Thursday, July 22, 2021

Classic Christian Films Get Scary

Image of the Beast

Hollywood has had many successful film franchises, from the Universal Monster films to the Hope and Crosby Road films to the Bond films to the Star Wars franchise to the Fast and the Furious movies….There are lots. But Christian film franchises? The Thief in the Night series of four End Times films is one of the first. 

Since then we’ve had Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind trilogy (there have been other non-Cameron Left Behind films, too, such as the Nicolas Cage remake). More recently, there's been the God’s Not Dead trilogy and quite a number of films in the Pastor Jones film series (directed by and starring Jean-Claude La Marre.)

But that early series began with 1972’s A Thief in the Night, followed by 1978’s A Distant Thunder, followed by this week’s film, Image of the Beast, the third in the quartet of films. All of the films are the work of writers Donald W. Thompson and Russell S. Doughten Jr. (and all are directed by Thompson). All of the films take place in the End Times of a Dispensational worldview. Though we are supposed to focus on clergy and churches here, it seems worthwhile to detour into eschatological theology.

Through the centuries people have developed a variety of interpretations of the Bible passages that discuss the last days of planet Earth. Those Scriptures primarily include the books of Daniel, First and Second Thessalonians, Revelation, and various teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. These passages have been discussed and debated endlessly.  

For instance, Revelation 20: 1 - 6 talks about a thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on Earth. Premillennialists believe this reign will take place after Jesus’ Second Coming. Postmillennialists believe the reign takes place before the Second Coming. Amillennialists believe the reign is symbolic.

Is there anyone still reading? If so, thank you very much.

In the 1800s a man named John Nelson Darby introduced a new theological system known as Dispensationalism, which neatly divides all of history into different “dispensations” or sections. He was the first to tidily divide the Last Days into discrete little sections. He wrote that we are now living in the “Church Age,” and the next dispensation, the Seven Year Tribulation, would occur after the Rapture of the Saints (when all Christians would be taken into Heaven when Jesus meets us halfway without coming down to Earth). At the end of the Tribulation, Jesus would return and begin his thousand-year reign on Earth. And after that comes the Final Judgement and then eternities in Heaven or Hell.

The Thief in the Night films (like the Left Behind series), treats the Dispensational System as, well, Gospel. This is made clear in the opening scroll of Image of the Beast: “The book of Revelation reveals a time to come, of great tribulation. A time of such great catastrophe, that no film could portray its reality.” (Especially on this budget). “It is the belief of many Bible scholars that the facts presented in this film story could become a reality in your lifetime.” (I love the use of the word “facts” to describe events in a fictional film. And arguably many more Bible scholars would say things won’t happen in the way they are presented in this film.) “After watching this film, we hope you will take seriously what God says in His word about these prophecies, and turn to Jesus Christ -- and avoid the events you are about to experience in this motion picture.”

So what are the "events you are about to experience"? This film opens the way the previous film, A Distant Thunder ends, with the heroine of the first two films, Patty Myers (Patty Dunning), looking up at the blade of a guillotine. In the world of these films, those who won’t take the Mark of the Beast (a tattoo on the forehead or hand) are doomed to execution by the government. Patty wouldn’t become a Christian prior to the Rapture and didn’t in Tribulation either. And so Patty, facing the blade, calls out, “I’ll take the mark! Don’t kill me!” Sadly, at that moment a great earthquake makes the blade comes down and slices off Patty’s head.

Patty’s death might be frustrating for people who cheered for her in the first two films, but it makes sense with the theology expressed at one point in the film: those who refused to become Christians prior to the Rapture can’t become Christians during the Tribulation. Someone says that Paul wrote this in First Thessalonians and I have no idea what they're talking about.

So in Image of the Beast, we follow new folks: Leslie (Wenda Shereos), Kathy (Susan Plumb) and her young son, Billy (Ben Sampson), and David Michaels (William Wellman Jr.) who is trying to wage a civil war against the government. I suppose none of these people had the Gospel clearly presented to them before the Rapture because they all seem to have a possibility of salvation. In fact, early in the film, Leslie trusts in Jesus as her Lord and Savior, but during an escape attempt from government forces is paralyzed from the waist down. She puzzles over why God keeps her alive.

Toward the end of the film, we learn why Leslie is kept alive. She is able to present the Gospel to young Billy using the Wordless Book. (This is a book composed of different color pages which each represent the aspects of the Gospel. If you went to Vacation Bible School in the seventies or eighties, you probably know the Wordless Book.) Having become Christians, Leslie and Billy are able to face the guillotine without fear.

I was more puzzled by the salvific situations of Kathy and David. Had they received a clear presentation of the Gospel before the Rapture? If they had watched one of those Worldwide Films where Billy Graham clearly presented the Gospel at the end of the film, were they done for? If they had stumbled on a Chick comic tract pre-trumpet call, were they doomed?

Even more puzzling is the fate of the Reverend Matthew Turner (played again by writer/executive producer Doughton). In these first three films, he plays a pastor who taught falsely prior to the Rapture, but then becomes the go-to source for expositional explanation of the Dispensational Chart of what is happening in the End Times. In this film, he lives in a cabin in the woods and feeds Leslie, Kathy, Billy, and David with produce from his little farm. Turner seems to now be teaching the truth about Jesus and exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit, but can he truly be a Christian if he didn’t accept Christ prior to the Rapture? The film never really answers the puzzling question.

We do have a church in the film. The World Church of the film collaborates with the government, corporations, and Brother Christopher (who the film presents as the Antichrist). Kathy and David attend a service in a local congregation of the World Church, and it really does seem more like a stockholders' meeting for the One World Government rather than a time of worship.

Reverend Turner explains, by pointing to his End TImes Wall Chart, that the World Church is the Whore of Babylon described in Revelation 17. Since I’m puzzled by the actual motives and stance of Rev. Turner (perhaps things will be clearer in the fourth film of the series, The Prodigal Planet), I’m just going to give our lowest rating, One Steeple, to the World Church of the film (a church being pro-Satan and anti-God is not good in the Movie Churches book.)

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