"In one cataclysmic moment, millions around the world disappear." Not a bad intro for a dramatic video game. It turns out those millions have been "raptured" into heaven by Jesus. The player's job is to battle to save the ones left behind on earth from the global forces of evil, which are controlled by the Antichrist.
The hitch, though, in this new game aimed at teens, is who constitutes those "forces of evil": activists, secularists, non-Christian rock musicians, and others who resist "recruitment" into the "forces of good" – the believers in a particular kind of Christianity.
Based on the popular Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" is being marketed for Christmas giving through churches and big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart.
But it has created a stir among Christian, Jewish, and activist groups who disagree with the fundamentalist theology the game presents. They say it will teach children religious intolerance and an "us vs. them" view of the world that is both dangerous for the country and contrary to basic Christian teachings. The game's producers disagree.
The real-time strategy (RTS) game takes place in New York City. "You are sent on a spiritual and military mission to convert people, and nobody is allowed to remain neutral," says Eric Elnes, copresident of Crosswalk America, a progressive Christian group, who says he's explored the game extensively. "You lose spirit points if you kill somebody, but you can hit the prayer button to restore the points."
Mr. Elnes's organization has joined with other Christian groups to petition the game's producers to withdraw it from the market. At the same time, two groups that seek to counter the religious right – the Campaign to Defend the Constitution and Christian Alliance for Progress – have written to Wal-Mart requesting that the PC-based game be taken off the shelves.
"The premillennial theology says there will be religious warfare in our lifetime, and people will be targeting fellow Americans," says Frederick Clarkson, of Talk2Action.org. He worries gamers could come to accept that script for the future.
The game's producers see it very differently. At a time when young people seem less inclined toward Christianity, they say they're trying to reach Christian teens with an alternative to darker video games like "Grand Theft Auto," and hopefully draw other gamers to the faith.
"About 92 percent of kids today are playing games," says Jeffrey Frichner, president of Left Behind Games. "We had the vision to create a game with a positive moral message based on biblical values that parents could embrace and discuss with their kids." He says the game promotes prayer and worship, and deals with "questions of eternal importance."
Producers have spoken with their Crosswalk critics, and Frichner says they'll provide a patch to address one concern.
A review on a website of the conservative group, Focus on the Family, endorses "Eternal Forces" as "the kind of game Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior." Other reviews speak of fairly good production values, but say the game is unwieldy to play and tend to pan it.
The controversy arises largely because the game follows the Left Behind novels, Mr. Frichner says. The 14-book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has sold more than 63 million copies, including 13 million of The Kids series, a spinoff for children 10 and older. "So we felt we had a bulls-eye market there for the game," he adds.
Dr. LaHaye, one of the most influential leaders in fundamentalist Christianity, conceived the novels as a way to spread a theology called premillennial dispensationalism. First promoted by 19th-century Englishman John Nelson Darby, the theology interprets portions of the Bible as predicting a two-stage return of Jesus.
First, Jesus comes to transport "true Christians" to heaven in what's called "the rapture"; "the tribulation" follows on earth, involving seven years of catastrophe and plagues (as drawn from Revelation).
"It is going to be an unprecedented time of horror of God's judgment on earth," says Terry James, of raptureready.com, the most popular prophecy website.
The period will end with Armageddon and the Second Coming. Those who preach the theology say Jesus' return is imminent. And according to Mr. James, the creation of Israel in 1948 is the most important signal that the End Times have begun. The job of Christians is to convert and save as many people as possible.
The novels focus on the time of the tribulations. The Antichrist is a former head of the United Nations, based in Iraq. His evil minions are called the Global Community Peacekeepers, and are the only people who seek peace treaties. Battles occur around the earth between good and evil forces, leading up to Armageddon in Israel. There, some Jews convert to Christianity and the rest are destroyed along with others who have not accepted Jesus as their savior. Jesus' rule then begins on earth.
The video game engages young gamers as the Tribulation Forces to fight the evil peacekeepers. In multiplayer mode, gamers play on both sides.
"It's ironic the game has been put out for Christmas, which honors the Prince of Peace who said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,' " says Mr. Elnes. "What this game says is 'Cursed are the peacekeepers, for they are children of the Antichrist.' "
The game is the latest facet of a struggle within Christianity over growing promotion of the theology in books, on websites and TV, and in Christian Zionist organizations backing a strong alliance with Israel. Premillennialism is not consistent with Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or mainline Protestant teachings.
Barbara Rossing, an expert on the book of Revelation at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, says the notion of the rapture is not a biblical idea but a fiction, and the word isn't found in the Bible.
"That's not what the book of Revelation is about, forecasting a sequence of terrifying events that are going to happen," she says. "Also, while Christians say there is evil in the world, we should never say that evil is incarnate in people.... The traditional Christian teaching is to be engaged with loving God's world, seeing God's image in people, and taking care of one another."
Some Jews are also troubled by the game. "Jews are often instrumental in rapture theology – war in Israel, Jews converting to Christianity, all other Jews disappearing in the third act of a four-act play," says Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, of Jews On First, a First Amendment watchdog group. "What happens if no rapture or Second Coming occurs? The classical response in history has been to blame the Jews for somehow foiling everybody's hopes and plans." Jews On First has created a petition opposing the game on its website for people of all faiths to sign; some 500 have done so in the first few days, the rabbi says.
Many critics admit that in America, banning a product is not the best solution. They say they are trying to educate parents about the contents of the game so they can exercise judgment.
There's even a stir among the faithful over the amount of violence they hear is in the game, says James, though neither he nor most of those e-mailing him have yet seen it for themselves.
Frichner says the issue is simply one of different views of Christianity, and the game, which has been approved for teens by the software ratings board, will sell mostly among evangelical Christians.
Yet they are already having success in evangelizing others, he adds. The game has elements that educate players on various issues (such as evolution and intelligent design), and gives them the opportunity to become believers.
"We've already received e-mails from people who have done that," Frichner says.