They're filled with adventure, treachery and intrigue just like a lot of other popular American fiction. What sets the Left Behind series apart is that authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are evangelical Christians who believe the world as we know it may soon come to an end. The tenth book in the series is called The Remnant: On the Brink of Armageddon, and it's currently one of the best selling books in America.
The Family Christian Bookstore in suburban Washington, D.C., generally stocks just a few copies of a new book, and they can take days, weeks or even months to sell. But store manager Heather Meagher Marr says the latest novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is a big exception. "The Remnant has sold very well here in our store," she said. "Before it came out we had already presold 156 of them, and in two and a half weeks we sold over 250 books. So the response is great. People are reading it in a day and passing it on to other people."
Bookstores around the country secular as well as Christian are experiencing similar demand. The Remnant made its debut at the top of many U.S. best seller lists when it was published a few weeks ago. Over the past seven years, the Left Behind series has sold more than 35 million copies and been translated into some 30 languages. It's also inspired a version for young people, graphic novels, and audio and video cassettes. Tim LaHaye believes the success of the stories signals a change in the American mood. "I thought it was interesting that in 2001 the two books that were number one were Jerry's and my book, The Desecration, in fiction and Bruce Wilkerson's book in non-fiction, The Prayer of Jabez, he said. "It indicates to me that people are really reaching out for something Biblically based, something that's stable, so that they don't have to fear the unknown."
The Left Behind series revolves around the idea that a final religious reckoning is at hand. In the stories, God has taken millions of Christians to heaven in a process called the Rapture. Millions of others, believers and non-believers - are left behind. They're given a seven year period known as the Tribulation, to demonstrate their commitment to Christ and follow others into the afterlife.
To plot their novels, Tim LaHaye says he and co-author Jerry Jenkins draw heavily on events in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament Bible "We of course have to interpret through fiction some of the events that happen, like plagues and earthquakes and wars and so on," he said. "But readers write to us indicate that they are very impressed with the fact that when they go back to the Scripture they find the events we portray in the books."
Now in his seventies, Tim LaHaye says he wasn't born into a family of practicing Christians. His parents underwent a religious conversion when he was a small boy, and he embraced Christianity soon afterwards. He eventually became an evangelical minister and a conservative political activist. He didn't begin publishing books until his late 30s, and says he'd never thought of himself as a writer. "My gift seemed to be that I could write warm, personable letters to people," said Tim LaHaye. "I talked to a person with my pen. Well, when it came to writing books I decided I wouldn't write a book, I'd write a letter. And to this day people commend me for writing warm, personable books."
Tim LaHaye got the idea for the Left Behind series while on an airplane trip. As he observed the behavior of those around him, he started to imagine what might happen if some people suddenly disappeared, transported into heaven, while others were left behind on the plane. From the start, the series has been a collaboration with professional author Jerry Jenkins. He brings the skills of a novelist to the project, while Tim LaHaye provides the theological background. Family Christian bookstore manager Heather Meagher says the series has gained steadily in popularity over the years, but she believes the stories fill a special need right now. "I think a lot of the things that are going on in the world are driving people to search for God," she said. "The issues in the Middle East with Israel and the Arabs, and what happened on September 11 with the terrorist attacks, I think people are really starting to search."
Heather Meather says readers of the series range in age from teenagers to people into their nineties. What do they like or not like about the books? Here's a range of responses, starting with a 17 year old high school student.
"I like how exciting they are, how they integrate Bible prophecy with a realistic look at what could happen. I've noticed that ever since I read the books I've been looking at stuff and saying, Well, that could fit in."
"I really liked the way they applied Biblical truth and made a story out of it. I didn't find the books all that well written. They were very easy reading, but they dragged it out for so long I got a little cynical about having to buy so many books."
"He is a very effective in being able to express how things should be applied-the Scriptures interpreted. He has a very good grasp of the Scriptures."
Tim LaHaye says his main hope is that the novels will inspire more people to read the Bible. "And when they get back there that they realize that the Bible is supernatural," he said. "That's what prophecy is. It's a sign of the supernatural authorship of the Bible. Prophecy is history written in advance."
Tim LaHaye believes a real era of religious reckoning could begin at any time. But for now, he and Jerry Jenkins are planning more books in the Left Behind series. They hope to complete them within the next four years.