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 thirty I’ve talked to is familiar with it, and most have seen it,” writes Heather Hendershot in her book Shaking the World for Jesus. Political scientist Paula Booke of Hope College, who wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on the influence of premillennial eschatology on American politics, recalls seeing the film at her small church in Jamaica in the late 1980s as a part of the church’s youth outreach. The showings were big cultural events for her, always capped by an emotional altar call.
At the other end of the social spectrum, young Christian filmmakers Peter and Paul LaLonde likewise saw the film as children, and later founded Cloud Ten Pictures, which produced the Left Behind The Movie, adopted from Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins massively popular book. A Thief in the Night draws its power from anxieties playing just below the surface of American life. It was the first film of its kind: a Christian horror flick that applied the tropes of science fiction and horror to an end-times scenario. The central premise of the movie is the “rapture,” a concept drawn from a particular strain of Christianity, which believes Jesus will return to earth at any moment to secretly rapture or take up the truly faithful to heaven. Everyone else will be left behind to face a catastrophic period under the rule of the Antichrist before the actual end of the world. Scholars label this view of the Bible “dispensational premillennialism.”
“Dispensational” refers to the belief that God has divided human history into particular ages, or dispensations; “premillennialism” refers to the understanding that such devastation will occur before Jesus’ ultimate victory, which leads to Christ’s 1000-year reign (or millennium) on earth. The rapture and the apocalypse have had a powerful effect on the nation’s imagination and identity since the country’s inception, as well as playing an important part of American missionary strategy to other countries. Since the Puritan era, Americans have wondered if they are either phenomenally blessed or on the brink of a God-ordained disaster. “Within the first decade of settlement” on the American continent, Sacvan Bercovitch writes in his classic The American Jeremiad, “the clergy were already thundering denunciations of a backsliding people.” Bercovitch argues that the tensions between American ambitions and fear of disaster drove the culture forward from the outset.
Through the popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible, especially its extensive notes on the Book of Revelation, the concepts of the rapture and apocalypse were folded into early 20th-century Christian fundamentalism. In The Late, Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970, Hal Lindsay correlated the rise of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the state of Israel, and other geopolitical events with apocalyptic biblical passages. Though originally released by the Christian publisher Zondervan, Lindsay’s book was quickly picked up by “secular” booksellers, and through the 1970s and 1980s, tens of millions of copies were sold. In the 1990s, LaHaye and Jenkins turned Lindsay’s biblical hermeneutics of world affairs into a series of fictionalized end times accounts. With 16 books published, TV and movie spinoffs—even a children’s series and video games—the Left Behind series made the apocalypse big business and made LaHaye a major political leader on the religious right.
A THIEF IN THE NIGHT WAS THE FIRST and most famous of four films made by a group called “Mark IV Pictures” during the 1970s and 80s that included director Don Thompson and producer Russell Doughten. Doughten, who learned the film industry from working on The Blob and other B-movies in Hollywood, moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to open his own Christian movie studio with the explicit intent to use low-budget film to evangelize. Though it only cost $68,000 to make, the gross for the filmmakers was in the millions.The phenomenon of A Thief in the Night and similar movies in this genre is more easily explained in terms of exploiting the fears of the barely saved--those who, in Paul's words, "will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Corinthians 3:15)--than of motivating the strong in faith to be about the work of expanding God's kingdom.