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That is because among the best-selling fiction books of our times--right up there with Tom Clancy and Stephen King--is a series about the End Times, written by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, based on the Book of Revelation. That part of the Bible has always held its mysteries, but for millions of people the code was broken in 1995, when LaHaye and Jenkins published Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days. People who haven't read the book and its sequels often haven't even heard of them, yet their success provides new evidence that interest in the End Times is no fringe phenomenon. Only about half of Left Behind readers are Evangelicals, which suggests there is a broader audience of people who are having this conversation.
A TIME/CNN poll finds that more than one-third of Americans say they are paying more attention now to how the news might relate to the end of the world, and have talked about what the Bible has to say on the subject. Fully 59% say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack.
Some of that interest is fueled by faith, some by fear, some by imagination, but all three are fed by the Left Behind series. The books offer readers a vivid, violent and utterly detailed description of just what happens to those who are left behind on earth to fight the Antichrist after Jesus raptures, or lifts, the faithful up to heaven. At the start of Book 1, on a 747 bound for Heathrow from Chicago, the flight attendants suddenly find about half the seats empty, except for the clothes and wedding rings and dental fillings of the believers who have suddenly been swept up to heaven. Down on the ground, cars are crashing, husbands are waking up to find only a nightgown in bed next to them, and all children under 12 have disappeared as well. The next nine books chronicle the tribulations suffered by those left behind and their struggle to be saved.
The series has sold some 32 million copies--50 million if you count the graphic novels and children's versions--and sales jumped 60% after Sept. 11. Book 9, published in October, was the best-selling novel of 2001. Evangelical pastors promote the books as devotional reading; mainline pastors read them to find out what their congregations are thinking, as do politicians and scholars and people whose job it is to know what fears and hopes are settling in the back of people's minds in a time of deep uncertainty.
Now the 10th book, The Remnant, is arriving in stores, a breathtaking 2.75 million hard-cover copies, and its impact may be felt far beyond the book clubs and Bible classes. To some evangelical readers, the Left Behind books provide more than a spiritual guide: they are a political agenda. When they read in the papers about the growing threats to Israel, they are not only concerned for a fellow democratic ally in the war against terror; they are also worried about God's chosen people and the fate of the land where events must unfold in a specific way for Jesus to return. That combination helps explain why some Christian leaders have not only bonded with Jews this winter as rarely before but have also pressed their case in the Bush White House as if their salvation depended on it.