On October 21, a film was released to over 3,000 screens throughout the nation, but you wouldn't have found it at your local cinema. The film was "Left Behind: The World At War," an adaptation of the third book from the extremely popular 12-part "Left Behind" book series written by the Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
The series begins at the moment of the rapture—the moment when some believe all true Christians will be spontaneously absorbed by heaven. In the first book millions of Christians do indeed suddenly disappear, leaving behind not only their earthly belongings, but also religious skeptics who now must fend off a suave internationalist anti-Christ, a Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia.
The subsequent books follow the aftermath as Carpathia quickly becomes a powerful political figure, advocating policies such as disarmament, a universal currency and a strong United Nations, of which he becomes the secretary general.
The DVD of "World at War"—which was publicly released Oct. 25 and stars Kirk Cameron and Lou Gossett Jr.—was sent to churches around the country for a sneak-peak screening. Sony Pictures partnered with Cloud Ten Pictures for the faith-based marketing approach.
Locally, both Hailey's Wood River Assembly of God and Calvary Chapel showed the film, a PG-13 production that follows the violent saga of the end times as they bring apocalyptic war to U.S. soil.
"As pastor, I'm always looking for things that will make an impact, that will widen our audience with people looking for answers on what the Bible says is about to happen," said Assembly of God Pastor Thomas Walding.
Walding feels that the series plays an important role in alerting his congregation and society as a whole to the times in which we live and how these times relate to Biblical prophecy spelled out in the Book of Revelation.
"It is sometimes difficult for people to accept that we are living in an era that is the end of human history," said Walding.
The Assembly of God congregation typically numbers between 50 and 60 people, Walding said. "World at War" showed in his church both Friday and Saturday nights, Oct. 21 and 22. Though Walding was present only one night, he was pleased with the turnout, but could not say how many people attended the screening.
The "Left Behind" book series has been wildly popular in the United States. When "Armageddon," the eleventh in the series, was released in April 2003, it surged to number one on The New York Times best-seller list. Counting hardcovers, paperbacks, compact discs, e-books and audiobooks, the entire series had sold over 55 million copies by late 2003. According to Joan Didion's November 2003 New York Review of Books study, that figure did not include sales of recent DVDs or merchandise, such as "Left Behind: The Kids," a series for adolescents.
The books have not experienced the surge of popularity in the Wood River Valley that they have elsewhere, though. At Ketchum's Iconoclast Books, manager Darren Sutherland said his store sells used copies occasionally and has sold only one new copy. There is not a high demand, he said.
Not all Christian theologians ascribe to the literal interpretation of Revelation in "Left Behind."
The Rev. Brian Baker of Ketchum's St. Thomas Episcopal Church believes that the text of Revelation can best be understood in its historical context—the first and early second century—as a symbolic fable written during a time of crisis within a church that was being heavily persecuted.
Revelation, Baker said, "wasn't intended by the authors to be interpreted as a puzzle to be decoded in order to determine how the world is going to end."
Rather, Baker feels that the book "was a message of hope in the midst of a crisis." At the time of its writing, it made sense for a "graphic, even cartoonish picture of a battle between good versus evil...as a symbolic depiction of what was going on at the time and how good would ultimately prevail."
Revelation "doesn't have anything to with a road map of how history is going to end," Baker said.
Adapting Revelation into a page-turning suspense novel and now a movie, however, has made "Left Behind" a hit, regardless of its theological accuracy.
Some, such as Walding, believe that end times are imminent. For others who would disagree, it seems their decision, too, is ultimately one of faith.