An Empire of Their Own
As the series progresses, and the final confrontation between good and evil approaches, the Antichrist intensifies his persecution of all who resist his power, particularly Jews and Christians. Opposing him, the Tribulation Force expands rapidly, gathering other committed converts all over the globe. The revolving cast of characters features not only whites, blacks and Native Americans but also Chinese, Greeks, Arabs and countless numbers of Israeli Jews. They are a tough, multinational cohort of guerrilla warriors, including military men, housewives, computer hackers and pilots--many, many pilots. They fly back and forth between their secret hide-outs in the United States and the sites of the real action, in Israel and Iraq. They manage to keep an eye on the goings on at New Babylon via deep-cover operatives and untraceable bugging devices. In short, they are highly competent and modern people, who whip around the world at a moment's notice in fighter jets or private planes, e-mail one another over highly encrypted computers and rescue those in danger.
In Armageddon, the members of the Tribulation Force join the "Remnant" of Israel, a core group of Jewish converts who have taken sanctuary at Petra, in Jordan, where they are fed manna from heaven each day. This group of Jews is held in special favor by God, thanks to their conversion. When Jesus returns (in the next novel), it is to fight on behalf of Israel against the massed power of the Antichrist. And, as the characters in Left Behind reassure one another repeatedly, biblical prophecy has already made the outcome clear: "We know how it ends. We win."
If this plot summary seems bizarre, the remarkable thing is that the scenario laid out in the novels is in no way outlandish or even very creative, if measured against the rich tapestry of evangelical fiction and nonfiction literature and film over the past twenty-five years. Since 1970, when Hal Lindsey published the hipster-styled book of prophecy interpretation The Late Great Planet Earth, which went on to become the bestselling nonfiction book of the decade, evangelical prophecy scholars have published one popularizing book after another, many of which were Christian bookstore bestsellers. In the mid-1970s, a low-budget film about a group of teenagers facing the Rapture traveled widely on the church-basement circuit. Its theme song, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," became a staple of youth groups and Christian concerts for a decade. By the 1980s, several authors, including Pat Robertson, started turning the pious tracts into rollicking adventure; Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness (1986) sold several million copies; and the 1999 film Omega Code was the year's most successful independent release. In the late 1990s prophecy also moved to the Internet, with sites like raptureready.com and prophecynewswatch.com.
Left Behind readers are likely to have been immersed in that cultural milieu. The publisher, Tyndale House, says that 85 percent of its readers describe themselves as "born again," and almost 65 percent first heard about the series through friends or relatives. The average reader is a white married woman from the South, between 25 and 54 years old, who attends church weekly. Latinos make up 9 percent of the readers; African-Americans are 7 percent. These latter numbers are striking. More than 15 percent of Left Behind readers are people of color--that's certainly a lot higher than the percentage of blacks or Latinos who watch Friends--and it indicates more racial diversity than talk about "white evangelicals" generally suggests. Then again, given that two-thirds of the African-American population identifies as evangelical or born-again Christian, the number of African-American readers is actually rather low.
Different authors and preachers have offered their own specific visions of the apocalypse prophecy scenario: Ardent prophecy watchers may be biblical literalists, but their interpretations are developed by piecing together passages that are scattered across the "prophetic" books of the Bible, in acts of constructive meaning-making that would make any English professor proud. Still, the basic outlines are not really up for grabs, and by now certain stock images--the clothes left on an empty airline seat when a believer is Raptured, or the smooth-talking Antichrist holding forth at UN headquarters--have become ritualistic markers of a highly politicized religious culture.
The links between global politics and the "prophetic calendar" are matters of doctrine among the large swath of evangelicals who are also ardent prophecy watchers. For these true believers, the Middle East, particularly Israel and Iraq, is deeply important, both religiously and politically, as the theater of God's actions in the final days. LaHaye has often argued that the founding of Israel--the return of the Jews to their land--is the "supersign" that the Second Coming is approaching. In Left Behind, as in virtually every other prophecy adventure, Israel is the only nation God favors. Despite the well-documented nationalism of many Christian conservatives, most interpreters argue that the United States as a nation hardly figures at all in the end times. After all, as several Internet commentators have pointed out, America is not mentioned in the Bible. Jerry Falwell suggested something similar back in 1985, when he announced that "if we fail to protect Israel, we will cease to be important to God."