The Trials of the Tribulation

In the "Left Behind" novels things get very bad -- the planet is invaded by "200 million demonic horsemen," for example, and that's before Armageddon and the Last Judgment

JERRY B. Jenkins jokingly refers to himself as "the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of." Until 1995 the most noteworthy of Jenkins's 120 books were his ghostwritten or as-told-to autobiographies of Nolan Ryan, Hank Aaron, Orel Herschiser, Mike Singletary, and Billy Graham. Then Jenkins came into his own, with a series of Christian sci-fi thrillers that imagine the events of a seven-year period of Tribulation following the Rapture of the Saved, inspired by the New Testament book of Revelation.Left Behind, Tribulation Force, Nicolae, Soul Harvest,Apollyon, and Assassins have sold some 10 million copies for Tyndale House, a publisher of religious books, and among them have spent four years at the top of the best-seller lists. (Assassins appeared on the New York Timesbest-seller list frequently last fall, and often trumped Thomas Harris's Hannibal.)

Although Jenkins writes every word of the books, Tim LaHaye, a "lifelong student of prophecy and end-times events," receives credit as co-author, because he checks Jenkins's writing for prophetic accuracy. In 1998 Jenkins and LaHaye launched a series of special "Left Behind" books for children aged ten to fourteen. A CD of music inspired by the books, called People Get Ready, has been moving fast at the evangelical ForeFront Records. Six more adult novels will be written before the series ends, in 2003, with The Glorious Appearing, in which Jesus Christ returns. And a movie based on the first book is scheduled for release sometime late this year.

The Web site "Left Behind -- The Movie" states,

Our most important goal is to produce a movie that is accessible and understood by the average moviegoer. Not everyone who sees this movie will be Christians, and we want to produce an exciting film for them as well. Be assured, however, that the core message of the books and of Scripture will remain in the film.

Envy not the movie's screenwriters, John Bishop and Chris Auer. Even a bare-bones summary of the wickedly funny, constantly twisting plots of these six novels, which total more than 2,500 pages, requires sweeping elision, not to mention considerable risk of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. But here goes: The series begins high above the earth, in a Boeing 747 en route to London, piloted by Captain Rayford Steele. The handsome, married, unsaved Steele is enjoying a moment of adulterous fantasy when the object of his affection, a flight attendant named Hattie Durham (to be fair, he's thinking about her smile), comes screaming into the cockpit.

Breathless, Hattie tells Rayford that dozens of passengers have disappeared from the cabin, leaving behind only piles of clothing and -- depending on vanity and physical health -- "eyeglasses, contact lenses, hairpieces, hearing aids, fillings, jewelry, shoes, even pacemakers and surgical pins." Rayford takes a peek at first class, "where an elderly woman sat stunned in the predawn haze, her husband's sweater and trousers in her hands. 'What in the world?' she said. 'Harold?'"

Rayford turns the plane around, lands in Chicago, and makes his way home to the western suburb of Mount Prospect, where he discovers that his wife, Irene, and son, Raymie, both born-again Christians, have evaporated. His daughter (and fellow religious skeptic), Chloe, an undergraduate at Stanford, flies home to join him. They take their grief and confusion to Irene and Raymie's New Hope Church, where they learn that "Jesus Christ returned for his true family, and the rest of us were left behind" -- this from the pastor, Bruce Barnes. The pastor was left behind because, he says, his pre-Rapture faith was "phony"; he didn't believe that "Jesus [is] the only way to God." Rayford converts immediately; Chloe follows shortly thereafter. (The second-chance period for reprobates following the Rapture is the series' most noteworthy contribution to Christian theology.)

As one might expect, the Rapture leaves the world in chaos. An obscure Romanian politician named Nicolae Carpathia arises to become the most powerful leader on the planet. His popular message of unity -- "We must disarm, we must empower the United Nations, we must move to one currency, and we must become a global village" -- eventually wins him control of all government, media, and institutional religion. He is named the sexiest man alive byPeople magazine. He appoints a new Pope. ("A lot of Catholics were confused, because while many remained, some had disappeared -- including the new pope, who had been installed just a few months before the vanishings. He had stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the 'heresy' of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodoxy they were used to.")

Meanwhile, the star journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams, who was on Rayford and Hattie's fateful flight, persuades the editors of his Newsweek- look-alike employer to assign him the Carpathia beat. As a quid pro quo for Hattie's having helped Buck get an Internet connection so that he could e-mail his editors from the plane just after the Rapture, Buck introduces Hattie to Carpathia. She quickly becomes Carpathia's personal assistant and lover.

Through Hattie, Buck also strikes up a friendship with Rayford Steele, whose Christian explanation for the disappearances gives Buck a "constant case of the chills," because it "tied everything together and made it make sense." Buck converts, and he, Rayford, Chloe, and Pastor Bruce Barnes figure out that Carpathia is the Antichrist. This is bad news for Hattie, who soon becomes pregnant with Carpathia's illegitimate child. Yet when she considers solving the problem by getting an abortion (in "a church that had been retrofitted into a testing laboratory and reproductive clinic"), her Christian friends do everything they can -- including killing a man -- to stop her.

Presented by

Michael Joseph Gross lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He has written about religion and popular culture for The Nation and Salon.

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