A Thief in the Night

A_Thief_in_the_Night_posterToday, as part of a course on religion and film, I had the opportunity to discuss the 1972 film A Thief in the Night with a group of religious diverse undergraduate students.

My church — a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that straddled the worlds of evangelical and mainline Protestantism — did not screen the film when I was a teenager. We were encouraged to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, but not because the world was about to end or because we might be left behind to suffer the assaults of Satan after the rapture. So while thousands or millions of American evangelical young people watched A Thief in the Night in the 1970s and 1980s (the film’s producer claims that in all, three hundred million people have seen the movie), I watched it for the first time this week.

Here are a few thoughts:

– Laugh and groan all you want. It’s no small accomplishment to make a $60,000 film and have millions of people see it. A Thief in the Night is certainly one of the very few most significant evangelical movies ever made. As Randall Balmer observes, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that A Thief in the Night affected the evangelical film industry the way that sound or color affected Hollywood.”

– People make films for all sorts of reasons. The primary purpose of A Thief in the Night was evangelism, to persuade nominal Christians to make a heart-felt prayer asking Jesus to come into their hearts. What the film intended to do it apparently has done rather well. “I have found,” writes Heather Hendershot in her Shaking the World for Jesus, “that A Thief in the Night is the only evangelical film that viewers cite directly and repeatedly as provoking a conversion experience.” Many successful altar calls followed screenings of the film.

– At the same time, even a film such as A Thief in the Night is not only evangelism and theological instruction. Evangelicals have long found apocalyptic speculation captivating. Apocalyptic novels and films appeal to a certain evangelical niche just as science-fiction appeals to a certain (large) segment of society as a whole. Hence, the millions of Left Behind sales.

– Even if you do not intellectually accept the film’s particular brand of apocalyptic theology, it’s still powerful. Even though my church did not espouse this theology, I absorbed some of it in the broader world of parachurch evangelicalism. Thus, the premise that believers will be “caught up” to “meet the Lord in the air” retains its fundamental drama for me. I frequently read that A Thief in the Night scared a generation of evangelical children and teenagers. I believe it. And I get scared when any movie scene involves snakebites.

– Sometimes I wonder exactly why premillennialism became so central to post-Civil War (and especially post-WWI) American evangelicalism. Certainly, the fact that the world often seemed poised on the point of collapse contributed. I also speculate that as life expectancies grew and as young people in particular envisioned long lives in front of them, the idea of the rapture provided a new spur for evangelism. Fear of the imminent rapture/tribulation replaced the fear of an imminent death for many preachers and listeners.

– The evangelical embrace of the pre-tribulation rapture presupposes a rather stark divide between true, committed Christians and nominal (read mainline, liberal) Christians. Perhaps the most significant antagonist / villain in A Thief in the Night is Reverend Turner (no relation to me), played by the film’s producer Russell Doughten. It is interesting to think about how evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism have defined themselves in large part through mutual opposition over the past seventy years or so. I think the mutual antagonism is a bit softer today than it has been in years past, but the basic framework remains.

– Anyone who wonders why so many Americans deeply suspect the U.N. (in addition to the venerable American fear of distant, undemocratic tyranny) should watch A Thief in the Night or read the Left Behind novels.

– I don’t enjoy hearing anyone but Larry Norman singing “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”


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  • David

    “Sometimes I wonder exactly why premillennialism became so central to post-Civil War.” Because there was a movement back towards people reading their Bibles as is evidenced by the Bible Conference Movement. When people read just read thier bibles (OT and NT) they end up premillennialists.

  • J. Inglis

    I remember seeing A Thief in the Night, and related films in my youth, but I don’t remember that it had any effect on me at all. Neither my church at the time (Baptist) nor my family was particularly concerned with millenialism or the apocalypse. My limited recollection (which goes to show how unaffected I was by it), is that I saw it in the same way I saw any fictional TV show or novel: an entertaining work, set in a world much like mine except for the one conceit or plot device that is needed to drive the story (like science fiction, which is like our real world except for a few essential differences (like time travel, or faster than light travel, or alien races). I do remember, however, being excited about going to see it and loved being entertained by it, because my mother was quite rural and conservative and I wasn’t allowed to see a secular movie in a movie theatre until I was 13.

    Anyway, like John Turner I was only indirectly affected by The Thief in the Night, and I have a little difficulty grasping how so many people were so greatly affected, scared even, by that movie and its theological propositions / claims. It’s like I’m meeting, or reading about, people from a different planet.

  • John Turner

    Yes, premillennialists read the Bible and understand it as God’s Word. However, most Christians throughout the ages who have read the Bible and understood it as God’s Word have not been premillennialists, and certainly not premillennialists along the lines of the folks discussed in this post. See, for example, Jonathan Edwards.

  • JL Schafer

    yes, provided they are reading their Scofield Bibles

  • RustbeltRick

    It was a huge event at our church. It was an early trafficker in the fear-based end times conservative politics that evangelicals glommed onto like ants at a picnic.

  • David

    The Scofield was first published in 1909.

  • David

    I’m sure we’d both agree that it’s difficult to read the Bible without the presuppositions that are inherent to our traditions. However, I would submit that when a person reads the Bible from cover to cover without additional input or information, they end up with a future for Israel and a millennial kingdom where Christ reigns on this earth.

    I don’t mean that disparagingly toward other positions. But you ask a good question regarding the rise of premillennialism after the Civil war and I think the Bible Conference movement of the late 19th century and its push towards English Bible reading should be considered as a contributing factor.

  • JL Schafer

    Good point. But it was a major reason why premillennialism spread in the 20th century, no?

  • Samuel Lawson

    I can’t do millennialisms. I’ve read it. I grew up surrounded by pre-millennialists. Apocalyptic movies are loads of fun, but I never saw anything in any kind of millennialism. I came to the conclusion a couple decades ago that the events of Revelation, Daniel, and the rest of the eschatological texts have already happened while at the same time continue to happen outside our understanding of time. If anything, we’re in a figurative millennia now that won’t end until time ends at the end of each of our respective lives. It’s just one way of understanding what the heck John’s acid trip was about. The message is the same: Be ready. Thankfully, only God can make us ready, and He’s already done it.

    Pre-millennialists don’t bother me though — they get the same benefit: a way to chase after God. It’s only a minor annoyance when they insist on tracking world events on a chart built from a literal reading of a figurative text, and it’s only offensive when one insists that believing in the rapture is a requirement to being Christian. Only a few go that far. If the stories make people think about eternity, then the stories are worthwhile.

  • christinaarcher

    It”s just a way of saying (or rather screaming inwardly) ” I don’t like the way (my life) is, and I wish things were different (for me).” That is all. It is one of the most self-centered paradigms created by Christians.