The latest of the "Left Behind" novels, "Glorious Appearing," has been a phenomenal success at the book stores.
Its central audience are the estimated 100 million Americans who call themselves evangelical Christians – and their influence on politics is undeniable. In the last election, 40 percent of the votes for George W. Bush came from their ranks.
And Hollywood, including the television networks, is also getting the message - at least the obvious financial message that stories about Jesus, the Bible and belief can generate billions.
An example: Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" was again No. 1 at the box office this past Easter weekend. So far, it has grossed more than $350 million.
Why this sudden surge of religiosity? In this 60 Minutes Classic, Correspondent Morley Safer went back to two men who've been profiting from the "Left Behind" series for years: Jerry Jenkins and Rev. Tim LaHaye, who among other things co-founded The Moral Majority, with Rev. Jerry Falwell, in 1979.
"I don't think the media had really caught on to what's been going on in the last 30 years in America," says Rev. LaHaye.
"An enormous number of people have come to faith in Christ and consider themselves evangelical Christians. And these are the people buying, reading and distributing our books."
LaHaye and Jenkins have written a series of best sellers, best known as the "Left Behind" novels. All together, there are 58 million books in print, and another 20 million in spinoffs. Plus, the "Left Behind: The Kids," audio books and comic books are all worth more than $100 million in annual revenues.
Their latest book, "Glorious Appearing," sold 2 million copies before its publication date in March. It's also No. 1 on this week's New York Times bestseller list.
Safer caught up with LaHaye and Jenkins in Texas last week on what they call a fan appreciation tour.
Mel Gibson clearly realized there was a passion for his version of the life and death of Jesus – and this comes as no surprise to the authors of the "Left Behind" novels.
"There's no question God was in this," says Jenkins, whose credits include ghostwriting the autobiographies of numerous prominent Christians, including the Rev. Billy Graham.
Jenkins says the success the "Left Behind" series has "had from a worldly standpoint, and then also from a spiritual standpoint - we've long since passed the point where we would consider it anything but folly to take any human credit for it."
The books give a graphic version of the New Testament prophecy of the end of the world, happening in our time, in which only the righteous are saved. "Glorious Appearing" tells the story of an avenging Jesus who slaughters non-believers by the millions.
And it's an image of Jesus that many evangelicals say is long overdue. "Unfortunately, we've gone through a time when liberalism has so twisted the real meaning of Scripture that we've manufactured a loving, wimpy Jesus that he wouldn't even do anything in judgment," says LaHaye. "And that's not the God of the Bible. That's not the way Jesus reads in the Scripture."
"The Biblical stuff is as close to the Bible interpretation as we can get. But if they are not people who read the Bible, they don't know which is which," says Jenkins.
"And so they say we sort of invented this violent Jesus. That stuff is straight from the Bible. The idea of him slaying the enemy with the sword, that comes from his mouth, which is The Word, and the fact that the enemies eyes melt in their heads, their tongues disintegrates, their flesh drops off, I didn't make that up. That's out of the prophecy."
But in LaHaye and Jenkins' world, only true believers survive. The "Left Behind" sagas begin with a mysterious event on an airplane. A third of the passengers on a transatlantic flight suddenly disappear, leaving only their clothes behind.
It's an event evangelicals call the Rapture, when every true believing Christian and every child under the age of 12 will vanish in an instant to a better place. All others will face tribulation.
"It could happen at any moment. It could happen, as we like to say, during this interview. Like that. Bang," says Thomas Ice, who might be called a professor emeritus of the Rapture. He runs the Pre-Tribulation Research Center out of his garage in a Dallas suburb. It's a one-man think tank funded by LaHaye and dedicated to preparation for the last days on earth.
"There is a lot of debate on whether, you know, artificial body parts and contact lenses and clothes would be left behind or not. But the body would definitely be taken," says Ice.
That's what happens to believers. But the rest of humanity is condemned to suffering - and eternal damnation.
"That's what the Bible teaches. There are going to be many Southern Baptists, for example, or many Presbyterians, or many Catholics, or people who are part of Christendom," says Ice. "But if they haven't personally trusted Jesus Christ as their savior, even if they're life-long members of a church, you know, then they will be damned."
People who believe in the Rapture believe in the Bible - word for literal word.
"The Bible says what it means and it means what it says," says Don McWhinney, an oil executive from Dallas.
60 Minutes II discussed the "Left Behind" books with McWhinney and three other evangelicals. And for these readers, the characters in these novels are quite real.
"These are people, just like you and me. These are people, just like I was before I met Christ as my personal savior. If the rapture had come before I accepted him, I would have been left behind," says Becky, an evangelical. She is confident now that she won't be left behind when the Rapture comes.
And so do McWhinney, LaHaye and Jenkins.
"After the Rapture, I hope our books will become even more popular than they are right now, as people begin to say, 'Hey, I heard about those books. I didn't pay any attention before, but now the Rapture's taken place. I'd better read them, and find out how to get ready,'" says LaHaye.
Rev. Barbara Rossing, a biblical scholar, teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She spent a year studying the "Left Behind" novels, and now, she's written her own book, "The Rapture Exposed," designed to debunk the theories of LaHaye and Jenkins.
"You can piece together that vengeful warrior Jesus. You can find him here and there. But the heart of the Bible, the overwhelming message, even in the Book of Revelation, is a non-violent lamb who conquers, not by killing people, but by giving his life," says Rossing, who believes that the "Left Behind" authors are marketing a false view of the Bible.
"The message of Revelation is that oppression will be ended. They take the message and personalize it to evildoers. They make this an us vs. them kind of theology. If you're not with us, you're against us. They forget the message of the Bible is that each person is created in the image of God."
Rossing says the "Left Behind" novels are not based on the Bible, but on a relatively recent interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
"It was developed by this British preacher John Nelson Darby, not even 200 years ago," says Rossing. "And now it's become so ascendant in our culture that people think this is what the Bible says. But it isn't."
However, LaHaye and Jenkins say their novels are all based on Scripture - and that their novels are as much about the U.S. as they are about the Bible.
"There's a good reason for that. I think if Jerry and I were cut, we'd both bleed red, white and blue," says LaHaye. "We believe that God has raised up America to be a tool in these last days, to get the Gospel to the innermost parts of the Earth."
And fans of the books, who gather in the thousands, believe that LaHaye and Jenkins have all the answers.
"Well, we know that we're right, so we just present our position," says LaHaye. "No, we represent that branch of evangelical Christianity that believes in interpreting the Bible literally."
The "Left Behind" novels are based on the Book of Revelation. But Rev. Peter Gomes, a Baptist theologian at Harvard University, and one of the country's preeminent Christian thinkers, says the Book of Revelation has questionable roots.
"It's the only book of all the Scripture written in a kind of metaphorical, metaphysical code. It's unlike any Gospel, unlike any poetry or history," says Gomes. "And it's called Revelation, because it's the inside of the head of this fellow John. And some people have said the inside of the head of a man who was filled with splendid and glorious hallucinations."
So why does this book have such particular appeal for evangelical Christians?
"One of the things we know about this book is that it is written in a period of intense persecution of the church. And so the theme that runs through it is what happens to the faithful if they stand up for their faith," says Gomes. "They will be marginalized, persecuted, terrible things will happen to them in the short term. But in the long run, they will triumph. And those who persecute them will be destroyed."
He says this would not only act as some kind of solace, but also encouragement for believers.
Politically, these have been good times for evangelicals. And back in the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush left no doubt about his evangelical convictions when he said that the political philosopher and thinker he most identified with was Christ: "He changed my heart. When you accept Christ as your savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life."
"Evangelicals have been on the cultural defensive, but they have waited in the wilderness, and now, in the fullness of time, they have come into possession of what they felt was once rightfully theirs," says Gomes.
"With the White House and – and Tom DeLay in the House of Representatives, the attorney general, talk radio, the conservative Fox News. These are parts of the righteous army that has finally come into its own."
But in a country that is home to millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians who believe otherwise, such exclusivity can take on the appearance of extremism, especially when you add politics and patriotism to the gospel.
And the events of Sept. 11 gave an even greater urgency to believers and some non-believers?
"9/11 was a wake up call to America. Suddenly, our false sense of security was shaken. Now we realize we're vulnerable. And that fear can lead many people to Christ," says LaHaye.
"I see many signs of the Lord's return. This could be the generation that's going to hear Jesus shout from the heaven, and we'll respond, to be with him. And you don't want your loved ones to be left behind."
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.