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The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins demonstrates that there has been a large appetite for end-time books, even after a long history of failed predictions made with certainty—from Oswald J. Smith (1889–1986) who in 1926 predicted that Mussolini was the dreaded antichrist[1] to Edgar Whisenant who was emphatic that the rapture would take place in 1988. Then it was 1989.[2] Twenty-three reasons were offered in evidence for a 1993 rapture that never came. Still not shaken by his poor prophetic track record, Whisenant predicted earth’s destruction by nuclear fire in 1994. He continued to speculate into 1997 with similar results. Those who are new to the world of Bible prophecy have no idea how many of today’s end-time “authorities” have made similar predictions that have not come to pass. These prophecy neophytes are under the false assumption that what they are reading in books and magazines, seeing on television, and hearing on the radio are recently discovered prophetic truths.

There was a lull in the prophetic storm when 1988 passed without the promised rapture of the church. Dave Hunt, another writer who has made his reputation with prophecy pot-boilers, offered this analysis of the prophecy scene:

During the 1970s, when The Late Great Planet Earth was outselling everything, the rapture was the hot topic. Pastors preached about heaven, and Christians eagerly anticipated being taken up at any moment to meet their Lord in the air. When Christ didn’t return after 40 years since the establishment of a new Israel in 1948 without the fulfillment of prophesied events, disillusionment began to set in.[3]

With a new millennium on the horizon, prophecy was revived in 1995 with the publication of the first Left Behind novel. The Left Behind series has sold more than 70 million copies since the first volume appeared. This does not count its many incarnations in a variety of different media: a PC game based on the Left Behind book series that is selling well and sparking controversy,[4] a Kids Series (10 million sold),[5] graphic novels,[6] a daily devotional, films, and so much more.

Many people are surprised to learn that left behind type novels have been around for more than 100 years.[7] Sydney Watson’s Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915), In the Twinkling of an Eye (1916), which had gone through 25 printings by 1933, and The New Europe (1915) are early examples of the serialization of fictional prophetic themes seen through the lens of current events, the moral state of the nation, anti-Catholic fervor, and destabilized world politics. In the Twinkling of an Eye anticipated the LaHaye Jenkins title and theme with these lines: “Think of what that will mean, unsaved friend, if you are here to-day. Left! Left behind!”[8]

In 1937 Forrest Loman Oilar’s Be Thou Prepared For Jesus is Coming appeared. Oilar includes the entire left-behind premise in one volume, including the millennial reign and the subsequent Great White Throne Judgment. Like LaHaye, Oilar wrote his novel as an evangelistic tract “to bring to the unbeliever, ‘the Jew first, and also to the Gentile’ a warning against false doctrines and to show the hope that is yet in store for him if he accepts the true gospel.”[9] Dayton A. Manker’s 1941 They That Remain, that is, those left behind, followed the Watson and Oilar models with “Fascism, Nazi-ism and Communism” as new end-time bad guys that Manker described as “triplets of one blood.”[10] Ernest Angley followed a similar script with his 1950 Raptured: A Novel, now in its 51st edition.

Probably one of the most interesting left behind genre novels is Salem Kirban’s 666, first published in 1970. By 1976, it had gone through fourteen printings with more than 500,000 copies sold. There are a number of striking similarities to Left Behind. The rapture takes place when the main characters are on an airplane; their wives are believers who were taken in the rapture; the rapture is explained away by those who are left behind; those who do not bow down to worship the beast are martyred by having their heads cut off by a guillotine.[11]

Footnotes:
[1]
. “There are here portrayed startling indications of the approaching end of the present age from the spheres of demonology, politics, and religion. No one can read this book without being impressed with the importance of the momentous days in which we are living.” (Oswald J. Smith, Is the Antichrist at Hand?—What of Mussolini? [Harrisburg, PA: The Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1927]). The text appears on the front cover of the paperback edition of the book. The 1926 hardback edition in my possession states that it’s the “Fifth Edition” with seventeen thousand in print. I assume that the book continued to circulate until the death of Mussolini in 1945.
[2]
. In a radio debate I had with Whisenant he told listeners that if he was wrong in his calculations, then the only possible answer was that the Bible was wrong. It turned out that he was wrong but only because of a miscalculation on his part. “My mistake,” he wrote in 1989, “was that my mathematical calculations were off by one year. . . . Since all centuries should begin with a zero year (for instance, the year 1900 started [the twentieth century]), the first century A.D. was a short year, consisting of only 99 years. This was the one-year error in my calculations last year [1988].” (Edgar Whisenant and Greg Brewer, The Final Shout: Rapture Report 1989 [Nashville, TN: World Bible Society, 1989], 1).
[3]
. Back cover copy of Dave Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988).
[4]
. www.leftbehind.com/channelfree.asp?pageid=1321&channelID=175
[5]. www.leftbehind.com/channelkids.asp (book) and www.leftbehind.com/channelkids.asp?channelID=65 (audio)
[6]
. www.leftbehind.com/channelbooks.asp?channelID=53
[7]. Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 205–207.
[8]. Sydney Watson, In the Twinkling of an Eye (New York: Fleming H. Revell, [1916] 1933), 134.
[9]. Forrest Loman Oilar, Be Thou Prepared For Jesus is Coming (Boston: Meador Publishing Co., 1937), 7.
[10]
. Dayton A. Manker, They That Remain: A Story of the End Times (Grand rapids, MI: Zondervan, [1941] 1946), 4.
[11]. Salem Kirban, 666 (Huntingdon, PA: Salem Kirban, Inc., 1970).

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