Come spring, many Americans will turn their attention to the battle of Armageddon. Whether or not it coincides with an actual war in the Persian Gulf, "Armageddon," the 11th entry in the best-selling series of "Left Behind" novels by evangelist Tim LaHaye and writer Jerry Jenkins, will appear in stores April 8. Almost certainly, it will debut as No. 1 on bestseller lists -- as have each of the last four "Left Behind" books. This time, the most popular adult fiction series in recent memory is going to war -- a cosmic battle between good and evil that will pit Satan himself, who rules the world from New Babylon, Iraq, against Israel and its Christian allies.
The timing may be perfect for the publisher, but disconcerting for others. Just as Europe's literature of the horrors of war has fostered pacifism and war wariness there, these novels must be influencing the American view of war today. Except that Armageddon is no ordinary war. As prelude to what the "Left Behind" authors describe as "the greatest event in history" -- the Second Coming of Christ -- Armageddon is a battle that, in the novels and among many Christian fundamentalists, is to be both feared and longed for.
The "Left Behind" series rests on an interpretation of biblical "end times" prophecies. The entire series is one story, which traces the experiences of characters who are "left behind" when God takes committed Christians bodily into heaven to spare them from living through the ordeals that culminate in Armageddon. The novels' heroes are the less-than-saintly "Joes" and "Janes" who, newly converted or with faith renewed, resist the man they know as the Antichrist. The rest of the world, however, initially believes this villain to be a great peacemaker, who in the form of a young, handsome Romanian statesman first gets himself elected secretary general of the United Nations on a promise of world peace and then goes on to build a dictatorial one-world government.
Now, eight years after the first "Left Behind" book appeared, the final showdown between the forces of the Antichrist and those of God's people is at hand. It will be the most devastating war in human history; Jesus returns not with peace but with a sword. Although unabashedly Christian fundamentalist in their worldview, the "Left Behind" novels have found an audience beyond traditional evangelical circles. "In office settings, these things are being passed around like Stephen King novels or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue," says Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. So far, the books have sold more than 35 million copies.
Fundamentalist popular fiction is hardly new, but it gained new vitality after Sept. 11, when the ninth book in the "Left Behind" series, released in October 2001, became the best-selling hardback fiction of the year. Historically, fundamentalist authors have made an industry of biblical prophecy interpretation, especially since the Israeli occupation of all of Jerusalem in the 1967 war convinced many of them that conditions were in place for the "end times" countdown to begin. In the 1970s, evangelist Hal Lindsey's folksy commentary on current events and biblical prophecy, "The Late Great Planet Earth," became the best-selling book of the decade. More recently, the popular culture of evangelicals has been deeply influenced, perhaps even dominated, by tales of the Apocalypse: films like the church-circuit staple "Thief in the Night" and novels like evangelist Pat Robertson's "The End of the Age."
The "Left Behind" series, however, offers something new: fast-paced and plot-driven stories, featuring modern characters who are as comfortable whipping out their satellite phones during a rescue mission as they are in proselytizing to an unconverted colleague while piloting the most advanced aircraft in the world. If the "guts and gear" motifs call to mind Tom Clancy, others invoke Stephen King. The "tribulations" that are supposed to mark the end times provide the authors with seas that turn to blood, swarms of flesh-eating locusts and ghostly airborne horsemen hurling fire and burning sulfur. At the same time, they also grapple with a whole range of public issues -- globalism, environmentalism, occultism and terrorism, among others. Unlike the earlier generation of evangelical culture, these novels also espouse multiculturalism, featuring global heroes who are not only white, African American and Native American, but also Chinese, Greek, Eastern European and Middle Eastern.
But these modern accouterments don't alter the stark political spirituality at the heart of the stories, which can fairly be described as Christian Jihadist. It is the obligation of the "Left Behind" Christians both to evangelize as many potential converts as possible and to join in battle on behalf of Israel against the armies of the Antichrist. Like other jihadists, these militants take a hard line on international relations.
LaHaye and Jenkins take particular aim at the very notion of peace in the Middle East, from Israel to Iraq. With the Antichrist posing as a peacemaker and campaigning for world disarmament, the authors suggest that things such as arms control or peace processes are mockeries or, worse yet, fig leaves for those planning world domination. The authors also make clear that Israel is to be the epicenter of Armageddon, ground zero in the final battle that many fundamentalist leaders believe will occur "in our lifetimes."
The political vision of the novels sees the Middle East as a place of inevitable conflagration, perhaps hardening readers to the upsurge in violence in Israel during the past two years. In their detailed and exciting descriptions of the invading demons and seas that turn to blood, or the starvation and suffering of those caught in the final battle, LaHaye and Jenkins join a chorus of fundamentalist commentators who, despite their protestations to the contrary, have expressed a perverse enthusiasm for the spilled blood and millions of dead that will signal the Second Coming.
The Middle East has been and remains a site of immense concern for secular people: It is the home of great religions, great civilizations and a great deal of oil. But the fundamentalist concern is qualitatively different. Claiming biblical injunction, it looks upon "peacemakers" with suspicion and imagines Middle East political conflict in terms of good versus evil, in which the evil is not merely human, but literally Satanic. That "Left Behind" is one of the most popular series of novels ever suggests that they appeal to more than just fundamentalist believers. What they say is sobering: that war is not proof of the failure of politics, but the necessary sign of God's action in history and the path to world redemption.