The Left Behind Series:
Left Behind; Tribulation Force; Nicolae;
Soul Harvest; Apollyon; Assassins; The Indwelling;
The Mark; Desecration; The Remnant;
Armageddon; Glorious Appearing
By Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
Tyndale. 12 titles, 2001-2004 Because he is a Romanian citizen, the Antichrist will not be voting for president in November. But there's no doubt about which side he'd favor, given his advocacy of causes such as peace, disarmament, global cooperation, aid to Third World countries, interfaith dialogue and environmental treaties. Nicolae Carpathia, as he is named, is the secretary general of the United Nations and the primary evildoer of the wildly popular "Left Behind" novels, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. His creators have endowed him with progressive opinions whose political overtones are hard to mistake: The Antichrist is also the anti-Bush.
Tim LaHaye, who supplies the theological message of the books, helped found the Moral Majority. Jerry Jenkins, who does the writing, is the author of some 150 books, including biographies of sports figures, marriage manuals and fiction for children and adults.
This 12-volume series of apocalyptic thrillers confronts present-day characters with a string of blood-curdling judgments prophesied in the Book of Revelations. With their melodramatic clashes between good and evil, the Left Behind books have been widely dismissed as Born-Again beach reading, scarcely worth a look. In fact, the series offers an instructive if unsettling 5,000-page tour of the alternative universe of Protestant fundamentalism and its dominant belief system, a convoluted doctrine called premillennial dispensationalism.
(Although fundamentalist and evangelical are often used interchangeably, evangelicalsm is a much broader category, encompassing a multiplicity of religious views, including premillennialist fundamentalism.)
Followers of fundamentalist doctrine hold that the Bible is infallible and that salvation comes through personal faith and not good deeds. They interpret the world through biblical prophecy and are famously encouraged to read with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.
Premillennial dispensationalism is no obscure religious byway. In the anthology Rapture, Revelation and the End Times, Bruce David Forbes, a professor of religious studies at Morningside College, points out that the same conservative Christians who are a major portion of the Left Behind readers constitute "a significant base for President George W. Bush, who numbers himself among them."
The White House won't disclose whether the president has read the Left Behind books and, although President Bush is proudly Born Again, he has been careful about professing specific religious beliefs. Whatever his personal theology, however, many of the policies of the Bush administration "strike prophecy believers as perfectly in harmony with God's prophetic plan," according to Paul S. Boyer, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
On the simplest level, the Left Behind novels are undemanding popular entertainment -- a seven-year chase sequence with spine-tingling special effects, readily identifiable heroes and evildoers, and an exciting, if foreordained, ending. In the final days before the Second Coming, a stalwart band of Christian guerrilla warriors, "a sort of Green Berets," engage in high-tech hostilities against the Antichrist and his legions. This rousing narrative draws its authority from a tortuous system of biblical exegesis, in which prophecy experts cobble together verses from scattered parts of the Bible. Their inventive compilations are handed down to believers as revealed truth, or "history written in advance," as the Left Behind authors maintain.
The storyline sticks closely to a timetable of events that fundamentalists believe will pave the way to history's end. During a seven-year global ordeal known as the Tribulation, billions of people will perish and the Antichrist will rise to dominate the world. Jesus will then return to Earth to triumph over Satan and lead the surviving Jews (now converted to Christianity) back to an Israel that has been restored to its biblical boundaries. This will usher in a thousand-year reign of peace centered in a realigned Middle East.
The high-concept premise of the Left Behind books derives from a relatively recent doctrinal refinement to this scenario. In the mid-1800s, an Irish minister named John Nelson Darby wondered why the righteous should be made to suffer the harsh events of the End Times. Drawing on a couple of disconnected Bible verses, Darby came up with an ingenious escape hatch he called the Rapture. This powerful recruiting tool promises that the Saved will be whisked up to heaven right before the start of the Tribulation unpleasantness.
The Rapture makes a bang-up opening for a novel. Halfway through Chapter One of Book One (Left Behind), right-minded Christians rise up to the heavens "in an instant," shedding clothes, eyeglasses and loved ones who were too darned stubborn to heed their admonitions. Among the "left behind" is Raiford Steele, an airline pilot who has been lusting in his heart for a flight attendant at the very moment his wife and son, as well as a third of the passengers on the 747 he is flying, are snatched up to heaven.
Steele soon sees the light, with the help of a video prepared in advance by his wife's pastor, also among the missing. Spelling out the way to salvation, the pastor condemns the flawed thinking of mainstream Christians -- a recurrent theme in the Left Behind series. These poor souls, he says, believe that "the church expected them to live a good life, to do the best they could, to think of others, to be kind, to live in peace. It sounded so good, and yet it was so wrong." Soon Raiford and his daughter Chloe join forces with a journalist and a heretofore insufficiently devout minister to form the Tribulation Force. Their mission: to fight the Antichrist and to convert as many people as possible during the Tribulation.
God softens up the populace on their behalf by raining down a succession of calamities per the Book of Revelations, each more macabre than the last. If it's not balls of fire, it's rivers of blood (Book Four). If it's not poisoned water, it's the dimming of the sun (Book Five). And if it's not famine, it's pestilence, in the form of hideous, scorpion-like locusts, which inflict a bite so terrible that people "will want to die but won't be able to." These attention-getters, we learn, are all part of God's "master design to turn people to him so he can demonstrate his love." The Antichrist sounds sane by comparison. Nicolae Carpathia is charming, looks like a young Redford and speaks nine languages, "the six languages of the United Nations plus the three languages of his own country." If the U.N. thing isn't a giveaway as to his true nature, there is his hair, "razor cut, moussed." The Rapture does not impress him. "If there is a God, I respectfully submit that this is not the capricious way in which he would operate."
Left Behind readers are meant to understand Carpathia's internationalist agenda as evil at work in the world, according to Amy Johnson Frykholm, a professor at Colorado Mountain College and author of Rapture Culture. "The political message . . . is very clear," she writes in an essay in the aforementioned Rapture, Revelation and the End Times. "Attempts at world peace, talk about disarmament, treaties, and other cooperation among nations [are] suspect." Thus, when President Bush "insists on the need for the United States to stand alone . . . and to set its own agenda, he strikes a chord with millions of dispensationalist believers in the United States who fear that joining with other nations sets a path toward the antichrist."
Does prophecy beget policy in the Bush White House? Left Behind readers who believe that it does have many other administration policies they can point to. When President Bush rejected a treaty to curb global warming, he reinforced the premillennialist bias against environmental protection. (Why bother, since Jesus will be along soon to straighten things out?) And when he waged war in Iraq, prophecy believers viewed it as the prelude to Armageddon, a titanic conflict foretold in the Bible that will ultimately be fought in the Middle East.
In the course of several thousand pages, the Tribulation Force's struggles against the Antichrist get stupefyingly repetitious. The tempo picks up in the final volume, Glorious Appearing. Just as the Rapture makes a stirring beginning for the series, Armageddon provides a ferocious finale. (Though not, as it turns out, Left Behind's last word. Tyndale Press has announced that it will publish four more books in the series, three prequels and a post-Armageddon sequel.)
In Glorious Appearing, the "Jewish question" comes to a head. In the Left Behind series, this refers to "the worldwide turning to Messiah." The books recognize Jews as God's chosen people, but in the end they must convert or be consigned to the fiery furnace on Judgment Day. And convert they do, in large numbers. With breathtaking effrontery, the authors set a mass conversion at Masada, the ancient fortress that is an Israeli symbol of Jewish defiance against subjugation. It was there, according to the historian Josephus, where Jewish parents chose to kill their children and themselves rather than surrender to the Romans.
Finally, after humanity's multitudes have suffered enough, Jesus returns to Earth to triumph over Satan. The time for judgment has come, and the Messiah personally vents his wrath on unbelievers by causing their eyes to dissolve in their sockets, among other videogame-worthy torments. Plainly, this is not your turn-the-other-cheek Jesus from Sunday school. In the Left Behind series, the Prince of Peace has been recast as a rancorous bully, for whom turning the other cheek would be completely out of character. (What would Jesus say?)
In the premillennial worldview, there is no real role for social reform. If you are awaiting the end of the world, why try to better it? Why "brighten the corner where you are," as the children's hymn goes? Indeed, the worse things get on Earth, the sooner divine intervention may be anticipated. The spread of AIDS, the extinction of species, global warming are all possible harbingers of imminent celestial glory. (According to a Newsweek poll, some 17 percent of Americans believe that the world is going to end in their lifetime.)
To foster the connection between today's headlines and biblical prophecy, a Web-based Left Behind Prophecy Club (www.leftbehind.com) offers, for a fee, weekly analysis on recent issues, such as whether God is for regime change in Iraq. (He is.) Or whether He wants Israel to withdraw from Gaza. (He does not.) Iraq has particular resonance for Left Behind devotees. In a coincidence that does not go unnoticed in Left Behind circles, Carpathia and Saddam Hussein came up with the same grandiose scheme: to rebuild the ancient city of Babylon.
The Christian fundamentalist "us-versus-them" mentality did not originate with the Left Behind series, of course. Apocalyptic fiction has long been popular, although the precincts of Satan change with the times. (In previous generations, the part the United Nations plays in these novels has been played by the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, the Pope and the Trilateral Commission.)
Not all premillennialist readers of the Left Behind series believe that Jenkins and LaHaye have got everything right, of course. Yet whatever their quarrels with the series, most would subscribe to the underlying premise: Life on earth is on a downhill slide that cannot be arrested by human effort, but only by the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. True Christians will be redeemed; all others are doomed.
Such determined absolutism would seem hard to square with citizenship in a pluralistic democracy. For those who care about protecting freedom of religion, there is cause for alarm in the bullying certainties of Left Behind's pulpit fiction. *
Ann Banks has written for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Observer, among numerous other publications.