A Thief in the Night: Rise of the Antichrist Movie

Today at Religion & Politics, Amy Frykholm considers “The 40th Anniversary of A Thief in the Night.”

Donald W. Thompson’s low-budget premillennial dispensationalist horror movie is a haunting classic for many of us who grew up in evangelical and fundamentalist churches. It’s also a direct ancestor of the Left Behind novels, which took their title from the Larry Norman song sung by a groovy combo in the opening credits of A Thief in the Night.


Life was filled with guns and war,
And everyone got trampled on the floor,
I wish we’d all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold,
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,
I wish we’d all been ready,
There’s no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.

(Here’s Larry Norman’s version of the song. The full movie of A Thief in the Night is also on YouTube.)

I’m a bit too brain-fried and bone-weary at the end of a long week to spend time today with the likes of Rayford Steele and Buck Williams, so instead let’s revisit this related classic with Frykholm. She knows this world, having immersed herself in PMD prophecy-mania while writing Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, which takes an empathetic and generous look at some of the tens of millions of fans of the World’s Worst Books.

It’s jarring to realize this movie is 40 years old — another reminder that I’m getting older myself. But it must be particularly strange for the filmmakers themselves. They were absolutely certain, back when they made this movie, that the world was going to end long before 40 years had gone by. (Specifically, their splicing and twisting of several disparate verses in the Bible had them convinced the world had only a single “generation” after 1948.)

Here’s Frykholm on A Thief in the Night at 40:

A Thief in the Night is a cult classic, where the word “cult” has more than one resonance. If you have seen it, the setting was likely a church basement, a church camp, or some other quasi-authoritative space where the film’s sermonizing might have been accompanied by an earnest youth pastor worried for your soul. The film was released in 1972 and marks its 40th anniversary this year. It has influenced a generation of Christians reared in the 1970s and ’80s. To date, the movie has been seen by perhaps more than 50 million people worldwide; others estimate as high as 300 million. (Because viewing and distribution has largely been through alternative mechanisms, an accurate accounting is impossible.) “Today, many teen evangelicals have not seen A Thief in the Night, but virtually every evangelical over 30 I’ve talked to is familiar with it, and most have seen it,” writes Heather Hendershot in her book Shaking the World for Jesus.

… The film had an enormous impact on evangelical culture and shaped its attempts to influence American popular culture more directly through music, film, and books. … This film inspired people from across the political and social spectrum. Marilyn Manson, who like so many saw the film at church as a child, wrote in his autobiography The Long Road Out of Hell, “I was thoroughly terrified by the idea of the end of the world and the Antichrist. So I became obsessed with it, watching movies like … A Thief in the Night, which described very graphically people getting their heads cut off because they hadn’t received 666 tattoos on their forehead.”

… All of this might just be a low-budget, poorly-acted, B-grade movie long since constrained to the dust bin of film history. But when the film came out in 1972, the evangelical establishment was in the midst of an extraordinary expansion that included inroads into mainstream radio, publishing, and television. According to film historian Terry Lindvall, the makers of A Thief in the Night were helped by the fact that after World War II, the U.S. Army donated film projector equipment to churches and schools. The capacity to show the film through this network was already in place. Lindvall points out that A Thief in the Night was one of the only films available to young people coming from fundamentalist backgrounds who “were not allowed to go to movies to even see The Sound of Music.” When an organization called the Christian Film Distributors Association started in 1974, they stocked copies of the film and saw bookings of 1500 showings a month, mostly at Baptist churches and schools and youth retreats. Halloween, Lindvall notes, was a popular time for viewing. “It was the filmmakers’ goal to ‘literally scare the hell out of kids.’”

Religious historian Randall Balmer grew up in Thompson’s church and profiled him fondly in a chapter of Balmer’s book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Balmer also highlights this “literally scare the hell out of kids” aspect of these movies:

If the plot is a bit obvious in places, it’s also quite compelling, especially when shown in an evangelical setting to people reared to take the apocalyptic passages of the Bible literally. …

The success of any movie invites sequels, and Thompson has obliged. A Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast, and Prodigal Planet all depict life on earth after the rapture, after true Christians, the born-again believers, have ascended into heaven. The producers tout these films as a kind of pre-history — “a true story that is yet to happen” — portraying the brutality of existence during the tribulation prophesied in Revelation. Indeed, much of this is gruesome, replete with radiation sickness, blood-curdling screams, increased repression by UNITE [Thompson’s version of the Antichrist’s OWG], and stainless steel guillotines. The events of the book of Revelation “could become a reality in your lifetime,” the films warn. “Avoid these events by coming to Christ now.”

The guillotines I remember. I remember watching the guillotine scene (in A Distant Thunder) in the youth room of our church. I knew I was already born-again and saved by my personal savior Jesus Christ, but I still “went forward” at the altar call afterward to re-re-re-dedicate my life to Christ, just to be sure. And then I still had nightmares, plus the occasional moment of panic when it seemed I was suddenly alone in my house or at church.

Balmer examines this scare-’em-into-heaven approach of the movie:

Doesn’t all this have the effect of frightening people into the kingdom of heaven? In the midst of her miseries in A Distant Thunder, Patty [the protagonist, played by amateur actress Patty Dunning] answers for the producers: “I would rather have been scared into heaven than have to go through this.” I put the question to [producer Russell] Doughten. … His initial response was that “if they get into the kingdom through being scared, that’s better than not making it at all.” He continued: “… All we’ve tried to do in the films is to put these things revealed in the Scripture into a dramatic setting. We’re just trying to illustrate what’s there. If it frightens you, then maybe it’s your problem, because from our point of view that’s what the Lord is telling you.”

Here we encounter another theological chicken-and-egg question: Does this dismally stunted soteriology stem from the warped eschatology of PMD prophecy nonsense, or vice versa?

I’ve often contrasted this urgent proselytizing with the triumphalism of the Left Behind series. I was looking back at some of the places where we’ve discussed A Thief in the Night previously, and it seems I’ve repeated that point enough times not to repeat it too much here again. Some examples:

On this point, I think Frykholm’s emphasis on Thief as a horror movie is insightful. Thompson wrote horror. LaHaye and Jenkins think of themselves as writing thrillers.

Anyway, back to Amy Frykholm:

A Thief in the Night emerged at a moment when American evangelicalism was ripe to receive it. Its effective play on cultural and psychological fears paradoxically helped set the stage for conservative evangelicalism to imagine itself as a more significant part of American culture. [Religion scholar John] Walliss notes that the film diagnosed evangelicals’ concerns about the direction of American culture: the technological, social, and political ills that they believed signified the beginning of the end times. That diagnosis did not create an isolating inward turn, but instead became part of a movement toward greater political engagement. We can see that shift even in the Mark IV films themselves. In the first film, the emphasis is very much on personal and individual salvation, but by the fourth film, political engagement and fighting with the Antichrist is more central. This is true in the Left Behind series as well, as the Tribulation Force draws on ever-more sophisticated means to battle for Christianity even in the End Times. This movement mirrored the political direction of Christian evangelicalism, which entered the 1970s as largely nonpolitical and exited as an energized voting bloc that had begun to claim the label “Moral Majority.” We feel the resonances of this politicization of conservative evangelicals to this day.

… In Paula Booke’s view, Christian evangelical political engagement is an actual outgrowth of the earlier apocalypticism. Images like UNITE — a reflection of the era’s concerns about communism—were effective in creating a “common script” that evangelicals could share. The film offered a subtle narrative critique of the political world that the viewers inhabited and then shaped both the faith they claimed and their political views. The apocalyptic narrative has proved itself “malleable to the political contexts of the present moment,” Booke says. “I have a suspicion, and I am trying to think how to demonstrate it, that most Americans are latent premillennialists and that it shapes their political views in subtle ways.”

Booke, Frykholm says, is a political scientist “who wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on the influence of premillennial eschatology on American politics.” I suspect she is onto something with that idea of “latent” premillennialism. The exotic mythology of these weird eschatologies pervade our popular culture, so that even people who don’t embrace Tim LaHaye’s theology have ingested the broad outlines of his ideology. Even people who have never set foot in a prophecy-obsessed church will make jokes about the rapture or the Antichrist.

The premillennial influence on American politics was most evident in the early 20th century, when evangelicals began withdrawing from public life — from politics, culture, academia, everything — at the same time that Scofield’s footnotes were making PMD eschatology ever-more popular. The logic of that seems clear. Premillennialism says that the world is getting worse and worse, and will keep on getting worse and worse until Jesus comes back. And there’s nothing any of us can do to change that. That pessimism or fatalism makes political engagement seem futile.

And yet many premillennialist prophecy types do get engaged in politics — think of Tim LaHaye himself, or of one-time Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who said, regarding environmental management, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” Or more recently, right-wing blogger Erick Erickson inadvertently created a meme last month when he reacted to an Obama campaign ad by tweeting, “We do live in a fallen, depraved world destined for the fire.”

I suspect the main way that premillennial pessimism influences American politics is in the way it portrays human history as an inexorably downward slope, a widening gyre spiraling ever downwards from the Golden Age of the past to the inevitable chaos and lawlessness of the End Times. A progressive vision of politics isn’t likely for those who view progress as a theological impossibility. It’s not surprising that Erickson didn’t like Obama’s campaign. A candidate who speaks of hope and change isn’t going to appeal to someone whose eschatology insists that hope and change are nothing more than illusions “in a fallen, depraved world destined for the fire.”

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  • SkyknightXi

    Note: The attract mode on the main page has “brain-friend” rather than “brain-fried”. Or was this your way of saying you’d rather give your sanity a boon this week?

  • I managed to get my mitts on that movie and I wish to anything someone made subtitles for it. :(

  • aunursa

    The guillotines I remember. I remember watching the guillotine scene (in A Distant Thunder) in the youth room of our church.

    Guillotines play a big role in the last half of the Left Behind series — especially Books #8-11.  The Global Community calls them “loyalty enforcement facilitators,” and Nicky, now possessed by Satan himself, delights in their use against anyone who refuses to accept the Mark.

  • Also:

    One of the stranger things about LB is the way the authors seem to think that their novel, their work of fiction, serves as “proof” of their claims. (From Faith vs Reason)

    You know, this kind of habit of assuming the conclusion in a circular-reasoning form may be a reason why some fundamentalists enjoy the LB books; they’re already primed to accept the way the books present a possible future world.

  • DwightBlackduck

    If I’m remembering things correctly, Randy Balmer’s father Clarence actually has a bit part in the movie. Mustard Seed was based in Des Moines and shot the movie in and around the city. They used many locals as extras. Clarence Balmer was pastor of the Westchester Evangelical Free Church at the time. 

  • Kadh2000

    OMG, I’ve seen this movie and I’m not evangelical at all.

  • CoolHandLNC

    Wow, what an amazing bit of 70’s-ness. I had forgotten how awful that decade could be. I kind of miss disco, though. I never thought that would happen, but there was at least a sort of optimism to it.

  • Honestly, the 70s wasn’t the worst, considering in that era we still at least paid lip service to the idea that rich people had to pay a fairly hefty chunk in taxes and mass vaccination was taken as a given, and we still thought we might see moon colonies by 2000.

  • A candidate who speaks of hope and change isn’t going to appeal to someone whose eschatology insists that hope and change are nothing more than illusions “in a fallen, depraved world destined for the fire.”

    Based on that criteria, what kind of candidate would they actually like?  George W. Bush was really popular with Evangelicals in general, is it because he was one of their tribe?  Or did something in his policies speak to the expectation that things will never get better?  

    I find it kind of difficult to imagine someone being appealing as an authority on the basis of “the world sucks and I can’t do anything about it.”  Even if everything is going to hell, I find that there is some existential comfort in attempting to fight back against that destiny and trying to improve despite any such attempts doomed to failure.  For example, we will all inevitably die, but that is no reason to give up trying to live.  

  • What is it with guillotines? 
    The hilarious Chick tract “The Beast” features what I remember describing as a “golf-cart guillotine” as well…

  • LOLlercoaster!  I actually have that same version of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” on my iPod this very moment!  I had ripped an mp3 of old cassettes I recorded in my teens 25 years ago, and came across this song, but paused it to take calls at work.  Now, I pull up this article, and it’s almost like I was subconsciously (or supernaturally) anticipating it when I did this!

    Man, memories…  I remember going to a (Christian) bookstore and having a clerk try to track down any recordings of that song by that band.  If I recall, they were called “the Fishmarket Combo”…

    Oh, well.  I’m going to have to replay this now as a backdrop for reading my favorite literary deconsstruction series on favorite blog.  This makes an incredible 40th birthday present!

  • SororAyin

    Now I can’t wait for Fred to start on Book #8.  Decapitations are a nasty business, but at least they’ll make for a more interesting story than the endless phone-tag and travel logistics we’ve been getting.  Oh, wait, this is L&J we’re talking about.  No doubt they’ll find a way to make even execution scenes seem boring.

  • PandaRosa

    If you want real grade-Z schlock, look for “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?” which by all standards should have been a triple X-rated film (and I’m so mad it is not!). As it stands, it features unintelligible preaching, a Commie take-over of the US and the worse special effects in the entire history of cinema. 

  • I have seen the back of a VHS of one of these films – this one possibly. I remember passing ot back to the Christian Union member who showed it to me and saying – paraphrase – “How do you intend to persuade people who don’t already believe this that’s it’s true is they think the bible if just literature”? (They’d invited the  muslims and hindu bods that came to the multi faith centre to the viewing). Surprisingly they got the point and showed the video as their view of the end of history and then asked to peeps from other religions to share their religion’s view of the end times. One of them – a lovely girl who was an ex-sikh even said that ‘this way we all know what to look out for if we’re the wrong ones”. (I wasn’t there bit my muslim peeps were impressed by the attemps to provide food acceptible to them and found it fun. The hindus just thought it was fun.”

  • PandaRosa

    Oop, nearly forgot the innumerable dead bodies in every other scene. 

  • CoolHandLNC

    Hey, all I meant was that the culture was pretty cheesy. 


  • Magic_Cracker

    Decapitations are a nasty business, but at least they’ll make for a more interesting story than the endless phone-tag…

    Ideally, they’ll have Buck attaching wires from the guillotine to his cell phone to boost reception and then complaining to the executioner about how he gets static every time the blade falls.

    Plus they’ll have a scene where a guillotine is malfunctioning, so Capt. Steele will alpha male his way into the situation to show those stupid pencil neck geeks how it’s done, but don’t worry,  he won’t enjoy a second of it and all those people were gonna die anyway and what’s he supposed to do, be a martyr for Christ or something?

  • flat

    Interesting, this kind of evangelism isn’t something I had to endure in my youth.
    and it is fascinating how it shaped American evangelism.

    In the end I think the difference between Fred’s evangelism and their “evangelism” can be explained by two quotes:

    Fred evangelism:
    No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
    Matthew 24:36-37:36

    a thief in the night evangelism:
    In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war. For there is no peace among the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
    warhammer 40.000 tagline

  •  sorry for  typos. Bad cold = drunk

  • @35c765fb1a7e4124f5d82ad0382d684b:disqus

    “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?”: Didn’t that one start a small meme on YouTube with a scene showing the Commies trying to get children to turn away from religion by having them pray to Jesus for candy?  Then, when the miraculous candy didn’t appear the soldiers gave them some, saying, “Your Jesus can’t do it!”

  • Lliira

    This kind of thinking is nothing new or unusual. Ancient Greeks lamented how the young people were so much worse than they were when they were young. Believing the world will end — or at least just keep getting worse and worse and worse, because things were so much better when we were young and we were so much better when we were young, so there’s a reckoning for those bad young people who keep CHANGING things — is a belief that’s as old as human culture. As is the fact that we move inexorably forward. Jealousy of youth, and fear of the people who possess it, is something that seems ingrained in many people.

    It’s not an inherently American thing, an inherently Christian thing, or an inherently Evangelical thing. Trying to claim this fact of human history is ours, all ours! is pure vanity. Studying this tendency across time and cultures and seeing how it relates to today would be worthwhile. But no one’s gonna make a better wheel if their starting point is to pretend they invented the concept of a wheel.

  • The famous pig thing starts in The Mark, see the image link.


  • PandaRosa

    Something like that.

  • Magic_Cracker

    How many points does RoboJesus give you in a typical battle?

  • histrogeek

    What is it with the guillotines any way?
    I imagine Thompson wanted something visually impressive but cheap. Electrocutions need competent makeup people and some special effects, poisonings (gas, injection) are boring looking, and shootings require extras (plus guns don’t kill people ya know).  Still doesn’t explain why L&J would revive it decades later in a book. I guess it combines something exotic and well-associated with an antichristian campaign, albeit a really old one. And good, death penalty loving, RTC Americans never used a guillotine so less association. Burning have a strong Christian association (even if not RTC American variant) and hangings, well, a few of the Southern pastors buying his movie probably had seen those up-close.

  • I saw that. It’s from “Europa, Europa.” The POV character had joined Russian communists when he escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland; relatively speaking the Soviets were a tad less hostile to Jews.

    He later managed to actually get away with pretending to be a Volksdeutsche in the Wehrmacht or Hitlerjugend, as I recall.

  • Mark Z.

    Well, we’ve already seen step 1: slather the whole process in bland bureaucratic verbage.

    L&J seem vaguely aware of the technique of making horrible things even creepier by describing them as if you don’t know that they’re horrible. The description can instead be effusively positive*, or coldly technical**. But there’s an art to this, and as always, they get it wrong.

    “Loyalty Enforcement Facilitator” crosses the line from coldly technical to boring. It doesn’t carry menacing hints of the true nature of the device. It doesn’t reek of some bureaucrat’s guilty conscience, like Einsatzgruppen or enhanced interrogation. It just flops its immense bulk onto the page and sits there.

    In fact it’s not clear why Nicolae would bother calling it anything but a guillotine. He doesn’t need to hide what he’s doing from the higher-ups, because there aren’t any, and he doesn’t need to soothe his conscience, because he doesn’t have one. When your villain has absolute power and revels in being a villain, the right direction to go is “effusively positive”. He ought to call it a Happy Fun Head Chopper.

    * The ur-example of this is a certain novel by Nabokov which I won’t name here in case someone has a really harsh web content filter.

    ** Some pretty good examples in Dr. Strangelove.

  •  There’s a book of Cornish folklore that deals with this. I can possibly find the book bit the person reciting the myth said something like “she didn’t listen to her parents as young people never do.”

  • aunursa

    Here is the first execution scene, which takes place at a prison in Greece…

    Buck [in disguise as a GC peacekeeper] stood paralyzed* as Mrs. Miklos was led to the ugly machine. “Has that been tested?” Athenas shouted. “I want no malfunctions.”
    “Affirmative!” answered the assistant, who would trade roles with the executioner with each victim.
    “Carry on!”
    From thirty feet away Buck read the lips of the executioner. “Last chance, ma’am.”
    Laslos’s wife knelt and the assistant positioned her….The room fell tomb silent. In the stillness Buck heard Mrs. Miklos’s delicate voice.
    “Affirmative!” answered the assistant, who would trade roles with the executioner with each victim.
    “Carry on!”
    From thirty feet away Buck read the lips of the executioner. “Last chance, ma’am.”
    Laslos’s wife knelt and the assistant positioned her….The room fell tomb silent. In the stillness Buck heard Mrs. Miklos’s delicate voice.
    “My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine.”
    A sob attacked his throat. Seemingly all in one motion, the assistant fastened the
    clamp and stood quickly with both hands raised to indicate he was clear of the blade
    path while the other yanked the short cord. The heavy blade raced to the bottom of the shaft. Buck pushed past the others and out into the night air, disgusted at the cheer that met the sickening thud.
    He was glad for the vomit that gushed from him, allowing him to sob openly. Tears cascaded as he thought of the cold workmanlike crews that would remove heads and bodies and make room for the next and the next and the next. As he stood in the cool grass, convulsing now in dry heaves, he covered his ears in a vain attempt to muffle the thuds and cheers, thuds and cheers.From The Mark

    * It’s almost as if Jenkins intentionally includes at least one scene in each book in which Brave Sir Rayford or Brave Sir Cameron has an opportunity to save lives, but instead is paralyzed with fear.

  • Twig

     “Or did something in his policies speak to the expectation that things will never get better?”

    I…. I…. no, it’s too easy.

  • Magic_Cracker

    The ur-example of this is a certain novel by Nabokov which I won’t name here in case someone has a really harsh web content filter.

    Laughter In The Dark? Bend Sinister? ;-)

  • I imagine Thompson wanted something visually impressive but cheap. 

    What’s wrong with the classic “two boards, three nails”? 
    The Mel Gibson pre-Jesus torture pr0n “Braveheart” showed that tying someone to a pole and cutting their throat was pretty dramatic. 

    I just don’t understand the infatuation with the guillotine for the end-times. Especially not the “mobile-via-moped” version that keeps showing up.

  • Me neither. Did that punishment technique even exist in the time of Revelation?

  • Magic_Cracker

    I just don’t understand the infatuation with the guillotine for the end-times. Especially not the “mobile-via-moped” version that keeps showing up.

    Agreed, especially when  this would be so much more badass — and well within any stop-motion animator’s budget.

  • Magic_Cracker

    You don’t even need two boards and three nails. You just need a tree. Of woe.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Beheading existed as a punishment the the guillotine wasn’t invented till 1791 or so, by Dr. Joseph Ignace-Guillotin, who later became one of its victims.

  • aunursa

    FWIW: According to Wikipedia, that’s not accurate.  He wasn’t the inventor, and a different person named Guillotin was beheaded.

  • Magic_Cracker


  • Magic_Cracker

    Er… “…10th *grade* world history teacher…” Looks like Ms. Smith failed me too.

  • Mark Z.

    No, actually it’s Pale Fire. There, I said it, are you happy?

  • Magic_Cracker

    Said what? My work filter blocked your comment.

  • Mark Z.


  • LL

    It does seem to call for a Mystery Science Theater 3000-type treatment. Or Pop-Up Video (the VH1 show), which is kinda hilarious. 

  • fraser

     What Lliira said. Even back in ancient Rome, the poet Horace grumbled about people obsessed with the good old days when they were young and everything was better.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Like they say, youth is wasted on the young, and wisdom on the old.

  • As Sir Terry Pratchett notes, speaking of the recurring urban legends of men dying at the end of their own inventions:  “Colonel Shrapnel wasn’t blown up, M. Guillotin died with his head on, Colonel Gatling wasn’t shot. If it hadn’t been for Sir William Blunt-Instrument, the rumour would never have got started.”

  • Andy

    What is it with the guillotines any way?

    I think it has to do with Revelation 20:4:

    And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands.

    So beheading is specifically mentioned in Revelation, although of course not guillotines (which didn’t exist yet). Therefore, the Antichrist must literally behead his enemies, just as his soldiers must literally be horsemen. (That’s also in Revelation somewhere, although I don’t know the verse.) 

  • hidden_urchin

    Yeah, and they get a fast pass to heaven. Doesn’t Chloe surpass them on the saving souls for Jesus point later?

  • A sob attacked his throat…. while the other yanked the short cord. The heavy blade raced to the bottom of the shaft.

    Even when they’re not trying to write slash-fic, they’re writing slash-fic…

    He was glad for the vomit that gushed from him, allowing him to sob openly.
    Yes, because “sobbing” is so much like “retching”. 

    Seemingly all in one motion, the assistant fastened the clamp and stood quickly with both hands raised to indicate he was clear of the blade path…
    How do you fasten a clamp, then quickly stand and raise both hands as “seemingly all one motion”? If you were kneeling or bent over to start, then after your hands moved to fasten a clamp, moving your body upright while raising your hands could be part of a single motion, but that only happens after you’ve fastened the clamp. “fastening the clamp” sounds like something that requires at least one hand and some effort;  closing a latch, turning a lock, or fastening a hinge all sound more like fluid motion.