Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Second Coming, with a cast of billions of angels, millions of soldiers fighting the battle of Armageddon and one son of God on a white stallion in the heavens arrives in the nation’s bookstores today.

“Glorious Appearing: The End of Days” is the final installment in a 12-part “Left Behind” series on the end of the world by evangelical Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The “Left Behind” product line, which includes children’s and audio versions, will reach 62 million units in print with this latest volume.

The authors’ success reveals an American culture fascinated with the end times, religious prophecy, Bible codes, heaven and the age-old battle between good and evil.

Religion and spiritual intrigue also cross paths in two other current blockbusters: Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code.”

“Glorious Appearing” will also make the best-seller list if sales of the first 11 books are any indication. The “Left Behind” series has generated unprecedented coverage for novels based on biblical narrative, including a cover story in the July 1, 2002, edition of Time magazine and a Feb. 8 segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

“There’s a God hunger on the part of society,” said Mr. Jenkins, 54, of Colorado Springs. “People may not consider themselves religious, but we can tell by the sales that people are looking for something beyond themselves. They hear of fiction based on prophecy and they have this hunger and thirst for it.”

“Glorious Appearing” climaxes when, just before the armies of the world gather north of Jerusalem for the battle of Armageddon, the sign of the cross appears emblazoned on the skies worldwide.

The sun and moon then disappear and Jesus appears in the heavens on a white steed, surrounded by a cast of billions of warrior angels and the sanctified dead.

He then leads a band of followers — who have been hiding out in the rock fortress of Petra east of the Dead Sea — toward Armageddon, along with the heavenly host. Once at the battlefield, Christ vanquishes his enemies with a few words of Scripture. Then on to Jerusalem, where in a catastrophic judgment scene, he condemns the Antichrist to hell and orders the Archangel Michael to cast Satan into a bottomless pit.

“Glorious Appearing” offers some glimpses of what existence could be like on an Earth where Christ rules the world from Jerusalem. Its closing scenes are of a world where cell phones still work, but fruit falls off trees to be eaten, where sleep is not needed and where all the world’s mountains have been flattened into one terrestrial plain.

Owing to the mystifying mix of end-time prophecies in the New Testament book of Revelation as well as in several Old Testament books, few evangelical Christian authors have dared chronicle what the end of the world could look like. Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins kicked off their apocalyptic thrillers by introducing the “Rapture” — where millions of Christians suddenly disappear into heaven — at the beginning of the first book, “Left Behind.”

“Left Behind,” which premiered in 1995 with a print run of 35,000 copies and ended up selling 8 million, introduced a cast of unbelievers, all of whom become Christians after missing their ticket to heaven via the Rapture. They join forces for seven years against an evil world ruler, the Antichrist.

“We made the book of Revelation understandable and brought it to a level where ordinary people can understand it,” said Mr. LaHaye, 77, of Rancho Mirage, Calif. “Most folks don’t realize the Bible contains at least 1,000 passages of prophetic Scriptures and 500 are already fulfilled.”

That leaves 500 for the indefinite future.

“We may be on top of the Rapture,” Mr. LaHaye said. “It could be in a week or nine months or whatever.” As for the Second Coming, “We are instructed in Scripture not to guess. We always felt it was folly to predict.”

And this book about The End may not be the end, in publication terms.

The duo is planning a prequel for 2005 on how Romanian leader Nicolae Carpathia became the Antichrist. And in 2006, there’s “Final Judgment,” book No. 13 about life in heaven during “the millennium,” Christ’s 1,000-year reign on Earth.

“There are many prophecies about this heavenly utopian period,” Mr. Jenkins said. “The kingdom age is not a new subject in the Bible. For instance, the curse [of Adam and Eve] will be lifted and women will have children without birth pangs.”

The two authors’ theology has some detractors, among them Steve Wohlberg, author of “End Time Delusions: The Rapture, the Antichrist, Israel and the End of the World.”

Mr. Wohlberg, who heads up a Christian ministry in Paso Robles, Calif., believes in a Second Coming, but not in the Rapture, nor in a seven-year period of terror on an Earth ruled by the Antichrist.

“To say there is one super bad guy who shows up when we disappear is not biblical,” he said. “That’s an escapist view that puts a lot of people asleep so they do not develop spiritual muscle through a strong relationship with God.”

Still, he said, Revelation is “filled with imagery about the future that people have been trying to decipher for a long time.”

“Because of September 11, people wonder if we are living in an apocalyptic time.”

Mr. LaHaye is undeterred by such critics.

“Our position is essentially what the Bible says,” he said. “The idea we could be wrong has not occupied much of my serious thought.”

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