The first book (from which the series takes its name) deals with the Rapture occurring as millions of Christians are taken away into heaven by Jesus in a moment of time. The novel then explores the impact on those who are left behind trying to find out what has happened, what will happen next, and what they can do as seen through the eyes of a few people who eventually come together to form a small group and prepare themselves for the coming Tribulation and the rise of the Anti-Christ.
The book struck a chord with the Christian community and – surprisingly for a Christian work, though possibly due to interest in the Book of Revelation among the public at large – reached many non-Christians as well, selling over 15,000,000 copies. Although originally planned to be a three-book series, it was expanded to twelve books, culminating with the return of Christ, and became one of the best selling book series ever produced, selling over 63 million books. Later three prequels and a sequel (the final book covering the Millennial Reign) were added to the canon, making a total of 16 books.
As is common with Christian works that become successful, it was given poor reviews by many critics for its Christian-specific themes instead of being more generic and all inclusive, a standard that is seldom applied to non-Christian works.
- The Rising (first prequel)
- The Regime (second prequel)
- The Rapture (third prequel)
- Left Behind (the first book in the series)
- Tribulation Force
- Soul Harvest
- The Indwelling
- The Mark
- The Remnant
- Glorious Appearing (originally the last book in the series)
- Kingdom Come (sequel)
In addition, LaHaye and Jenkins wrote 40 short novels under the Left Behind: The Kids title. Two additional authorized spin-off series were also written: a four-volume series by Mel Odom titled Left Behind: Apocalypse, and a three-volume series by Neesa Hart titled Left Behind: End of State.
- Rayford Steele - 747 captain for Pan-Continental in his mid-forties. He is member, but non-attender at New Hope Village Church; Mount Prospect.
- Chloe Steele Williams, Rayford's daughter who is a student at Stanford University in her mid-twenties and skeptical of Christianity. Her mother and brother were taken to Heaven in the rapture. Chloe resides in California. In the canon, she marries Buck Williams and they have one son together.
- Cameron "Buck" Williams (played by Kirk Cameron in the first three films) - journalist and senior writer for Global Weekly from New York who authors the Newsmaker of the Year story on Chaim Rosenzweig.
- Bruce Barnes - assistant pastor at New Hope Village Church in his mid-forties who must lead new congregation
- Joshua Todd-Cothran - international financier, head of London Stock Exchange
- Jonathan Stonagal - international financier and wealthiest man in history
- Ken Ritz - charter pilot
- Chaim Rosenzweig - Israeli botanist and statesman who discovers a formula that makes Israeli deserts bloom; former Global Weekly Man of the Year. He eventually becomes a believer and leads the Jewish Remnant at Petra
- Steve Plank - publisher of the Global Weekly; old-school journalist; Cameron's boss.
- Hattie Durham - flight attendant in her late twenties, works with Rayford at Pan-Continental.
- Nicolae Jetty Carpathia - president of Romania in his mid-thirties who was invited to speak at the United Nations; he ultimately is revealed to be the Antichrist.
- Stanton Bailey - publisher of Global Weekly.
- Leon Fortunato - Nicolae's "right hand man," the False Prophet
The film would be followed by two sequels and a reboot:
- Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002)
- Left Behind: World at War (2005)
- Left Behind (2014)