End Times
Terror fears and a best-selling fiction series fuel new interest in a real Doomsday

Meet the Prophet
How an evangelist and conservative activist turned prophecy into a fiction juggernaut

The End: How It Got That Way

Is It Good for the Jews?

Glossary of Terms

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Timeline: Countdown?
The apparent fulfillment of biblical apocalyptic prophecy has led End Times believers to work hard to fit more recent events into the scriptural grid

Left Behind
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Posted Sunday, June 23, 2002; 2:31 a.m. EST
The series has sold some 32 million copies—50 million if you count the graphic novels and children's versions—and sales jumped 60% after Sept. 11. Book 9, published in October, was the best-selling novel of 2001. Evangelical pastors promote the books as devotional reading; mainline pastors read them to find out what their congregations are thinking, as do politicians and scholars and people whose job it is to know what fears and hopes are settling in the back of people's minds in a time of deep uncertainty.

Now the 10th book, The Remnant, is arriving in stores, a breathtaking 2.75 million hard-cover copies, and its impact may be felt far beyond the book clubs and Bible classes. To some evangelical readers, the Left Behind books provide more than a spiritual guide: they are a political agenda. When they read in the papers about the growing threats to Israel, they are not only concerned for a fellow democratic ally in the war against terror; they are also worried about God's chosen people and the fate of the land where events must unfold in a specific way for Jesus to return. That combination helps explain why some Christian leaders have not only bonded with Jews this winter as rarely before but have also pressed their case in the Bush White House as if their salvation depended on it.

Walter Russell mead is sitting in his office at the Council on Foreign Relations in midtown Manhattan on a soft June afternoon, at work on a book that was born last September. He published an acclaimed history of U.S. foreign policy last year and was working on a study about building a global middle class. But he has put that aside. Piled around him now are the Koran, a Bible, books on technology and a stack of Left Behind books. When Mead predicts that our century will be remembered as the Age of Apocalypse, he does not mean to suggest that the world will soon end in a fiery holocaust. "The word apocalypse," he observes, "comes from a Greek word that literally means 'lifting of the veil.' In an apocalyptic age, people feel that the veil of normal, secular reality is lifting, and we can see behind the scenes, see where God and the devil, good and evil are fighting to control the future." To the extent that more people in the U.S. and around the world believe history is accelerating, that ancient prophecies are being fulfilled in real time, "it changes the way people feel about their circumstances, and the way they act. The grays are beginning to leak out of the way people view the world, and they're seeing things in more black-and-white terms."

At the religious extremes within Islam, that means we see more suicide bombers: if God's judgment is just around the corner, martyrdom has a special appeal. The more they cast their cause as a fight against the Great Satan, the more they reinforce the belief in some U.S. quarters that the war on terror is not one that can ever end with a treaty or communique, only total victory or defeat. Extremists on each side look to contemporary events as validation of their sacred texts; each uses the others to define its view of the divine scheme.

59% believe the prophecies in the Book of Revelation will come true

In such a time of uncertainty, it's a natural human instinct to look for some good purpose in the shadows of even the scariest events—and for some readers the theology of the Left Behind books provides it. Some stumbled on the series by accident, and were hooked. Deborah Vargas, 46, of San Francisco bought her first Left Behind book in January at a Target, looking for a good read. She got much more than she had bargained for, especially after Sept. 11. "It was almost a message right out of the Bible," she says. "Something within me started to change, and I started to question myself. What was I waiting for? A sign?" Since then, she says, her life has been transformed, and she is now a regular in the Left Behind chat rooms. "I want to talk about it all the time."

Talk to the people who were already inclined to read omens in the headlines, and you hear their excitement, even eagerness to see what happens next. "We sense we are very close to something apocalyptic, but that something positive will come out of it," says Doron Schneider, an Evangelical based in Jerusalem. "It's like a woman having labor pains. A woman can feel this pain reaching its height when the child is born—and then doesn't feel the pain anymore, only the joy of the happy event." Even the horror of Sept. 11 was experienced differently by people primed to see God's hand in all things. Strandberg admits that he was "joyful" that the attacks could be a sign that the End Times were at hand. "A lot of prophetic commentators have what I consider a phony sadness over certain events," he says. "In their hearts they know it means them getting closer to their ultimate desire."

People who were strangers to prophecy don't always find as much comfort there. When Dave Cheadle, a Denver lay pastor at an inner-city ministry, sent out an Internet letter after 9/11 suggesting that Revelation was the relevant text for understanding what was happening, he got a huge—and frightened—response: "People were asking themselves whether they were ready to die. Very sane, well-educated people have gone back to the storm-cellar thing to make sure they have water and freeze-dried stuff in their basements." Some had trouble reconciling their warm image of a merciful God with the chilling warnings they were reading. "They're asking people to believe that we have a God who simply can't wait to zap the Christian flight crew out of jets so they crash?" asks Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and an author of Christian fiction, who finds in the Left Behind books a deity he does not recognize. "You can't believe in a God who would do this kind of thing."

Others, already believers, have come away from this past winter feeling a need to change tactics, change jobs, find a new way to get the urgent message across. Rick Scarborough, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearland, Texas, a Houston suburb, resigned his pulpit this month to put all his energy into recruiting Christians to become politically involved. "I am mobilizing Christians and getting more Christians to vote. I am preparing a beachhead of righteousness," he says. Meanwhile Wyoming state senator Carroll Miller, a popular legislator from Big Horn County, announced his retirement from politics in part so that he could spend more time speaking at churches and men's clubs, helping people come to grips with the prospect of the Second Coming. "It's very important that we as a Christian nation know what the Scriptures have said about these days," he says. "I'm putting forth my personal effort for my own sake as well as for my family and friends."

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