Second Coming

About those 'Left Behind' readers

When it comes to describing the end of the world, millions of readers are convinced that the "Left Behind" books contain the gospel truth.

This isn't surprising since these 12 novels -- backed by sequels, movies, video games and comic books -- have sold 70 million copies. For most readers, the page-turners cranked out by writer Jerry Jenkins and preacher Tim LaHaye form a pop-culture catechism that explains some of the Bible's most mysterious passages, said researcher Robert Woods of Spring Arbor University.

But a recent survey of "Left Behind" readers did yield one big surprise. While nearly 69 percent were, as expected, evangelical and mainline Protestants, 8.6 percent of the readers were Catholics and the remaining 22.8 percent said they practiced Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or another world religion. Why did they dig into these books?

"Curiosity was a big reason," said Woods, who teaches communications at the evangelical campus in Michigan. "It also seems that many of them thought that by reading these books they could learn about

Christianity. ... So now they think that what the 'Left Behind' books teach is what ordinary Christians believe about the end times."

For many non-Christians, he said, the words "Left Behind" and "Christianity" are now tightly linked. They have been fed a pop version of "premillennial dispensationalism," a complicated 19th Century doctrinal system that says Jesus will reign for 1,000 years on earth after the last trumpet sounds, the dead rise and the true Christians are "raptured" to meet Christ in the air.

Many Christian leaders will find this disturbing. This is especially true since there is a born-again believer in the White House and the daily news is full of explosive headlines about the Middle East, the

tense region that dominates the apocalyptic plots in these novels.

"I don't want people to pigeonhole the Protestant view of the end times," said Woods. "But you know, there are lots of people who, if you tell them you are an evangelical, then they are immediately going

to say, 'That means you're one of those Pat Robertson, Jesus freak Christians.' Now there are people who, if you say you are an evangelical, they are going to say, 'Oh, you're one of those 'Left Behind' Christians.' "

The Spring Arbor team -- Woods, Kelly Skarritt and statistician Caleb Chan -- began with a 33-item survey that was posted at the official Tyndale House website used to promote the "Left Behind" series. This invitation drew 16,916 voluntary responses. The researchers then did an in-depth, random study of 1,312 readers drawn from this larger flock.

Once again, many of the results were predictable. No one was surprised -- because of previous research by evangelical pollsters -- that the typical "Left Behind" reader is a female, married, white,

evangelical, politically conservative, Bible-Belt resident who is between 30-something and 50-something and who goes to church almost as often as she consumes Christian mass media.

On the other side of this divide were those least likely to appreciate the fiction of LaHaye and Jenkins. These readers were more likely to be male, single, black or Hispanic, politically progressive and residents of the American West or Northeast.

However, most of the readers -- their denominational ties didn't matter -- said they believe that the "Left Behind" books are highly accurate portrayals of what the Bible teaches about the end of the world or, at least, the beliefs of conservative Christians about that subject.

When readers were asked about their motivations, the most intense clusters of responses came from those who affirmed that they read the books in order to compare what they "say about the 'end times' with what the Bible says" or because the series explains the "events described in the book of Revelation in an understandable way."

The goal, said Woods, is to do more research into why so many non-Christians read the "Left Behind" series and the impact the books had on their beliefs.

"Most forms of Christian entertainment just 'rock the flock' that already lives in our gospel ghettos," he said. "But it does seem that this form of media -- apocalyptic fiction -- is reaching some new people in our post-9/11 culture. It appears that there really are people out there who are curious about ultimate issues. We may be on the verge of another wave of rapture culture."

All those Left Behind Catholics

Catholic writer Carl Olson was struggling as he led his audience through the maze of competing Christian beliefs about the Second Coming of Jesus.

There are premillennialists who believe Christ will reign for 1,000 years on earth. But it wouldn't be fair to lump them with the ultra-literal premillennial dispensationalists, he noted, since these camps contain bitter rifts over the timing of "the rapture." That's when the trumpet sounds, the dead rise and Christians soar to meet Christ in the air. Then there is the ancient amillennial stance, without a 1,000-year kingdom. Oh, and don't forget the postmillennialists.

Rows of middle-aged, cradle Catholics in Salem, Ore., gazed back -- utterly lost.

"I was getting absolutely nowhere," said Olson. "So I finally asked them: 'How many of you have ever heard a single sermon or even some kind of talk at church about what the Catholic faith actually teaches about the Second Coming?' There were 200 or more people there and four or five hands went up. That's what you see everywhere."

These Catholics didn't know their catechism. But, many could quote chapter and verse from another doctrinal source -- the "Left Behind" novels by evangelical superstars Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. This amazes Olson, who was raised in what he called a "strong, fundamentalist Protestant" home before converting to Catholicism.

The first 11 novels have sold around 50 million copies and that doesn't include the racks of children's books, audio editions, games, comics, DVDs and music products. Now the climactic "Glorious Appearing: The End of Days" is out, complete with a warrior Christ on a white stallion leading the angelic version of shock and awe.

The powers that be at the New York Times were struck by this scene: "Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of God."

For millions of modern Catholics, this is more exciting than the works of Justin Martyr, Augustine and the Second Vatican Council. Olson said it's hard to know what chunk of the "Left Behind" audience is Catholic, but publicists say that 11 percent is a good estimate.

This shouldn't be foreign territory for Catholics, said Olson, author of "Will Catholics Be 'Left Behind'?" In every Mass, they say they believe Jesus will "come again in glory to judge the living and dead." Catholics are taught -- along with Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Anglicans and many others -- that "the rapture" will follow a time of tribulation and happen at the Second Coming, not seven years earlier as taught in the "Left Behind" series.

But it's hard to resist thrillers in which the mysterious Book of Revelation is decoded into visions of United Nations plots, global media, Chinese armies, Israeli jets and, well, Satan running the Vatican.

"Lots of Catholics tell me that 'Left Behind' can't be bad because LaHaye and Jenkins have the pope getting raptured along with the good guys," said Olson. "They don't even notice that this pope is considered a radical because he has started preaching what sure sounds like evangelical Protestantism. In other words, he's a real Christian. The next pope turns out to be Anti-Christ's right-hand man."

Meanwhile, most priests and bishops are silent, said Olson. Many fear being called "fundamentalists" if they even discuss issues of prophecy and the end times. Others may not believe what their church teaches.

The Catholic bishops of Illinois did release a "Left Behind" critique, claiming: "Overall, these books reinforce an unhealthy and immature belief in a harshly judgmental God whose mercy we earn by good behavior." But Olson said too many Catholic leaders refuse to take seriously the content of the books, movies and television programs that shape the beliefs of their people.

"If you want to be a good shepherd, you have to care about this stuff," he said. "These kinds of books and movies are where most Americans -- including Catholics -- get their beliefs and attitudes about faith and spirituality. ... You cannot wish these things away. They're real."