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While talk of the end times has been going on for more than two millennia, it was only in the 1970s that prophecy hit the top of the charts. “The single best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s was not The Joy of Sex or even The Joy of Cooking, but Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic pronouncement, The Late Great Planet Earth.” It was named by the New York Times as the “no. 1 non-fiction bestseller of the decade.” Estimates put sales at more than 15 million copies in the 1970s. Since then, it has sold more than 35 million copies worldwide and remains in print today as evidence of Bible prophecy’s staying power even in light of its shop-worn predictions. “As Lindsey says himself, ‘The future is big business.’” From such book’s like The Late Great Planet Earth
Evangelicals acquired an abiding interest in “signs of the times,” moments in secular politics that might portend the great religious changes foretold in the Christian scriptures, especially in the Books of Daniel and Revelation. The re-creation of the state of Israel in 1948 signified that the prophetic clock was now ticking, that the countdown to doomsday had begun.
The Late Great Planet Earth had its apocalyptic predecessors, but with a big-name evangelical publisher behind the book, its breezy novel-like writing style, and the instability of world events, America was ready for an end-time read to offer some hopeful sign of what the future might bring for them even though it would mean disaster for millions “left behind” to face the apocalyptic conflagration. The prophetic urgency of Lindsey’s book simply modernized prophetic Bible passages that had been used decades before to make the case that world events were certain up-to-date evidence that the countdown to Armageddon had begun. Herbert W. Armstrong’s 1975 in Prophecy!, written in 1956 and illustrated by Basil Wolverton, who also did work for MAD Magazine, is almost indistinguishable from Lindsey’s foray into prophetic sensationalism. Monte Wolverton offers this brief perspective on the apocalyptic views of Armstrong and his late father:
Armstrong thought he had discovered the heretofore lost key to all biblical prophecy, and that the Tribulation spoken of in the book of Revelation would shortly fall on the United States and the nations of the British Commonwealth. Not unlike many evangelical preachers of the early 1930’s, Armstrong adopted a dispensationalist paradigm, with a pre-millennialist, literal interpretation of the apocalyptic sections of scripture—albeit with his own particular spin. The Bible, he taught, predicted imminent worldwide calamities, followed by the return of Christ and a happy Millennium, followed by the destruction of the wicked, followed by the advent of new heavens and earth. . . . As Armstrong’s following grew, so did the threat of a second world war. He believed this was it—the Beast, the Antichrist, and the whole end-time enchilada. Armstrong, of course, was wrong—and this would not be the last time.
Like Armstrong, who miscalculated the timing of the “Great Tribulation,” Lindsey was wrong about his prediction that a “rapture of the church” would occur 40 years after the 1948 founding of the modern state of Israel. Even after most of his predictions did not come to pass as they were outlined in The Late Great Planet Earth, this has not stopped him from creating his own prophecy empire that includes books, articles, and a weekly prophecy update.