Byline: Robert Stacy McCain
he apocalyptic 1995 novel "Left Behind" and its eight sequels have sold 50 million copies. The Christian end-of-the-world epic by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has spawned a Hollywood movie and sparked renewed interest in Bible prophecy.
Despite its enormous success, "Left Behind" is being criticized on theological grounds by some Christians who say the story of worldwide tribulation following a sudden "Rapture" of born-again believers is based on a faulty interpretation of the Bible.
"I'm firmly convinced that the integrity of the Bible is at stake in all this," says Gary DeMar, author of "End Times Fiction: A Biblical Consideration of the `Left Behind' Theology."
"What Tim LaHaye is doing in his `Left Behind' series has been done before," says Mr. DeMar, a conservative Presbyterian and author of 16 books. "These guys have been predicting the end by reading the newspaper for centuries. . . . They all have one thing in common. They've all been wrong."
The prime target of this criticism, Mr. LaHaye, wrote more than 40 nonfiction books before publishing "Left Behind." For 25 years, he pastored San Diego's Scott Memorial Baptist Church and - along with his wife, Beverly - gained national prominence by teaching seminars on marriage and family relationships.
Mr. LaHaye says he "expected some opposition" from Christians "who hold different views" of biblical interpretation. But he suggests some critics are envious of the success of the "Left Behind" series.
"Those of a different view resent the enormous readership we have," he says.
The central concept of "Left Behind," based in part on 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and Luke 17:34-35, is that the world's true Christians will vanish at one time when they are taken to heaven shortly before the end of the world. Unbelievers, however, will be "left behind" to suffer during a final period of persecution at the hands of the Antichrist, a satanic figure also known as the beast.
Critics say that this view - known as the pre-Tribulation, or "pre-Trib," Rapture - is an unorthodox interpretation of New Testament prophecies, cobbled together from different passages of Scripture and "twisted" to fit the latest headlines.
"The supposed prophetic insights change as the headlines change," Mr. DeMar says, citing Hal Lindsey's 1970 best seller "The Late Great Planet Earth" and other Rapture-oriented authors. "All these prophecies these guys have talked about have not come to pass, but a lot of Christians keep reading the same books by the same guys that have been wrong so many times."
The pre-Tribulation Rapture was popularized by the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, which included many of the ideas found in the "Left Behind" series, including a key prophetic role for the nation of Israel in Earth's final days.
Christian scholars have long argued about how to interpret Bible prophecies about the end of the world, a field of study known as eschatology.
In one of his last talks to his disciples, recorded in Matthew 24, Jesus spoke of "wars and rumors of wars" and "a great tribulation" that would precede his return to Earth. The Apostle Paul wrote (I Corinthians 15) of Christians becoming immortal "in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet."
The most famous end-of-the-world scenario, however, is found in the book of Revelation. Written by the Apostle John, Revelation is the source of such apocalyptic images as the Four Horsemen (war, pestilence, famine and death) and the beast described in Revelation 13, whose mysterious, prophetic number - 666 - has become synonymous for evil.
Mr. DeMar counts "five different Rapture positions" among Christian scholars, and four different views of the millennium, the 1,000-year earthly reign of Christ foretold in Revelation 20. …