Most likely nobody you know has read one, but more than 50 million books in the Left Behind series have sold in the past decade. Six of the 12 apocalyptic thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have entered the New York Times best-seller list at number one. LaHaye is influential in more direct ways too: in the run-up to the 2000 election he co-led the Committee to Restore American Values, a group of evangelicals who subjected Republican candidates to a questionnaire to test their allegiance to the right-wing agenda. A former Baptist minister, he cofounded the Council for National Policy, the Concerned Women of America (headed by his wife, Beverly), and the California branch of the Moral Majority, all political Christian organizations, after leaving the pulpit in the early 80s. He advocates what amounts to theocratic government for the U.S. in his 2001 work of nonfiction, Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth. The Left Behind series and assorted spin-offs (graphic novels, Bible covers, a children’s series) are estimated to bring in at least $100 million a year, which LaHaye channels back into the Christian right.
The books novelize a not-too-cheery interpretation of the Bible, much of it based on the book of Revelation, in which Jesus Christ returns to earth and, in an event known as the Rapture, takes the true believers to heaven. He leaves everyone else behind to suffer seven years of chaos then fight the Antichrist in the final war of Armageddon. Then he comes back again to finish off the evildoers and save those who’ve seen the light since his last visit.
The first book in the series, Left Behind, was published in 1995, one year after Barbara Rossing joined the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in Hyde Park, where she’s now tenured. When she spoke in churches or in the classroom about Revelation, inevitably people would ask her what she thought of the novel. She didn’t read it until ’98 or ’99, and she didn’t think much of it. “[It’s] like a disaster movie with Bible verses thrown around in it,” she says. But by 2002, having read the whole series and studied the political activities of its authors, Rossing was writing a book of her own: The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, a work of theology and pop-culture criticism published in March 2004 by Westview Press. It’s due out in paperback, with a new preface, on July 5.
The book has made Rossing the leading voice of reason on the question of the Rapture. She’s been interviewed on talk radio and has appeared on 60 Minutes and World News Tonight With Peter Jennings. When journalists need someone to represent those who disagree with LaHaye and Jenkins, hers is the name that comes up. “When I first started writing my dissertation on Revelation, I never thought I’d be thinking so much about the Antichrist, and in such a public way,” she says. “But I think the church really needs a public voice against right-wing theology, so I’ve become more interested in being accessible.”
She wrote the book because she came to believe that the Left Behind interpretation was not only false but dangerous. “The mentality . . . that somehow God has laid out in advance a script for the end of the world, that things have to get worse and worse and this is somehow God’s will before the world can end and Jesus can return, taking everyone away–I think it’s terrible theology,” Rossing says. “Because then as the environment or anything gets worse, people will somehow think this is what the Bible says.”
The theology behind end-time prophecy emerged in 19th century England and was brought to America by a preacher named John Nelson Darby, who read the Bible as a kind of playbook for future events. He pieced together disparate verses (some from Revelation, others from all over the Bible, including the book of Daniel in the Old Testament and Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians) and gave them new meanings that Rossing says were never intended.
Her reading of the book of Revelation follows a more traditional pattern, starting with the original Greek text and considering its source and historical context. Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, is an exhortation written by Saint John (whether it’s the apostle John is disputed) to his fellow Christians in what was then the Roman province of Asia Minor, expressing his confidence, Rossing says, in God’s victory against oppression by the Roman Empire. Rossing contends that John’s true vision, and God’s message for us, is one of hope, of the end of empire and oppression when Jesus returns–not to lay waste to the earth or to rescue humans from it, but to live with humanity again in the earthly kingdom.
Rossing grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, the daughter of a physics professor and a chemist. Her grandfather, a Lutheran pastor, encouraged her to study religion when she was debating options for college, but she took the practical route, entering Carleton College in her hometown in 1972 and majoring in geology. But after a summer at the Holden Village Lutheran retreat in western Washington, she started looking for a field that would combine her two strongest interests: religion and science. She found it in the environmental movement. “The movement stresses ethics and God’s love for creation, the urgency of protecting this created world,” she says. “I really think that God loves the earth and that the earth is in trouble. . . . We need the best of science to help us approach things like global warming and climate change. And we need people to go into science, and that doesn’t mean that science and religion are incompatible. This is part of the religious right’s program that I think is really misguided. It’s not what Christianity is about.”
During her time at Carleton, Rossing was grounded in her home church, St. John’s Lutheran. There was a Christian community on campus, she says, but they were “Crusaders for Christ types” who proselytized a Christianity influenced by Hal Lindsey’s then-popular doomsday polemic, The Late Great Planet Earth. Lindsey’s book interpreted the cold war through the lens of Darby-influenced Bible prophecy and predicted that the Rapture would happen any day now, to be followed shortly by World War III. “Lindsey’s got ‘Red China’ and the ‘yellow peril’ in there,” Rossing says. “He didn’t yet have the Muslim world as the enemy, but he kept ‘updating’ it over the years. . . . I call it the ‘Antichrist du jour’ mentality.”
Rossing says many of her fellow students argued for the truth of Lindsey’s book: “‘If you don’t believe exactly what we say, then you’re going to get left behind, you’re going to hell.’ That’s a very scary thing for young people,” she says. But it didn’t turn her off religion. After graduating she went to Yale Divinity School on a fellowship. She finished her master’s and was ordained in 1982 and went on to teach and serve as pastor at Holden Village and at Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis throughout the 80s. In 1998 she earned a doctorate in theology from Harvard, where she concentrated on the New Testament and early Christianity, and then moved to Chicago to teach at the Lutheran School. “I had other job offers,” she says, “but this school had an excellent reputation. It has a PhD program, so I have PhD students, some of whom are international students who go back to their countries and become world leaders. So our school really has an important voice.”
The hardcover version of The Rapture Exposed was released to coincide with the publication of the last chapter in the Left Behind story, The Glorious Appearing. 60 Minutes invited Rossing to appear on a Morley Safer segment about the Left Behind books. LaHaye and Jenkins talked about the vast sales they’d racked up being no doubt the Lord’s work. And they talked about America as world leader by divine bequest, about bleeding red, white, and blue. They talked about the liberal manufacture of a “loving, wimpy Jesus.”
During Rossing’s few minutes on the air, she responded to the image of the destructive, avenging Christ so crucial to the Rapture script, saying, “You can piece together that vengeful warrior Jesus, you can find him here and there, but the heart of the Bible, the overwhelming message, even of the book of Revelation, is of a nonviolent lamb who conquers not by killing people, but by giving his life. . . . They take the message then and personalize it to evildoers, they make this an ‘us versus them’ kind of theology–if you’re not with us, you’re against us. They forget that the message of the Bible is that each person is created in the image of God.”
In academia, Rossing says, her worldview is the common one. “I think pretty much every scholar on Revelation thinks what I’ve said. The only difference is that I’ve written a trade book that is more accessible, and I’ve made some connections to popular culture.” The reason no one else has written a book like hers, she says, is that “we thought the Left Behind books were so ridiculous that they didn’t need to be answered. They’re just pulp fiction. You don’t usually need to have scholars critiquing that level of novel. But then I discovered that everyone was reading them!
“I don’t think I am the maverick,” she says. “I’m the traditionalist–the ancient tradition, 2,000 years of Christian understanding that Jesus is only going to come back once, not twice, and not to destroy the earth, but to save it. And, yes, I’m cast as a maverick, and in the end I guess it’s great. I think we need to take back the Bible, and I’m trying to do that.”
She’s currently at work on a second book, about the connections between Christianity and ecology. “If we’re not going to be taken off this earth, and if God wants us to live on this earth, what does that mean in terms of sustainability and environmental degradation, and how does God heal the world?” she says. “Because that’s what I think the end of Revelation is about: God healing the world.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.