BROOKE GLADSTONE: Easter is upon us and so is Kingdom Come – the book, that is. It's the latest and final installment of the hugely popular Left Behind novels. Since the first one was published 11 years ago, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have sold 43 million copies, not counting kids' books, movies and a video game that have spun off the series.
The books tap into a 200-year-old tradition among some evangelicals of reading the Book of Revelations as a literal playbook for the coming apocalypse. But before the world actually ends, the belief goes, the faithful will be raptured, some into heaven, and the sinners left behind will experience horrific suffering. And that's basically what happens over the course of the first 15 installments of Left Behind as believers battle the forces of darkness commanded by the Antichrist, in the form of a Rumanian Secretary General of the United Nations.
Finally, the Messiah returns to preside over a thousand-year reign of paradise on Earth. It is here that the latest novel opens, a novel that co-author Jerry Jenkins says was not the easiest to write. JERRY JENKINS: The big challenge was if this is to be Utopia with Jesus on the throne and David as his prince and that type of thing, would there be any sin or conflict, any crime, anything that would be grist for fiction? So I had to quickly try to get to the end and say, okay, Satan is now loosed again. He's amassing an army. He's fighting Jesus. You have to have conflict to have good fiction. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How literally would you say you're using the Book of Revelations? Are you just riffing on its themes or are you directly putting them into modern language? JERRY JENKINS: It's a little bit of the latter. If it's not in symbolic or figurative language, just as a matter of exercise, we take it as literally as possible, and that seems to have been what makes this series a phenomenon, that people tend to understand difficult Biblical passages they didn't understand before because they were trying to understand them allegorically, and if you do that, you could probably get 200 different interpretations. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there has been, in recent years, a sort of backlash against the Left Behind series, not just in the secular press but among Christian thinkers, theologians who object to your reading of Revelations. They say that your portrait of a vindictive savior who returns to Earth to slaughter unbelievers by making their heads explode and their tongues dissolve in their mouths is just wrong. JERRY JENKINS: Yeah. These are people either who haven't read the series or haven't read the Bible. I mean, we didn't make that stuff up. That is in the Scripture. And it isn't that he's vindictive. It's that finally it comes to the point where his patience has run out and justice is meted out, because for thousands of years he's tried to get people's attention. They've ignored everything else.
And some people have said, well, would a loving God send somebody to hell? In essence, he's not sending anybody. He's inviting everybody to join him and go to heaven, and if they disagree and choose their own way, then that happens to be the result. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, is that how you want your readers to engage with the novels, as prophecy, as inspiration or as entertainment? JERRY JENKINS: Really all three. I mean, we have never shrunk from the idea that we have a message. We believe these are true events that will happen someday, and we want people to be ready. Now, we realize in an age of pluralism, in an age of tolerance, that this can be a very offensive message and, you know, that a lot of people will laugh at it, a lot of people will scoff, many will disagree. And, you know, what they do with the message is really up to them.
We're just glad we live in a country where we're free to espouse our views and we can compete in the marketplace of ideas. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So over the years there have been a lot of attempts by the secular press to get their heads around the Left Behind phenomenon and its enormous popularity. What do you think the media most often miss or get wrong about the series? JERRY JENKINS: Well, one of the things that I think has been really unfortunate is that I notice that some people who don't read the series hear what they think the series is about from other people, and they make judgments on our motives or on our feelings that are really incorrect.
I mean, we believe that Jesus is the way to God, and we believe he said that. I don't understand why it's that way, and it might sound exclusivistic and it might sound mean-spirited, and you say, well, what about well-meaning people of other faiths. That breaks my heart. And I know wonderful people that don't agree on this, and my fear is, from what I read, that I might not see them in eternity, and I want to.
And so when people say, oh, these guys are gloating, they've got the answer and somebody else doesn't, and they're going to heaven, everybody else is going to hell, that is a fear of ours, but it's certainly not something we gloat about and, you know, put our thumbs in our lapels and look down on people. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given what you said the ultimate purpose of this series was, to warn people, to get them to change their behavior, did you ever feel the need to sort of dumb the story down or sex the story up in order to garner the biggest audience possible? JERRY JENKINS: Well, first of all, the warning isn't to get people to change their behavior, because our theology is that it's not behavior that has anything to do with it. It's belief. It's whether you believe that Jesus is the way to God or not. And I've often said that some of the people that are left behind are nicer people than the people who go. But we're all sinners and some are saved by grace.
But no, I never wrote these thinking about the audience or the size of the audience. When we first wrote it, we thought we had something special and it might sell 100,000 or 200,000 copies. But for it to cross over and sell tens of millions – people often say, how do you sit down and write a bestseller? You don't. If you're thinking that way, you're going to wind yourself in circles trying to do that.
As far as dumbing it down, I've been [LAUGHS], I’ve been criticized for being a pedestrian writer. I'll never be accused of being a literary writer. You know, I'd love to be smart enough to write a book that's hard to read, but I write for people like me. I'm a pedestrian reader. I love to read a good story that keeps me turning the pages. And so, basically I'm writing the story for myself and hoping there's lots of people like me out there. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jerry, thank you very much.
JERRY JENKINS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jerry Jenkins is the co-author, with Tim LaHaye, of the Left Behind series. The 16th and final installment, Kingdom Come, hits bookstores this week.