Tim LaHaye, an evangelical Christian pastor whose “Left Behind” book series enraptured tens of millions of readers with its fictionalized account of Jesus’ second coming, died July 25 at a hospital in La Mesa, Calif. He was 90.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said Lamar Keener, executive director of the Evangelical Press Association.
Dr. LaHaye and his wife, the former Beverly Ratcliffe, were two of the most influential evangelical leaders of the late 20th century, forming what Time magazine once called “the Christian power couple.” The duo defended traditional family values in a radio show and later a weekly television program and became national political figures in the late ’70s after organizing several pioneering evangelical political organizations.
While preaching at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, Dr. LaHaye formed Californians for Biblical Morality, which encouraged evangelicals in the state to become politically active. The group drew the attention of televangelist Jerry Falwell, who enlisted Dr. LaHaye to help form the Moral Majority organization that supported Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush before dissolving in the late ’80s.
At the same time, Beverly LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America, an evangelical group that claims to be the largest women’s public policy organization in the country.
After Dr. LaHaye retired from preaching in 1981, he struck upon the idea for the books that became his larger legacy. That same year, flying home from a conference on biblical prophecy, he watched as a married pilot flirted with a younger, unmarried attendant and imagined that the pilot might have a Christian wife back home.
What would happen, he wondered, if the Rapture — in which, according to some Christian theologians, millions of believers are whisked into heaven, leaving the doubters to fend for themselves on Earth — occurred just then, leaving the pilot behind while dozens of Christian passengers suddenly vanished into the air?
The result was the 16-volume “Left Behind” series, which Dr. LaHaye co-wrote with Christian writer Jerry B. Jenkins between 1995 and 2007. The books sold more than 80 million copies and spawned a direct-to-video trilogy of films, as well as a 2014 reboot starring Nicolas Cage. They also spawned a series of young adult novels, “Left Behind: The Kids.”
Falwell told Time magazine in 2005 that the impact of “Left Behind” on Christianity was “probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.”
Dr. LaHaye was a prolific writer — in all, he wrote more than 60 nonfiction books on Christian topics ranging from the biblical creation story to the end of days — but had been hesitant to try his hand at fiction without the help of a collaborator.
Jenkins, who had mainly co-authored the autobiographies of sports stars, helped him shape the story of pilot Rayford Steele, who turns to God after the Rapture and leads a group of born-again Christians against the Antichrist. The devil, in this case, is an internationalist politician from Romania who seeks to strengthen the United Nations and unite the world’s economies under a single currency.
Published by Christian publisher Tyndale House, “Left Behind” (1995) — along with books such as John Hagee’s “Final Dawn Over Jerusalem” and movies such as “The Omega Code” (1999) — was part of a wave of apocalyptic Christian books and films released at the turn of the millennium.
Writers such as Dr. LaHaye and Jenkins, University of Wisconsin history professor Paul Boyer told the New York Times in 1998, were “cashing in on the public preoccupation with the year 2000.” “The message,” he added, “is that you can’t do anything about what’s happening in the world. The larger pattern of prophecy is unfolding, but you can save yourself, so accept Christ today, and you will be among those who are Raptured. You will be saved.”
Many reviewers likened “Left Behind” and its sequels to the pacing of Tom Clancy pageturners, although the novel’s literal interpretation of the Bible and its violent conclusion, in which Jesus returns and kills those who are not born-again, were condemned by many mainstream Christian scholars and critics.
Dr. LaHaye, who believed that the Antichrist had been born during his lifetime and that the end days were near, insisted that the series was less a work of entertainment than of evangelism. “We are using fiction to teach biblical truth,” he once said.
Timothy LaHaye was born in Detroit on April 27, 1926. He was 9 when his father, an autoworker, died after a heart attack.
Dr. LaHaye served in the Army Air Forces at the close of World War II and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1950 from Bob Jones University, a Christian liberal arts school in Greenville, S.C. He later received a doctor of ministry degree from what is now Portland, Ore.-based Western Seminary and a doctor of literature degree from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
With Henry Morris, he helped found the Institute for Creation Research in 1972, which advocates for the biblical story of creation to be taught in public schools alongside evolution. He also helped found the Pre-Trib Research Center, a group that studies biblical prophecies, and the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy at Liberty University.
Dr. LaHaye continued writing until shortly before his death and returned to the subject of the apocalypse with the four-volume “End” series, which began with “Edge of Apocalypse” in 2010.
In addition to his wife of 69 years, with whom he lived in El Cajon, Dr. LaHaye is survived by four children; one brother; one sister; nine grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.
His father’s death, Dr. LaHaye later told the Los Angeles Times, sparked an interest in the Rapture and biblical end-times.
“The pastor of my church said, ‘The world has not seen the last of Frank LaHaye,’ ” Dr. LaHaye recalled. “Then he pointed to the sky of a gray Michigan day. The sun suddenly peeked out, and I came up off my knees with hope.”
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