The apocalyptic 1995 novel "Left Behind" and its eight sequels have sold 50 million copies. The Christian end-of-the-world epic by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has spawned a Hollywood movie and sparked renewed interest in Bible prophecy. Despite its enormous success, "Left Behind" is being criticized on theological grounds by some Christians who say the story of worldwide tribulation following a sudden "Rapture" of born-again believers is based on a faulty interpretation of the Bible. "I'm firmly convinced that the integrity of the Bible is at stake in all this," says Gary DeMar, author of "End Times Fiction: A Biblical Consideration of the 'Left Behind' Theology."
"What Tim LaHaye is doing in his 'Left Behind' series has been done before," says Mr. DeMar, a conservative Presbyterian and author of 16 books. "These guys have been predicting the end by reading the newspaper for centuries. ... They all have one thing in common. They've all been wrong."
The prime target of this criticism, Mr. LaHaye, wrote more than 40 nonfiction books before publishing "Left Behind." For 25 years, he pastored San Diego's Scott Memorial Baptist Church and — along with his wife, Beverly — gained national prominence by teaching seminars on marriage and family relationships.
Mr. LaHaye says he "expected some opposition" from Christians "who hold different views" of biblical interpretation. But he suggests some critics are envious of the success of the "Left Behind" series.
"Those of a different view resent the enormous readership we have," he says.
The central concept of "Left Behind," based in part on 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and Luke 17:34-35, is that the world's true Christians will vanish at one time when they are taken to heaven shortly before the end of the world. Unbelievers, however, will be "left behind" to suffer during a final period of persecution at the hands of the Antichrist, a satanic figure also known as the beast.
Critics say that this view — known as the pre-Tribulation, or "pre-Trib," Rapture — is an unorthodox interpretation of New Testament prophecies, cobbled together from different passages of Scripture and "twisted" to fit the latest headlines.
"The supposed prophetic insights change as the headlines change," Mr. DeMar says, citing Hal Lindsey's 1970 best seller "The Late Great Planet Earth" and other Rapture-oriented authors. "All these prophecies these guys have talked about have not come to pass, but a lot of Christians keep reading the same books by the same guys that have been wrong so many times."
The pre-Tribulation Rapture was popularized by the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, which included many of the ideas found in the "Left Behind" series, including a key prophetic role for the nation of Israel in Earth's final days.
Christian scholars have long argued about how to interpret Bible prophecies about the end of the world, a field of study known as eschatology.
In one of his last talks to his disciples, recorded in Matthew 24, Jesus spoke of "wars and rumors of wars" and "a great tribulation" that would precede his return to Earth. The Apostle Paul wrote (I Corinthians 15) of Christians becoming immortal "in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet."
The most famous end-of-the-world scenario, however, is found in the book of Revelation. Written by the Apostle John, Revelation is the source of such apocalyptic images as the Four Horsemen (war, pestilence, famine and death) and the beast described in Revelation 13, whose mysterious, prophetic number — 666 — has become synonymous for evil.
Mr. DeMar counts "five different Rapture positions" among Christian scholars, and four different views of the millennium, the 1,000-year earthly reign of Christ foretold in Revelation 20. He belongs to the "preterist" school of eschatology, which believes the prophecies of Revelation were mostly fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman armies in A.D. 70.
Mr. LaHaye calls the preterist interpretation "the most ridiculous view of eschatology I've ever heard. ... Historically, the fact is the church has always believed that the book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John in 95 A.D., 25 years after the destruction of Jerusalem. Consequently, it has to portray future events."
However, the Apostle John would have been well into his 80s by then, if he lived that long. Others Christian critics of "Left Behind" — including Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Steve Wohlberg, who classifies Mr. LaHaye's interpretation as "futurist" — belong to the "historicist" school of eschatology.
Historicism "says that the major prophecies of Daniel and Revelation have been fulfilled throughout the history of Christianity and they will come to a climax at the end of time," says Mr. Wohlberg, author of "Truth Left Behind."
The historicist view "used to be believed by the majority of Protestants," Mr. Wohlberg says. "But in the last 150 years, there has been a shift away from historicism toward futurism."
Mr. LaHaye also finds the historicist view "ridiculous," citing Seventh-Day Adventist teachings about the "mark of the beast" of Revelation 13.
"They claim that Sunday worship is the mark of the beast," the "Left Behind" author says. "That seems like a ridiculous belief to me because there is nothing in Scripture to really substantiate it."
The historicist view also identifies the Roman Catholic papacy as the "mother of harlots" in Revelation 17, an idea Mr. LaHaye also rejects.
"I think we have to be very careful in that regard," he says. "I prefer to think of the scarlet woman who rides the beast as the worldwide unified religious system that will follow the Rapture of the church and dominate the world religiously for the first 31/2 years of the tribulation."
The Rapture paves the way for the subsequent Tribulation at the hands of the Antichrist's "beast" system, Mr. LaHaye explains.
"After all the Christians are taken out of the world with the Rapture, then there will be no one left in the world to prevent the worldwide church uniting the religions of the world regardless of belief," he says.
Plus, "Eschatology has never been the cardinal doctrine of the church. The deity of Jesus Christ is the cardinal doctrine."
But his critics see danger in Mr. LaHaye's Rapture teachings.
"The idea of disappearing Christians ... is that we're going to disappear before the storm hits," says Mr. Wohlberg, a Texas minister whose Web site — www.truthleftbehind.com — explains his interpretation of prophecy. "Christians need to prepare for Earth's final days, rather than expecting to disappear before they come."
Mr. DeMar agrees the idea of the Rapture could lead Christians to "cultural complacency based on prophetic inevitability." Another danger is that Christians will be disillusioned if the "Left Behind" scenario doesn't happen.
"Every time these failed predictions occur," he says, "some people start questioning the Bible."