THE SUNDAY must have been June 11, 1967. As recalled by Jim DeSaegher, then a member of Scott Memorial Baptist Church, the minister opened his sermon with the exclamation, "Guess what happened yesterday?"
"I thought of it," says DeSaegher, "as a moment of exaltation that Israel is victorious. Israel is put there for a purpose in 1948. Now they've validated their position, and God seems to be on their side. That's the feeling you got."
Israel's victory against Soviet Union allies Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six-Day War is what had caught Dr. Tim LaHaye's attention the previous day. On Sunday mornings from 1956 to 1981, pastor LaHaye preached to the congregation at Madison Avenue and Oregon Street in Normal Heights a strong New Testament message, including large doses of biblical prophecy. The prediction of Israel's return to its ancient land is a pillar in Christian teaching about the world's end-times.
These days LaHaye and coauthor Jerry B. Jenkins, who made the cover of Newsweek on May 24 of this year, are world famous for their immensely popular Left Behind series of novels about cataclysmic events during the last seven years before the end of the world. The 12 books have sold over 62 million copies total. Left Behind, the first novel, is what gives the series its name. The book opens with a Russian attack on Israel that God thwarts through a miraculous intervention. That is followed immediately by God's snatching His faithful into heaven from the clothes they are wearing. Whoever has not confessed Christ genuinely is left behind to face seven years of worsening world catastrophes until the Day of Judgment.
In 1967, however, for weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser had rattled his sabers with threats to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. All across the world people feared the worst for the fledgling country in the face of its Arab enemies. For Syria had assembled troops on the Golan Heights overlooking Israel. And Egypt had filled the Sinai with its own battalions ready for battle. Nasser's was no idle threat.
But on Monday, June 5, 1967, Israel's leaders ordered surprise air attacks on enemy positions. The fighting raged until late in the week, when Israel took Jerusalem from Jordan. The Arab antagonists surrendered on Saturday.
"So you had the prophecy of Israel being established in the land," says Jim DeSaegher, who still today is a member of Scott Memorial (the church changed its name to Scott Memorial Community Church several years ago), where he serves as the congregation's director of music. "God then protects them as a nation from their worst enemies when they should have been annihilated. Instead they were incredibly victorious within a short period of time. So I think Tim took that as a strong prophetic resonance to undergird his position."
Jim DeSaegher says he "grew up in a preacher's home," where he heard a lot of biblical prophecy. He also studied the Book of Revelation in college. "So when I came to LaHaye as a young man in my 20s, I was ready for what he was offering."
Not long before coming to San Diego in the early 1960s, DeSaegher earned his Ph.D. in American literature from UCLA. Later he would become a professor of literature at San Diego's Point Loma Nazarene University. In June of this year he retired from the university after 34 years of teaching.
In DeSaegher's early days at Scott Memorial, something irritated him in Tim LaHaye's sermon and classroom deliveries. "I noticed misspellings in his handouts," says DeSaegher. "Especially when he preached prophecy on Sunday nights, he would deliver chapters to the audience. So we would get the sermon in print, and it was those prints that upset me. Later we tried to clear those up, though that was long before he started publishing books. He was a visual-verbal person, and he always wanted the [accompaniments]. The idea of merely preaching was never enough for him. He needed charts, maps, illustrations of a book, handouts. He did this for Sunday school, and he did it for the Sunday-morning service all the time."
In 1965, LaHaye wrote a book called Spirit-Controlled Temperament that had great publishing success. But Scott Memorial members had already seen its ideas in note form. "When the publishers finally came to him and started printing his Temperament series, that's when I got involved," says DeSaegher. "Later he probably averaged a book a year." LaHaye would go on to write over 45 books on a range of subjects.
DeSaegher's involvement was to become Tim LaHaye's editor, a role he played for close to the next 30 years. He kept it up even after the minister left Scott Memorial in 1981.
He has not read the Left Behind books, although his wife is close to finishing them now. "She tells me about them as she goes along," he says.
DeSaegher has a vague recollection of doing a little editorial work on an effort by LaHaye in fictional form sometime around 1994. "I think that was the novel," says DeSaegher in reference to Left Behind. "It was the last thing I saw. It would be interesting to find out whether I'm correct that the first version was his version, and then he redid it through the novelist [Jerry Jenkins]. I'd love to know that myself."
In the authorial teamwork of the two writers, LaHaye supplied the biblical and theological ideas and Jenkins narrated the story. On his own, Jenkins has written 15 books that have made the New York Times best-seller list.
Not long before working on Left Behind, LaHaye had published a more traditional theological presentation called No Fear of the Storm, one of many books the author has written on biblical prophecy. No Fear of the Storm, says DeSaegher, "had all LaHaye's theories with regard to the tribulation period right before he was getting into the novel.
"LaHaye is not an artsy, literary person. He's an objective thinker, and I was so surprised that he went in a literary vein to communicate the message. But he must have realized that the artistic forms create audiences that more standard religious forms do not. After he got the idea, he tried it firsthand. And he began to realize how deficient he was, so then he went to a pro. But I think the first version of the first novel that I edited was straight from him, not from the novelist," says DeSaegher.
Ron James has read all 12 of the Left Behind books, over 4800 pages of inspirational entertainment. "I love to read," he says, "and the types of books I like are the ones where the characters carry through from one book to the next. The series does that."
With his wife Shirley, James came to San Diego from Ohio in 1961. He had gotten a job in computer-information systems at General Dynamics. "About the fourth week here we were looking for a church," he explains. "A friend of mine I was working with invited me to go to Scott Memorial, and we never left. The first day there, Tim said something from the pulpit, and I met him at the door and said, 'I don't agree with you.' But he and his wife came over to visit us that next night, Monday, and he straightened me out."
I ask James what the issue was.
"I couldn't tell you anymore. It was trivial, and I thought I was smarter than the average bear. But he was right, and I was wrong. And we became good friends."
El Cajon residents today, the Jameses lived during the 1960s in a Serra Mesa neighborhood about eight doors from the home of Tim LaHaye and his wife Beverly. The friendship of the two couples grew through frequent waterskiing outings on Mission Bay, "usually on Friday and all day Saturday," says Ron James. "We had a camaraderie that clicked right away. We liked to do things together."
I am drinking lemonade with Ron and Shirley James on the small patio in front of their home. Shirley tells me that Tim LaHaye's fame in the past few years has not changed his fundamental genuineness as a person. Something about the suits he wore in the early days prompts her to say further, "We remember him when...." But the mere hint of her recollection provokes her husband to loud laughter. The Jameses have only recently visited Tim and Beverly LaHaye at their current Rancho Mirage home near Palm Springs. "I told him the other day," declares Ron James. "I said, 'Tim, I remember when you drove a Renault. It was a piece of junk, and you had an allergy. You didn't use Kleenex; you always had a roll of toilet paper on the seat beside you.' It was long before he was world famous. You know, I was kidding him."
The Left Behind books have made Tim LaHaye a wealthy man. As if a Christian minister's trappings of new wealth might now require some qualification, James also remarks on one of his friend's prominent traits. "There would be times that funds would be needed [at the church], and they would become available. Nobody knew where they came from. But they came from Tim. He didn't broadcast it, but because we were friends, we'd find out and we'd know about it. He's very generous."
Though it has been eight or nine years since he read the first book, James is like many readers in singling out its account of the Rapture as the most memorable event in the entire Left Behind series. Tim LaHaye has told many people that he got the idea for how to present it while sitting on an airplane and wondering what would happen if the Rapture took place at that moment. Sure enough, in Left Behind, panic-stricken flight attendant Hattie Durham enters the airliner's cockpit to inform Captain Rayford Steele that half the passengers onboard the plane have disappeared, their clothes, books, glasses, and other items falling in a heap onto their vacated seats.
In subsequent chapters, as James remembers it, "The ones who are left behind begin trying to explain away the people being snatched out all over the world as some kind of mystery. And they try to find excuses for it." One theory has it that aliens attacked the world and spirited lots of people away. "But I believe what the Bible says," says James, "that when Jesus comes back again, He's going to take the believers out, and I think Tim has done an outstanding job of illustrating that."
Scott Memorial Community Church traces its roots back to a San Diego Sunday school group organized in 1909 by Civil War chaplain Winfield Scott (not the general). Earlier, Winfield Scott also founded Winfield, Kansas, and Scottsdale, Arizona.
Since 1992, Dr. Timothy Scott (no relation) has been serving as the church's pastor. I am sitting with Tim Scott in his office at the church. "My first Sunday alive, I was in the nursery here, ruining the nursery," says Scott with a hearty laugh. "That was 1952. This has always been my home church."
Scott's father Bill went to college with Tim LaHaye at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. He later recommended to Scott Memorial that it hire LaHaye as its pastor. Tim Scott remembers LaHaye from the time before he took the job at the church in 1956. "Our families were close," says the Reverend Scott, "and we referred to them as Uncle Tim and Aunt Bev. We got together for vacations and things like that. His kids became my friends."
I ask the Reverend Scott whether the way the bodies disappear in Left Behind is entirely the product of LaHaye's imagination or if it is indicated somewhere in scripture.
"The indication," he says, "would be out of First Thessalonians, chapter 4, verses 13 and following, where it talks about the catching up of believers into the air. The reason they call it Rapture is because the Latin is raptura," says Scott, a word that translates the New Testament Greek for "caught up." Having first noted that those who died in Christ will have been taken into heaven already, First Thessalonians, chapter 4, states in verse 17: "After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever."
"I'm always one book behind," says Professor Jim DeSaegher's wife Lucia (she goes by Lu), which means that she is close to being done with the whole Left Behind series. Its last installment, Glorious Appearing, came out only last spring.
The DeSaeghers have invited me to their tidy Kensington home. "Some people will look at the books as strictly novels with no impact at all," remarks Lu DeSaegher. "But I have given Left Behind, the first one, to non-Christian relatives, because in that book a pastor, who is one of those who disappear, supposedly recorded this tape for anybody that was left after the Rapture. And I felt like the explanation of salvation in the tape is so clear that anybody that reads it could never look at the Lord and say, 'I never knew.' And I've heard a lot of friends say they have used that also as an evangelistic tool so they can feel, at least, that they have put the gospel in front of an unsaved person."
At the beginning of the story, you might get the idea that once Jesus takes believers with Him, those left behind are doomed to perdition. But the story of the pastor, mentioned by Lu DeSaegher, who had recorded ahead of time the tape for those of his congregation who get left behind, shows that they get a second chance. Only, as the tape exhorts, they must be born again and accept Christ with their whole heart.
It is an assistant pastor, Bruce Barnes, who first receives the tape. He admits that, though he had entered the Christian ministry and was working in a church, his faith was phony. He had yet to truly commit himself to Christ. Now that he has listened to the words of his departed head pastor, however, he throws himself headlong into the study of the Bible. At the same time, he recruits journalist Buck Williams, airline pilot Rayford Steele, and Steele's daughter Chloe into a small group to become a force against what scripture predicts, the coming of the Antichrist. Tribulation Force is the second novel in the Left Behind series. Its title reflects this seed of Christian resistance against the Antichrist's domination in the seven-year tribulation period that is starting to unfold in the books.
The Left Behind books are filled with car bombings, murders, earthquakes, floods, wars, famines, and plagues. Tim LaHaye did most of the study of Christian prophecy that led him to portray events like these during his time in San Diego. In 1956, the year that he came to town, a family could buy a home for a song. Many people who lived here then describe the area as a paradisiacal combination of urban and rural settings in ideal weather. There was little of the air pollution we have now. And after being the pastor of a church in Minnesota for six years, LaHaye could enjoy waterskiing, his fondest recreational passion, whenever he wanted.
Why, then, was he largely preoccupied at the time with the tribulation predicted in the Book of Revelation?
For LaHaye, of course, the first answer would be that scripture calls for it. But in his 2002 book The Merciful God of Prophecy, he also writes, "Just ask yourself: Why don't some of us come to faith right now? When we drive around in our big cars and live in our big houses and the lights work most of the time, we don't much concern ourselves with God. Things feel comfortable. When life deteriorates, however, we start to feel nervous."
LaHaye then tells a story about speaking to the Rotary Club in downtown San Diego during his ministry here. Many of the city's bigwigs were there, including the mayor at the time (he doesn't name him). As he described to his listeners the approaching tribulation at the end of the world, LaHaye says, he noticed boredom on their faces. But suddenly an earthquake shook the building the group was in, and his audience came to rapt attention. "That's what happens when our terra firma starts shaking," he writes. "The Tribulation is designed to have exactly that effect."
During his time in San Diego, Tim LaHaye built a new gymnasium and a new sanctuary at his church and established two new congregations, Scott Memorial North in Solana Beach, now a school, and Scott Memorial East, now Shadow Mountain Community Church, in El Cajon. He also was instrumental in the founding in 1970 of the Institute for Creation Research in Santee and of Christian Heritage College in El Cajon in 1972.
When I ask Ron James, who now attends the Shadow Mountain church, whether he remembers the Sunday-evening prophecy sermons LaHaye gave at Scott Memorial, he declares, "Those were great meetings." James recalls that the meetings were already going strong by the time he and Shirley came to Scott Memorial in August 1961. "We were always in the gymnasium," he says. "I think we couldn't all fit in the church, because the church had two morning services by then. So we met in the gymnasium. And the reason I grin is because I can remember him pulling these charts out. This was before overhead projectors and PowerPoint. He'd have these gigantic charts laid out that would cover the whole stage and beyond. He's a skilled writer, but he's also a visual person, and he recognizes that it is easier for people to pick up something when they see it."
Shirley James interjects, "Tim is an excellent communicator, probably the best communicator we've ever known."
"He never uses a preacher's voice," her husband continues with the thought. "We've traveled and we've been to other churches, and some of these men use a preacher's voice. You talk to them normal, like this, okay. As soon as they get up there, it's a different voice. Tim doesn't do that. With Tim, you think he's talking right to you.
"He studies the Word, he understands it. I believe the Lord gives him the messages, insight, and he explains it to us. He makes it easy to understand.
"You know, writing and communicating has been his passion," says James, who worked with LaHaye on a national project called Family Life Seminars. "When I used to travel with Tim, we'd be on the plane, and he'd be writing all the time and making notes and then he'd dictate it to his secretary, and his secretary would transcribe it, and he'd do chapters of books he was working on. He was always working on something."
Around 1958, before the Jameses came to San Diego, LaHaye led his congregation to dissociate itself from the American Baptists over the denomination's decision to join the National Council of Churches, an organization the church and its leader considered too liberal. According to Dale Russell, who has attended Scott Memorial since 1938, the denomination retaliated by calling due a loan for building projects at the church. But Scott Memorial was growing so fast by then that it was able to solve the problem by other means.
Wishing not to be quoted about him, a man who worked with LaHaye in the early days did tell me that Moody Monthly magazine of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago once published an article about the pastor and his church in San Diego. It was titled "The Church That Can't Stop Growing."
I ask the Reverend Scott why some people who knew LaHaye do not want to talk about him. "He is a little aloof, and that's what people don't want to talk about," says Scott, who adds that LaHaye had men around him who spent lots of time with the people.
"Tim was more of an idea guy, writing books," Scott adds, "and he hasn't stopped working yet. I was out to see him in Rancho Mirage recently, and he's still grinding it out. He works every day."
LaHaye did not respond to requests for comments on his time in San Diego. In an October 2002 interview with National Public Radio's Terry Gross, he said that not long before, he had run into the Dalai Lama in the Holy Land. "I went up to him," said LaHaye, "and asked if anyone had ever explained to him who Jesus Christ really is."
One night when she was in her early 20s, Sue Snyder rode in the sports car her boyfriend was driving recklessly. He made a sharp turn on a country road and crashed the car. The accident broke Snyder's back (although she has fully recovered).
"The Vietnam War was just over," says Snyder, "and my boyfriend had come back shattered. I'd been through a lot. And at one point I said to God, 'If You're up there, tell me now, because nothing is making sense.' And I had a transformative experience. I also had a couple of people to reach out to at that time, and I got it. I had a complete renewal of my heart through the Holy Spirit.
"I feel like God is the great psychologist, because He goes to where you are, where you've taken yourself, to meet you there. For me it was hugely dramatic. I was pushed to that place where I had to know. My life was not working. And I didn't have any religious training.
"But you realize God is speaking to you, He is yelling at you all the time, in the beauty of nature, in the harshness of experience. That's why a lot of people have breakthroughs in down times in life. Someone will say, 'The last thing I did before I was going to kill myself was to pray, and somebody knocked on the door and talked to me about God.' Those kinds of things happen."
Today, with two years' attendance, Snyder is a relative newcomer at Scott Memorial. She never met Tim LaHaye but has read most of the Left Behind books. She also has participated in a Bible study of the Book of Revelation.
Snyder was fascinated with how, in Left Behind, the Rapture takes out drivers of moving trains and pilots of flying airplanes, leaving havoc and death in its wake. She marveled, too, at how it steals innocents, some while being delivered as babies at the time and some still in their mothers' wombs. "A lot of conversation is going to occur after that," she says. "You have two categories of people: ones that have no idea what happened and make all sorts of stuff up about it, and then ones who at least have heard of Revelation, perhaps through family members, and finally start getting the picture.
"In a sense, that is actually happening now, because as a believer you're not on the same track as other people. Your thinking and your comprehension are changed. What you looked at before and what you see now are different.
"So secular people, or even Christians who know nothing about Revelation, might think the Left Behind books are hogwash. Or they might want to know why this guy is writing the stuff."
I tell Snyder that I first looked for the books in a Hillcrest used-book store that stocked them in the category of science fiction. When I told the salesclerk I was surprised they weren't in the religion section, she looked at me as if I were from the Heaven's Gate sect.
"Science fiction, of course," Snyder replies. "Actually, I could see them being right alongside Lord of the Rings."
One thing that caught Snyder's attention in LaHaye's books is how the character Nicolae Carpathia "has a supernatural ability to bend the minds of people." Carpathia makes his appearance in the opening book, when the budding tribulation-force Christians already suspect that he might be the Antichrist of prophecy. The authors present him as a brilliant prospective new leader of the United Nations. Eventually he succeeds in taking it over. The third book of the Left Behind series is called Nicolae.
By the time readers get to Nicolae, no doubts remain that Carpathia is the Antichrist. Shadow Mountain's Ron James notices how true to the Bible the picture of the Antichrist is, "how he's going to form alliances, and people are going to trust him and follow him. Still, new believers -- not the ones who were snatched out before the tribulation starts, but new believers -- appear after it starts. And I like the way Tim shows how these characters communicate with each other and how they're trying to exist in the new hostile environment that they are now in because of the Antichrist. Some of them get killed, like the martyrs of the early church."
I ask Ron and Shirley James who their favorite characters in the Left Behind series are. Shirley mentions Buck Williams, the intrepid and dashing journalist who falls in love with Captain Rayford Steele's daughter Chloe. Eventually they marry and have a child.
According to the story, Chloe is away at college when the Rapture takes place. Her mother and younger brother are taken. At first, Chloe's father entreats her to recognize what happened and accept Christ. But she wrestles with doubt. Later she becomes one of the strongest evangelists in the tribulation force.
"My favorite is Chloe," I say.
"She gets beheaded," says Ron James.
"Oh, terrible," I moan, wincing.
"I shouldn't have ruined it for you," he confesses. "Well, they capture her. But the peace that she exhibits when she goes to the guillotine is something else. It is only a peace that comes from God. It's in the next-to-the-last book, Armageddon."
Though she likes the Left Behind books, Sue Snyder says, "The thing that is disturbing to me about this story is the way they use the United Nations. It has been a long time since I was there, but I used to work as the executive coordinator for the United Nations Association here in San Diego. I'm absolutely a UN supporter. If we didn't have a UN, we'd have to create one. It bothers me that the authors use the United Nations as the place where the Antichrist shows up. I think that is myth, and it's a deadly myth for our world."
Not another one of Left Behind's readers I talked with shares Snyder's attitude toward the role of the United Nations in the books' story line. Take Sam Keckler, who is moving from Santa Maria to San Diego this summer. In May I met his 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, at Shadow Mountain as a congregation member escorted her through a solo visit to the church. His wife, Maria, is taking a new job in instructional technology at Christian Heritage College in the fall.
I ask Sarah if she had read any of the Left Behind books. "Only the kids' version," she says. "But my dad has read them all."
Later that evening, by phone from Santa Maria, Keckler criticizes the way the United Nations refused to get behind the Iraq War at its start and tells me, "It blows my mind that so many people want peace at any cost." He says this in reference to the way in the Left Behind story that Nicolae Carpathia uses the goal of world peace to aggrandize his power.
Lu DeSaegher also notices the theme. "The whole thing for Carpathia," she says, "is to gather power slowly and to [insinuate himself into a position] where people feel like he's the one to rule everybody in the whole world and he's its savior.
"The books give enough information for even a non-Christian to raise the question whether the world is going this direction. People are talking about one-world government. So it is not total fantasy. There might be something there." DeSaegher feels the "Euro" community is also a step in the direction of one-world government.
The "Global Community" is the name of the one-world government in the Left Behind series. Its leader is Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist, who eventually builds a new Babylon near Baghdad to be the seat of his government.
Soul Harvest is the fourth book in the Left Behind series. It crystallizes a developing theme of the battle of good versus evil, of the Christian faithful versus the Antichrist. In the Book of Revelation, chapter 14, verse 16, the Son of Man is said to be sitting on the clouds and reaping a harvest on earth. In their book, LaHaye and Jenkins take this to mean Christians dying for their faith and going to heaven. In the meantime, a huge earthquake takes place, another of God's judgments of wrath on the earth.
The fifth book is called Apollyon, named after a destroyer who unleashes a plague of scorpionlike locusts on the world. Revelation, chapter 9, verses 10 and 11, reads: "They had tails and stings like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon." At the same time, the tribulation force is trying to gather a conference of the faithful in the Middle East, disobeying a decree by the Antichrist. Carpathia declares Christians the world over to be fugitives from his reign.
Three assassinations take place in the sixth book, called Assassins. The killing of the two witnesses by agents of the Antichrist is the first. Heretofore in the novels, the witnesses are protected miraculously from gunfire and other harm as they prophesy the final coming of Christ. Their preaching converts 144,000 Jews to Christ.
"I've always heard about the two witnesses who are going to be in Jerusalem during the tribulation," says Shadow Mountain's Ron James. "They couldn't be touched."
And Scott Memorial's Lu DeSaegher says, "I think Jerry Jenkins does a good job of storytelling, and sometimes it is more suspenseful than others. In some events of the story, I thought, 'Oh, yeah, it could happen that way.' The picture of the two witnesses at the Wailing Wall was a good clarification of scripture and a good visual scene as I read it."
Nicolae Carpathia orders the second assassination in the novel Assassins, the killing of a pompous Pope of the Catholic Church, who is the head of the Global Community's one official religion. Sam Keckler, Shadow Mountain's newcomer from Santa Maria, is a former Roman Catholic but was not offended by the Pope's role and image in the story. He was reminded earlier this year of the Left Behind books' one world religion when he read in a newspaper about a meeting of some organization like the World Council of Churches (he can't remember which one for sure). Like the United Nations' pursuit of "peace at any cost," the meeting suggested the one-world movement.
"And it's interesting that, even though Carpathia promoted this one world religion," says Lu DeSaegher, "he mocks it at the same time. He feels that religion is not important, but that's what the people want. It is a weakness of the people and a weakness that he can control, so he has no respect for even the person he puts in charge of this one world religion. So it is totally him in every area of life."
"Like politicians who give religion lip service," I say.
"But they manipulate it for their own purpose," replies DeSaegher.
The killing of Nicolae Carpathia himself by a random attacker is the third assassination in the book Assassins. He receives a head wound, as mentioned in Revelation, chapter 13, verse 3. The Indwelling, the seventh novel, portrays a world stricken by grief over the loss of their charismatic and powerful leader. The lives of Christians become even more dangerous as people blame them for the Antichrist's death.
But before The Indwelling ends, Carpathia is resurrected by Satan and dwells within him from this point forward in the story. The final showdown between God and His immortal enemy now has been prepared.
"As Christians have Christ's power within them," says Lu DeSaegher, "this man Carpathia has the devil's power in him. And it empowers him for the battle of the mind and the battle of the soul. It enables him to do supernatural things. He can't do everything; he is not all-powerful. But he does have Satan's power. And to see that power developing a man into a totally evil person, yet most people not recognizing it, that is a scary thing. But it is a possibility, definitely."
Sue Snyder reflects on a dilemma faced by airline captain Rayford Steele in Assassins, the novel previous to The Indwelling. Steele, one of Left Behind's two main characters throughout the series, has already become the official pilot for Carpathia, flying him to any place he wants to go in the world, often at a moment's notice. Thus, being in a strategic position and knowing from scripture that the Antichrist is to suffer a fatal head wound, Steele contemplates being the one to assassinate the leader.
"That is such a human response to the situation," says Snyder. "In it there is a tension between what God is telling him to do versus his own anger and revenge. We see that today in the response of the Muslims to what they saw in our prisons in Iraq. We do it too. We live in that all the time."
The situation reminds me of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer's decision to participate in an anti-Nazi resistance group during World War II. Bonhoeffer was arrested for his activities in 1943, but the group carried out an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler the following year. The Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer in a concentration camp in 1945.
I say, "Do you think people mistakenly try to take things into their own hands?"
"Yes, and this is the thing about the transformation of faith," says Snyder. "You have an option to give all that up."
I observe that in the novel, Captain Steele decides not to follow through with his attack on Carpathia.
"God does it anyway," says Snyder. She remarks further that the Antichrist's subsequent resurrection "is a parallel to Christ's. That's what Satan does. He mimics what Christ did and mirrors the good. It was a bizarre detail, though, that his body came alive from his statue," something in the novel that Snyder finds unconvincing.
In the world dominated by the Antichrist, Christians try as best they can to do their recruiting secretly. "And then the Antichrist establishes the mark that everybody has to have," says Ron James. "There has to be a mark on them or they can't buy and sell, or they're put to death. It's interesting the way Tim shows the underground believers who won't take the mark being able to exist anyway."
This is the famous mark of the beast that many evangelicals talk about. "They were using it," says Sue Snyder, "to make everybody get in line and do what they wanted them to do. And yet the Christians wouldn't do it. They had accepted that -- you know that old Indian saying, 'Today's a good day to die' -- that there wasn't an alternative. The book (the eighth, titled The Mark) makes out as though the guys running the guillotine don't know what to do because they never expected anybody to resist. And here they had to execute these little old ladies, I think they were Greek. And the ladies were all singing.
"It's an example of 'counting the cost,' " Snyder concludes. Earlier, in the context of the martyrdom story of Bonhoeffer, who also spoke of what he called "cheap grace," she told me, "Only saying you're a Christian and going along with everybody else means nothing. Look what happened when Mel Gibson produced The Passion of the Christ. People didn't want to see it. That's cheap grace. Christ says that before you become a disciple, you count the cost. I count the cost in my own family, who rejected me on account of my faith."
After the Antichrist's resurrection, his Global Community brutalizes the Christian community more than ever. In Desecration, the ninth novel, he desecrates the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. But things start to get tougher for him, as God turns water into blood and those wearing the mark of the beast on their hands or foreheads receive sores all over their bodies.
But it is not until the tenth book, The Remnant, that I discover the detail that scares me the most. I tell both Sue Snyder and Ron James about the scene in which the whole world goes completely dark. "Oh, that frightened you," says Snyder knowingly. She says she thinks the total darkness is what hell would be like.
Ron James has the same idea. He asks me, "Have you ever been to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico? You go down there, and they turn out the lights. You have never seen black like that before. I mean, people are standing right beside you, but there is nothing. Your eyes don't adjust to it; it is just black.
"I've often remembered how the Bible says that in heaven we won't need a sun or a moon or stars because Jesus will be the light. And I thought people who go to hell are going to be in total darkness, something like the Carlsbad Caverns, where they don't know there's anybody around them. You know, I hear people with this silly little quip that says, 'Well, I'm going to go to hell with my friends.' But they won't even know their friends are there, I believe. It is going to be total black. So when Tim wrote that, I thought, boy, that's a picture of what hell will be like. They won't know anybody's there. And they'll be completely separated from God for eternity.
"Somebody explained eternity the other day. He said if you take a tape measure and measure from San Diego to New York City, one inch into that tape measure would be like our life span. The rest of it would be eternity. It's hard for us to think about eternity, but that little bit compared to the whole distance helps. Hell is what's going to happen to the people who are lost; the people who reject Christ are going to go there. So when you talk about the world going black in the books, that's exactly what I thought. And the people are in anguish, aren't they?"
"People are freaking out," I say.
"Yeah," replies James. "But the believers somehow could see. That was interesting."
One of Lu DeSaegher's favorite characters in the story is Tsion ben Judah. "A Jewish believer in the Messiah, he is the teacher," she says, "who puts out all the biblical lessons and explains them through the Internet to everybody who is still a Christian."
Critics have charged that the Left Behind novels rely on a set of characters that are one-dimensional and thinly drawn. Jerry Jenkins, who did most of the narrating for the series, replied in the Newsweek article by saying, "I wish I was smart enough to write something that was hard to read."
"I think Jerry has drawn characters very well," retorts DeSaegher to the criticism. "He hasn't made them milquetoast or general types. Each one does have a unique personality. You can believe they are human beings, that they're individuals. It is obvious in the books that the Holy Spirit gives them their strength and ability to last as the remnant."
When Christians assemble at Petra (today in Jordan) as the final remnant of those faithful to Jesus during the tribulation, the Antichrist sends his air force to bomb them. But God intervenes miraculously to save them from destruction.
The 11th novel, Armageddon, tells then of the climactic battle between God and the Antichrist over possession of Israel. It takes place in a valley that fills with blood. "The blood runs as high as the nostrils of the horses," says Ron James. "That much blood in this valley."
His wife Shirley James remarks, "It's cute how the book says the fighters have to abandon their Humvees and get on horses. The Bible talks about horses a lot, and you think, nobody uses horses in battle these days. But Tim's got it figured that machines won't work in all that blood. They have to use horses."
Finally comes Glorious Appearing, the 12th and last book in the Left Behind series. The Second Coming of Christ is a standard Christian belief, and Glorious Appearing presents Tim LaHaye's version of it. The high point is Jesus appearing in the air to believers on earth.
"All the believers are able to see Jesus in the sky from all over the world," says Shirley James. "Some of them are in Petra, some of them are in Chicago, some of them are in other parts of the world, and they all see Him in the sky. He speaks to them and uses their personal names, which is phenomenal. I thought it was wonderful, because He's omnipresent and omnipotent. He can be everywhere at once. And that picture solidifies everything in your mind."
"Tim LaHaye has told us," says Lu DeSaegher, "that even after the first three or four books, especially after Left Behind, the first one, he received such positive comments that he believes in all probability that more people have been saved through reading them than through all his preaching over the years. The books have had an impact."
"People who are not Christians are picking them up, then," I say. "And other people who are halfhearted Christians."
"And they realize," says DeSaegher, "that, wow, maybe this is going to happen, whether or not it happens the way the novels tell it. If they know anything about the scriptures, there is an end-time, there is an Armageddon, those kinds of things that the books talk about are in the Bible. And if the rest of the Bible is true, you can bet on those scriptures being true. Not that the series is true exactly as written, but it is based on the truth of the Bible."
The Reverend Tim Scott, Scott Memorial Community Church's current pastor, also believes that the Left Behind books present a picture of the end-times that is faithful to scripture. "I would say that LaHaye's overriding purpose is not to entertain," he says. "His overriding purpose is not sensationalism, although these books are incredibly sensational. His goal, and I know this because I've talked to him about it in recent months, is to present the truth. The books express his eschatological truth, his view of what's going to happen. And I think they're biblically sound. I agree with LaHaye, though not with every detail in the books.
"It's like The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson's goal was to present Christ's passion, not to present some movie that would make money. He didn't care whether he made money or not. He had no idea he'd make $400-plus million. The film was marvelous, excellent. And I think Tim LaHaye, with the same motivation in more of a Protestant perspective, is trying to present the gospel and the power of the coming of the King, the Lord Jesus Christ. He's doing it effectively and, then, he's using it as a springboard to educate Christians about theology.
"But his books are a mixture of scripture and fiction, and I would say that even about The Passion of the Christ, which should also be considered fiction, even though based on a true story. And the reason I say that is because whenever you add something to an account, I don't think you can say it's a historical treatment. It is not a documentary."
I ask Scott how central the end-times prophecies are to the fundamental Christian message.
"One founding father [Augustine] said, 'On the essentials, unity; on the nonessentials, liberty; in all things love.' It's a good saying," observes Scott. "The exact interpretation of those prophecies is not one of the essentials. I would not divide over views of them. Whether there's a coming thousand-year reign of Christ, I would not separate my fellowship over. I do not think those prophecies constitute cardinal doctrines, so to speak, as do the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the grace of God, and so forth. They do not rise to the level of essential. They are nonessentials but important."
"So Christians can reasonably disagree about this?"
"Yes, I think that if they're not disagreeing with that, then they're not thinking. And that bothers me greatly, because one of the things I say to my congregation all the time is, 'Your job is not to agree with me. Your job is to study. You have the Spirit of God like I do, and you need to get into God's Word and find out His truth.' I then jokingly say, 'Now, if you want to be right, you'll agree with me,' " Scott says, laughing.
"A lot of people," he continues, "are willing to separate over things like whether somebody has a glass of wine or not or whether they smoke a cigarette or a pipe or gamble or over some of these other gray-area moral issues. I think the church has become bigoted in that sense, and we need to be careful.
"Anyway, you certainly could disagree, without compromising yourself, about whether the Lord's coming back, the Rapture, the Second Coming." Scott then mentions several alternative views of the end-times that can be found in Christian communities.
"There is what's called a 'preterist view,' " he says. "A preterist theological view means that Jesus Christ has already come back, and He's not coming back anymore after that. He came back in 70 A.D. through the destruction of the Temple, and that was the fulfillment of those prophecies by Daniel of the judgment on Israel. Now we only wait to die. Then we go to heaven, if we have faith in Christ."
A point of view called "covenant theology" also presents, according to Scott, a picture of the end-times that contrasts with that of Tim LaHaye. It sees not a sudden catastrophe that ushers in God's reign at the end of the world, but a gradual development of the world toward perfect peace and justice. Advocates of that view place great emphasis on people, communities, and nations working hard to achieve the kingdom of God in history. Scott cites as a covenant-theology proponent Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter, with his dedication to the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, nationally, and his commitment to Habitat for Humanity, personally and communally.
But the dispensationalists, such as LaHaye, get more encouraged in their own view, says Scott, "the more it heats up in Israel and the rest of the Middle East, especially in Iraq, old Babylon. To me, the Lord could come back a thousand years from now. I have no idea. I'm thinking I could get maybe another 30 years in now and enjoy life, but I'm ready to go to heaven whenever He wants. The end could come tomorrow. Tim is not saying it has started, only that a lot of things are starting to look like it might happen. So that's the view, the imminent, not the immediate return of Christ."
I ask Professor Jim DeSaegher and his wife Lu what parallels they see in today's world with what the Bible prophesies about the end-times.
"I think the turmoil in Israel today is definitely part of it," says Lu DeSaegher. "And civil wars all over the world, famines, earthquakes and even hurricanes, and the Euro community binding together, the nations binding together, it all follows a pattern if you know anything about the Book of Revelation. There are more things happening now than ever that would lead one to believe that we're heading into the times when there won't be a second chance.
"And the Left Behind books are a great series, especially for non-Christians to get an idea of the end-times, whether they believe it is all fantasy or whether it piques their interest to check the Bible out to see if that's what it says. They can look around at the world situation and realize that the end-times are not too far off anymore."
"What about Baghdad being near old Babylon?"
"There have been stories," says Mrs. DeSaegher, "that Saddam Hussein was going to rebuild the original Babylon on that site. And I've seen an article that he had already started one or two of the buildings. And, of course, rather than waiting to see what happens, some people said, 'Oh, he's going to be the Antichrist.' Well, obviously not, but it was his desire to rebuild Babylon and make it his headquarters. So that goes along with the end-times as well."
Jim DeSaegher tells me about rumblings he's read that plans are afoot to rebuild the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. "And you're thinking they can't build a temple on the old Temple site," he says. "But we get all kinds of information about people who are making devices for the Temple, making things out of gold, going back and redoing things, getting ready in an underground way for that Temple to be rebuilt. We've been hearing about that for 20 years. And the rebuilding of the Temple is a huge prophecy."
Lu DeSaegher adds, "And breeding the red cattle [heifers] that they need to use in sacrifice when they reestablish the Temple sacrifice."
I mention a chip (the mark of the beast) that Mondex Canada will put in people's hands or heads to use for identity or even as a credit card. I saw it on several websites.
"Yes, I've seen that on the Internet as well," says Lu DeSaegher. "The big thing is to prevent identity theft, which it would do. But, like I say, the things that are in the Bible that somebody thinks are total fantasy, the world is coming up with."
When I ask about the role of the United States in the end-times, they tell me that Tim LaHaye detects in scripture little if any reference to America. "I remember too," says Jim DeSaegher, "when I started studying prophecy back in the '60s, that [my teachers] told us that the focus would be shifting entirely in the next few decades from Western civilization and America to the East. They said, 'It is hard to believe, folks, that it's going to happen,' but gradually it has. And I've thought, 'Those prophecy people began to realize the focus on Arab nations and Islamic things was going to be more and more dominant for us in Western culture.' So that seems to be a major validation of the whole prophetic idea."
The Jameses, Ron and Shirley, also see plenty of parallels to biblical prophecy in today's events and trends. "Everything is breaking loose in the Middle East," remarks Shirley James right off the bat.
"I asked Tim one time," says Ron James, "I said, 'The Bible says people are going to be able to see this particular happening' -- I don't know what it was, maybe the battle of Armageddon, maybe it was the witnesses being killed in Jerusalem, or some other event. 'It says they're going to be able to see it all over the world. How's that going to happen?' And Tim said, 'Well, maybe it will be satellites or something like that.' Well, television had been around a while, but now we had satellites. And that was before the satellites were getting to be popular."
"And we had no idea of computers in the '60s," says Shirley James.
Ron James continues: "Yeah, and the breakdown of the family, the family unit. People are becoming more and more anti-God, and they're vocal about it too. Used to be that people wouldn't be as vocal about it, but there are people now who are very anti-God and don't pull any punches. When I grew up, don't you think," he says to his wife, "when we grew up, that was unheard of. People are polarized now.
"You know, Christians don't rejoice when they see somebody do that and think, boy, they're going to get their comeuppance someday. Christians are sad about it, because they see that these people are going to be lost, and it's sad."
About the Second Coming of Christ, Tim LaHaye often quotes Matthew, chapter 24, verse 36: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven..." So he does not claim to be sure that the end of the world is right around the corner. This may not be the start of the end-times after all, and that may not be bad, LaHaye states in his 1999 book Are We Living in the End Times? "History shows," he writes, "that whenever the church has lived as though her Lord could return at any moment, her members have tended to live for God and to energetically evangelize the lost."