Beverly Reynolds got to the Christian Supply Store in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at 5:30 p.m. Along with 900 other fans, she was waiting in line recently to buy a signed copy of "Glorious Appearing." The 12th volume in the "Left Behind" series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, describes the events leading up to the last days, when Christ returns to earth. The authors, kicking off a 12-city U.S. promotional tour, weren't due to start signing until 7 p.m. But while the crowd was patient and polite, everyone was eager to get a book. This, after all, was the installment in which Christ triumphs over Satan and begins his 1,000-year reign over the earth. Reynolds, who had read all the novels, said she had stopped attending church before she read the first one, "Left Behind," which appeared in 1995. "Nobody wants to be left behind," she said. "When the time comes, I want to go to heaven." When they turned the lights out at Christian Supply that night, the store had sold 1,100 copies.
Bookstores across America reported similar sales. Within hours of its release, the book shot to No. 1 on Amazon.com's best-seller list. Tyndale House, publisher of the series, has already shipped 2 million copies--not overly optimistic, considering that the 11 other books have sold more than 40 million copies in all, and that's not counting the audiobooks, the young-adults series or the comic books. The novels sell best in the South and Midwest, and they're part of a larger boom in spiritual-book sales. Susan Petersen Kennedy, president of Penguin Group (USA) and one of publishing's sharpest analysts of the spiritual-book market, says this phenomenon is fueled "by a feeling that there has to be more to life than materialism--and by people who are simply scared and miserable." The series' fans have a simpler explanation. They uniformly praise the books' blend of action and a fundamentalist interpretation of the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. "They're entertaining. They deal with good versus evil," says Steve Smith, a forklift operator at a Costco in San Diego, California. "These books are nothing less than the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Jesus is absolutely coming back to earth."
Not everyone is so enamored. The series has been slammed for its pedestrian writing and its gruesome violence. In the latest installment, when nonbelievers are executed by Christ, their "innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor... their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of God." Characterization is minimal, and when Christ isn't spouting Scripture, he sounds likes a traffic cop: "When you see My throne, join those on My right, your left."
The most damning criticism of the series has come from mainstream theologians, who attack its literal interpretation of the Bible--and its harshness. Earlier in the series, a Roman Catholic bishop becomes the right-hand man of the Antichrist, portrayed as the secretary-general of the United Nations; in "Glorious Appearing," millions of Jews call in frantically at the last minute, trying to convert. LaHaye, one of the founders of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, describes himself as an "unashamed" conservative. "The world doesn't have the answers," he says. "Jesus does. There is reason to believe Christ could come in this generation more than any other." While they wait, LaHaye and Jenkins are planning a prologue to the series and a sequel in which Christ does battle with Satan one last time. Seeing through a glass darkly never looked so profitable.