I Wish We’d All Been Ready: John Turner on "A Thief in the Night"

Over at The Anxious Bench, John Turner of George Mason University writes about showing the 1972 evangelical apocalyptic classic “A Thief in the Night” to his class on religion and film.  

Watch the entire movie below.  If you don’t have time, the first five minutes should give you a sense of what it is all about:

I have seen “A Thief in the Night” and its sequels several times over the years.  As a young evangelical these movies scared me to death.  The guy with the lamb chops who is secretly working UNITE is frightening.  

As a divinity school student, I organized a “Thief in the Night” marathon in which we watched all three movies in the series.  This viewing party could best be characterized as a mix of entertainment and theological reflection, but we also made fun of the 1970s evangelical subculture. 

We have mentioned this film several times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You can find those posts here and here and here.

And here is a taste of Turner’s post:

My church — a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that straddled the worlds of evangelical and mainline Protestantism — did not screen the film when I was a teenager. We were encouraged to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, but not because the world was about to end or because we might be left behind to suffer the assaults of Satan after the rapture. So while thousands or millions of American evangelical young people watched A Thief in the Night in the 1970s and 1980s (the film’s producer claims that in all, three hundred million people have seen the movie), I watched it for the first time this week.

Here are a few thoughts:

– Laugh and groan all you want. It’s no small accomplishment to make a $60,000 film and have millions of people see it. A Thief in the Night is certainly one of the very few most significant evangelical movies ever made. As Randall Balmer observes, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that A Thief in the Night affected the evangelical film industry the way that sound or color affected Hollywood.”

– People make films for all sorts of reasons. The primary purpose of A Thief in the Night was evangelism, to persuade nominal Christians to make a heart-felt prayer asking Jesus to come into their hearts. What the film intended to do it apparently has done rather well. “I have found,” writes Heather Hendershot in her Shaking the World for Jesus, “that A Thief in the Night is the only evangelical film that viewers cite directly and repeatedly as provoking a conversion experience.” Many successful altar calls followed screenings of the film.

And let’s not forget the movie score, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” written and performed by Christian rock legend Larry Norman:

10 thoughts on “I Wish We’d All Been Ready: John Turner on "A Thief in the Night"

  1. Thanks, John. Wow, “A Thief in the Night” sure floods back a boatload of memories. I committed my life to Christ in the final stretch of my senior year of h.s. just 6 months before Nixon's landslide victory over McGovern in ‘72. In the fall of that year I read Hal Lindsey's “The Late Great Planet Earth” (1st Christian book I ever read), thinking that it was basically an addendum to the Bible’s prophetic section. Kind of like Revelation for Dummies. So, when “A Thief in the Night” emerged that same year, and the very next year the Middle East was embroiled in the Arab/Israeli War, it seemed clear that Bible prophecy was being fulfilled before our very eyes…and that we’d finally be the privileged generation which would experience the return. Those were times of great anticipation!

    As I drove to USF for class each day, I can remember looking toward the heavens wondering if this might be THE DAY when the clouds split and Jesus met us mid flight. So, when Falwell and Robertson spoke of this imminent appearing of Jesus, assuring us that our Messiah was already standing at the door, my college roommates and I came within a hairs-breath of quitting school. What was the benefit of following earthly pursuits if we were scheduled for an early exit?

    But something happened on my way to the rapture. Actually that something was basically nothing. Nothing but excuses followed by more promises. This time, they would say, it’s really, really the end. Well, after a a number of years of believing this “any moment” rapture, my enthusiasm began to wane. And then, after another 25 years of hearing “this time is different”, frustration, uncertainly and skepticism began to set in. I thought this was supposed to be a done deal? What the heck is wrong with the Bible?

    Today, as my 45th high school reunion approaches, we’re still here and every single doomsday prophetic speculator has been wrong. This led me to retool and reexamine the entire eschatological landscape with which “A Thief in the Night” and “Left Behind” is built. How long will we continue to give these specutologists a free pass?

    John, my hope is that, instead of people thinking the Bible is errant, they will come to realize that it’s the system of interpretation that has yielded these failed predictions, and not the Bible. It took me 33 years before I began to understand that Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (which we sang religiously at our college gatherings), was 2,000 years out of context. Thanks for your indulgence. Peace.


  2. I'd like to share a personal story about this movie and it's impact, but before including it, I thought I'd ask if it would be appropriate. A relative of mine who follows this blog, pointed me here. I became a Christian the year this flick hit the big screen. Perhaps my thoughts might offer some historical context that will bolster John Fea's suggestion…which is actually quite good. Thanks. 🙂


  3. The movies scarred me. I saw them as a young teenager (12-15 years old or so). I was left terrified of the end of time in general and of the “rapture” in particular. I did not study the book of Revelation seriously (or prophecy, for that matter) till I reached my 40s. Discovered that I actually am more of an amillennialist and that there is a blessing in reading and understanding the book of Revelation.


  4. I first saw this movie when I was probably 12 years old. It scared me to death. I had nightmares about it. If memory serves, it was shown at the tail end of a youth camp with the guy introcuding it as, “One of the best, most effective movies…” or somesuch. It was effective all right, I probably went home and listened to some Led Zeppelin or The Doors to get it out of my brain. At that point they were both prominently featured in the books “Satan, the God of Rock & Roll” which were making the rounds in the evangelical circles.

    And to make matters worse, I think my family got in a car accident on the way home.


  5. Never heard of this movie or Larry Norman. Granted, I didn't become a part of the “evangelical subculture” until 1979, but I was a member of one of the largest conservative Baptist churches in the country for a couple of decades and don't recall any discussions of this movie. Of course, I was 15 yrs old at the time and the movie was closing in on being a decade old.

    Funny thing, I asked an older friend if he knew of the movie, and he said it was a “big youth thing” at the time. He even knew the song that went with it without me mentioning it.


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