Left Behind: 5. The Theology and Biblical Politics of Tim LaHaye

CTheory Books: Left Behind


Religion, Technology, and Flight from the Flesh

Stephen Pfohl

The Theology and Biblical Politics of Tim LaHaye

Tim LaHaye, the most influential contemporary proponent of dispensational theology, was born in Detroit, Michigan. LaHaye’s gregarious father Frank died when Tim was still a boy. Frank’s death left his family financially impoverished, if not poor in spirit. “I thought the world had come to an end,” states Reverend Tim LaHaye in an account published in Time.[1] This tragic event proved decisive in the subsequent development of LaHaye’s dispensational worldview. “My love for second-coming teachings, particularly for the Rapture of the Church, was sparked as I stood at my father’s grave at the age of nine. His sudden death of a heart attack left me devastated. My pastor, who was also my uncle, pointed his finger toward heaven and proclaimed, ‘This is not the last of Frank LaHaye. Because of his personal faith in Christ, one day he will be resurrected by the shout of our Lord; we will be translated to meet him and our other loved ones in the clouds and be with them and our Lord forever.'”[2]

LaHaye worked as a teenager during the Depression to provide financial support for his family. He finished high school by taking evening classes, and later attended a Bible Institute in Chicago. In 1944, at age seventeen, Tim enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, serving in Europe as a machine gunner aboard a bomber.[3] After completing military service, LaHaye attended Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Founded in 1927, Bob Jones was widely renowned as a leading — if unaccredited — center for fundamentalist Christian higher education. All students at Bob Jones were “obliged to take at least one Bible course each semester, to attend chapel, to adhere to a ‘Christian’ lifestyle, with strong rules governing dress, social interaction, and dating.” While at Bob Jones, LaHaye began his Christian ministry by serving as the pastor of a small church in nearby Pumpkintown, South Carolina. Tim also met and fell in love with Beverly Jean Ratcliffe, a fellow student at Bob Jones University, who was also from Detroit. Tim and Beverly dated for a year before marrying. During their courtship the LaHayes obeyed their university’s official “no touching” policy, a rule specifying that couples were at all times to maintain a physical distance of no less than six inches. LaHaye was later awarded the Doctor of Ministry degree from Western Theological Seminary.

In 1958 Tim and Beverly moved to San Diego. Tim assumed the duties of pastor at Scott Memorial Church in San Diego, where he would serve for twenty-five years. Under LaHaye’s guidance, the congregation at Scott Memorial grew exponentially from 275 to over 3,000 members. For some time, like other fundamentalist and dispensationalist Christians, Pastor LaHaye maintained a posture of relative disengagement from political life and from American secular culture. Following defeat and public ridicule associated with the 1925 Scopes trial, fundamentalists had for several decades withdrawn from the political sphere. They, instead, directed their energies toward building a strong and largely regional religious subculture in the southern U.S. The results were impressive. By the 1960s local evangelical churches were growing at a rate of 8 percent every five years, while membership in mainstream dominations declined precipitously.[4]

The withdrawal of fundamentalists from forays into popular culture in the second quarter of the twentieth century represented a departure from earlier efforts to use technologies of mass publishing and modern communications as vehicles for spreading the word about biblical prophecy. In the later nineteenth century, Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday led large urban revivals that brought the gospel beyond the walls of traditional churches. Moody and Sunday called for church ministries based on “business models,” in order to most effectively communicate the Bible’s message. A related call was issued in 1947 with the publication of Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Rather than withdrawing from mainstream culture, Henry urged fundamentalists to use new technologies of mass communication as a new kind of contemporary evangelism.[5] Henry’s book converged with efforts initiated by the newly founded National Association of Evangelists to produce what sociologist Christian Smith refers to as “engaged orthodoxy” — “a socially relevant form of evangelism that still held to the fundamentals of faith without smothering it beneath waves of defensiveness.”[6]

Bolstered by an increasing strength in numbers and by the apparent success of early televangelism, by the later half of the 1970s fundamentalists had begun to reenter the battle against mainstream culture. Fundamentalists were also outraged by what they perceived as an alarming growth in secularism during the 1960s and by a string of “Godless” Supreme Court rulings, especially the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. With this as background, the time appeared ripe for fundamentalists and prophecy believers to become political activists. LaHaye took the lead, arguing that “humanists would ‘destroy America’ within a few years, ‘unless Christians are willing to become more assertive in defense of morality and decency.'”[7]

LaHaye quickly established himself as a prominent religious spokesperson within the extreme right wing of Southern California’s political culture. Expressing concern about the evil character of the United Nations and the prospects of an emerging one-world government, LaHaye was a regular speaker at training sessions of the John Birch Society. LaHaye’s activist ministry also helped make Southern California a hotbed of conservative Christian politics, preparing the grounds for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 successful presidential campaign. “In the next dozen years, LaHaye built a veritable Christian empire: three churches, twelve elementary and secondary schools, a Christian College, an anti-evolution think tank called the Institute for Creation Research, the Pre-Trib Research Center to promote his views on how the world will end, and Family Life Seminars, a lecture program on sex, marriage and Christian living — all while writing dozens of books. The Act of Marriage, a 1976 best seller co-authored with Beverly LaHaye, is an explicit Christian sex manual, condemning ‘petting,’ abortion and homosexuality.”[8] By 2002 over 2.5 million copies of The Act of Marriage were in print.

While less visible to the general public than other conservative Christian activists, such as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, or Jerry Falwell, in 2001, LaHaye was named most influential evangelical leader over the last twenty-five years by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelists.[9] Troubled by court decisions permitting abortion and restricting prayer in public schools, LaHaye founded the church-based political alliance Californians for a Biblical Majority in the later 1970s. This inspired subsequent Evangelical Christian efforts at political mobilization. As Reverend Jerry Falwell recalls, “I found out that he’d done something no conservative minister had ever done before: He’d organized hundreds of churches into a political bloc. At the time, I’d never heard of mixing religion and politics… More than any other person, Tim LaHaye persuaded me to begin thinking through my involvement.”[10]

In 1979, with Falwell, LaHaye was instrumental in founding the Moral Majority, serving for years as an original board member of this powerful conservative Christian organization. In 1981, with Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, he helped found the enormously influential Council for National Policy. The highly secretive CNP is a unique coalition of ultra-conservative political activists, committed evangelicals, and wealthy donors. Its members have raised literally billions of dollars for right-wing Christian political causes. Notable billionaire donors include Coors Beer Company executive Joseph Coors, Texas oil baron Nelson Bunker Hunt, and Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway.

Other CNP members, whose names have been leaked to the press, constitute “a virtual Who’s Who of the far right,” including former Attorney Generals Edward Meese and John Ashcroft, Senators Jesse Helms, Lauch Faircloth, Don Nickles, and Trent Lott, Texas Congressmen Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Christian Radio Network founders Stuart Epperson and Edward Atsinger, as well as Gary Bauer, Oliver North Jr., Grover Norquist, Wayne LaPierre, and Phyllis Schlafly.[11] “The late Rousas John Rushdoony, the right-wing theologian who hoped to reconfigure the American legal system in accordance with biblical law, was said to be a member, as was John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, who was co-counsel to Paula Jones in her lawsuit again Bill Clinton.”[12] Activities sponsored by elite members of the Council have included funneling dollars to assist Lt. Colonel Oliver North Jr.’s clandestine efforts on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras during the 1980s, as well as the orchestrated attack on President Bill Clinton during the 1990s.[13]

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, LaHaye’s public political fortunes receded temporarily. Following his appointment as Co-Chair of the “Jack Kemp for President” Committee, in 1988 the Baltimore Sun published a report suggesting that LaHaye’s theological predilections were decidedly anti-Catholic. The Sun cited passages from LaHaye’s 1974 book Revelation: Illustrated and Made Plain, that declared Catholicism a “false religion.”[14] LaHaye resigned from his position in the Kemp campaign. Avoiding the limelight for a time, LaHaye directed his energies in a more traditional theological manner. Worried about recent attacks on the biblical tenets underlying dispensational thought, and inspired by the nineteenth century prophecy conferences that had sparked John Nelson Darby’s vision, in 1992, with Dr. Thomas Ice, LaHaye convened a “Pre-Trib Study Group.” In 1993 Ice and LaHaye founded the Pre-Trib Research Center in Arlington, Texas.

In 1995 LaHaye returned to the public eye with the publication of the first of the Left Behind novels. The incredibly popular Left Behind books would prove to be the most successful manifestation ever of a long-established tradition of evangelical mass publishing. LaHaye has authored or coauthored several other works of fiction, including the initial volumes of Babylon Rising, a new series co-authored with Greg Dinallo. Tim LaHaye has also written over fifty nonfiction books, including thirteen volumes dedicated to biblical prophecy.[15] The eighty year old former pastor is also the head of the American Coalition for Traditional Values and, with his wife Beverley — herself an author and influential spokesperson for the Christian right — a strident opponent of the evils of secular humanism, feminism, gay rights and other so-called “diseases” of our culture.[16] In 1979 Beverly LaHaye founded the 500,000 member Concerned Women for America.[17]

In 1999, under the auspices of the Council for National Policy, Tim LaHaye convened a committee composed of some two-dozen prominent fundamentalists to vet the candidacy of presidential hopeful Texas Governor George W. Bush. Calling itself the Committee to Restore American Values, the group was concerned that, despite “born-again” credentials, Governor Bush had failed to advance a sufficiently evangelical agenda. Meeting “behind closed doors, LaHaye grilled the candidate. He presented Bush with a lengthy questionnaire on issues such as abortion, judicial appointments, education, religious freedom, gun control and the Middle East. What the preacher thought of Bush’s answers would largely determine whether the Christian right would throw its muscle behind the Texas governor.”[18] Impressed that Governor Bush shared the Committee’s activist evangelical concerns, LaHaye expressed enthusiastic support for the candidate.

Due, in no small part, to a willingness to enter the popular culture of book publishing, Tim LaHaye is today an extremely prominent leader of the U.S. Christian right. LaHaye is also a notable contemporary exponent of premillenial dispensationalism. In 1992 LaHaye authored No Fear of the Storm, an exposition and defense of dispensational theology.[19] How close are we to the “end of times?” According to Reverend LaHaye, we are “just a miracle away.” Of particular importance to LaHaye and other dispensationalists is the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, along with Israel’s victory over its Arab neighbors in the mercurial 1967 “Six Day War.” At the conclusion of the war, the Israeli flag was placed — at least temporarily — above the sacred Muslim Dome of the Rock. Seizing the Dome of the Rock — also the legendary site of Israel’s ancient temple — was of particular significance for prophecy believers. According to LaHaye, the possibility of Israel rebuilding its ancient temple looms as a major sign that the final days are upon us.

For LaHaye, the return of the Dome of the Rock to Israeli control signifies “the most impressive fulfillment of Bible prophecy in twenty centuries! … The fact that the last fifty years has seen a worldwide regathering and reestablishment of the nation of Israel — which is now poised in precisely the setting required for the revealing of the Antichrist and the start of the Tribulation — is God’s grand indicator that many other current world developments are prophetically significant.”[20] Guided by LaHaye’s vision, and crafted by writer Jerry B. Jenkins, the Left Behind books provide a dramatic fictional portrayal of LaHaye’s theological vision. The novels also include numerous references to biblical “proof texts,” intended to ground the series’ narrative in the literalness of God’s word. According to LaHaye, the novels were inspired by a real-life incident that took place sometime in the 1980s. LaHaye was aboard a commercial airliner when he noticed a pilot flirting with an attractive flight attendant. The pilot was wearing a wedding ring. “LaHaye asked himself what would happen to the poor unsaved man if the long-awaited rapture were to transpire at that precise moment.”[21]

The incident on the plane led LaHaye to imagine casting the prophetic message of End Times in fictional form. LaHaye made contact with Jerry B. Jenkins, a writer-at-large at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Within a short time their collaboration was underway. While the theology underlying the series is most closely associated with LaHaye, sentence-by-sentence the texts are the work of Jenkins. Before collaborating with LaHaye, Jenkins had already authored over one hundred books. Eleven of his works have been included on the New York Times best-sellers list. Jenkins is also a former vice-president of the Moody Bible Institute and founder of the Christian Writer’s Guild. Jenkins has also written nonfiction works on issues pertaining to marriage and family, earning him regular appearances on Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio broadcast. In addition, Jenkins has also authored biographies of a number of well-known sports figures, including Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Nolan Ryan, and Orel Hershiser, as well as a biography of Billy Graham. Jenkins is also the author of the nationally syndicated Gil Thorpe sports comic strip.

Rick Christian, LaHaye and Jenkins’s literary agent, had considerable difficulty in finding a publisher for the proposed multi-volume series. Despite the popularity of Hal Lindsey’s The Great Planet Earth two decades earlier, none of the major houses projected sufficient sales for novels depicting Christian struggles during End Times to justify a significant investment. “Finally, LaHaye’s nonfiction publishing company, Tyndale House, put up $50,000, boasting that it could market the [initial] book well enough to sell half a million copies.”[22] The rest of the story is publishing history. To date the Left Behind books have brought over $650 million to the coffers of Tyndale House Publishers, with sales growing from $40 million to $160 million per year. Authors LaHaye and Jenkins have earned in excess of $50 million apiece.


[1] John Cloud, “Meet the Prophet: How an Evangelist and Conservative Activist Turned Prophecy into a Fiction Juggernaut,” Time Magazine, July 1, 2002. p. 50.

[2] Tim LaHaye, The Rapture: Who Will Face the Tribulation, p. 69.

[3] Biographical information on LaHaye is drawn from Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Rolling Stone Magazine, January 28, 2004. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/_/.

[4] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Random House, 2000. p. 275.

[5] Ibid., pp. 19-21. See also, Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[6] Glenn W. Shuck, Marks of the Beast, p. 203. See also, Christian Smith, American Evangelism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago; University of Chicago press, 1998.

[7] Tim LaHaye, The Battle for Mind, quoted in Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, p. 274.

[8] Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Rolling Stone Magazine, January 28, 2004. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/_/.

[9] Craig Unger, “American Rapture,” p. 204.

[10] Falwell is here quoted in Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Rolling Stone Magazine, January 28, 2004.

[11] Adam Price, “A Higher Frequency: How the Rise of Salem Communications’ Radio Empire Reveals the Evangelical Master Plan,” Mother Jones, December 2005. p. 50.

[12] Craig Unger, “American Rapture,” p. 217.

[13] Ibid.

[14] John Cloud, “Meet the Prophet: How an Evangelist and Conservative Activist Turned Prophecy into a Fiction Juggernaut,” p. 52.

[15] Bantam Dell publishers provided LaHaye and Dinallo with a $42 million advance to develop the Babylon Rising books. The novels revolve around the adventures of an Indiana Jones-like archeologist and biblical scholar, whose global pursuit of biblical artifacts promises to reveal religious prophecies not addressed by the Left Behind books. See, Tim LaHaye and Greg Dinallo, Babylon Rising. New York: Bantam Books, 2003.

[16] See, for instance, Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism New York: Random House, 2000. pp. 310-312.

[17] Like her husband, Beverly LaHaye has also written works of Christian fiction. See, for instance, Beverly LaHaye and Terri Blackche, Seasons Under Heaven. Grand Rapids, MII: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999. In this novel a young child’s life-threatening illness tests the marriage and faith of a quiet suburban couple, challenging them to strengthen or discover anew their faith in Jesus Christ.

[18] Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Op sit.

[19] Following the appearance of the first three Left Behind books, Tim LaHaye’s No Fear of the Storm was revised and republished as Rapture Under Attack. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 1998. Earlier popular cultural depictions of dispensationalism include Hal Lindsey, with Carole C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth; and the 1972 film A Thief in the Night.

[20] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times? Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999. pp. 53-54.

[21] Craig Unger, “American Rapture,” p. 217.

[22] Ibid, p. 218.

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