Posted: April 21, 2004
The Left Behind series of novels, which depict the cataclysmic events of the Christian apocalypse,
has been a landmark of American publishing history.Since the first of the novels - Left Behind - appeared in 1995, the series has sold in the neighborhood of 60 million copies, resulting in revenues of about $1 billion.
The view of Jews in the cycle is not explicitly derogatory and stereotyped. However it describes a world in which Jews are not as fully human as Christians.
Written by popular evangelical author and political activist Tim LaHaye (a leader of the Moral Majority, among other conservative groups) and Jerry Jenkins, a prolific writer and editor, and based on LaHaye's ideas about the end-times, the series returned to The New York Times bestseller list with Glorious Appearing, its 12th installment, after its March 30, 2004 debut.
Despite sales that rival or exceed the Harry Potter franchise and the works of John Grisham, the Left Behind series has remained largely unnoticed by the American Jewish community.
The series is as popular as ever. The huge initial print run - 1.9 million copies - of the 12th volume, Glorious Appearing, was sold to bookstores three weeks before the book's March 30 release.
Among those who have followed the series, there are varying opinions as to whether it is anti-Semitic. The fact that reasonable observers, both in and outside the church, have characterized as hostile to Jews some of the most successful books of the past decade suggests that these novels pose unusually subtle questions about what it means to be unfriendly to Jews.
The contention is not that the Left Behind cycle is explicitly derogatory and stereotyped - it is not. It describes, however, a world in which Jews are not as fully human as Christians - unless they become Christians.
Written by LaHaye, the veteran evangelical political activist, and Jenkins, the books describe the cataclysmic events of the Christian "end times." The first volume, Left Behind, which appeared in 1995, begins with the Rapture, that moment in the apocalyptic calendar when believers suddenly disappear from earth, swept up to join Jesus "in the sky."
The ensuing books follow a small number of those "left behind" who now realize what has happened and are born again. They fight the efforts of the Antichrist to rule over humanity during this period of Tribulation, the seven-year span of chaos and terror initiated by the Rapture that will end with the return of Jesus (and the violent death of non-believers).
The Rapture, Tribulation and innumerable other events and details in the series reflect a vision of the end - derived mostly from the book of Revelation - that is shared to some extent by tens of millions of Christians, particularly in the evangelical and fundamentalist communities.
The fate of the Jews in this scenario is not pleasant: all but a small remnant are killed in the final battle between good and evil at Armageddon. Left Behind posits that 144,000 will be spared (a common but not universal belief), and all of these will profess faith in Jesus.
Indeed, as some critics have noted, virtually every Jewish character in the series is a Messianic Jew, i.e., a Christian. Jews and Israel are accorded special regard, but solely because of their role in the unfolding of the apocalypse; neither Judaism nor Jewish history ever registers as significant in its own right.
Again, it would be a mistake to conclude that Left Behind is expressly hostile to Jews. LaHaye and Jenkins are not haters. The series is often problematically conspiratorial, especially about government, but Jews do not secretly pull the levers. The clichéd language used by some Jewish characters is more of an artistic than ethical flaw. And, for better or worse, the authors are no more convinced of the inferiority of the Jewish faith than of any other of the non-Christian possibilities.
While Christians are not mandated to consider other faiths as having equal claim to the truth, of course, LaHaye and Jenkins' utter lack of respect for Judaism is a significant problem. They can blithely imagine a world without Jews because, once Judaism is proved meritless, it is not difficult to dehumanize those who refuse to discard it. They do so not out of malice but unreflective certainty in their beliefs.
Jews are not hated in the Left Behind books. They are merely different: not-quite-human pawns in God's plan, cosmic curiosities.