CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Real estate agent Dave Eschenbach is an active member of his church, but he feels uncomfortable around a sizable portion of U.S. Christians -- those who believe they could be transported to heaven at any moment.
Several years ago, Eschenbach had a boss who scheduled meetings around the rapture, the term for an event that around 20 percent of U.S. Christians believe is imminent.
"One day he announced to the employees that they probably wouldn't be there next week because of the rapture," Eschenbach said of his former boss. "His church had decided that the rapture would happen that week."
The belief has been fueled by the bestselling "Left Behind" novels, which tell how Christian believers will soon be whisked to heaven -- leaving clothes, dental fillings and eye-glasses behind -- while others are left behind to fight the anti-Christ in preparation for the return of Jesus Christ.
Eschenbach is a member of Cincinnati's Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral, a mainstream Protestant church. When it hosted a Webcast of a New York conference on rapture theology, he and about 50 others signed up to participate.
Speakers at the conference, organized by the Episcopal Church's Trinity Institute, minced no words in their attempt to turn a tide that has swept much of middle America.
"The rapture is a racket," said Barbara Rossing, whose 2004 book, "The Rapture Exposed," criticizes rapture theology as unbiblical.
Rossing, a Lutheran minister and teacher at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, said fiction that focuses on Armageddon -- the ultimate battle between good and evil that follows rapture -- is popular in the United States because it plays into American fear.
"The (Iraq) war isn't going well, there is great anxiety about oil, the economy, the sense that jobs are going overseas," Rossing said in an interview. "The specter of more events like Hurricane Katrina ... is terrifying."
In Cincinnati, Rev. Canon Joanna Leiserson said members of her Episcopal congregation started asking about the rapture when "Left Behind" books, movies and games flooded onto the market.
Before the books, Leiserson said, mainstream Christians paid little attention to the Book of Revelation, the part of the Bible that mentions Armageddon.
"The mainstream churches haven't avoided (Revelation) as much as we just didn't think it was that big of a thing, until the fundamentalist churches started making a big production out of it," she said.
For Leiserson, Revelation is a story about Jesus confronting the evils of the Roman Empire. To help counter the rapture tide, she is developing a Sunday school curriculum to teach kids that Jesus loves everyone and would not leave anyone behind.
"We were asleep at the switch for too long, and fundamentalists rushed in to speak to this vacuum. Now we've got to reclaim it," said Rossing, the Lutheran minister.
Rossing called on fellow moderates to write their own novels about God's love -- though she admits that story might not sell as well as the violent plot of the "Left Behind" books, which have sold more than 43 million copies.
Tim LaHaye, co-author of the "Left Behind" series, said Americans like his books not because of the violence, but because they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
"Surprisingly enough with all the liberal brainwashing they've got in public education, most people that claim to be Christians have a tendency to believe the Bible," LaHaye said in an interview.
Moderate Christians will never come up with a story that can compare, he said.
"They are just liberal, socialists, really, and they don't believe the Bible," LaHaye said. "What they probably will come up with is a plausible explanation from their liberal standpoint to satisfy their adherents that are reading our series and liked it. But it will be inferior because the story will be inferior."
The success of the graphic novels is just one indication of the strength of belief in rapture, Armageddon, and the subsequent second coming of Jesus Christ. A 2006 survey for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 79 percent of American Christians believe in the second coming, with 20 percent believing it will happen in their lifetime.
Skeptical Christians at the Cincinnati conference said they don't always know how to respond when confronted by those who swear the rapture is imminent.
"Because one of our goals is to be very tolerant, it is sometimes hard to go to the public. There is limited means to get the message out," said Shirley Wang.
Christian moderates also tend to view their fundamentalist cousins with an indulgent wink, more comfortable joking about the rapture than trying to change their minds.
Rossing said her students once left piles of clothes on their chairs to make her think they'd been raptured.
A popular bumper sticker reads "In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned." Skeptics counter with an irreverent "Come the Rapture, can I have your car?"