The Left Behind series is a series of 16 novels (13 of which are best-sellers) by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, dealing with Christian dispensationalist end times pretribulation, premillennial, Christian eschatological viewpoint of the end of the world. The primary conflict of the series is the members of the Tribulation Force against the Global Community and its leader Nicolae Carpathia—the Antichrist. Left Behind is also the title of the first book in the series. It is published by Tyndale House, a firm with a history of interest in dispensationalism.
Based on dispensationalist, premillenial, pre-tribulation interpretation of prophecies in the Biblical books of Revelation, Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel, Left Behind tells the story of the end times, in which many have been "raptured," leaving the world shattered and chaotic. As people scramble for answers, a Romanian politician named Nicolae Jetty Carpathia rises to become secretary-general of the United Nations, promising to restore peace and stability to all nations. What most of the world does not realize is that Carpathia is actually the Antichrist foretold from the Bible. Coming to grips with the truth and becoming born-again Christians, Rayford Steele, his daughter Chloe, their pastor Bruce Barnes, and young journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams begin their quest as the Tribulation Force to help save the lost and prepare for the coming Tribulation, in which God will pour down judgment on the world for seven years.
In 1998, the first four books of the series held the top four slots simultaneously, despite the fact that the New York Times' Bestseller's list does not take Christian bookstore sales into account. Book 10 debuted at number one on this list. Total sales for the series have surpassed 65 million copies. Seven titles in the adult series have reached #1 on the bestseller lists for The New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly.
One reason often cited for the books' popularity is the quick pacing and action. Michelle Goldberg has written that, "On one level, the attraction of the Left Behind books isn't that much different from that of, say, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. The plotting is brisk and the characterizations Manichean. People disappear and things blow up. The New York Times also compared the series to Clancy's works. But those views are not universally shared. Other reviewers have called the series "almost laughably tedious" and "fatuous and boring."
In 2007 the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) recognized the Left Behind Series at its CBA & ECPA Awards Celebration in Atlanta, Georgia with the ECPA Pinnacle Award. ECPA President Mark Kuyper said, "In many ways this series established Christian fiction as a significant category in publishing in general." Jerry Falwell said about the first book in the series: "In terms of its impact on Christianity, it's probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible."
The popularity of this series has spilled over beyond the Americas and the English-speaking world. It has been translated to many languages including Chinese and Japanese. There is, however, a protracted lag in translation; as of September 2005, the Chinese version of Book 11 is in the press and the Japanese version of Book 6 has been published.
In other areas, such as Europe—where dispensationalism is largely non-existent—the books have been far less successful.
LaHaye and Jenkins cite the influence of Russell S. Doughten, an Iowan film-maker who directed a series of four low-budget feature-length films in the 1970s and 1980s about the Rapture of the Church and the Second Coming. The films' popularity among Christians have led to increased study and speculation as to the events described in the Book of Revelation.
Crawford Gribben has shown that there were successful rapture fiction novels as early as 1913, with some earlier works identified as dating from 1905. Of the former, Sydney Watson's Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915) and In the Twinkling of an Eye are cited as examples of the genre.
In an article enquiring into the series' popularity, Salon magazine writer Michelle Goldberg described what she believed was one of the series' attractions: "On one level, the attraction of the Left Behind books isn't that much different from that of, say, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. The plotting is brisk and the characterizations Manichean." However, she considered the books to be an attack on Judaism and liberal secularism, and pointed out that the near-future "end times" the books are set in seem to reflect the actual worldview of millions of Americans, including many prominent conservative leaders.
The series has been criticized for the poor depiction of the pantheist and universalist belief that the Enigma Babylon World Religion indicates, which has overtones of Hinduism and Buddhism.
In 2004, episode #1-04 of Penn & Teller's TV show Bullshit! focused on the "end of the world" phenomenon, following centuries of incorrect prophecy. The show explained that Bible prophecy is nothing new, and that the vague descriptions in the book of Revelation can apply to almost any location at any time. The Left Behind series was featured, and Jerry B. Jenkins was interviewed. Jenkins stated, "In my mind, in a way, we are sales people for the Gospel." He continued, "People say money is the root of all evil, and actually it's the love of money that's the root of all evil. So there is nothing wrong with money if you use it right." The host, Penn Jillette, responded in voiceover, "What's the story on money if you get it by creating an irrational fear in people?"
The Slacktivist blog is notable for analyzing the first book at a rate of a few pages every week. From the perspective of a non-dispensationalist evangelical Christian, it generally criticizes the books for poor writing, bad biblical scholarship and for presenting an unflattering view of God.
The series has also been accused of plagiarizing. One website states that: "These similarities with earlier novel 666 are noteworthy, I think, for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with Lahaye’s claim of originality for his series of books. In an interview in the March 28, 2000 issue of the Assembly of God magazine Pentecostal evangel, he insists that "Left Behind is the first fictional portrayal of events that are true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy. It was written for anyone who loves gripping fiction featuring believable characters, a dynamic plot that also weaves prophetic events in a fascinating story."
Origins of the Rapture has been claimed to have been invented by an Anglo-Irish religious figure named John Nelson Darby(1800-1882). He was ordained in the Church of Ireland and worked there to convert Catholics. He joined a dissident group called the Plymouth Brethren and became a prominent leader. Around 1830 he began teaching that Jesus' coming at the end of times would be preceded by a "rapture of saints." Some members of his own Brethren community objected that this was not biblically founded, but Darby dismissed their criticism since he claimed that the rapture had been revealed to him by God. Eventually he would distance himself from the Brethren group and travel Europe, United States, and Canada from 1860-1870 spreading his views on the rapture. Given Darby's hatred of Catholics, his influence on Protestants add an ironic touch.
Some premillennialists, while accepting many of the basic beliefs behind the series, describe problems with specific prophetical teachings in the Left Behind books. For instance, in The Mark, Chang Wong receives both the mark of the beast and the sealing of the Lord and he is later able to go to heaven, despite having the mark. In Desecration, the character's dual-marking was justified in the storyline. He was saved because he did not accept the mark of the beast; he was forced to receive it because he was involuntarily put to sleep and then given it. This has led some readers to wonder how a Christian can have the mark of the beast and still be saved, which many readers voiced on the Left Behind messageboard, and which was answered on the FAQ page at LeftBehind.com.
Along with some other rapture fiction novels, the Left Behind series demonstrates a different understanding of the gospel and the Christian life than that taught within the historic orthodoxy of evangelical Protestantism. Most Christians deny the key eschatological beliefs underpinning the plotline and the books have not sold particularly well outside of the United States. Dispensationalism remains a minority view among theologians. For instance, amillenial and postmillenial Christians do not believe in the same timeline of the Second Coming as premillennialists, while preterist Christians do not interpret the Book of Revelation to predict future events at all. Brian McLaren, a self-appointed spokesperson of the Emergent Church, compares the Left Behind series to The Da Vinci Code, and states, "What the Left Behind novels do, the way they twist scripture toward a certain theological and political end, I think [Dan] Brown is twisting scripture, just to other political ends. But at the end of the day, the difference is I don't think Brown really cares that much about theology." John Dart, writing in Christian Century characterized the works as "beam me up theology."
Some practicing Christians, evangelical and otherwise, along with nonchristians have shown concern that the social perspectives promoted in the Left Behind series unduly sensationalize the death and destruction of masses of people. Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard, says part of the appeal of the books lies in the "lip-licking anticipation of all the blood," and theologian Barbara Rossing, author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, said the books glorify violence. Time magazine said "the nuclear frights of, say, Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears wouldn't fill a chapter in the Left Behind series. (Large chunks of several U.S. cities have been bombed to smithereens by page 110 of Book 3.)"
More than one critic has pointed to a passage in Glorious Appearing in which Jesus, who is portrayed as a lamb in the Book of Revelation, slaughters millions of people:
"The riders not thrown leaped from their horses and tried to control them with the reins, but even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted, and their tongues disintegrated. As Rayford watched, the soldiers stood briefly as skeletons in now-baggy uniforms, then dropped in heaps of bones as the blinded horses continued to fume and rant and rave. Seconds later the same plague afflicted the horses, their flesh and eyes and tongues melting away, leaving grotesque skeletons standing, before they too rattled to the pavement." (pp. 273-274)
One Christian accused the authors of re-sacralizing violence, adding that "we human beings are the ones who put our faith in superior firepower. But in the Left Behind novels the darkness of that human, satanic violence is once again attributed to God." In that same book Jesus merely speaks and the bodies of his enemies are ripped open, forcing the Christians to drive carefully to avoid "hitting splayed and filleted bodies of men and women and horses."
The series makes no secret of its Protestant-style view of Christianity. As a result some believe the books are Anti-Catholic, noting that many Catholics were not "raptured." The book says that many "who called themselves Catholics" but did not truly believe in Jesus were not raptured, but it does not mention the proportion who were. While the fictional Pope, John XXIV, was raptured, he is described as having embraced some of the views of the "Father of Protestantism" Martin Luther, implying that he was raptured for this reason. His successor, Pope Peter Mathews II, becomes Pontifex Maximus of Enigma Babylon One World Faith, an amalgamation of all remaining world faiths and religions. Jimmy Akin, writing for Catholic Answers, details the series as anti-Catholic. However on page 343 of Book 10, The Remnant, most of a Catholic church (including the priest and the catechism teacher) are raptured, similar to Tribulation Force's situation with their Protestant church: "He and some of his friends from childhood raced to their little Catholic church, where hardly anyone was left.".
Note: The books are listed initially in story-line (chronological) order but then numbered in order of publication.
|Chron Seq.||Pub Seq.||Title (with subtitle)||Pub Date|
|1||13||The Rising: Antichrist is Born: Before They Were Left Behind||(2005)|
|2||14||The Regime: Evil Advances: Before They Were Left Behind #2||(2005)|
|3||15||The Rapture: In the Twinkling of an Eye: Countdown to Earth's Last Days #3||(2006)|
|4||1||Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days||(1995)|
|5||2||Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind||(1996)|
|6||3||Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist||(1997)|
|7||4||Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides||(1999)|
|8||5||Apollyon: The Destroyer Is Unleashed||(1999)|
|9||6||Assassins: Assignment: Jerusalem, Target: Antichrist||(1999)|
|10||7||The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession||(2000)|
|11||8||The Mark: The Beast Rules the World||(2000)|
|12||9||Desecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne||(2001)|
|13||10||The Remnant: On the Brink of Armageddon||(2002)|
|14||11||Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages||(2003)|
|15||12||Glorious Appearing: The End of Days||(2004)|
|16||16||Kingdom Come: The Final Victory||(2007)|
There are also graphic novels, audiobook CDs and cassettes, and a Left Behind series for teens. Audio dramatizations based on the first thirteen titles have also been produced for broadcast on Christian radio. The series written for teens is called Left Behind: The Kids. The plot of this series is the same as the adult series, but the main protagonists are teenagers. Several of the main books have also been turned into movies by the Canadian motion picture studio Cloud Ten Pictures, including Left Behind: The Movie, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, and Left Behind: World at War.
A video game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces, was released for the PC on November 6, 2006.
In other media
The success of the Left Behind books have led to the release of three motion pictures based on the series so far. The movies have been produced and released by Cloud Ten Pictures, a Canadian Christian movie studio.
The first movie, Left Behind: The Movie, was based on the first book of the series and was released in 2000. In a very unusual marketing scheme, the studio released the movie on video and DVD first, and then released it to the theaters. The movie fared poorly in theaters. The movie starred former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron as [[Cameron "Buck" Williams. Cameron, who finds the series inspiring, is a practicing evangelist (and co-host with Ray Comfort on the TV show The Way of the Master).
In 2002, the sequel, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, based on the first four hundred pages of the second novel, Tribulation Force, was released. The film debuted at #2 on Nielson's video scan reports, behind Spider-Man, and was #1 in terms of overall sales for two days on Amazon.com.
The second sequel, Left Behind: World at War, was released first to churches on October 21, 2005 for church theatrical viewings, and was released to DVD and video on October 25, 2005. Except for Clarence Gilyard, the entire cast of Left Behind and Left Behind II: Tribulation Force reprised their respective roles for Left Behind: World At War. Clarence Gilyard, who played Bruce Barnes, was unable to return for the third movie due to a scheduling conflict with a play in New York. The movie is based very loosely on the final fifty pages of Tribulation Force, and features Louis Gossett, Jr. playing the President of the United States, Gerald Fitzhugh. The third movie was the least identifiable with events in any of the books. Recognizable events were the marriages of Buck with Chloe Steele, and Rayford Steele with Amanda White, the death of Bruce Barnes, and President Fitzhugh heading an attack, resulting in World War III, with Great Britain and Egypt, against the Global Community. Major parts of the movie, however, were either changed from the books or not found in the books whatsoever, including the poisoning of Barnes by GC forces instead of Nicolae Carpathia himself, and an attempt by Fitzhugh to assassinate Nicolae Carpathia, which did not exist in any of the books. Buck's meeting with the President in the books makes it into the movie, but in a totally different form.
The movies have been criticized for, among other things, low production values. A Slate reviewer, commenting that "In low-budget movies there are just some things that you can't portray convincingly. The end of the world is one of them," said the following:
"While each installment's budget is estimated to be around $17.4 million, I think that number might be off by $16 million or so. In Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force, for example, Kirk Cameron has to take Ben Judah, a respected rabbi, to the Wailing Wall so that he can tell Jews everywhere that Jesus Christ is Lord. Israel is represented by a few stone walls obviously made of plywood, some Christmas-tree lights, and 500 volunteer extras wearing leftover costumes from a Nativity pageant. The Wailing Wall is patrolled by soldiers dressed in World War II army uniforms. The producers have also dubbed in the sound of goats during scenes set in downtown Jerusalem, which leads to the unusual notion that modern-day Israel is populated by WWII re-enactors, nervous-looking people in bathrobes, and goats."
The video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces was developed by a publicly traded company, Left Behind Games. The game is a real-time strategy game where the player controls a 'Tribulation Force' team and allows the player to "use the power of prayer to strengthen your troops in combat and wield modern military weaponry throughout the game world." The game was released in the United States on November 14, 2006 and received mixed reviews. Distribution was initially planned to work through churches and megachurches.
The game has drawn criticism from some quarters (notably the renowned anti-violent videogame campaigner, Jack Thompson, for giving the player the choice of who to play as (Trib Force or Global Community).
The game has also drawn criticism that it allegedly encourages religious violence, though not all reviewers of the game or critics of the Left Behind series shared that view. Representatives of the company have responded that the game's message is pacifist because shooting nonbelievers instead of converting them costs the player "spirit points", which can be recovered by pausing to pray. The company also responded to these criticisms in an online newsletter, stating, "There is no violence, only conflict," and, "The most successful way to fight, is through the means of spiritual warfare; PRAYER and WORSHIP. Soldiers and military weaponry are available, but once anyone plays the game, they’ll see how difficult it is to succeed by using these less effective means of warfare."
In 2002 a series of graphic novels was launched that comprised the first two books in the series, Left Behind and Tribulation Force. The original idea was to release sets of 3 to 5 novels for each book in the original series. However, after the 5th and final novel for Tribulation Force was released, the graphic novel series was apparently discontinued and the novels that were released are now (as of December 2006) said to be out of print. A compilation of the graphic novels for the first book was later released as one novel.
Tributes and parodies
The movie version of Left Behind was parodied in an episode of The Simpsons titled "Thank God It's Doomsday" when Homer watches the movie called "Left Below" and fears that the Rapture could happen.