You're on the Beltway when scores of cars suddenly veer out of control, but ambulance personnel find no drivers in the crashed vehicles. Your babysitter calls in hysterics because your two children vanished while playing with the dog. And your spouse never arrives home from work. Like millions of others, she disappears, her clothes and wedding ring found on a Metro seat.
Penny Webster, assistant manager of Family Christian Stores in Gaithersburg, doesn't find this scenario implausible and expects it to happen in her lifetime. She first read about it in the Bible's Book of Revelation and lately in the best-selling series "Left Behind"--a hot item in her bookstore with more than 10 million copies sold nationally since 1995.
The six books open with a scene, similar to the one on the Beltway, depicting the moment of the Rapture when many Christians believe Christ will snatch up his true followers to save them from horrific calamities at the end of time. From there, the novels retell the biblical plot in a modern setting.
"The actual book itself is fiction," said Webster, 24, an avid fan. "However, to me, it's fact. It's the story . . . of what's in the Bible."
Christian evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, who plan six more books in the series, have tapped into the religious beliefs of millions of Christians who, like Webster, take the Rapture and Revelation very seriously. The success of the books also illustrates the lucrative potential of "end-time" products as a new millennium raises expectations of stunning spiritual happenings.
"This series has only deepened my faith that, yes, there is a God and, yes, He is in charge," Sylvia M. Moyers, of Charlottesville, told an Internet chat room. "I can't wait until the next installment in the year 2000, if there is a year 2000."
Last month, "The Omega Code," a thriller by a Christian producer about an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, surprised a skeptical Hollywood by raking in a respectable $2.4 million on its opening weekend.
Locally, bumper stickers announce "I Pull Over for the Rapture," and religious stores sell videotapes explaining the Rapture for those left behind. When McLean Bible Church in Fairfax recently offered a free course in "Signs of the Second Coming," 24 people showed up--twice as many as expected.
The novel's end-of-the-world interpretation of Revelation, one widely embraced by evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians, is controversial among many Bible scholars. But its fast-paced, easy-to-read style has readers enthralled by the sometimes far-fetched plot:
Realizing they've been given a second chance for salvation after their loved ones are raptured, a hardy band of new believers forms the Tribulation Force. Enduring plagues and a devastating earthquake, they battle the Antichrist, a suave, smooth-talking figure who becomes head of the United Nations. His one-world government and "Global Community" security forces finally lead to Armageddon before Christ returns to reign for 1,000 years.
Bonnie Bochert, a librarian at Fairfax County's Kings Park branch, says that the books are in constant demand and that the series "puts the Book of Revelation in very understandable terms. People can say, 'Yes, I could see how this could happen. I wonder what I would do if I were alive.' "
The Illinois-based Christian publisher, Tyndale House, plans to issue the last book of the series in 2003. Spinoffs include a series for children that has sold more than 2 million copies, a possible movie and the www.leftbehind.com World Wide Web site where visitors, using such handles as "mysticgrace," "teenangel" and "blindfaith," post heartfelt testimonies of how the books changed their lives.
Jenkins, the wordsmith of the "Left Behind" team, has written biographies of sports figures, assisted the Rev. Billy Graham with his memoirs and produces the comic strip "Gil Thorp." LaHaye is the scriptural authority. An alumnus of Bob Jones University, he is an evangelical Baptist minister and author of books on family relations. In the late 1980s, he headed the Washington-based American Coalition for Traditional Values. His wife, Beverly, founded Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian group.
In a nonfiction book out this month called "Are We Living in the End Times?" the authors contend that "we have more reason than any generation before us to believe [Christ] will come in our generation." They cite "a trend toward one-world government" and the creation of Israel as evidence of the nearness of the Rapture, an event they believe is foretold in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which talks of Christians being "caught up . . . to meet the Lord in the air."
Such views of the Rapture and Revelation, called "premillennialism," are "extraordinarily fanciful" and "involve a lot of imagination," said Grant Wacker, associate professor of American religious history at Duke University's Divinity School. Yet he estimates that about 50 million Christians embrace them in theory. A recent Newsweek poll found that 45 percent of U.S. Christians believe the world will end in an Armageddon, and nearly half of that group, 45 percent, believe Jesus will return in their lifetime.
But not everyone is rapturous over "Left Behind." Todd Seidel, 33, a divinity student at Regent College, an evangelical Christian seminary in Vancouver, B.C., scores the series on his Web site (www.crosslight.org) because it "glorifies a fictional reign of Antichrist as biblical prophecy which is certain to be fulfilled in the near future." The end-time terrors described in the books can lead teenagers, in particular, "to focus on things of darkness, all the negative things in our society and to feel that there is no hope for the future . . . because it's going to be destroyed anyway and as a Christian you're going to escape anyway."
Richard Abanes, an evangelical Christian and author of "End-Time Visions," also attacks what he calls the "Doomsday Obsession," saying, "Every generation has said, 'We're it! The end is going to come in our generation!' " Authors such as Jenkins and LaHaye "see where the big bucks lie and are selling what people want to hear."
Still, "Left Behind" has a huge, ready-made audience of people who say the books have reinforced their faith, made them more eager to proselytize and increased their belief that they could be among the lucky generation raptured into heaven.
Larry Moon, a federal government employee who attends First Baptist Church of Laurel, was gripped by the books because they "follow something that probably every evangelical Christian is looking and longing for, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the end of times as we know them."
Moon, 40, is studying to be a Baptist minister and knows "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that the Rapture and subsequent tribulations will happen. But he is concerned about "what I call millennial madness." Though the Bible teaches that no one can predict the end of time, "many Christians are under the mistaken notion that the year 2000 means the end of the world," he said. To earn money, "a lot of quote-unquote Christian authors are playing upon the hunger of the Christian populace."
Book shop manager Webster, who has been a born-again Christian since childhood, sees no direct connection between 2000 and the end of time. But she believes the Rapture will happen in her generation because of signs mentioned in the Bible, like "weather changing . . . earthquakes, a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine . . . tornadoes, famines."
The terror-filled vision of Revelation and "Left Behind" doesn't scare her because Webster, like many of those interviewed, doesn't think she'll be here. "I know that if God were to come at any moment, I would be going in the Rapture," she said. "I would not be left behind."
The novels, stacked on shelves beneath a large cardboard promotional sign in the quiet, carpeted bookstore, have helped Webster be more open about sharing her faith. "In fact, I've bought a few books and given them out to friends who aren't saved," she said.
Even before "Left Behind," Webster bought many books explaining the Rapture "so that if an unbeliever were left behind, they would have my books lying around explaining what needs to be done and how to understand the message of the Bible."
She has "even highlighted parts in my Bible," she explained, so that "if a nonbeliever were to look at it after the Rapture has occurred, they would understand why it occurred, what will happen next and what they will have to do to prepare for their part in it."
Webster's salesman husband, Jon, 28, doesn't share his wife's beliefs in Christianity and the Rapture. But he still enjoys the series.
"If she disappears," he said, "then I'll at least know what's going on."
CAPTION: Penny Webster, assistant manager of Family Christian Stores in Gaithersburg, is a fan of the best-selling "Left Behind" series of novels.