What if the Rapture already has happened?
What if Revelation’s prophecies have been fulfilled?
These questions are unthinkable for those Christians who believe that the end of the world is, well, still to come — and that it will unfold in accordance with apocalyptic interpretations of the Book of Revelation: the Rapture, the sudden snatching up of millions of the faithful into heaven, followed by the seven-year Tribulation, during which the world is ruled by the Antichrist, followed by the return of Jesus and his triumph in the battle of Armageddon.
That’s more or less the storyline hewed to in the phenomenally popular “Left Behind” series. Now, Tyndale House, the Christian publisher of “Left Behind,” plans a series with a very different view — one that posits that Revelation tells the story (in code) of the first century persecution of Christians and of the fall of the Jewish Temple.
Tyndale officials say they’re simply presenting different sides of an important theological issue.
The Rev. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the “Left Behind” books, called his publisher’s decision “stunning and disappointing” and said he felt betrayed.
“They are going to take the money we made for them and promote this nonsense,” he said.
The co-author of the new series disagrees.
“I am elated with Tyndale’s support,” said Hank Hanegraaff, the host of a syndicated call-in radio show, “The Bible Answer Man.”
The first book in the new series, written with Sigmund Brouwer, is “The Last Disciple.” Additional volumes are planned.
“As a Christian publisher, we want to represent a diversity of viewpoints,” said Ron Beers, senior vice president of Tyndale, which is based in Wheaton, Ill.
Beers was the Tyndale executive who purchased the “Left Behind” series and saw it grow over nine years.
The 12 “Left Behind” books have sold about 42 million copies in paperback and hardcover. Children’s editions, graphic novels and the like jump the figure to 62 million.
The most recent book in the series, “Glorious Appearing,” sold almost 2 million copies before it hit stores in March. It was supposed to have been the 12th and final installment, in which Jesus returns to Earth and presides at the Last Judgment. But at least four sequels or prequels are planned.
LaHaye is a former Southern California pastor. Hanegraaff heads a Christian research institute based in Southern California.
It seems unlikely that the two men will be exchanging signed copies of their works.
“I don’t know what science fiction he is reading,” said LaHaye. “We believe the Rapture is going to come, not his nonsense that Christ came back in 68 A.D.”
“I am reading the Bible, specifically Revelations — it was written for first century Christians,” retorted Hanegraaff. “I am not relying on some wooden, literal interpretation that is unsupportable.”
“The Last Disciple,” the first of at least three books planned, depicts the Roman emperor, Nero, as “the beast.” In the book, Christians in Rome and Jerusalem are suffering through the Tribulation. Nero is trying to find the Apostle John’s letter (the Book of Revelation) and destroy it. To survive, the early Christians must decipher a mysterious code. (The code for Nero’s name is the number 666, regarded by many as the mark of the Antichrist.)
Scholars of eschatology, the branch of theology dealing with the end of the world, note that biblical references to the end times almost always are ambiguous, highly symbolic and subject to widely varying interpretations.
“The Bible, in particular the Revelation of John, is open to many dramatic readings,” said Harvey Cox, a professor at Harvard Divinity School.
“Unfortunately, some are merely a paste-up of what the Bible actually says … to craft a theology that the bulk of New Testament scholars do not support.”
Revelation “was a polemic against the corruption, debauchery and greed of the Roman Empire” and was “meant to be an encouragement for the people who were living under persecution.
“John was writing in exile, fearful for his life.”
The book is dense with symbols, visionary images and descriptions that seem allegorical, such as the lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, believed to represent Jesus. John “had to write it in code,” Cox said, “because it … might have fallen into the hands of the emperor.”
The professor said the “Left Behind” series is based on the notion of “premillennialism” or “dispensationalism,” which he said is “the belief that the world is getting worse and worse, and that Christ will come to get … the born-again Christians.”
“The books celebrate the notion that the worse things become, the happier Christians should be, because Christ is coming.”
LaHaye said “300 years of church teaching” back the viewpoint of his books.
Cox said dispensationalism was considered heresy in ancient times and suppressed. It re-emerged in the 19th century, thanks to “a New Age-y, mystical type sect in Scotland.”
“The Last Disciple” is based on “preterism,” which holds that most if not all major prophetic events in the New Testament have happened. According to this view, the great war of Armageddon occurred in A.D. 70, around the time the Roman general and future emperor, Titus Flavius, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
When Jesus talked about the end of the world, according to preterists, he was referring to an old world view held by Jews of his time.