“The single best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s was not The Joy of Sex or even The Joy of Cooking; it was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth.”1 It was declared by the New York Times to be the “no. 1 non-fiction bestseller of the decade.”2 Estimates put sales at more than 15 million copies before the close of the decade. Since then, it has sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide and remains in print today as evidence of Bible prophecy’s staying power even in light of its shop-worn predictions. “As Lindsey says himself, ‘The future is big business.’”3
When 1988 came and went with no “rapture,” sales of prophecy books began to drop. It was an era of prophetic disappointment. Dave Hunt, another writer who has made his reputation with prophetic pot-boiler books, offered this analysis of the prophecy scene:
During the 1970s, when The Late Great Planet Earth was outselling everything, the rapture was the hot topic. Pastors preached about heaven, and Christians eagerly anticipated being taken up at any moment to meet their Lord in the air. When Christ didn’t return after 40 years since the establishment of a new Israel in 1948 without the fulfillment of prophesied events, disillusionment began to set in.4
But this was the lull before the storm. Tyndale published Left Behind, the first of a 16-volume series (1995–2007) of prophetic novels written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. They became immediate best sellers.
Prophetic novels were not new. Many people are surprised to learn that left-behind type novels have been around for nearly a 100 years.5 Sydney Watson’s Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915), In the Twinkling of an Eye (1916), which had gone through 25 printings by 1933, and The New Europe (1915) are early examples of the serialization of fictional prophetic themes seen through the lens of current events, the moral state of the nation, anti-Catholic fervor, and destabilized world politics. In the Twinkling of an Eye anticipated the LaHaye-Jenkins title and theme with these lines: “Think of what that will mean, unsaved friend, if you are here to-day. Left! Left behind!”6
Fortunately for prophecy writers, prophecy readers have short memories and almost no historical sense on how often Christians have claimed that the end was near and told the world in a plethora of books – fiction and non-fiction alike.
Most of the mainline publishers will publish a book or two by a well known prophecy writer. Like Lindsey said, “the future is big business.” These publishers are in business to make money. Sensational prophecy books sell. According to Jim Fletcher, writing for World Net Daily, Michael Hyatt, Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers, stated that “less than four percent of the company’s accounts brought in 90 percent of the revenue.”7 What’s a publisher to do? Publish books that people will buy whether they are theologically accurate or not. That means prophecy books.
The biggest Christian prophecy publisher today is Harvest House. There are dozens of titles from a few authors. This week I got Ron Rhodes’ Unmasking the Antichrist and Mark Hitchcock’s Middle East Burning. The only thing different about these new books is the newspaper headlines used to sell them. I’ve been reading this type of prophetic drivel for nearly 40 years. I have a library full of the stuff.
How much more can be said about the antichrist? There’s a new candidate every political cycle. Dave Hunt wrote the following in 1990: “Somewhere at this very moment, on planet Earth, the antichrist is almost certainly alive — biding his time, awaiting his cue.”8
Lindsey wrote something similar in 1977 that it was his “personal opinion” that “he’s alive somewhere now. But he’s not going to become this awesome figure that we nickname the Anti-Christ until Satan possesses him, and I don’t believe that will occur until there is this ‘mortal wound’ from which he’s raised up.”9 In 1980 he restated this conviction. “[T]his man [Antichrist] is alive today — alive and waiting to come forth.”10
Hitchcock’s Middle East Burning is just another repetitive prophecy book that presents the same tired old arguments that have been refuted so many times that I’ve lost count. Most of the end-time projections revolve around Russia as a major end-time antagonist. This means a significant amount of time spent on Ezekiel 38 and 39. For Rhodes and Hitchcock, Russia is the key and the Gog-Magog prophecy is the door to the prophetic future. Two centuries ago it was France.
For a more biblical and historical approach to the topic, I would like to recommend my book Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future. I don’t make money on the sales of any of my books. Not a penny.
Don’t be sidetracked by prophetic speculators. We have a job to do in the here and now.
- Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 93. [↩]
- Quoted in Nancy A. Schaefer, “Y2K as an Endtime Sign: Apocalypticism in America at the fin-de-millennium,” The Journal of Popular Culture 38:1 (August 2004), 82–105. [↩]
- Quoted in “Welcome to America’s wildest holy rollers,” Features Section, The Independent on Sunday (London, England) (November 6, 2005). [↩]
- Back cover copy of Dave Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988). [↩]
- Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 205–207. [↩]
- Sydney Watson, In the Twinkling of an Eye (New York: Fleming H. Revell,  1933), 134. [↩]
- Jim Fletcher, “Are Christian Retailers a Dying Breed?,” WND: http://www.wnd.com/2012/02/are-christian-retailers-a-dying-breed/ [↩]
- Dave Hunt, Global Peace and the Rise of Antichrist (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1990). [↩]
- “The Great Cosmic Countdown: Hal Lindsey on the Future,” Eternity (January 1977), 80. [↩]
- Hal Lindsey, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon (King of Prussia, PA: Westgate Press, 1980), 15. [↩]