Apocalyptic – and atop the bestseller lists

Author Tim LaHaye takes on the final battle between good and evil

It seems an unlikely scenario – a retired preacher who has never written a novel being handed a $42 million book deal by Bantam for a new Christian fiction series. But then, Tim LaHaye is no ordinary fellow.

He's come to fame and considerable fortune as the man behind a publishing phenomenon: the astonishingly successful "Left Behind" series of novels on the End Times, based on biblical prophecy in the Book of Revelation. More than 35 million copies have been sold since 1995.

Last month, thousands rushed to Wal-Marts and other chain stores across the US to buy "The Remnant," the 10th installment in the final battle between good and evil, and the fourth in a row to debut at No. 1 on major bestseller lists. Last year, as sales soared in the wake of Sept. 11, the ninth book became the bestselling novel of 2001.

The Rev. Mr. LaHaye, who outlines the themes and plots that writer Jerry Jenkins turns into fast-paced thrillers, is a recent addition to the celebrity pantheon. But he has long had a consequential, if less visible, impact on American life and politics as a crucial figure in the culture wars.

Indeed, some critics worry that the "Left Behind" series serves as a vehicle for spreading not only prophetic but political views that could make US society even more contentious.

"We are in a cultural war in this country, and there are two worldviews – one built on the writings of man and one on the writing of God, the Bible," LaHaye says in an interview. "Those two views of what is going to help America and the world are 180 degrees in opposition."

Molding fundamentalist views

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, credits LaHaye with being the motivation behind the birth of the Religious Right. Last year, LaHaye was named the most influential Christian leader of the past 25 years by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.

While Billy Graham has been more influential in the broad evangelical community, LaHaye's prolific nonfiction writings have molded the fundamentalist, conservative, politically active wing.

"He's had a very great influence in shaping the worldview of other leaders," says Paul Boyer, visiting professor of history at the College of William and Mary. "He's basically provided an agenda for conservatives on a range of issues – from abortion and pornography to creationism, prayer in the schools, and public education as a hotbed of secularism and liberalism."

The energetic septuagenarian – who still enjoys waterskiing and dirt biking – has been on the go ever since he heard the call to ministry at age 15. He pastored a flourishing church in San Diego, and in 1965 started a Christian school that grew into a school system and a college. He's formed research centers on prophecy and creationism. He and his wife, Beverly – founder of the influential Concerned Women for America – have jetted around the world giving seminars.

Yet he calls his 50 books his most important contribution: "The most powerful vehicle to the human mind is the printed page."

LaHaye's writings range from self-help books on marriage and sexuality to biblical prophecy, to analyses defining a struggle between Christianity and "secular humanism." One book is an anti-gay tract. A new nonfiction work will come out next month - "The Merciful God of Prophecy" – aiming to persuade readers that the End Times are near, that the Bible must be interpreted literally, and that the difficult times ahead are part of God's loving plan to bring all to Him.

He first proclaimed his political views in 1980 in "The Battle for the Mind." This book details his thesis that US institutions, from the media to government to public education, have been taken over by an elite of secular humanists. The UN, he says, is the base from which they hope to create a one-world socialist government. LaHaye calls humanism "the most serious threat to our nation in its entire history."

"We're in a religious war and we need to aggressively oppose secular humanism; these people are as religiously motivated as we are and they are filled with the devil," LaHaye said on a visit to Mr. Falwell's TV show, "Listen America."

It is this tack that distresses some other Evangelicals. "Nowhere else do Evangelicals talk about a sinister elite of secular humanists out to destroy the Christian family and take away liberties," says Tom Sine, an Evangelical writer and teacher. "That kind of fear-mongering I've found only in the US, and Mr. LaHaye deserves the credit."

Mr. Sine says LaHaye's analysis is not valid biblically or historically, and precludes civil discourse and keeps Evangelicals from understanding the real nature of secularism and its effect on their values. He says the Left Behind series "presents the same ideology in a more subtle and nuanced fashion, causing people to unwittingly buy into some of those assumptions, not just in eschatology but in politics."

LaHaye clearly sees a connection between the two. "The Bible prophecies predicted that in the last days perilous times would come, men would be lovers of their own selves, haters of God ... – so it's not surprising we are seeing fulfillment of prophecy," he says. "Secular humanism explains why we are losing our culture of morality and decency."

His prophetic views come from premillennialism – a teaching that emerged in the 19th century which says that things are going to get worse rather than better, with signs of evil and wars increasing on earth as evidence that Jesus Christ will soon return. Jesus will first take Christian saints up into heaven in the Rapture. Those left behind will experience seven years of the Tribulation, when the Antichrist rules the world and they must choose sides. Then Jesus will return and establish the kingdom on earth for 1,000 years.

The Left Behind series is the dramatic tale of the seven years of tribulation. It begins during an airplane flight over the Atlantic, on which half the passengers suddenly disappear in the Rapture. The same has happened to those on the ground, producing chaos. The pilot and a journalist become leaders of a force opposing the Antichrist, who is the former head of the UN. His evil troops are called the Peacekeepers; his headquarters are in Iraq.

Along with earthquakes, plagues, and breathtaking action, there are plenty of miracles and the winning of converts.

Apparently only half of series readers are Evangelicals, and a recent Time/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe the prophecies in Revelation.

"You can't understand the meaning of this series," says Dr. Boyer, "without being aware of themes woven through the books ... the menace of international organizations, the US president sort of turning government over to the Antichrist (suspect federal government); and mainstream liberal churches unmasked as wicked and dangerous."

Comic book versions, too

Not all readers are going to be converted to LaHaye's perspective. Yet Boyer questions an apocalyptic view that "puts major public institutions on the side of evil ... and says your job as an individual is to get on God's side."

That's what LaHaye has in mind. More Left Behind books are planned, and kids' and comic-book versions, audiocassettes, and videos are spreading the word.

But he's looking beyond that. The deal with Bantam Dell, for which he engaged a new writing partner, will be a series combining archaeology and prophecy. Meanwhile, there's the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy, offering a one-year course that covers the whole ground.

• E-mail lampmanj@csps.com

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