The Last Disciple vs. Left Behind
New take on Rapture puts authors in apocalyptic feud
08:05 PM CST on Friday, November 5, 2004
By Ira J. Hadnot / Dallas Morning News / Religion Section
What if the Rapture has already happened?
What if Revelation’s prophecies have been fulfilled?
These questions are unthinkable for those Christians who believe that the end of the world is, well, still to come – and that it will unfold in accordance with apocalyptic interpretations of the Book of Revelation: the Rapture, the sudden snatching up of millions of the faithful into heaven, followed by the seven-year Tribulation, during which the world is ruled by the Antichrist, followed by the return of Jesus and his triumph in the battle of Armageddon.
That’s more or less the story line hewed to in the phenomenally popular Left Behind series. Now, however, Tyndale House, the Christian publisher of Left Behind , is planning a new fictional series with a very different view – one that posits that Revelation actually tells the story (in code) of the first-century persecution of Christians and of the fall of the Jewish Temple.
Tyndale officials say they’re simply presenting different sides of an important theological issue.
But the Rev. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind books, called the decision by his publisher “stunning and disappointing” and said he felt betrayed.
“They are going to take the money we made for them and promote this nonsense,” he said.
The co-author of the new series, obviously, disagrees.
“I am elated with Tyndale’s support,” said Hank Hanegraaff, the host of a syndicated call-in radio show, The Bible Answer Man. The first book in the new series, written with Sigmund Brouwer, is The Last Disciple . Additional volumes are planned.
The decision to publish two different – some would say competing – apocalyptic series was made by Ron Beers, senior vice president of Tyndale, which is based in Wheaton, Ill.
“As a Christian publisher, we want to represent a diversity of viewpoints,” said Mr. Beers. “There is nothing strange about Tyndale selling both views. There are a variety of perspectives on the end times. Some people had a problem with the theology in the Left Behind books.”
Mr. Beers was the Tyndale executive who purchased the Left Behind series and saw it grow, over nine years, into a sales empire rivaling those built by John Grisham, Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling.
The 12 Left Behind books have sold about 42 million copies, counting both paperback and hardcover sales. When children’s editions, graphic novels and the like are counted, the figure is 62 million. In addition, there are spinoff products, from calendars and music CDs to greeting cards and computer software.
The most recent book in the series, Glorious Appearing , sold almost 2 million copies even before it hit the stores last March. It was supposed to have been the 12th and final installment, in which Jesus returns to earth and presides at the Last Judgment. But already, at least four sequels or prequels are planned.
Dr. LaHaye is a former Southern California pastor. Mr. Hanegraaff heads a Christian research institute based in Southern California.
From their comments about each other’s work, it seems unlikely that the two men will be exchanging signed copies of their books.
“I don’t know what science fiction he is reading,” said Dr. LaHaye. “We believe the Rapture is going to come, not his nonsense that Christ came back in 68 A.D.”
“I am reading the Bible, specifically Revelations it was written for first-century Christians,” retorted Mr. Hanegraaff. “I am not relying on some wooden, literal interpretation that is unsupportable.”
The Last Disciple , the first of at least three books planned, depicts the Roman emperor, Nero, as “the beast.” In the book, Christians in Rome and Jerusalem are suffering through the Tribulation. Nero is trying to find the Apostle John’s letter (the Book of Revelation) and destroy it. To survive, the early Christians must decipher a mysterious code. (The code for Nero’s name is the number 666, regarded by many as the mark of the Antichrist.)
Maybe. But scholars of eschatology, the branch of theology dealing with the end of the world, note that biblical references to the end times are almost always ambiguous, highly symbolic and subject to widely varying interpretations.
“The Bible, in particular the Revelation of John, is open to many dramatic readings,” said Harvey Cox, a professor at Harvard Divinity School.
“Unfortunately, some are merely a paste-up of what the Bible actually says, a pulling from various passages to craft a theology that the bulk of New Testament scholars do not support.”
He said Revelation “was a polemic against the corruption, debauchery and greed of the Roman Empire” and that it was “meant to be an encouragement for the people who were living under persecution.
“Christians were being fed to the lions. John was writing in exile, fearful for his life.”
The book is dense with symbols, visionary images and descriptions that seem allegorical, such as the lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, believed to represent Jesus. John “had to write it in code,” Dr. Cox said, “because it was circulating around and might have fallen into the hands of the emperor.”
The professor said the Left Behind series is based on the notion of “premillennialism” or “dispensationalism,” which he said is “the belief that the world is getting worse and worse, and that Christ will come to get the Christians, the born-again Christians.”
This helps explain the series’ popularity, he said. “You can look at the world these days and see the kind of killing that has gone for a century now. … Who would not believe things are getting worse? We have had a Holocaust, wars, massacres.
“The books celebrate the notion that the worse things become, the happier Christians should be, because Christ is coming.”
Dr. LaHaye said the viewpoint expressed in his books is backed by “300 years of church teaching.” But Dr. Cox said dispensationalism was considered heresy in ancient times and suppressed. It re-emerged in the 19th century, thanks to “a New Age-y, mystical type sect in Scotland.”
The Last Disciple, on the other hand, is based on the notion of “preterism,” which holds that most if not all major prophetic events in the New Testament have happened. According to this view, the great war of Armageddon occurred in 70 A.D., around the time the Roman general and future emperor, Titus Flavius, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
When Jesus talked about the end of the world, according to preterists, he was referring not to the physical world but to an old worldview held by Jews in his time.
“John was not writing about the future,” Mr. Hanegraaff said. “He was writing about the times he was living in, using symbolism from the Old Testament prophets to describe conditions in the first century. All the major elements of the Book of Revelation – Tribulation, Armageddon, Rapture – took place at that time.”
How will readers react to the new series? Will they buy it?
Dr. LaHaye, predictably, doesn’t think so.
“There are 85 percent of evangelical Christians who believe as we do. We’ll see if they will be successful with the 15 percent who don’t.”
Mr. Hanegraaff, predictably, disagrees.
He said his books will lure readers “in an age where most people aren’t even reading the Bible. … I want them to go back to Revelation and see if they will read it the same way, after they have read The Last Disciple.”