Armageddon is hot in America. With a majority of US citizens believing we are witnessing the end of the world, publishers have been quick to fill bookstores with novels alerting us to the imminent apocalypse. In the latest exclusive online essay from the London Review of Books, John Sutherland explores the phenomenon of endtimes fiction and the work of two of the undisputed champions of this booming Christian genre.
Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins Tyndale House, 398 pp, £15.99. Religious fiction is the hot line in American bookstores. It isn't a new genre - Pilgrim's Progress still sells; what's new is its popularity and profitability; and, most strikingly, its doctrinal aggressiveness. We know that eschatology has filled the vacuum where cold war ideology used to be. But the cold war fantasised Mutually Assured Destruction, leaving the faint hope of permanent stalemate; Christian fiction prophesies the coming of the 'endtimes'. There is no escape. Prepare. The novels will help.
The first sign that the apocalypse was approaching was the foundation of Israel in 1948. The Jewish 'homecoming' was both miraculous and prophetically inevitable. As Mark Hitchcock, the author of The Coming Islamic Invasion of Israel and Is the Antichrist Alive Today?, puts it, in his latest and most excited tract, The Second Coming of Babylon: (1)
The Jewish people were exiled from their homeland in ad 70. It had been almost 1900 years! It was unthinkable. But the Jews endured the horror of the Nazi death camps, and within a few years thousands of them were home. Over the past 50 years, millions of Jews have returned to Israel. About 37 per cent of the Jews in the world now live there. The current and continuing stream of Jews back to Israel is setting the stage for the Antichrist's peace covenant with Israel that will trigger the seven-year tribulation (see Daniel 9.27).
Israel, as Tim LaHaye likes to say, is 'God's timepiece'; its foundation is the 'supersign'." Significantly," LaHaye writes, "the return of the Jews happened in our generation" (LaHaye is 75): "more weighty evidence that we are indeed living in the endtimes. Something of enormous proportions is about to happen." What liberal Christians had limply read as allegory is, for hardliners, demonstrably converging with history.
Endtimes theory was formulated for a popular audience in Hal Lindsey and CC Carlson's book The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which linked the cold war, imminent nuclear annihilation, Middle East crises and apocalyptic prophecy. Hitherto 'dispensationalism' (a doctrine that separates history into several ages in which different tasks were required of man, after the teaching of John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century Plymouth Brethren minister) had been of no more importance, theologically, than Tennessee snake-handling. Lindsey broadened dispensationalism's doctrinal base and gave endtimes religion mass appeal. In his sceptical monograph, Iraq: Babylon of the End-Times?, J Daniel Hays recalls the impact Lindsey's book made: "As a college freshman in 1971, I brought a copy of The Late Great Planet Earth with me to Auburn University. Everyone on my wing of the dormitory, Christian and non-Christian alike, read the book that year. It scared us to death. We thought the end was near." (2)
Hays, now Professor of Hebrew Biblical Interpretation at Ouachita Baptist University, no longer thinks that, but millions do. A belief that the endtimes are imminent is a central tenet of the Christian Right. Since 1989 particularly (the USSR was one of the early candidates for modern Babylon), all 'significant' world events have been variously interpreted by endtimers according to key Biblical texts. Conviction has been progressively hardened by 9/11, the supposed clash of civilisations, the expansion of the European Union and the double destruction of Babylon in the two Gulf wars.
The endtimes themselves will begin with the rapture, which, unlike other apocalyptic events, will be 'signless' - unannounced. Guiltless children (even those in the process of being aborted) and the Christian-minded will be instantaneously teleported into heaven. For the remnant (some of whom, although not the abortionists, can still be saved) there will follow seven years of tribulation. During this period of pestilence, conflict and global catastrophe, the Antichrist will come to power. He will use diplomacy to create a new world order, which will last three and a half years. In this time he will rebuild Babylon and offer Israel a spurious covenant. (Hitchcock disputes the timing of this road map: exegesis is fraught.) Israel itself will be transformed by the 'ingathering', when 144,000 Jews repent their great error and accept Christ as Messiah, leaving the intractable 'Satanic Jews' to suffer damnation. The converted Jews will ally themselves with the army of the righteous for armageddon. Inevitable victory in the battle will herald the return of Christ, who will establish his 1000-year kingdom on earth in a purged Middle East.
Endtimes Christianity has encouraged an unlikely alliance between certain hardline Zionists and the Bible Belt. Some Jews wonder whether it is intellectually respectable or spiritually healthy to accept the support of inflexible bigots who are happy to bet on Israel's collective apostasy, and prophesy another and more dreadful Holocaust for those who do not recant. For the moment, however, they find it pragmatic to do so.
According to a Time/CNN poll conducted in July 2002, 17 per cent of Americans believe 'that the end of the world will happen in their lifetime' and 59 per cent that 'the prophecies of the Book of Revelation will come true.' If you drive into the American heartland and twiddle the dial, those figures will begin to make sense. The preachers, who share local radio time with country-music strummers, all thump out the message: Be Rapture Ready and, if you are left behind, be sure to be on God's side in the great battle to come. American evangelicals, with their congregational instinct, have been alert to the usefulness of the worldwide web. On his site, www.raptureready.com, Todd Strandberg monitors current events to compile a Rapture Index confirming the imminence of the end. The index measures activity in 45 categories, from 'False Christs' through 'Drug Abuse' to 'Floods'. It currently stands at 166 - down from a high of 182 in September 2001. 85 and below is rated as 'slight prophetic activity'. Above 145 is 'Fasten your seat belt!' The endtimes are nigh.
Meanwhile, the racks in bookstores swell with endtimes narratives. The undisputed champions of this brand of fiction are LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Armageddon, the 11th instalment of their Left Behind series, hit American bookstores in April. The covers of the paperbacks of the earlier volumes in the series claim more than 50m sales, though the latest hardback scales this back to a modest 35m. Armageddon has an initial print run of three million. With so much money involved publishers usually like plenty of lead time in which to promote their property, but with Operation Iraqi Freedom looming, Tyndale Books brought publication forward six months. Why not make a few bucks before the world ends? Despite the abruptness of its arrival, Armageddon topped the New York Times bestseller list in its first week. If it follows the pattern of its predecessors (the safest of prophecies) it will stay there for months. The authors see their astounding sales success as a mark of divine approval. "God," LaHaye says, "has chosen to bless this series. In doing so, he's giving the country and maybe the world one last, big wake-up call before the events transpire."
The first in the Left Behind series appeared in 1995, complete with the usual PR genesis myth. LaHaye, an author and evangelist (but not, at this point, a novelist), was flying to Europe on a Boeing 747 when, as if by divine inspiration, an idea struck him. In Left Behind, the resulting novel, all the good Christians on a 747 to London are suddenly transported to heaven, leaving little piles of clothes and uneaten lasagna behind them. The same happens all over the planet. Call it the rapture or the rip-off: Stephen King had done the disappearing passenger thing in The Langoliers in 1990. But why should the devil have all the good stories?
Left Behind sets up the narrative framework for the subsequent volumes. Rayford Steele, the pilot of the enraptured jumbo, lands at Chicago to discover that his wife, Irene ("attractive and vivacious, even at 40"), and most of the congregation of the church of which she is a born-again member have been beamed up. The novels go on to chronicle the seven-year tribulation for those, like Rayford and his daughter, Chloe (a formerly free-thinking Stanford student), who were left behind. Unceasing battle rages between the remnant (gun-loving American Christians) and the evildoers, easily recognised by the mark of the beast on their foreheads. In command is the Antichrist himself, Nicolae Jetty Carpathia, the 33-year-old President of Romania, who uses his promotion to secretary-general of the UN to create a common European currency and then a global community of which he (after his death and resurrection) becomes potentate with his capital in New Babylon - Baghdad. From here he fights the bad fight with all his might. The good fight is led by Trib Force: a motley guerrilla group with, at their head, ex-747 pilots, Jesus-accepting Jews and fiendishly clever (evangelical) orientals who can do anything with computers.
Criticism lacks terms adequate to describe the narrative feebleness of these novels. But then what can the narrator do, other than dutifully transcribe? Whenever Nicolae seems to gain ground we know (and the novels constantly remind us) that divine intervention (a plague, a sword-wielding angel, or Rayford and his righteous pals) will confound him. Why does he bother since he can read the Book of Revelation as well as the next superman?
The series excludes anything that might bring a blush to the cheek of the small-town American maiden. Rayford misses out on rapturous salvation because, while piloting his plane, he idly considers whether to have a drink with Hattie Durham, a flight attendant (she has idle thoughts, too - so no rapture for her either). Rayford does not intend "anything overt". The idea that a 747 pilot might bang a good-looking, willing stewardess is wholly off-limits: if you want that sort of thing, try Arthur Hailey. The minister who instructs Rayford and Chloe confesses the sin that prevented him going up with his flock: "I was lazy. I cut corners. When people thought I was out calling, I might be at a movie in another town. I was also lustful. I read things I shouldn't have read, looked at magazines that fed my lusts."
Armageddon finds Nicolae, the global community potentate, girding himself (despite a devastating plague of darkness which makes New Babylon uninhabitable) for the 'cosmic battle of the ages'. He mobilises his weapons of mass destruction and a million-strong army to attack the remnant of the faithful at Petra. Human interest is supplied by what happens to Chloe, who is caught by the enemy, rather tepidly tortured and sentenced to public execution. Nicolae has gone into the mechanics of capital punishment with a thoroughness that a Governor of Texas might envy. There are seven guillotines, all rusty and crusted with blood and designed to chop off the head with the maximum of suffering. Executions are prime-time TV material and this provokes a little moralising as Chloe patiently queues up for her turn on the block. This is where reality TV leads:
Chloe had been as alarmed as anyone when television had gone from bad to worse and from worse to unconscionable. The worst possible perversions were available on certain channels 24 hours a day, and literally nothing was limited. But when studies showed that by far the most-watched television shows every day of the week were the public executions, she knew there had been one more far corner for society to turn after all, and it had turned.
Despite an intervention by the angel Caleb (who for his own angelic reasons fails to save her), Chloe's head falls into the basket and she ascends, a prayer on her lips, "to the life eternal".
LaHaye describes himself as the 'engineer' of the Left Behind series. His 'mechanic' (ie pen pusher) is Jerry Jenkins, the author of more than 100 books, who assisted Billy Graham with his autobiography. LaHaye himself is the patriarch of Christian Conservatism. A product of Bob Jones University, he has founded innumerable pressure groups. In 1979, he founded the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell; he has headed the American Coalition for Traditional Values; and had close connections with the Reverend Moon's Unification Church (when Moon was still respectable). LaHaye's consistently proclaimed aim has been to help 'Christian candidates' into political office. His wife, Beverly, runs Concerned Women for America, which claims 600,000 members. Between them, the LaHayes have political muscle. They are plausibly credited with helping get John Ashcroft appointed Attorney General, and Ashcroft is on his way to achieving CWA's grand aim - overturning Roe v Wade.
LaHaye's current political machine is the Council for National Policy. He founded it with the help of like-minded Texas billionaires (a club which, if the Left Behind series continues to sell at its present rate, he may one day be eligible to join) and was its first president. It is a secretive organisation, made up of some 500 invited members, including former senators (Jesse Helms), congressmen (Tom DeLay), figureheads of the radical right (among them, Larry Pratt, leader of Gun Owners of America, the fanatic pro-lifer Ralph Reed and the convicted criminal Oliver North), and such high-profile evangelists as Pat Robertson. Ashcroft was a member before he joined the administration. CNP meetings are closed to the public and the press, but it's likely that they see their job as being the formulation of policy on 'Christian reconstructionism' - the closing of the pernicious gap between church and state.
LaHaye recently joined forces with Jerry Falwell to establish the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy, which offers an intensive one-year diploma programme at Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. "We have undertaken this effort with the idea that the school will educate the next generation of Bible prophecy authorities," Falwell said. "Dr LaHaye will serve as president of the school and will be involved in many lecture series in the programme." But will there be a next generation?
Bush addressed the CNP in 1999 (there is, of course, no public record of what he said) and begins every day poring over Bible commentary. Do he and Laura read themselves to sleep with LaHaye? That he is sympathetic to what LaHaye stands for, religiously and politically (assuming they can be separated), is a legitimate conclusion. In 1993, Bush unguardedly divulged that only Christians can get to heaven. He secured his base, at the beginning of his presidential campaign, by speaking at Bob Jones University - which he refused to criticise for its ban on interracial dating. At his inauguration, he chose Franklin Graham to deliver the ceremonial prayer - the son of the venerable Billy (the evangelist who saved Bush from the demon drink), who has become notorious for telling the world that Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion".
Whether or not Bush is shoulder to shoulder with LaHaye on all points, the forces represented by endtimes doctrine press on current American foreign policy. The White House is not merely disinclined to deal with the UN, but sees it as morally contemptible, if not quite (yet) the instrument of the Antichrist. So, too, 'Old Europe', or at least the EU. According to Mark Hitchcock, "an elected president of Europe would set the stage perfectly for the rise of the Antichrist." 'Peace' in the Middle East is a snare and a delusion. The way to salvation is more conflict: Armageddon.