August 1, 2016
Tim LaHaye dies; his legacy and that of his Left Behind series are here to stay
by Julia Fleischaker
Tim LaHaye, author of the fantastically successful Left Behind series, died last Monday. A Wall Street Journal obituary by James R. Hagerty describes him as “an evangelical pastor who interpreted Biblical prophecies, advised couples on marriage and sex, founded schools and helped lead the Moral Majority political coalition.” That was all before setting pen to paper as an author of apocalyptic religious fiction.
The author of more than 85 books, Dr. LaHaye died July 25 in a San Diego hospital after suffering a stroke. He was 90 and had celebrated his 69th anniversary with his wife earlier in the month during a cruise off Alaska.
His “Left Behind” series of novels, co-written with Jerry B. Jenkins, sold more than 60 million copies, putting him in a league with the top writers of secular thrillers. Among the few Christian writers who could rival him was Rick Warren, whose “Purpose Driven Life” has sold about 40 million copies.
The popularity of the Left Behind series made LaHaye one of the most prominent Christian writers in the world. Jerry B. Jenkins of Christianity Today wrote:
CT ranked Left Behind among the landmark titles that have shaped evangelicalism. LaHaye and Jenkins not only had readers rethinking the rapture, but also the potential popularity of Christian novels. “The book launched a series that launched a marketing empire that launched a new set of rules for Christian fiction. The series spent a total of 300 weeks—nearly as long as the Tribulation it dramatized—on TheNew York Times’s bestseller list.”
LaHaye helped create the modern evangelical movement. According to the WSJ obituary, “Dr. LaHaye argued in one recording that… ‘As a married person, your body is no longer your exclusive property. It also belongs to your mate.’” Hagerty continues:
He spent much of the 1980s on political matters, lobbying against the Equal Rights Amendment and for education based on Christian values. He helped create the Institute for Creation Research, which rejects evolution and says God created the universe “in six literal days.”
Jason C. Bivins at Religion Dispatches writes that “LaHaye did more than simply contribute to public discourse, or propose a particular religious perspective; he help[ed] facilitate a way of seeing the world, of being in the world, that will long outlive him.” In other words, “we live in LaHaye’s world.”
Mark Silk at Religion News Service writes that the Left Behind series, “which began appearing in the middle of Bill Clinton’s presidency, is really a parable about waging guerrilla war against the Democrats who had somehow contrived to take the country away from the Republican likes of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.”
In his great new book, The Money Cult, Chris Lehmann argues that the Left Behind series ties in neatly with the prosperity gospel practiced by Joel Osteen and other megapastors. “There are plenty of cues in the dramatic foreground of the novels that make it very plain that the plan of deliverance on offer is just as much a socioeconomic vision of upward mobility as it is a prophetic depiction of worldly conceit and iniquity laid low by God’s wrath.”
Indeed, the many volumes of Left Behind abound with this sort of inapposite conflation of prophetic faith with the rewards, work rituals, and rhetoric of the capitalist marketplace. Early into the third volume of the series, as the Antichrist is preparing to rain nuclear devastation down on Chicago in the name of preserving the post-Rapture One World social order, Buck Williams resolves to buy a tricked-out SUV. “I need a new car,” he tells his new wife, Chloe. “Something tells me it’s going to be our only chance to survive.” And given the stakes, he spares no expense, purchasing a hulking Range Rover for “just under six figures.”
As is the case in most of the many horrifying catastrophes that beset our heroes across the series, Williams’s high-flying sense of entitlement pays instant dividends: As the great Midwestern metropolis suffers nuclear attack, he’s able to elude a hopeless tangle of cars bearing panicked evacuees on the expressway by taking the mighty new purchase off road, expertly gunning it through the howling chaos of Chicago. As Buck explains to the skeptical Chloe on their maiden tour in the road-conquering behemoth, “the Antichrist… has never spent a better dollar for the cause of God.”
LaHaye is survived by his wife Beverly, a brother, a sister, four children, nine grandchildren, and sixteen great grandchildren.
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.