Millions of people disappear without a trace, leaving behind chaos and anarchy while a lone hero emerges to stand between mankind and the end of the world.
For some, this is known as the Rapture, the preamble to the apocalypse. For Hollywood, it means a biblical blockbuster.
“Jesus explicitly warned about ‘that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,’” said Craig Detweiler, professor of communication at Pepperdine University. “But producers and directors can’t resist the temptation to speculate.”
HBO on Sunday premieres its latest series, “The Leftovers,” based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta, which chronicles the aftermath of millions of people vanishing.
Later this year, Nicolas Cage stars in “Left Behind,” based on the best-selling postapocalyptic novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
“End-of-the-world fears and scenarios have haunted us for eons,” Mr. Detweiler said. “It provides the ultimate test of our mettle: If you only had a few days or hours to live, how would you respond? That is the crux of gripping drama and tests of character.”
The Rapture often is related to the biblical apocalypse, the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ.
In fact, the concept is not Bible-based but is commonly attributed to 19th century religious leader John Nelson Darby. Darby was a founding father of the Plymouth Brethren Church, which has its roots in Anglicanism, and he explored a concept called “dispensationalism.”
The idea behind dispensationalism, explained Dan Mathewson, associate professor of religion at Wofford College, is that the time from creation to the point where everything ends is divided into dispensations, or eras. How many of these eras exist is up to interpretation, but those of us around today are in the second-to-last era before Christ returns, Mr. Mathewson said.
The Rapture is believed by some to signal His impending arrival.
Darby didn’t coin the term “rapture,” but it’s a reference in his thinking that “those of us believers on earth, when this moment Christ comes back, believers will simply vanish and will meet Christ in the air,” Mr. Mathewson said. Once all believers are safely in heaven, the earth will go through a “tribulation period.”
“It’s an awful, horrific period. Most of us die horrible deaths. There’s pain and suffering,” he said.
Darby’s writings captured the imagination — and curiosity — of people in the 19th century, but he wasn’t the first or the last to try his hand at explaining what the end of the world might bring.
“Christians starting with the Apostle Paul were very interested in how and when this is going to happen,” Mr. Mathewson said. “You do get apocalyptic groups of Christians that get really invested and believe this is going to happen in their lifetime. We shouldn’t be terribly surprised [some] Christians are very persuaded by the notion the world is going to end.”
In modern times, one of the most well-known apocalypse evangelists is Hal Lindsey, author of the 1970s’ “The Late Great Planet Earth.”
“What he put together was really catchy, breezy prose,” Mr. Mathewson said.
Mr. Lindsey’s mistake, explained Stephen Bauer, professor of theology at Southern Adventist University, is that he was too specific in describing the future.
“Lindsey was discredited some by predicting the Rapture in the mid-to-late 1980s,” Mr. Bauer said. “Due to those failures, the Rapture diminished in popularity some.”
But in the mid-1990s, the first novel in the “Left Behind” series came out and sold millions of copies, inspired a low-budget film from Kirk Cameron in 2000 and “vaulted the Rapture back to prominence through skillful use of movie and literary entertainment forms,” Mr. Bauer said.
With the world thrown into chaos and the knowledge of impending doom, the concept of the Rapture and Armageddon is a terrifying thought for some. But for Hollywood studios, it means dollar signs.
“The fear of being left behind goes throughout our whole life,” said S. Brent Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. “Rapture stories put that in a nice sort of context. It plays on some of our deepest fears, and I think that’s why it keeps being a powerful story. We don’t need a happy story to go to the movies, but I’ll put down $11 if you scare me a little.”
Mr. Mathewson said audiences actually have been watching apocalyptic stories for as long as action thrillers have been gracing screens.
“In mainstream culture, one of the most popular movies that we have is the action plotline,” he said. “Here is an impending end of the world [and] one lone messiah figure who battles the forces of evil. It’s the rough biblical apocalypse story, minus the explicitly Christian content.”
All that changes is the version of the threat.
“Fifty years ago, our fears of the Cold War and doomsday bombs fueled films like ‘On the Beach’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove,’” Mr. Detweiler said. “Twenty-five years ago, Hollywood offered up small-scale films inspired by the Book of Revelation like ‘The Seventh Sign,’ starring Demi Moore, and ‘The Rapture,’ with Mimi Rogers.
“In recent years, we’ve seen Nicolas Cage wrestle with the end of the world in ‘Knowing’ and a host of comedians holed up in James Franco’s house for ‘This Is the End.’”
Mr. Plate said audiences today are seeing a secularized version of the Rapture.
HBO spokeswoman Nancy Lesser declined an interview to discuss the faith roots of “The Leftovers,” explaining that the series “is not a faith-based show” but one based on an “apocalyptic” type of event.
“It will be interesting to see whether HBO’s more mainstream take on the Rapture in ‘The Leftovers’ garners more interest than Nic Cage dealing with the implications of being left behind,” Mr. Detweiler said. “Audiences may approach both projects with a bit of skepticism, wondering whether to invest their time, their faith or their money in buying a ticket.”