Tim Lahaye is many things--influential theologian, founder of a Christian school system, co-author of a sex manual with 2.5 million copies in print--but he isn't a novelist. Which is a bit strange, since he enjoys top billing on the Left Behind novels, the wildly popular books that make the end of the world fun. When LaHaye first conceived the series--entirely written by author Jerry Jenkins--he hoped to sell maybe 250,000 copies. Last year's installment alone sold 3 million, and for the first time since 1994, the author of the best-selling novel in the U.S. wasn't named Grisham.
And yet it's hard to imagine a less likely fiction impresario than LaHaye, a retired Evangelical pastor who turned 76 in April. He didn't seriously contemplate writing a novel until his 60s--and then found he wasn't good at it (he hands over his notes for each book to Jenkins, 52, also a born-again Christian, who has written more than 80 novels). Instead, LaHaye has spent most of his life spreading his view of Christ and fighting for conservative principles, often through nonfiction. Very often--LaHaye has had 51 nonfiction books published, an eclectic mix of theology (for example, the forthcoming Merciful God of Prophecy), self-help (I Love You, but Why Are We So Different?, 1991) and psychology (Spirit-Controlled Temperament, 1966).
Why are so many people turning to someone like LaHaye--a guy more interested in reality than fiction--for novels? Because in this volatile moment, many people are starting to read the Left Behind books not as novels but as tomorrow's newspapers. LaHaye believes that the Scriptures lay out a precise timetable for the end of the world, and the Left Behind books let us in on the chronology. A man of few doubts, LaHaye offers answers to one of the biggest questions ever posed: When will it end? Well, you will know the end has begun when the true believers in Christ vanish from the earth "in the twinkling of an eye" (I Corinthians 15: 52), leaving their Levi's in a rumple. The rest of us are "left behind"--and that's just where the series starts.
Although the books did well before Sept. 11, sales soared in the confusing period that followed, and it's fair to speculate that last year's installment, Desecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne, would not have outsold John Grisham's Skipping Christmas to become the biggest novel of 2001 if the planes had not crashed. Near the end of the first volume, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days (1995), Jenkins writes of one of the heroes, "He wanted to believe something that tied everything together and made it make sense." Exactly so.
And just what ties it all together? LaHaye and Jenkins would say it's the Bible. As Evangelicals, they take every word literally, even those mystical-sounding parts of the Book of Revelation that seem to defy interpretation. LaHaye has devoted much of his career--and 13 of his nonfiction works--to puzzling out what the Bible's prophecies mean. He has explained it all in dense tomes for fellow theologians as well as in the accessible 140-page Charting the End Times: A Visual Guide to Understanding Bible Prophecy (written with Thomas Ice, 2001). "The future is settled, and not open to change," LaHaye says. There is comfort in that message.