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Books The Trials of the Tribulation

Illustration by Winston Smith

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

by Michael Joseph Gross

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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 Times best-seller list frequently last fall, and often trumped Thomas Harris's Hannibal.)

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More books in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Latest Fashion in Irrationality," by Wendy Kaminer (July, 1996)
When the inner child finds a guardian angel, publishers are in heaven.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "America the Irrational," (November 3, 1999)
Wendy Kaminer, the author of Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials, sees a disturbing decline of reason in our public life.

Related links:

LeftBehind.com
Tyndale House Publishers' official Web site for the books of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Includes message boards, and news and information about the authors and their books.

Millennial Sites
An index of links to sites related to millennial themes. Posted by the Center for Millennial Studies.

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 by People 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.

As the number of believers has continued to grow, the main characters have coagulated into a "little group inside the group, a sort of Green Berets" of believers, called the Tribulation Force, to wage holy war during the coming tribulations. These will include a "wrath of the Lamb earthquake"; a meteor strike; maritime disasters; global darkening; plagues of fire, smoke, sulfur, and demon locust-scorpions; and an invasion by 200 million demonic horsemen who will kill a third of the world's population.

Through a series of coincidences Buck and Rayford find themselves on Carpathia's payroll, Buck as the publisher of Carpathia's propagandizing newsmagazine Global Community Weekly, and Rayford as Carpathia's personal pilot. These are very stressful jobs. Rayford would like to kill Carpathia, as would Buck, but neither one gets a clear sign from God that he's been chosen to pull the trigger.

In the sixth book, Assassins, Carpathia convenes a "Global Gala" in Jerusalem. (Teddy Kollek Stadium is festooned with banners reading "Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Utopia" and similar messages; there are lots of prayers to "the great one-gender deity"; and a noon-to-midnight party is thrown in the Holy City's "hedonist district.") Rayford and Buck are there. Buck stands around wishing that he could "pop Nicolae between the eyes, even with a slingshot." Rayford does him one better: he brings a loaded gun. After Carpathia's chief deputy introduces "the man God chose to lead the world from war and bloodshed to a single utopian community of harmony, your supreme potentate and mine," Rayford takes aim, prays hard, and ...

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


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

Illustration by Winston Smith.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; The Trials of the Tribulation - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 122-128.