JEFFREY BROWN: As the novel "Left Behind" opens, airline pilot Rayford Steele is told that many of his passengers are suddenly missing.
The biblical rapture has occurred, when millions of born-again Christians are taken up to heaven. Everyone else has been left behind.
The novel, published in 1995, was the first in a series of 12 apocalyptic thrillers based on the book of revelations and other biblical texts, following Rayford Steele and other characters through a seven-year period of tribulations until the return of Jesus to Earth in the book "Glorious Appearing," released this spring.
Altogether the series has been a publishing phenomenon, more than 60 million copies sold including spin-offs for children's books.
The authors are 78-year-old Tim LaHaye, a former pastor and cofounder of the Moral Majority, and 54-year-old Jerry Jenkins, a novelist and biographer.
For each book, LaHaye provided a long outline of biblical prophecy and commentary, and Jenkins created the characters and wrote the stories.
We spoke at this year's Christian Book Sellers Association Convention in Atlanta.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. LaHaye, how did you see your mission in writing these books? What were you trying to do?
TIM LAHAYE: I'm trying to use fiction to communicate Bible teaching on the future. God has a wonderful plan for the future of mankind but most people don't even know about it.
But it's in the pages of the Bible. We tried to flesh it out and use fiction as a vehicle to the mind to get it through to people.
JEFFREY BROWN: And why was fiction the right way to do it?
TIM LAHAYE: Because there's so many fiction readers who weren't reading my nonfiction. I had written 50 nonfiction books.
But if you're going to fish, you have to fish where the fish are. And I saw this army of millions of people out here reading fiction so I thought, "Hey, why can't we use fiction?"
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Jenkins, you're the novelist. Why does it work as fiction?
JERRY JENKINS: Well, I think people are looking for something beyond themselves. We live in a very fearful time. And even before 9/11, I mean, our books came out in the fall of '95, and they were pretty successful even before 9/11.
There was a blip in sales and interest during that time. There was also at the end of the century and the millennium.
But clearly people are worried about the future. They wonder about the future. I think they're intrigued by what the Bible might say about it.
But for it to become the phenomenon that it has, I think it must be working. People love the characters, and they tell us they just can't wait to keep turning the pages and find out what happens next.
JEFFREY BROWN: The series has been credited with opening the door for Christian fiction into the mainstream culture. But it's also provoked controversy.
The fictional antichrist rises to power as the head of the United Nations. The Pope serves as his assistant. And Jews by the thousands convert to Christianity.
In "Glorious Appearing," Jesus wreaks vengeance in a bloody slaughter of the soldiers of the antichrist. A number of scholars have questions LaHaye and Jenkins' scriptural interpretations.
Evangelical author Os Guinness was attending the book sellers convention.
OS GUINNESS: It literally is junk food for the soul. And it doesn't represent the best of evangelicalism.
It gives the impression that evangelicals are all irrational fundamentalists who have this apocalyptic world view, and I think it's disastrous.
JEFFREY BROWN: LaHaye and Jenkins insist they have been true to the Bible.
TIM LAHAYE: True to the Bible is that it's literally interpreted. We believe that God intended us to interpret the Bible literally.
JERRY JENKINS: The idea of taking it literally where you can. I mean, it's not, as he often points out, it's not a wooden literalism where, for instance, in "The Glorious Appearing," prophecy says that Jesus will slay his enemies with the sword that comes from his mouth.
We don't believe there's a literal sword in his mouth, but that that's the word of God.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's been criticism of your books for focusing on a vengeful Jesus-- thousands of people are killed by his words-- rather than focusing on a loving Jesus.
JERRY JENKINS: It is a little bit unfair. People will look at Book 12, the one scene where Jesus, you know, wins the battle, and say, you know, "This is a picture of Jesus that maybe we've made up."
It's in the prophecy. It's in the scriptures. It's the well-rounded version of the Jesus of the scriptures. He's a loving, merciful God and at some point he's the God of justice.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another criticism of the books is that you set up a kind of us against them. You're either with us or against us. So there's a sort of division inherent.
TIM LAHAYE: Jeff, we didn't invent that. That's right in the Bible. You either are a believer or an unbeliever. And the thing about God, he's not... he's not discretionary.
That is, he doesn't just accept certain people because they're of a certain race or anything. All men have the same opportunity. They can accept Jesus Christ or they can reject him.
But they have to spend eternity in the light of what decision they've made.
JERRY JENKINS: That is the crucible of people who believe this.
In my mind, I call it the crucible of the evangelical because there's no question that's a divisive and can be an offensive message, to say that we believe Jesus when he said he was the way, the truth and the life and that no man comes to God but through him.
We live in a pluralistic society. We're not against people practicing their own faith, being devout in their own religion.
We feel an obligation to tell this... what we believe is the truth, and then what they do with it is up to them. It's between them and God.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think that evangelicals have felt shunned or neglected or even disrespected by the mainstream culture, and therefore were hungry for what you have to offer?
TIM LAHAYE: It was more, I think, more prevalent twenty-five, thirty years. And I've watched it gradually as the people in media begin to recognize we are here.
And the sale of our books and 60 million copies all of a sudden somebody is reading us. They're not just buying them and trashing them. They're reading these books.
And the contagious spirit is a writer's dream, where a person reads a book and then they've got all these friends they want to read the book. That's great for sales, and it's great for carrying on the ministry.
JERRY JENKINS: You know, I tend to hesitate to make the media a target because sometimes it's too easy. I mean, so often the mainstream media talks about evangelicals as sort of a strange little sub- group.
But the sales of our books and the success of Mel Gibson's movie, I think, didn't really find a market as much as reveal a market. It didn't surprise us. We know these people are out there.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. LaHaye, I know you've talked about wanting the books to reach the individuals and their faith. But do you also want it to have an impact on the larger society and political culture?
TIM LAHAYE: Well, yes, I think that they will, as they study the Bible, they'll learn the principles of God.
We're in a great conflict today, which is a whole subject unto itself, as to whether or not there are moral absolutes and there are rights and wrongs. We, of course, believe that there are based on biblical principles.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, thank you very much.
JERRY JENKINS: Thank you.
TIM LAHAYE: Our pleasure.