Left Behind: the movie is coming soon to a theater near you—maybe. Supporters of the multi-million dollar evangelical end-times film are attempting to sponsor it in theaters across the nation. Released first on video in order to drum up support, the film stars Kirk Cameron, former teen heartthrob and star of ABC’s Growing Pains. Just after the closing credits, Cameron pleads with fans of the novel-turned-movie to “pass out flyers, call your Christian bookstore, and volunteer to sponsor a screen in your local theater.” We can judge the effectiveness of the grassroots movement on February 2, the projected opening night.

Left Behind is the first in an eight-book series, the most recent of which. The Mark, was released on November 14, 2000—an instant best-seller. The series is the latest example of the rapture genre that began with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, a novel that grossed more in sales than any other book during the 1970’s.

Lindsey’s novel gave rise to the (now cult-classic) series of evangelical films by Mark IV Productions: A Thief in the Night, A Distant Thunder, and Image of the Beast. Churches across the nation showed the films at youth retreats and “watch-night services”—New Year’s Eve services at which congregations waited for a midnight rapture. Despite their dated production qualities—tortured camera angles, “waa”-laden guitar sound effects—the films were effective evangelism tools; altars were flooded with teens and adults hoping to escape the Antichrist’s guillotine by accepting Jesus as their personal Savior before it was too late. Christian-rock pioneer Larry Norman crooned the Framptonesque theme song to Thief and the entire rapture movement: “There’s no time to change your mind / The Son has come and you’ve been left behind / I wish we’d all been ready.”

During the decade after the last Mark IV film, Jack Van Impe kept the rapture popular among evangelicals. Around that time, Timothy LaHaye was on an airplane when “I noticed a pilot flirting with a stewardess. He had a wedding ring and she didn’t. I thought to myself, what if that man is having an affair and his wife is a Christian? What if the rapture happens and he is left behind?” That was the “seed” for the series, according to LaHaye, who had previously distinguished himself by coauthoring (with his wife, Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America) the Christian lovemaking manual The Act of Marriage. With the approaching new millennium, the cultural mood in America (or at least among evangelicals) seemed ready for another rapture novel. In 1996, LaHaye drafted another writer, Jerry Jenkins, and began work on Left Behind. They could never have anticipated the phenomenal success their novel would enjoy.

The idea of “rapture” has been around for about 200 years, since John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren in Dublin, worked out the eschatological system now known as dispensationalism. Americans once had tremendous confidence in the possibility that their new land would form the Kingdom of God on earth, a doctrine known as postmillennialism. Their Puritan forebears had described Boston as the New Jerusalem. By 1827 (when Darby began his work), a handful of Christians had begun to reread the prophecies of the Old Testament as literal prophecies for the nation of Israel rather than, as they had been interpreted for 1,800 years, as symbolic prophecies for the Church. (Of course, there was no nation of Israel at the time.)

All of history, these Christians taught, can be divided into various dispensations in which God offered somewhat different plans of salvation to select groups of people. Israel, during the dispensation of law, had been offered promises of land and an earthly kingdom, provided the people kept the law—chiefly through the temple cult in Jerusalem. The dispensation of law, however, had been interrupted by the dispensation of grace (or the Church, a “parenthesis” in the divine plan). Nonetheless, there still remained promises of the restoration of Israel and the coming of the Jewish Messiah. (He had come once, but they had rejected Him, so He’ll come again when they’re ready.) When Israel begins to show signs that she is ready for her Messiah (by returning to her historic lands and rebuilding the Temple of Solomon), Christ will put an end to the dispensation of grace by “rapturing” the Christians into the air, and they will wait in Heaven (during a seven-year tribulation) for Christ’s return to earth. Those who are “left behind” will have to endure the reign of the Antichrist (who will arise out of the nations of Europe), a one-world government, a global economy, and worldwide war.

It took almost a hundred years for this narrowly literal and mildly heretical approach to the end of the world to catch on. Most church historians mark World War I as the point at which Americans turned from postmillennial optimism to the more pessimistic dispensationalist view. As early as the 1940’s, belief in the rapture had been elevated to creedal status among evangelicals and fundamentalists—a sign that you believe in the inspiration of Scripture, because, after all, this is what the Scripture plainly teaches.

By the 1970’s, as a result of the Cold War and support for Zionism in the United States and Britain, the sands had shifted so dramatically that many of the dispensationalist views seemed less farfetched. The nation of Israel had won two impossible wars; the United Nations and NATO seemed like possible vehicles for the Antichrist.

“Do you really intend to rebuild the temple?” asks a passionate Kirk Cameron (LaHaye’s Buck Williams, a reporter for CNN). “It will be the greatest gesture of peace,” replies Nicolae Carpathia, the United Nations secretary general and budding Antichrist. A stunned Buck trudges into a rest room at the United Nations and, having witnessed the fulfillment of the (obvious) prophecies of the Bible, accepts Jesus as his Savior—sort of

“It’s true—it’s all true. God, I’ve never prayed before. I don’t know what to say—please forgive me. I need you; and I believe. Just show me what to do.” Buck’s prayer sounds more like a profession of faith in the rapture than in the crucified Christ.

And that is the point. The cross of Christ is not central to evangelicalism today. The Lamb of God makes us feel better, gives us what we want, and sets a good example for us. The obsession with the rapture is just another in a series of distractions from the message of the forgiveness of sins. When that message is fully extinguished, then judgment will come; many within the visible Church are unwittingly contributing to that very effort. Perhaps the end really is near.