February 27, 1996
Robert Amram’s film The Late Great Planet Earth, a 1979 documentary based on the 1970 book of the same name by Hal Lindsey, tries to act as a bridge of sorts between time periods. It purports to predict the future based on writings from the past, and it relies on an eclectic array of stock footage, dramatic recreations, interviews with “experts”, and “voice of God” narration to establish a link between the unseen future and the obscured past. Simultaneously, it is very much a product of its own time, and it acts as a record of sorts of the paranoias and social movements that typified the 1970s. It also represents, in some tangential way, a key aspect of the rise of Christian pop culture.
That a book with an explicitly evangelical worldview could become such a best-seller — nineteen printings and 1,200,000 copies in its first two years (Lindsey 2), and 15,000,000 copies in total twelve years later (Ostling 73) — let alone become a feature film starring Orson Welles as its narrator, is suggestive of this rise in the Christian subculture’s profile. The nonfiction approach of Lindsey’s book was complemented by a fictitious film series that began with A Thief in the Night and continued through three sequels. These also coincided with the rise of the so-called “Jesus People” and the beginnings of what would come to be known as Christian Rock; in both these movements, a concern with the “end times” and its various events — the Rapture that would cause all Christians to vanish from the earth, the rise of a worldwide dictator called the anti-Christ, the implementation of an economic system that would force people to wear barcodes on their heads and hands, the final war popularly referred to as Armageddon — was evident. The songs of Larry Norman, who is hailed today as the “father of Christian Rock”, referred frequently to the Rapture, most famously in the song ‘I Wish We’d All Been Ready’ written in 1969:
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
But there’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind
This focus on the “end times” persisted into the 1980s. A Christian country-rock band, Daniel Amos, devoted an entire side of their 1977 album Shotgun Angel to a mini-rock opera on the subject, including the Rapture song ‘Lady Goodbye’ and ‘He’s Gonna Do a Number on You’, a title that played on both the anti-Christ’s treachery and the numerical “mark of the beast” that he will supposedly force everyone to wear; in 1986 the band released a slightly expanded version of the mini-opera entitled The Revelation, a pastor’s spoken interpretations of the Bible’s apocalyptic passages spliced between the songs. Also in the mid-1980s, the first Christian Rock music video to be shown on MTV, by a band called DeGarmo & Key, was entitled ‘Six Six Six’ (ironically, at a time when the Parents Music Resource Centre was threatening to censor secular recordings, the video was initially held from airplay because it depicted the anti-Christ’s violent death). A comic book was based on Lindsey’s follow-up book There’s a New World Coming, and a fairly common T-shirt boasted the slogan, “In case of Rapture, this T-shirt will be empty.”
This emphasis on the “end times” even found expression in the American presidential debates of the 1984 campaign, during which a panelist asked Ronald Reagan if “we are now heading, perhaps, for some kind of nuclear Armageddon”. Reagan’s response, that “a number of theologians for the last decade or more have believed that this was true, that the prophecies are coming together that portend that,” prompted protests from more liberal theologians who said that Lindsey and evangelicals of his ilk were fostering a dangerous climate in which nuclear war was seen as inevitable and “reconciliation with America’s adversaries” was thought to be “ultimately futile” (Ostling 73). (Cf. Lindsey’s comment in the film to the effect that “it is our fear of war and lack of faith” that makes the rise of the anti-Christ possible.)
This sort of nuclear paranoia was evident in secular culture as well — witness the TV films The Day After and Threads — and it co-existed with other contemporary fears, which The Late Great Planet Earth exploits as well. Although the book focuses almost exclusively on matters of politics and religion, the film adopts an anything-goes approach that is meant to leave the audience thinking that the world is woefully out of control and, since the Bible knew this was all going to happen far in advance, the only way out of this mess must be to become a Bible-believing Christian. Thus the film pays more attention to the role of the population explosion and numerous warnings about man-made damage to the environment, its narrator Welles intoning that “it’s almost as if we had an unconscious desire to see the prophecies fulfilled.” However, the film does not limit itself to dissipating ozone layers, uncontrolled swarms of Brazilian bees, or the pollution of the waters; it also stops just short of predicting that the alignment of the planets in 1982 will cause solar flares and other “portents in the heavens” that could unleash ecological disasters, as per Luke 21:25. (Needless to say, this particular disaster did not happen.)
A similar modernizing interpretation is applied to Bible quotations that are narrated over images of current military technology. Welles recites verses that seem to describe artillery (“from the throne issues flashes of lightning and voices and peals of thunder”), bombs (“great hailstones, heavy as 100 pounds”), and underground explosions (“the sky vanished and every mountain and island was removed from its place”). A meteor that would fall and afflict the waters (Revelation 8:10-11) is, in Lindsey’s view, an intercontinental ballistic missile. And a prediction that people’s flesh would be consumed while they are standing on their feet (Zechariah 14:12) is, according to Lindsey, a description of thermonuclear war.
The possibility that these descriptions might be poetic or metaphorical for something other than twentieth century technology or events seems to elude both Lindsey and Amram. Consider their interpretation of Luke 21:25 as a reference to the gravitational pull of the aligned planets in 1982. That passage may speak of portents in the heavens, but similar prophecies were interpreted in a strictly metaphorical sense at the earliest levels of Christianity: Joel 2:30-31 predicted a darkened sun and a moon turned to blood, and this passage is quoted by Saint Peter in Acts 2:19-20 as a prediction of Pentecost, the traditional birth of the Church, without one hint that these celestial events actually transpired. Even conservative Christian scholars such as N.T. Wright argue that such passages are metaphorical, similar to our modern descriptions of stock market crashes and the like as “earth-shattering events”:
When we read a passage which says that “the sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall not give their light”, we ought to know … that the passage will not go on to say that “the rest of the country will have sunny intervals and scattered showers”. The language simply doesn’t work like that. … “Earth-shattering events” are, in fact, sometimes more important, historically and politically speaking, than mere earthquakes. (Wright 55)
Lindsey himself seems to recognize the need to read some passages metaphorically, but he applies the principle selectively, and imaginatively. Lindsey quotes David L. Cooper approvingly:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context … indicate clearly otherwise. (Lindsey 50)
But Lindsey then goes on to assume that a reference to a fig tree in Matthew 24:32 must signify the creation of the modern Israeli state in 1948 (Lindsey 53) and that the “clouds of heaven” on which Jesus will descend according to Matthew 24:30 — a fairly literal detail, given that both Jesus and the clouds would be in the sky at the same time — is actually a reference to “the myriads of believers who [will] return in white robes with Jesus” (Lindsey 173).
Amram’s film tries to bridge the gap between the text’s literal meaning and Lindsey’s modern interpretations by juxtaposing stock images of reptiles and tanks, horses and tanks, and ancient soldiers and modern platoons, all within the dramatized context of the apostle John watching a vision of the future. The film recognizes 666, the number of the Beast (Revelation 13:18), as symbolic of a man who attains some sort of divinity, at least in the eyes of other humans (with “six” being man’s number and “three” being divine), but then the film lapses into a hokey literalism, showing us a computer as it calculates the numerical value of the names of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and others. (It is worth noting, however, that many scholars believe the original passage referred to “Nero Caesar”, whose name in Hebrew had a numerical value of 666; Suggs 1567.)
The standard evangelical response to the social, ecological and political crises of the day was not a call for peace, disarmament, or environmentalism, but for religious conversion. The reasons for this were twofold. First, peacemakers, lauded as they might be in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9), were distrusted by evangelicals who foresaw the anti-Christ as one who would hide behind a mask of peace; when Billy Graham entered the apocalyptic fray in 1983 with his book Approaching Hoofbeats, his call for peace had to be worded extremely carefully, lest other evangelicals accuse him of being a “pacifist” (cf. Graham 132). Lindsey himself says in the film The Late Great Planet Earth that the Arab nations would lull Israel into a false sense of security by signing a peace treaty: “If this treaty is signed, the countdown will begun,” Lindsey predicts. (In a similar vein, another author argued at length that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was “history’s most likely candidate for the Antichrist” because of his 1980 treaty with Israel [Relfe 132-156]; he was assassinated shortly thereafter.)
Secondly, by the mid-1980s, it was commonly believed that the Rapture was bound to happen in the imminent, even immediate, future — 1988 being the Rapture’s most frequently predicted date — and it was considered imperative for Christians to convert as many new believers as possible before they missed their chance to escape the catastrophes that would come with the rule of the anti-Christ. Lindsey himself carefully avoids predicting an exact year for the Rapture, but in both the book and film versions of The Late Great Planet Earth, he is clearly sympathetic to those who would hold to such a date. Speaking directly to the camera, Lindsey says, “I believe this dictator is probably alive right now … unaware of his fatal future role in the destiny of mankind.” Orson Welles tells the audience that 70 percent of the Bible’s prophecies have already come true, and that “the remainder are expected to be fulfilled in our lifetime.” And in his own book, Lindsey writes:
What generation [would experience the end times predicted in Matthew 24:34]? Obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs — chief among them the rebirth of Israel. A generation in the Bible is something like forty years. If this is a correct deduction, then within forty years or so of 1948, all these things could take place. (Lindsey 54)
The purpose of this documentary, then, is to assert that those forty years are nearly over, and that the viewer’s best hope for survival is to become a Christian, though this last point is oddly left for the viewer to deduce on his or her own. (Lindsey’s book is more direct, telling the reader to pray for God’s forgiveness “right now wherever you are”; Lindsey 186.)
In this regard, one could argue that writer/director Robert Amram is working in a manner similar to that in which Sergei Eisenstein worked on Strike, as described by Bill Nichols. Like Eisenstein’s film, Amram’s tries in some sense to make us “enter a realm in which we actively coalesce an array of fragments to bring into imaginative being a world that does not yet have historical existence and is therefore incapable of empirical documentation” (Nichols 110).
Hal Lindsey and Robert Amram find their fragments in the stock footage, sidewalk interviews, news headlines, and scriptural interpretations they put into their film; while there is some shepherding of the material, whether through Lindsey’s interpretations or Orson Welles’ narrations, the viewer is meant to coalesce the wide range of subjects, film forms, and basic data into a perceived yet non-empirical “world” in which an anti-Christ already exists unknown simply because at some point in the immediate future he must become known, and since this anti-Christ exists, the evangelical Christian worldview is confirmed and the viewer is expected to make some life-changing conclusions. The purpose of The Late Great Planet Earth is not to transform world events, which the filmmakers believe to be fated beyond human control anyway; rather, the purpose is to transform the individual viewer, or at least to leave the viewer “disposed to action” (Nichols 108) of a particular sort.
One of the film’s more curious aspects is the brief mention it makes of witchcraft and eastern cults — or, as Lindsey calls them, “false religions.” These, the film seems to say, are merely cashing in on the fears of 1970s America, while Lindsey and this film are not. Indeed, so far does Lindsey go to distance himself from the “false religions”, that he actually claims in his book that “Christianity is not a religion”:
Religion is the process of man trying to achieve goodness, perfection, and acceptance with God by his own efforts. Christianity, on the other hand, is God taking the initiative and reaching for man. (Lindsey 115)
In this manner Lindsey hopes to distance himself from the other voices of the age who claimed to give answers to the social ills of the decade. But in marshalling so many of the popular consciousness’s fears and concerns behind the dubious interpretations featured in both book and film versions of The Late Great Planet Earth, Lindsey ultimately remains as much a product of his popular culture, secular or Christian, as the spiritual opportunists he would denigrate.
Books and magazine articles
- Graham, Billy. Approaching Hoofbeats. Minneapolis: Grason, 1983.
- Lindsey, Hal (with C.C. Carlson). The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970. [19th printing March 1972]
- Nichols, Bill. Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
- Ostling, Richard N. “Armageddon and the End Times.” Time, November 5 1984, p. 73.
- Relfe, Mary Stewart. When Your Money Fails… Montgomery, AL: Ministries, Inc., 1981.
- Suggs, M. Jack, etc., ed. The Oxford Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Wright, N.T. Who Was Jesus? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.
- The Late Great Planet Earth (dir. Robert Amram, RCR Productions, 1979)
- Daniel Amos. Shotgun Angel. Costa Mesa, CA: Maranatha! Music, 1977.
- Daniel Amos. The Revelation. Santa Ana, CA: Frontline Records, 1986.
- Norman, Larry. White Blossoms from Black Roots. San Jose, CA: Solid Rock Records, 1988.