(Washington Post illustration by Kat Rudell, iStock)

Please welcome Alissa Wilkinson, the critic at large at Christianity Today, to Act Four! This piece is the latest in a week-long series about the end of America in fiction. For the full archives of the series, check back here throughout the week. 

As a way to kick off the end of the world with a bang, the Rapture is right up there with zombies, killer robots, alien invasions and natural disasters. But no story — or, really, brand — has capitalized on the Rapture more successfully than “Left Behind,” the massively popular franchise about the coming of the Antichrist. And nothing has captured conservative American evangelicalism at the turn of the century as well, either.

This belief about the timeline of events at the end of the world has deep roots in American religion. In the 18th century, American Puritan minister and Harvard President Increase Mather and his son Cotton spoke of a Rapture of the faithful before a period of tribulation. Their views and similar ones were crystallized and popularized in 1827 by John Nelson Darby, one of the original members of the Plymouth Brethren denomination and the father of modern dispensationalism, a view of history espoused by some Christians which, among other things, holds that the Jewish people have not been replaced by the Church as God’s people and views the modern state of Israel as the biblical Israel, awaiting the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament’s promises before the end of days.

Some Christians — fundamentalists and certain evangelicals — believe that the Bible foretells a “premillennialist” Rapture: After peace is achieved between the state of Israel and the rest of the world, and following the rise of a one-world government, there will come a moment in which Christians will disappear from the earth en masse, signaling the rise of the Antichrist and the beginning of a seven-year tribulation period before Jesus’s eventual return to earth and, after a thousand-year period of peace, Satan’s final defeat.

A number of these scenarios showed up early in American fiction. Scholar Crawford Gribben points out that a century ago, on the verge of the Great War, the British writer Sydney Watson wrote a three-book post-rapture trilogy — “Scarlet and Purple” (1913), “The Mark of the Beast” (1915) and “In the Twinkling of an Eye” (1916) — that seems to have launched the genre and set its template. There was also the low-budget 1972 film “A Thief in the Night,”  followed by “A Distant Thunder” (1978), which everyone remembers for its indelible guillotine scene. (Two more films, “Image of the Beast” and “The Prodigal Planet,” followed.)

And dispensationalists were getting in to the market. Hal Lindsey’s 1970 runaway bestseller “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” exploring Christian prophecy about the end times, sold 28 million copies in its first two decades in print and spawned a theatrically released film narrated by (of all people) Orson Welles, released in 1979, the same year that Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority — of which “Left Behind” co-author Tim LaHaye later became part.

LaHaye and his writing partner for the series, Jerry B. Jenkins, are dispensationalists and have pointed to both “A Thief in the Night” and “The Late, Great Planet Earth” as inspirations for their own work. Their first novel, simply titled “Left Behind,” was published in 1995 and became a runaway bestseller. Fifteen more novels were published in the main series, including three prequels to “Left Behind,” with the final volume, “Kingdom Come: The Final Victory,” released in 2007. Book 10, “The Remnant: On the Brink,” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list; seven of the novels reached the top of the charts. The series has sold more than 65 million copies.

“Left Behind” follows a group of Americans through the days after the Rapture — which occurs shortly after an Israeli botanist wins the Nobel Prize for devising a way to grow crops in the desert, thereby making Israel a self-sustained trading partner with its neighbors and bringing peace to the Middle East. In the series that follows, the Antichrist, a charismatic young Romanian leader named Nicolae Carpathia, works through the United Nations’ machinery to consolidate currency and erase national borders. Eventually all are brought together under the Mark of Loyalty, a biochip inserted into the hand or forehead that allows one to purchase food, and a tattoo — the Mark of the Beast.

“Left Behind” was well-timed. In 1995, with the Cold War ended, the USSR effectively dissolved and the Berlin Wall down — and well past the expiration date for “Late, Great Planet Earth’s” predictions about the 1980s — the average conservative evangelical in the pew was less worried about Russia and the bomb and more concerned about a twofold threat: apostasy and liberalizing trends in the church as well as the loss of national sovereignty through the United Nations.

I was 12 when the first “Left Behind” book was published, and like many conservative evangelical kids growing up in church who could recite the timeline of the tribulation at the drop of a hat, I saw the books less like fiction and more like the film adaptations’ producer Paul LaLonde’s idea of them, as he described it to Variety in 2014: “It’s also a historical account in a sense, because it’s based on a true story, it just hasn’t happened yet.”

As far as LaHaye and Jenkins are concerned, these aren’t speculative plot points. They’re predictive. Talking to the New York Times in 2004 just before the release of the penultimate book in the series, “Glorious Appearing: The End of Days,” LaHaye said: “The Bible clearly teaches there’s going to be a one-world government in the last days. And after the Rapture of the church, then that one-world government will coalesce, bringing together all the governments of the world and also bringing together all the religions of the world.”

But it wasn’t only dispensationalist Christians, drawn to a specific scenario that they believed would bring about the end of the world, who were drawn to the “Left Behind” series. The immense sales numbers of the books match the sales of the “Hunger Games” trilogy and the “Lemony Snicket” books and outpace “A Song of Ice and Fire” (on which “Game of Thrones” is based).

The reason becomes more clear when you revisit the books that spiked such extraordinary sales, and a huge raft of spinoffs. “Left Behind” isn’t great literature, but it’s highly engaging reading for a mass market, fast-moving fiction with elements drawn from sci-fi, romance, disaster porn, and political and spy novels. “Left Behind” has the code-cracking conspiracy feel of a Dan Brown novel, but also the appeal of a familiar story — one that inscribes the reader’s own world, with its televisions and airplanes and phones and computers, into biblical events.

This is the genius of the “Left Behind” books: They work on two levels. For the non-Christian reader, the traditional genre trappings and the mystery of what will happen next keep the pages turning. But for the Christian reader, being able to read current events into the novel’s narratives is thrilling, as is seeing how various elements of the Bible that are written as visions in Revelation (dragons, beasts, women giving birth, horsemen, fiery pits, the symbol 666) might actually work out in contemporary America and the geopolitics beyond its borders.

What the books suggest, with their focus on geopolitics, is that the end of America is the end of the world. If peace is achieved in Israel, and the U.N. supersedes individual governing bodies, then the end is coming, and the Rapture is nigh, and the Great Tribulation is about to start. It is a tribute to many evangelicals’ concern for their unsaved neighbors and families that they found global events such as the formation of the European Union and the increased influence of the U.N. to be a matter for concern, not celebration (after all, Rapture theology suggests believers will be lifted out and spared the coming wrath): The clock is running out, the books suggested, and you don’t want your loved ones to be left behind.

It’s also true that the vast commercial “Left Behind” empire is emblematic of commodified American religion in the 1990s and 2000s. It might have been satisfying for believers to see their passions become a mass-market hit. But moving product isn’t the same thing as putting people in the pews — or bringing about a long-awaited end of the world.