'Left Behind' stirs end-times discussion

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Despite negative reviews by some secular and Christian film critics, the end-times thriller "Left Behind" starring Nicolas Cage grossed nearly $7 million at the box office during its opening weekend and helped place renewed focus on the doctrine of Christ's second coming.

"It's a good film, one that doesn't preach, but does remind moviegoers that there is a time when life will end on earth, one way or another," Christian film critic Phil Boatwright told Baptist Press in written comments. "And, it subtly asks us if we are preparing for it."

"Left Behind," released Oct. 3, finished sixth in weekend earnings behind "Gone Girl" and "Annabelle," but ahead of "Bang Bang" and "The Good Lie" -- all in their opening weekends as well. While "Left Behind" was shown in just 1,825 theaters, each of the five films that finished ahead of it in gross earnings was shown in at least 3,000 theaters, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

Based on the bestselling novel of the same title, "Left Behind" depicts a future rapture of the church preceding Jesus' second coming. The plot focuses on airline pilot Rayford Steele (played by Cage) and journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray) as they respond to the rapture of several passengers and crew members on a transatlantic airline flight.

Boatwright called "Left Behind," rated PG-13 for violence and some references to drugs and sexual immorality, "well-made, well-acted and intense."

"It could be said that the production is as much about appreciating family as it is about the rapture," Boatwright said. "One reviewer assessed Nicolas Cage as looking tired throughout. I found the performance steady and authoritative, like Dean Martin's airline pilot in Airport (many years ago). And the special effects are definitely a step up from the 2000 version with Kirk Cameron. This Left Behind may not be the best film of all time, but I don't think it deserves the antagonism I've read in other reviews."

A more negative review published in Christianity Today called the film "just a disaster flick injected with the slightest, most infinitesimal amount of Christianity possible."

"Most Christians within the world of the movie -- whether the street-preacher lady at the airport or Rayford Steele's wife -- are portrayed as insistent, crazy, delusional, or at the very least just really annoying," Jackson Cuidon wrote in CT. "Steele's wife's conversion to Christianity is shown to have pushed her and her husband apart; we see that she's decorated her house with crosses, throw-pillows that say 'Pray' across the front, and encouraging posters.

"That is the deepest conception of Christianity that his movie has: posters, pillows, and crucifixes," Cuidon wrote.

The movie depicts an interpretation of Bible prophecy known as dispensational premillennialism, which teaches that Jesus will return to earth twice, once secretly to remove the church in a "rapture" preceding a period of tribulation, and once openly to defeat His enemies and end history as we know it.

The provost at one Southern Baptist seminary said the film's release coincides with "a genuine renewed interest in the end times."

"Broadly speaking, I suspect the dispensational premillennial view of the end times finds quite common adherence throughout Southern Baptist churches as [it] has been deeply held by many for the last century," Jason Duesing, provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP in written comments. He added that many Southern Baptists are "comfortably 'agnostic' when it comes to the end times."

While "Left Behind" may spur discussion, "the film tells a fictional story and uses theology to do so," Duesing said. "... It is not primarily a theological presentation. So when I am talking about dispensational premillenialism, I have in mind the historical and theological presentation of that view, not the Hollywood version."

Various Christian viewpoints on the end times differ largely in their interpretation of the "millennium," the "thousand years" referenced six times in Revelation 20:2-7. The term "millennium" derives from the Latin words "mille anni" meaning "thousand years."

In addition to dispensational premillennialism, there are at least three other major views on the timing of Christ's second coming relative to the millennium:

-- Historic premillennialism teaches that Christ will return before a thousand-year period of His reign on earth -- but only once, with no secret rapture of the church. Historic premillennialism was popular among second- and third-century church fathers, and has had proponents in every era of church history.

-- Postmillennialism teaches that there will be a thousand-year period of peace and righteousness on earth preceding Christ's return. This position was popular among Baptists at the Southern Baptist Convention’s founding in 1845 but became obsolete in the 20th century, when the horrors of two world wars left few Christians believing the world would transition seamlessly into a period of harmony and peace.

-- Amillennialism teaches that Revelation's "thousand years" is not a future era of earth's history, but a figurative designation for either Christ's present reign in the church or His eternal reign in the new heavens and new earth. Though not popular among Southern Baptist conservatives in the late 20th century, amillennialism originated in the second and third centuries, like premillennialism, and has been held by believers throughout church history.

The idea of two separate returns of Christ, as portrayed in "Left Behind," is a relatively recent innovation, arising in the early 1900s with the Brethren Movement in Britain. The idea was popularized by C.I. Scofield through his Scofield Reference Bible.

Dispensational premillennialism was revised in later editions of the Scofield Bible and by various theologians of the 20th century, including Southern Baptists.

The Baptist Faith and Message does not address the millennium, stating simply that "Jesus will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth" (Article X).

Amillennialists and premillennialists of every variety coexist in all realms of Baptist life, with proponents of each position affirming the inerrancy of Scripture. Hardly any Baptists regard differing positions on the millennium as an obstacle to cooperation in missions, theological education, evangelism and cultural engagement.

Duesing noted that today, "many younger Southern Baptists are likely to denounce dispensationalism because they feel they should" or "due to deeply held convictions. However, while I do hear of some enthusiasts embracing ammillenialism, mostly I find students defaulting to historic premillenialism."

While Left Behind may provoke end-times reflection, Duesing cautioned moviegoers to view it as entertainment and not theological instruction.

"As with all films, much is made of their potential impact at the time of their release and often controversy ensues (for better or worse), but as with even the most memorable and life changing of films, the impact fades and one recalls that these are more cultural artifacts of entertainment than anything else," Duesing said. "My understanding is that the Left Behind film aims more to be wholesome entertainment for families rather than catechism. Christians who watch the film thus should view it as such and not expect it to serve as a vehicle first for apologetic or sanctifying impact."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.
BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP).
Download Story