You may know this phrase—Late Great Planet Earth—as the title of a book. It was written fifty years ago and sold more than 35 million copies. Which of course made a lot of money for the author (Hal Lindsey) and the publisher (Zondervan).
I was a buyer back then, being a college student immersed in religion and preparing for a career in ministry. The book and everything it represented was all the rage: politics and prophesy, scripture and secrets, public affairs, even world affairs—it was all bound up in this seemingly seamless interpretation of what God was doing in the world.
After reading the book, I went to Israel and stayed almost a full year. I bought a Vespa scooter and traveled every mile and mountain of the land, much of which you cannot get to these days. Archeology, geography, geology, and theology: all wrapped into one year, overlaid by this veneer of end-of-the-world scenario.
The thesis was this: since God had gathered his Chosen People (the Jews) back to the Promised Land and empowered them to defeat the Arabs (both Muslim and Christian) for control of the Land, it was clear that the end of the age (the Church Age, according to Dispensationalism and the Scofield Reference Bible) was at hand. At the right time, so very near, Jesus would appear and snatch out of the world all of the true Christians (as opposed to false or nominal Christians, which was generally understood to be anybody but Evangelicals). Then would commence a long period of trial and trouble on the earth led by the Anti-Christ.
This snatching was known as the Rapture and was popularized by a painting depicting a plane crashing into an urban landscape as the pilots were “snatched away” into heaven. Which, evidently, was a risk you took when you boarded a plane whose pilot was an Evangelical Christian. I don’t recall anybody really checking on that when they bought a ticket, or even how that might be done.
Hal Lindsey and his ghost writer Carole C. Carlson went on to write other books, such as The Liberation of Planet Earth and The Terminal Generation. They helped shaped the religious imagination of millions of people, including Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Their 16 volumes of Left Behind novels were published between 1995 and 2007 and dominated the market, selling an estimated 50 million copies worldwide.
Four films, two video games, and several spin-off book series followed.
For many of us, this fanciful pre-occupation with the end of the world through an event known as the Rapture is dismissed as silly, a self-serving misinterpretation of the Bible. But for others, it became Christian orthodoxy, far more important than ancient creeds or modern confessions, more influential than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. rolled into one—actually, more significant than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit considered separately or together (which we call the Trinity).
It became THE ORTHODOXY and is the chief ideological component of the way the todays Evangelicals and Pentecostals look at the world and its immediate future. This is why moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was so important; this is why holding up the Bible and laying hands on the President is so important; this is why declaring the United States as a Christian nation is so important.
This is also why social conditions that concern the rest of us seem not to phase these prophecy-formed faithful. Poverty, racism, and war never seem to shape either the religion or the politics of this tribe. They are not concerned about global warming, altered DNA, and the sordid history of native peoples, neither here nor anywhere. Nothing matters, except this not-too-secret scenario of the end of the age. This indifference puzzles the rest of us, but here it is—the explanation of what makes them see the world and the nation in the way they do.
There are songs that gather up this understanding of things. The secular version is the Creedence Clearwater Revival stomp, “Bad Moon Rising”. The religious version is “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”, a track on the very first Christian rock album, released 51 years ago: “Upon This Rock”, by Larry Norman.
Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson are old people now, having gotten wealthy on predictions that proved false. The rest of us, however, are the poorer for it. We are suffering through the worst year since the Depression and the World War, largely because those put in place to lead us and those out in places to follow are still distracted (and deluded) by a book published a half century ago.