A WRITER AT LARGE: The Eve of Destruction ; We Are Living in the End Times. the Antichrist Is Already among Us. after Appalling Catastrophes Jesus Will Return and Defeat Him at Armageddon in Israel. This Religious Vision Might Seem Harmless, Says PAUL VALLELY, except That Nearly a Quarter of All Americans Believe It's Going to Happen Soon - and So Might George W Bush
Vallely, Paul, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
You will almost certainly not have heard of the latest novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins even though it shot to the top of New York Times bestseller list the day it was published and will do even better when it comes out in paperback in November. The book, the 11th in a 12- part series, was not the first publishing sensation by the duo. Novels six, seven, eight and nine in the series also went straight to the top of the booksellers' charts. Indeed the ninth, in the wake of 11 September - there's a clue for you - became the best- selling American novel of 2001, ousting John Grisham for the first time in seven years. In total the books have sold 35 million copies - 50 million if you include kids' versions. In addition are foreign language versions, in 25 translations. The demand has been such that the publishers, Tyndale House, have had to build new warehouses at their printworks in Illinois to cope. The authors are estimated to have made personal fortunes of around $50m each.
So why have you not heard of Messrs LaHaye and Jenkins? Why has their series of books not been the subject of endless newspaper and television articles? Almost certainly because their books belong to the genre known as "religious fiction", a category - like car maintenance manuals - deemed so unworthy that it is ignored when the bestseller lists are compiled. (The books have gone to number one despite the fact that The New York Times list doesn't include Christian bookstores in its sales tallies). Worse still, LaHaye and Jenkins' thrillers take as their premise an eccentric religious idea, hatched among Christian fundamentalists, about the End of the World. The trouble is that to dismiss it all as too weird is to underestimate the impact of the movement, of which the books are a part, in influencing the foreign policy of the United States - and the approach of President George Bush to life-and-death issues involving Israel and Iraq and America's semi-detached attitude to the United Nations.
The title of novel number 11, Armageddon, is enough of a giveaway, even without its subtitle The Cosmic Battle of the Ages. But to grasp the outline it's best to go back to book one, called Left Behind. It opens with passengers vanishing on board a transatlantic Boeing 747. Nothing remains except their rumpled piles of clothes, jewellery and dental fillings. All over the world, the same thing is happening: husbands wake to find only their wife's nightgown in bed beside them, children under 12 have vanished, pregnant women watch their stomachs fall flat as their unborn foetuses disappear. Across the globe millions go missing.
What has happened is called The Rapture. The term was coined by a narrow sect of Protestant evangelicals to describe their literalist reading of New Testament texts about the time when Christ will return to mark the end of the world. They drew out of the scriptures a sequence of events which begin with the idea, taken from St Paul's epistle to the Thessalonians, that Jesus will descend from heaven and summon all "true believers" - their words, not St Paul's - and that first the dead and then the living will be whisked up to meet him halfway in the clouds.
Left behind will be the unbelievers, which means not just atheists but also most Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and almost everyone else. These unhappy malefactors, say the true believers, will then undergo seven years of catastrophes (the Tribulation) presided over by the greatest deceiver in history (the Antichrist) who will somehow claim them with the Mark of the Beast. At the end of this Christ will reappear in the Second Coming after which Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil, will take place. Finally the triumphant Christ will rule in peace for a thousand years (the Millennium) before the world comes to an end. For the detail on all this they draw on an imaginative amalgam of St Paul, bits of the gospel of St Matthew, the Old Testament book of Daniel and the Bible's most lurid outpouring, that earliest of airport novels: the Book of Revelation. …