CHICAGO -- An assassination. Mass disappearances. A war of Apocalyptic proportions. Takeover by the dreaded Beast.
It has the elements of a big-screen thriller, and though a film adaptation is not yet in the works, ''The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession'' has proved to be one blockbuster of a book.
The latest in a series of novels derived from the Bible's Book of Revelation, the book by retired evangelical minister Tim LaHaye and writer Jerry Jenkins has sold more than 2 million copies since its release in May. It has been No. 1 on The New Times fiction best-seller list for a month and held the top spot on the Amazon.com best-sellers list in April, based on advance orders.
Lynn Garrett, religion editor for New York-based Publishers Weekly magazine, said no other Christian fiction book has ever debuted on the Times' list at No. 1, as ''The Indwelling'' did -- and the newspaper's list doesn't count sales by religious bookstores.
''That was a historical breakthrough for this type of book,'' Garrett said.
The book is the seventh installment in LaHaye and Jenkins' ''Left Behind'' series of tales about the Apocalypse. Since the initial book, titled ''Left Behind,'' was published in 1995, the series has generated Harry Potter-like sales of about 17 million copies.
At first, the authors had not planned to write a series, said Jenkins, a best-selling writer of dozens of sports biographies who also helped the Rev. Billy Graham write his memoirs. ''But the second book sold twice as fast as the first and each succeeding one has done in two weeks what the other did in six weeks,'' Jenkins added.
So he and LaHaye developed a 12-title saga to flesh out their end-of-the-world view of the Bible.
In ''The Indwelling,'' the Book of Revelation converges with science fiction in a tale that focuses on Rayford Steele, a commercial airline pilot who is among those left behind to combat evil in the wake of the Rapture, God's removal of true Christians from the earth prior to Jesus' Second Coming. Steele is also a suspect in the assassination of Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist and a former United Nations official.
Ultimately, Carpathia is resurrected and regains control following a battle between Heaven and Earth.
The basis for the string of apocalyptic plot twists is Dispensationalism, an offshoot of Evangelical Protestant theology followed by many Evangelical Christians, including Jenkins and LaHaye. They believe the Rapture will be followed by a Tribulation, a seven-year period that will be ruled by the Antichrist before it is ended by an Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.
Evangelicals such as Jenkins, 50, and LaHaye, 74, believe that the reoccupation of Israel by Jews must occur before the Second Coming can take place and that the founding of Israel in 1948 fulfills the prophecy.
Dispensationalists have held this view of biblical prophecies since the early 19th century, and Jenkins and LaHaye are among those who say their interpretation of the Book of Revelation is literal. The authors, however, are not comfortable being called fundamentalists, according to their spokeswoman.
Thousands who believe in the Doomsday depictions of Jenkins and LaHaye post messages daily at the Left Behind Web site, proclaiming their devotion to the authors' books. But Garrett said she believes that devotees of the authors' ideology are only partially behind the series' phenomenal success.
''The biggest thing to me is that a lot of the people buying the books are not Evangelical Christians and may not even understand the theology behind them,'' Garrett said. ''Most people just find them a ripping yarn, a good story.''
The books were written with mainstream appeal in mind, Jenkins said.
''This is our message. But it has to work as fiction,'' he said. ''We believe (the Tribulation scenario) to be true and that it will happen someday. But if it looks like preaching or teaching, it would not work.''
Whatever the perception, the Left Behind series has been a source of spiritual awakening for some fans.
Linda Nehmer, a 50-year-old employee of a Milwaukee-based managed-care company, considers herself a Christian, but she doesn't believe that biblical proof of a Second Coming exists. Even so, she said, the series ''has gotten me to pray more -- just in case.
''I think the reason why I stay with it is the cliffhangers at the end of each book,'' Nehmer added. ''Jerry and Tim seem to grab you and keep you there. I have to keep telling myself that this is fiction.''
Although some have attributed the Left Behind success to end-times concerns tied to the new millennium, Jenkins is quick to point out that most successful installment was released after Jan. 1.
''Besides, there is nothing in the books that says something about the year 2000,'' Jenkins said. ''Jesus told his disciples that even he didn't know when he was going to come back.''
Mark Noll, a professor at Wheaton College who specializes in the history of Christianity in North America, said the Apocalypse and its attendant messages have compelling appeal to many people. ''I think people in this age and every other age want some understanding in an eternal sense of what's happening now and in a sense, these books will do that for people,'' Noll said.
The publisher, Tyndale House of Carol Stream, Ill., plans to add more fuel to the ''Left Behind'' mania with the release of ''The Mark'' in November.
On the Net: Left Behind message board
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