Many of the books, films, music and TV shows that make up the parallel universe of the Christian entertainment industry are keyed to the idea of Judgment Day. Odd, writes Peter T. Chattaway — the Rapture is a modern concept with virtually no basis in the Bible
Until it was released in theatres in the United States three weeks ago, Left Behind — an apocalyptic thriller filmed in Ontario and based on a best-selling series of novels by evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins — was heavily promoted as the breakthrough film that Christian movie buffs had long been waiting for. The eight books in the series to date have sold over 30 million copies, and the film, which stars former teen idol Kirk Cameron as a TV journalist and Flight of the Intruder star Brad Johnson as an airline pilot, reportedly cost $17.4 million to make — though how much of that was spent on promoting the film, and not on the actual production, is a matter of some debate.
Still, here at last, went the hype, was a religious movie with a respectable budget, an indie hit that would combine evangelism and entertainment in one slick, professional package. Peter Lalonde — a former televangelist who, together with his brother Paul, has spent the last few years producing a lucrative franchise of straight-to-video titles aimed squarely at the Christian market — even said he hoped that Left Behind, which he co-wrote, would top the box office on Feb. 2. And while that was always an exaggerated expectation, it seemed likely the film would at least land somewhere in the top 10. The Omega Code, an earlier movie starring Michael York as the Antichrist that was produced and promoted by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, caught Hollywood off-guard when it did just that in October 1999, despite opening on only 304 screens. Left Behind, by comparison, premiered on 867 screens, and had lots of advance publicity in the secular press, which by now had sensed a trend and, to coin a phrase, did not want to be left behind.
Alas, the film came nowhere close to meeting its objective, opening in 17th place, then dropping down the box-office charts. As of this writing, it has grossed a mere $3.7 million, and it will probably not boost its numbers much beyond that when it opens in Canada next Friday. Many reasons could be cited for the film’s lacklustre performance, but the most significant may be that it was released on video almost four months ago, and has already sold about three million copies. At the time, Lalonde said he wanted to give church audiences a preview so he could enlist their support for the film’s theatrical release; nearly every theatre that showed the film in the U.S. was sponsored by local Christians to the tune of $3,000 per screen. But the video release may have cut into box-office performance; evangelicals, like other moviegoers, aren’t inclined to pay for a movie ticket when they’ve already got a copy of the film at home.
This is probably only a temporary setback, though. Megiddo, the sequel to The Omega Code, is due to be released this fall, with Michael York returning as the Antichrist and Michael Biehn (who starred in most of James Cameron’s films in the 1980s) joining the cast as the U.S. president. Judgment, an apocalyptic movie produced by the Lalondes and starring 1980s TV stars Corbin Bernsen and Mr. T, will land on video shelves in March. And there is talk of a new film based on the second book in the Left Behind series — but this time, says a spokesman for the Lalondes, it will go straight to theatres.
These films are just the latest products of an evangelical subculture that has simmered beneath the surface of mainstream pop culture for at least the past three decades. Ironically, although these films are intended, in part, to give non-Christians an opportunity to learn more about the faith, they tend to dwell on a set of beliefs about biblical prophecies and the end of the world that is highly controversial even within conservative Christian circles.
The outline followed by all these films goes something like this: In an instant, all the true Christians in the world will vanish, in an event known as the Rapture. As the world panics and wonders what to make of the sudden disappearances, a man will emerge from somewhere in Europe and dazzle the entire planet with his charisma and his plans for peace, particularly in the Middle East. He will, of course, turn out to be the Antichrist, and after he has rebuilt the Jewish temple, he will proclaim himself God, and demand that the world worship him. Finally, after the Antichrist has reigned for seven years, Jesus will return and defeat him, and judge all of humanity.
Belief in the Rapture is so pervasive among evangelicals — who pride themselves on their literal interpretation of the Bible — that many don’t realize it is a relatively recent doctrine with little, if any, basis in the scriptures. Most articles on the Left Behind series have said it is based on the Book of Revelation, but this is only partly true. The worldview reflected in these books and films can be traced back to the teachings of John Nelson Darby, a former Anglo-Irish priest who founded the Plymouth Brethren sect in the 19th century, and whose views were popularized on this continent by the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. Darby tried to synthesize the Bible’s many prophetic passages within a scheme he called dispensationalism. He believed that world history, past and future, was divided into distinct eras, or dispensations, and that God had a different way of dealing with humanity in each of them.
Like a number of Christians, Darby was a “premillennialist”; that is, he believed the world would have to endure seven years of great suffering before Jesus could return and reign over the Earth in person during the Millennium. However, it was Darby who introduced the Rapture. Before the seven years of suffering could begin, Darby believed Jesus would scoop up all the true believers and take them to heaven, so that they could avoid the horrors of the Antichrist’s reign.
Darby’s views were not widely accepted at first. Most Christians, following the lead of Saint Augustine, were either “amillennialists” — that is, they believed the Millennium should be understood as a metaphor for the age of the Church — or “postmillennialists,” who believed that it was up to Christians to perfect the world and thus usher in the Millennium themselves. According to this view, Jesus would return after the Millennium had already taken place. (In more recent years, Christians who refuse to get sidetracked by this debate have quipped that they are “panmillennialists” — that is, they believe it will all “pan out” in the end.)
Most evangelicals were postmillennialists, and it was this belief that fuelled their efforts on behalf of the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, and so on. But by the early 20th century, they were growing discouraged, as missionaries met with resistance overseas and churches back home turned to more liberal interpretations of the Bible. The Christianization of the world seemed increasingly unlikely, and in the 1920s, fundamentalists were pushed even further to the margins of society, following the public-relations disasters of Prohibition and the Scopes trial. The idea that God would remove all the true believers and then exact his judgment on the rest of the world appealed to an increasingly marginalized community.
Instead of saving the world, some evangelicals began to get involved in activities that would bring the world closer to its end. Dispensationalists believed that the Jews would return to Israel some day, and some of them campaigned on behalf of the Zionist movement. In 1948, their efforts were successful, and the modern state of Israel was created. For many evangelicals, the end of the world was now just around the corner. And when the world went through the massive social, spiritual, political and economic upheavals of the late 1960s, Hal Lindsey popularized dispensationalism once again in a book called The Late Great Planet Earth, which came out in 1970 and became one of the hottest books of the decade, selling over 18 million copies; a film based on that book and narrated by Orson Welles was produced in 1979.
This worldview has had all sorts of political and social consequences. In 1981, James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, famously told Congress that there was little point in protecting the environment, since the Second Coming could be just around the corner. Until last year, Bob Jones University forbade interracial dating on the grounds that “genetic blending” would play into the hands of the Antichrist and his plans to unite the Earth under a one-world government. And although Jesus himself blessed peacemakers, many evangelicals are suspicious of peace talks, especially in the Middle East. In his film, Lindsey chastises his audience for its “fear of war and lack of faith,” and he gravely predicts that the Arab nations will lull Israel into a false sense of security via a peace treaty: “If this treaty is signed, the countdown will begin.”
Even secular pop culture caught the end-times bug. In 1976, 20th-Century Fox released The Omen, a supernatural thriller in which Gregory Peck plays a diplomat who discovers that Damien, the boy he adopted several years ago, is actually the son of Satan himself. The film has its share of Hollywood hokum, and the producers were mainly interested in looking for creatively gory ways to bump off the hapless individuals who stumble across Damien’s true identity, but the script does make references to the modern state of Israel and the rise of the European Common Market, both of which were key pieces in the end-times puzzles of that time. The Omen was followed by two sequels, Damien: Omen II (1978) and The Final Conflict (1981), in which Damien grows up to become a ruthless businessman, played with hilarious, scenery-chewing gusto by a young Sam Neill. The trilogy concludes with the return of Christ, but first Damien meets his end in one of the more anticlimactic denouements in film history. There is no great showdown between good and evil; instead, after traipsing through three films packed with pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, Damien dies at the hand of a lover who stabs him in the back.
So much for Hollywood. Beneath the mainstream radar, evangelicals were busy creating a popular culture of their own, and dispensationalism figured prominently in it. Having dabbled in a number of religious movements, hippies and others of that generation began turning to Christianity, and the belief that the world was facing an imminent judgment fit quite nicely with their counter-cultural attitude. Nearly every early Christian rock band emphasized the Rapture to some degree, beginning with Larry Norman’s ‘I Wish We’d All Been Ready’ in 1969. Norman envisioned a coming economic disaster, in which “a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,” while others used the Rapture to criticize American materialism. In Servant’s ‘Suburban Josephine’, a woman loses her religious zeal and settles for the cosy life of a housewife; the Rapture takes place while she’s busy watching The Price is Right. In 1985, DeGarmo & Key’s ‘Six Six Six’ became the first Christian music video to get airplay on MTV; ironically, its depiction of the Antichrist’s death was so violent it was initially banned by the network.
The Rapture was featured in novels and comic books as well, but for those of us who grew up in that culture, nothing seared its way into our memories like the low-budget movies that were shown in church basements and occasionally on television. The best known by far were A Thief in the Night (1972) and its sequels A Distant Thunder (1977), Image of the Beast (1981) and The Prodigal Planet (1983) — all of which exploited evangelical fears about the government, multinational corporations, global warming, the shortage of food and gasoline, the rise of computers, the spread of liberal theology and, eventually, nuclear war.
The most interesting thing about this series is how it mirrors the change in attitude among evangelicals over the dozen years or so in which it was produced. In the early 1970s, evangelicals were not yet a political force to be reckoned with, and the films had no solution to the world’s problems beyond offering viewers an escape plan. But the last two films, which coincided with the rise of the Moral Majority and the election of Reagan, show believers — that is, people who became Christians after the Rapture — taking matters into their own hands and opposing the Antichrist’s godless government.
In more recent years, the evangelical subculture has proved enormously profitable, in mainstream venues as well as exclusively Christian ones. Most Christian record labels and publishing houses are now owned by secular companies, and it is not uncommon to find bands like P.O.D. and Sixpence None the Richer on movie soundtracks or playing at mainstream music festivals. Christian novels such as the Left Behind books have been known to top the New York Times bestseller lists. Film was the next logical step, and the newest batch of apocalyptic movies, most of which have budgets in the millions of dollars, are hip to popular culture in a way that the movies of an earlier generation were not; they tend to have bigger names and better acting — though the scripts are still pretty bad. Witness The Omega Code, in which Michael York, clearly enjoying himself, gets to taunt Casper van Dien with the line, “I was Judas betraying Christ to be crucified, I was Hitler leading millions to the slaughter — and I was the drunken driver who killed your mother!”
The most successful movie franchise may be the series produced by the Lalondes, which got off to a shaky start with Apocalypse (1998), a video marked by a bad script and even worse acting. In this video, when the Rapture occurs, all the Christians leave their clothes behind in neatly folded piles — one old woman even leaves a note for her granddaughter pinned to her shirt — but their cars and helicopters, now suddenly driverless, are free to steer out of control, with fatal consequences for the unbelieving bystanders.
The series picks up, though, with Revelation (1999), in which Lawnmower Man star Jeff Fahey plays a cop who discovers the Antichrist’s plan to steal the hearts and souls of the world through freely distributed virtual-reality helmets; in Tribulation (2000), Gary Busey comes out of a coma to find himself stranded in the Tribulation, with only his psychic brother-in-law Howie Mandel to keep him company. In the soon-to-be-released Judgment, Corbin Bernsen plays a lawyer who is forced to defend a leader in the Christian underground in a show trial that is designed, in the defendant’s words, to make it “politically correct to wipe us out.” (Mr. T plays a member of the group who has had enough of turning the other cheek.) The Lalondes have also produced a spin-off video, Vanished (1999), which is meant to be seen by non-Christians after the Rapture takes place. It begins with a dramatization of the Rapture and then segues to a Texan televangelist who looks right at the camera and declares, with an utterly straight face, “Hello, I’m Pastor John Hagee, and I’m one of those who have vanished off the face of the Earth.”
To the unbeliever, this sort of thing is no doubt funny, if perhaps a little creepy. Yet the people who tell these stories want very much to be taken seriously, and Left Behind is their most earnest effort yet. When Peter Lalonde said he wanted the film to debut at the top of the box office charts, he wasn’t just interested in the grosses; those charts represent cultural clout, something many evangelicals crave. But in trying to win the souls of their audience, the makers of these films may be selling their own. If Lalonde can say, as he often does, that “it’s not a real movie until you blow something up,” then you have to wonder if his films pose any serious challenge to the values of mainstream culture, or merely provide Christians with a guilt-free version of the same old mindless entertainment. Worse, Left Behind co-author Tim LaHaye has filed a lawsuit against the film’s producers, claiming that he sold the film rights on the condition that it be produced by a major studio, with top-of-the-line stars, and released to theatres in late 1999, to capitalize on the Y2K craze. The New Testament has stern words for Christians who sue each other in the secular courts, yet some pundits have tried to brush this off as the sort of thing that happens to every “real movie.”
The producers of The Omega Code are also facing a lawsuit, from an author who claims they stole her story. It’s enough to make you wonder what-ever happened to the evangelical catch phrase, “What would Jesus do?”
Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and associate editor at B.C. Christian News.
— A version of this article was first published in The Vancouver Sun.