Popular Fiction Addresses the End Times

The best-selling Left Behind series grew to include sixteen novels, revolutionized Christian propaganda in print markets, and led to an increased concern in American evangelical churches and popular American culture about the biblical Apocalypse.

Summary of Event

In the tradition of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), a novel that predicted the coming end of the world, and with the year 2000 approaching, Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye coauthored Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (1995). Left Behind (LaHaye and Jenkins) The first in a series of novels that aim to interpret the Bible’s book of Revelation of John the Divine, Left Behind details the events on Earth after God’s Rapture has delivered the “innocents” to Heaven and has left the “heathens” behind to fight on God’s behalf or to join the Antichrist. The series follows a core group of nonbelievers, later converted, who are left behind at the Rapture to suffer through the seven-year tribulation, the tyrannical rule of the Antichrist, and the battle of Armageddon, until the ultimate reappearance of Jesus. After Left Behind, the series chronicles this saga through fifteen other novels: Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind (1996), Tribulation Force (LaHaye and Jenkins)
Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist
Nicolae (LaHaye and Jenkins) (1997), Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides
Soul Harvest (LaHaye and Jenkins) (1998), Apollyon: The Destroyer Is Unleashed
Apollyon (LaHaye and Jenkins) (1999), Assassins: Assignment—Jerusalem, Target—Antichrist
Assassins (LaHaye and Jenkins) (1999), The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession (2000), Indwelling, The (LaHaye and Jenkins)
The Mark: The Beast Rules the World (2000), Mark, The (LaHaye and Jenkins)
Desecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne (2001), Desecration (LaHaye and Jenkins)
The Remnant: On the Brink of Armageddon (2002), Remnant, The (LaHaye and Jenkins)
Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages (2003), Armageddon (LaHaye and Jenkins)
Glorious Appearing: The End of Days (2004), Glorious Appearing (LaHaye and Jenkins)
The Rising: Antichrist Is Born (2005), Rising, The (LaHaye and Jenkins)
The Regime: Evil Advances (2005), Regime, The (LaHaye and Jenkins)
The Rapture: In the Twinkling of an Eye—Countdown to the Earth’s Last Days (2006), Rapture, The (LaHaye and Jenkins) and Kingdom Come: The Final Victory (2007). Kingdom Come (LaHaye and Jenkins)
Left Behind book series
Christian literature
[kw]Popular Fiction Addresses the End
Times (May 30, 1995)

[kw]Fiction Addresses the End Times, Popular (May 30, 1995)
[kw]End Times, Popular Fiction Addresses the (May 30, 1995)
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Christian literature
[g]North America;May 30, 1995: Popular Fiction Addresses
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[g]United States;May 30, 1995: Popular Fiction Addresses the End Times[09220]
[c]Literature;May 30, 1995: Popular Fiction Addresses the End Times[09220]
[c]Publishing and journalism;May 30, 1995: Popular Fiction Addresses the End Times[09220]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;May 30, 1995: Popular Fiction Addresses the End Times[09220]
LaHaye, Tim
Jenkins, Jerry B.
Lalonde, Peter

Both the writers of the series and Tyndale House, the publisher, noted that these books served a dual purpose: to entertain and to speak to the American people about the state of their spiritual lives. The novels in the series had a substantial run from a publishing standpoint. Not including sales from Christian booksellers, print runs of Left Behind ran between 150,000 and 200,000 copies in its early days, reaching nearly 5 million copies at the debut of the eighth novel in the series. The seventh book in the series, The Indwelling, reached the top of several national publishing lists in 2000. Desecration, the tenth novel in the series, claimed the title of best-selling fiction book of 2001, and an additional Left Behind children’s series sold more than 60 million copies. By July of 2001, the series had collectively sold more than 25 million copies.

Left Behind is the first series of novels defined by popular opinion as “Christian” to have broken these previously “secular” publishing milestones. The mainstream success is in part due to the fact that many Left Behind readers purchased these books at large retail stores like Wal-Mart and Target, not strictly religious booksellers. The Left Behind series prescribed to no specifically designated religious order or group, although its events are clearly based on biblical references, and its broad audience reflected that ambiguity: Despite obvious religious overtones, the books’ readers were not exclusively Christian. Although the largest readership is evangelical Protestant, Left Behind also affected, and sometimes even converted, mainstream Americans. Numbers indicate that near the production of the eighth book, in 2000, at least a quarter of Americans were aware of the Left Behind phenomenon, and one of ten adults in the United States was reading one of the books.

Left Behind was not only a publishing phenomenon; the series also launched the production of clothing accessories, a dramatic radio show, books on tape, board games, and other merchandise. Left Behind: The Movie (2000) Left Behind (film) was brought to the big screen by producer Peter Lalonde. Lalonde was also responsible for the production of a video titled Have You Been Left Behind? that was released concurrently with the first Left Behind book. The video detailed what a non-Christian should do if he or she is left behind when the Rapture occurs.

At the time of its production, Left Behind: The Movie was the most expensive Christian-funded film ever produced. Despite the significant public reaction to the Left Behind fiction, the film had a poor response at the box office and did not bring in the non-Christian audience that had responded to the literature. Although the film ultimately did not succeed as directors hoped it would, the revenue invested by Lalonde, Christian booksellers, and other parties who handled the promotion demonstrates the importance of the implication that Left Behind reached beyond the boundaries of Christian merchandising to a secular public.

Left Behind spawned heated debate in both secular and religious circles about the specifics of the “end times,” and readers were forced to reconsider issues within their own religions and their own lifestyles. Even within evangelical Christian groups, there was dissent about whether or not the books followed the chronology of the biblical book of Revelation closely enough to be taken as truth. Reading groups, church study sessions, and online chat rooms revealed that themes in the Left Behind novels caused readers to question not only faith but also the concepts of good versus evil, the place of religion in world politics, and the roles of gender and race in society. The September 11, 2001, attacks September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center—which caused many Americans to reevaluate the world for signs of a coming apocalypse and to reexamine their individual lifestyles—coincided with an increased interest in apocalyptic fiction, as reflected in increased sales.


The success of the Left Behind series, and its related merchandise, indicates a breach in the separation of religion and secular culture in America. These “Christian” novels marked a new period in twentieth century popular culture, wherein products with overtly religious themes were marketed not only to their niche audiences but also to the mainstream. The distribution of these books by major retailers also reflects U.S. consumers, who were becoming more diverse and less defined by religion and background. The ambiguous identity of Left Behind’s religious market also illustrates that typically evangelical publishers had begun to tailor their message to appeal to a wider audience.

The popularity of the Left Behind books and other so-called Christian or spiritual fiction speaks to both an American need and an American fear: the need to understand events like the World Trade Center bombing, and the fear that the world is headed for disaster. Left Behind’s barely veiled comparison of its Antichrist-led, seemingly benevolent world government with institutions such as the United Nations, and the support the series received from the Bush administration all had a part in making this series a significant cultural landmark. Although the novels are set in an undefined future, the benchmarks that bring the plot to fruition are events that can arguably be seen in the world in which it was published. Left Behind book series
Christian literature

Further Reading

  • Forbes, Bruce David, and Jeanne Halgren Kilde, eds. Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Six essays by six different authorities on the Left Behind books. Investigates the success of the Left Behind series; the history of its apocalyptic thought in American culture; the language of the biblical Revelation; social, political, and religious commentary found in the Left Behind series; and the Christian faith and apocalyptic thought.
  • Frykholm, Amy. Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Offers interviews, case studies, and broad-based research that demonstrates the powerful effects—both positive and negative—of Left Behind on American culture. Research investigates both Christian and non-Christian reactions to Left Behind and investigates consequential changes in American approaches to religion.
  • Hendershot, Heather. Shaking the World for Jesus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. An investigation into how American media handled the influx of Christian marketing and products in the preceding ten to fifteen years. Dissects the evangelical media and refers to products like the Left Behind novels to explore how the evangelical Christian message changed in order to fit the nature of contemporary media. Includes illustrations.

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