooked up with a smaller congregation and was into weekly Bible studies and church every Sunday, Rayford had become uncomfortable. Hers was not a church where people gave you the benefit of the doubt, assumed the best about you, and let you be. People there had actually asked him, to his face, what God was doing in his life."

Before you can say Repent! it's Rapture time. Rayford's wife and son, along with millions of other believers, disappear; but since, for Rayford, God was merely "OK," he finds himself . . . left behind. Joined by ace investigative reporter Cameron "Buck" Williams, Rayford learns the error of his ways -- and the truth (usually literal) of all things Biblical -- while witnessing the rise of the One World Government and, in the first novel's one riveting scene, the unmasking of the Antichrist.

In later novels, Rayford and his cohorts form Tribulation Force, an apocalyptic A-Team who spread the Gospel while eluding authorities -- with uncomfortable echoes of survivalist militias. Assassins -- the sixth of a planned 12 volumes -- brings us to the unleashing of the 200 million horsemen of Revelation 9:15-21 (which others have read to symbolize nuclear war) and the crucial moment when the Antichrist is assassinated.

The books read like artifacts of a time machine sent to retrieve pulp science fiction -- and our morality -- from the '50s. The female lead is named Hattie; a Jordanian is named Abdullah Smith; and a gosh-wow tone prevails. The themes are time-honored in dystopian film and fiction: enthusiastic depictions of mass destruction; survival of an outlaw caste with access to forbidden knowledge; their pursuit and enslavement by a totalitarian regime; and, of course, redemption through evolution (in this case, spiritual).

Central to their emotional appeal is an intense nostalgia for what we have lost, not through the imposition of God's judgment but through the increasingly amoral existence that preceded our fall. Like most apocalyptic sagas, the series feeds on the desire to resurrect an imaginary past that is simpler and, of course, lacking in moral and social ambiguity. But La Haye and Jenkins assert the redemptive power of an otherwise bleak take on Biblical prophecy: Those left behind have a reprieve, one last chance to make things right with themselves and with their God.

The heroes are not the hardshell believers who were lifted to Heaven in the Rapture, but instead the passive, the weak-kneed and, indeed, the sinful. If Rayford Steele, a genuinely good man in secular terms, is denied Heaven because of his straying eye and occasional tip of the bottle, then surely we, the readers, are damned; but La Haye and Jenkins do not imagine our fate with smug self-righteousness. Instead, their characters are constructed to cause readers to identify with them in their search for meaning and, in time, faith.

Although this is not great fiction, it is effective evangelism, using fear as its paramount means of persuasion. "God is more than a God of love and mercy," the authors tell us, but their focus is wholesale death and destruction -- and damnation. "The Scriptures say God is love, yes. But they also say he is holy, holy, holy. He is just. His love was expressed in the gift of his Son as the means of redemption. But if we reject this love gift, we fall under God's judgment."

La Haye and Jenkins will offer a suitably titled tract on Biblical prophecy this November, just in time for the closeout sale on Millennial Madness: Are We Living in the End Times?

Douglas E. Winter, a Washington, D.C., attorney, edited the award-winning anthology "Revelations." His first novel, "Run," will be published in the spring.