Tim LaHaye, evangelical pastor and co-author of the best-selling Left Behind novels, has died at the age of 90.
LaHaye was a prominent Christian leader, a successful megachurch pastor, the author of scores of nonfiction books and the founder of The Institute for Creation Research as well as several schools.
But he is best-known for Left Behind, the wildly popular series of novels imagining Jesus’ return to Earth in the modern era. LaHaye conceived the idea for the series, which he co-wrote with novelist Jerry B. Jenkins.
The resulting books illustrated LaHaye’s religious interpretations, NPR’s Tom Gjelten reports:
“LaHaye promoted the idea of a ‘rapture’ — when Jesus-believing Christians would suddenly rise up to heaven, leaving nonbelievers behind. During his 70-year ministry, LaHaye distinguished himself by focusing on the second coming of Christ.
” ‘Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again,” ‘[LaHaye said]. ‘And yet many pastors don’t talk about the second coming.’
“LaHaye did, with great success. His Left Behind books sold close to 80 million copies. In addition, he wrote about 60 nonfiction books, mostly focused on biblical prophecy.”
Earlier this month, Alissa Wilkinson, an English professor and critic at large at Christianity Today, wrote that no other brand “has captured conservative American evangelicalism at the turn of the century as well.”
In her piece for The Washington Post, Wilkinson notes that the books merged popular fiction with devoutly believed prediction:
“Left Behind isn’t great literature, but it’s highly engaging reading for a mass market, fast-moving fiction with elements drawn from sci-fi, romance, disaster porn, and political and spy novels. …
“This is the genius of the Left Behind books: They work on two levels. For the non-Christian reader, the traditional genre trappings and the mystery of what will happen next keep the pages turning. But for the Christian reader, being able to read current events into the novel’s narratives is thrilling, as is seeing how various elements of the Bible that are written as visions in Revelation (dragons, beasts, women giving birth, horsemen, fiery pits, the symbol 666) might actually work out in contemporary America and the geopolitics beyond its borders.”
Left Behind books have been adapted into multiple films, including three starring Kirk Cameron and one featuring Nicolas Cage and Chad Michael Murray. The brand also gave birth to video games and graphic novels.
Other critics have objected to what evangelical writer Tyler Wigg Stevenson called the “macabre giddiness” of the books, which seem at times to revel in the doomsday suffering of the unsaved. Nicholas Kristof suggested that in scenes showing the death of all non-Christians, the series celebrates ethnic cleansing “as the height of piety.”
But LaHaye, in an interview with BeliefNet, described his vision of the rapture as “a time of incredible mercy and grace.”
“If you only look at the people who defy God, it’s a negative time. But if you look at the whole population, it’s a blessed time,” he said.
In a separate interview, in 2007, LaHaye said he hoped the rapture would come during his lifetime. “It’s going to happen to some generation. Why not ours?” he asked. “The best is yet to come, and I can’t wait to get into this marvelous experience. It’s going to be better than we ever dreamed.”
In addition to his work on the rapture and prophecy, LaHaye advocated for creationism (he once described evolution as “the biggest fairy tale in our past two centuries”), authored books organizing personality traits along the four ancient temperaments and wrote about marriage, family and sex within the Christian family.
LaHaye was on the original board of directors of the Moral Majority and was well-known as a supporter of conservative political causes.
His wife, Beverley LaHaye, founded Concerned Women for America; Time magazine once named them “The Christian Power Couple.” They celebrated their 69th anniversary this month.