The Late, Great Planet Earth was published in 1970 and was the best selling "non-fiction" book of that decade. It remains popular, selling 10,000 copies a year. At the time of this writing, it enjoys an Amazon.com Sales Rank of 21,129.
This is remarkable primarily because Late, Great is a work of prophesy, and all of its prophecies had been proven wrong by 1988.
Author Hal Lindsey claimed to rely primarily on a literalist interpretation of the New Testament book of Revelations, though he was really fueled by a creative reading of many of its passages. He concluded that Jesus was about to return to Earth, and that his return would bring the End Times predicted in the New Testament.
The lynchpin to his predictions was the 1948 founding of the State of Israel. Working from that, Lindsey calculated starting dates for specific events he perceived as being promised in the Bible, including the rise of a single world religion, a Soviet-Ethiopian invasion of Israel, and the obliteration of Tokyo, London, and New York. He confidently predicted that a seven-year period of tribulations would begin in 1982 and that the world would be utterly destroyed by 1988.
The book was vastly influential. Some Christian religious schools used it as a textbook. It is probably responsible for the popularity of the idea of a "rapture", that Jesus will cherry-pick his favorite Christians to come fly around in the sky with him while we poor sinners perish in the End Days. Prior to Lindsey, this idea had little currency. Nowadays, it is widely adopted by evangelical American Christians.
There is no way to develop meaningful literalist interpretations of highly symbolic sections of the Bible, including Revelations. Even the relatively straightforward historical sections of the bible contain gross mathematical errors and obvious metaphors. First Kings 7:23 tells us that Pi is equal to 3. (I don't care how good his King Solomon's architects were; the number is still 3.14159...). Isaiah 40:3-5 tells us that at the time of Jesus's first visit, "every mountain and hill [was] made low; the crooked places [were] made straight." It's hard to buy this as a literal event; I've seen too many mountains that aren't low and too many crooked places that aren't straight.
As happened with other prophets of the End Times, Lindsey persuaded a lot of people to change their lives in anticipation of Jesus's return. People postponed marriages, deferred school, and most importantly, did nothing that would have implied planning for the long term, because they expected that there would be no long term. This would all be a curious footnote to the 1970s if not for the End Times industry that Lindsey spawned, and the real threat that it poses politically. The idea that Jesus is about to return has sold millions of books for Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, Grant Jefferies, Jack Van Impe, and other like them. Most of these folks predicted that it would all end on December 31, 1999 but they have of course since amended their views.
This sort of eschatology is dangerous, because if you believe that the world is going to end, there is no need to preserve the environment, or feed starving people. It's all going to be wiped away when Jesus stops by, right? Senior American politicians since the 1980s, including Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, and many cabinet officials, believe the End Times story, and they have little reason to oppose wars in the Middle East. In fact, they welcome such wars because they presage the Second Coming.
Hal Lindsey followed The Late, Great Planet Earth with a number of other books, all of which had titles like "There's a New World Coming: An Indepth Analysis of the Book of Revelations" or "Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth", but none of which sold as well as the original. He is wealthy, and collects classic Corvettes.
The book was also the basis for a 1978 pseudo-science documentary narrated by Orson Welles. The film included some non-biblical predictions, including Nostradamus, the Jupiter Effect, and so forth. It also predicted 1988 as the end of the world.
The destruction of the World Trade Center by Arabs on September 11, 2001 sparked a career revival for Lindsey. Shortly thereafter he created a self-promotional website at www.hallindseyoracle.com Check it out for yourself.
Harper's Magazine, February 2000
The Late Great Planet Earth, 1970