Tim LaHaye, one of the best-selling writers in American history, died July 25 at the age of 90. Along with Jerry B. Jenkins, LaHaye, a prominent Evangelical minister, co-authored the Left Behind series—16 novels about a vision of the Christian end-times that have sold a combined 63 million copies. For comparison’s sake, that’s 13 million more copies than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.
And had it not been for an Introduction to American Studies lecture I took in (probably) 2008, this literary phenomenon would have passed me by entirely.
I forget much of what I read in college, but the first Left Behind novel—and snippets of the climactic scene of one of the final Left Behind novels—are drilled into my memory. And why wouldn’t they be? People get raptured off of an airplane in the series’ very first pages, the Antichrist (a power-hungry Romanian politician named Nicolae Carpathia) uses his position as secretary general of the United Nations to impose an anti-Christian secular world government, and the whole thing culminates in a phantasmagoric battle over Jerusalem. It’s a beach-ready, conspiracy-heavy invitation to envision the end of the world. What could be more exciting—or more baffling?
The 16 Left Behind novels tell the story of the period between the rapture and the return of Christ to Earth. In its telling of the apocalyptic war between Christian believers and the Antichrist, the series turns a particularly American version of an even more particularly Protestant eschatology narrative into the stuff of page-turners. Lest we get too carried away admiring Left Behind’s deft and even Dan Brown-like synthesis of the action novel with paranoia-tinged popular religious themes, the series has a notably bizarre attitude toward Jews.
In the books, Israel has made peace with all of her neighbors, and invented astounding, perhaps even miraculous, technologies that have made the desert bloom, thus fulfilling two crucial prerequisites for the authors’ vision of the end-times. Nicolae Carphatia is assassinated by an Israeli botanist named Chaim Rosenzweig (don’t worry; Nic soon comes back to life as the incarnation of Satan himself), and a Jew and rabbinic scholar named Tsion Ben-Judah is one of the heroes of the series’ apocalyptic final battle. The Jews even get to rebuild the Temple at the start of the “Tribulation,” or the seven years of the Antichrist’s persecution of religious believers.
As author Glenn W. Struck notes in Mark of the Beast: Left Behind and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity, there’s some unsavory theology hovering just in the foreground here. “LaHaye and Jenkins’s attitude toward Jews reflects the carefully nuanced viewpoint of dispensational prophecy belief,” he writes, using the scholarly term for the Protestant end-times theology that the Left Behind series novelizes. “Prophecy writers insist they are philo-Semitic, supporting the state of Israel at every opportunity. Yet their attitudes toward Judaism as a religion, along with their attitudes toward individual practitioners, reflect the latent, although occasionally more obvious, anti-Semitism found in the history of dispensational prophecy belief.”
In other words, the Jews are tolerated and even celebrated in Left Behind because of their role in bringing about another religion’s messianic redemption, which occurs at the expense of the Jews’ metaphysical truth-claims and their existence as a religion and a people. “When Jewish people such as yourself come to see that Jesus is your long-sought messiah, you are not converting from one religion to another, no matter what anyone tells you,” one character tells a terrified group of Israeli Jews before the final battle against Carpathia in Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle for the Ages. “You have found your messiah, that is all.”
Maura Spiegel, a senior lecturer in English and comparative literature at Columbia University, explained that she assigned sections of the series to my class back in 2008 because of the troubling divisions it suggested within contemporary American life. She believes there is pedagogical value in exploring the cultural dissonance the series embodies, especially for students at a liberal arts institution who are unlikely to really ever meet or even think about the Left Behind-reading demographic in non-abstract terms.
“Something in the mix of this religious narrative with this sort of low form intrigued me besides just the fact of its enormous popularity and the reality that most of the books were not sold and still are not sold on the East Coast,” she explained, suggesting that you might have to put a little extra effort into finding copies of Left Behind in the Godless Northeast. “It felt to me like, we don’t know about this. This is a massive event occurring off of our radar.
“One conclusion is that we are living in separate realities in this country. And we’re seeing it right now playing out bigger than it’s ever played out with this presidential election. It’s like two different languages.”
LaHaye wrote a work of titillating apocalypse porn, a trashy epic of conspiracism and fundamentalist wish fulfillment. Yet Spiegel’s observation of the book’s separateness from the secular American mainstream implies a certain responsibility to find a more sympathetic reading of the man and his work.
At its core, the Left Behind series posits that through individual and collective effort, and faith in God’s pre-ordained historical order, the world and the soul can transcend the violence and corruption afflicting them and affect a utopian redemption right here on earth. It’s a fine message. But the series poses a troubling final question: Does such a message have to come at everybody else’s expense? And would the series be as popular as it is if it didn’t?
For East Coast college students—and particularly for Jews—the runaway popularity of the Left Behind series might motion towards the dark inner yearnings within some substantial number of our fellow citizens, who are treated to the vanquishment of secular pluralism, and the attendant triumph of an evangelical theory of history and reality itself. It’s a story that ends with the Jews being subsumed into non-existence, and that’s after it’s demonstrated that their entire purpose was to bring about the return of another religion’s messiah in the first place. But horror is an insufficient response to LaHaye’s work, which was an apparent source of inspiration to millions of productive, law-abiding, utterly normal, and outwardly tolerant Americans. It’s easy to understand the appeal of Left Behind, which is an addictively readable melding of the lowbrow thriller with high theological drama. But in deference to the literary tastes and fundamental worldview of tens of millions of Americans, let’s try, momentarily, to find what’s good about them, too.
The best thing that can be said about the Left Behind series is that it’s a work of optimism. The saga begins in a world that’s utterly mundane and disenchanted, yet governed by a hidden and inevitably redemptive metaphysical order. It’s not just that history has meaning—it has a happy ending too, even if it’ll take 16 volumes and a Tribulation and war with the Antichrist and the deaths of several main characters to get there.
And you, reader, will have a happy ending as well. Messianic return and eternal life are coming, and there’s no need to fret in the meanwhile, even in your fallen and impure state. The heroes of the Left Behind series aren’t the raptured, but flawed souls here on earth who are tasked with the real heavy lifting of redemption. Imperfection is not damnation in the Left Behind books. To be “left behind” is a marker of an individual purpose, itself joined to a higher metaphysical duty.
These are worthy, ennobling messages. But they’re packaged in a way that’s almost calculated to appall most liberal sensitivities—and to keep Americans living in different worlds, speaking different languages.